Saturday, November 30, 2013

Fishing for Salmon on Land and Sea: An Interview With Wallace Westfeldt

As I have mentioned several times now, my investigation into the difference between anadromous and catadromous fish (a difference which you can learn about HERE) resulted in me contacting Dr. Joe Richardson, Wallace Westfeldt, and Larry Quilling with different questions about different fish that fit under both categories. Wallace Westfeldt is the Head Guide at Front Range Anglers (book a trip with him HERE), and last year he came into my Outdoor Ed class to teach us about stream ecology. We also went on a field trip with him to scrounge up some aquatic insects and insect larvae, and I've shared these pictures below the interview.  Wallace had some interesting things to share about fishing for salmon as well, and I decided to make this another post in the anadromous/catadromous series!
Wallace Westfeldt holding a Steelhead in Idaho.  By this point, these incredible fish have already swum 850 miles!
The Natural World: We've been talking about salmon migrations here on the blog for the last few days.  Have you ever had the opportunity to fish and/or see one of these mass migrations?

Wallace Westfeldt: Yes, I have been to Alaska for the Coho (Silver) Salmon migration; in 2012 and 2013. My trips were a little different than the norm. Most people go to the rivers, I was fishing in ocean at Yakutat. Here the Salmon feast on bait fish (mainly herring) to fatten up before going up river. We also spent some time inland at various river inlets where the fish would crowd and compete for going upriver. My fly was called a Seeker. When wet, it looks more like a herring than a herring does. However, I don't think fly choice is an issue. You need to get your hooks in front of a fish and they will eat. They are kind of crazy. In the ocean you are searching for baitballs and/or schools of Silvers. Baitballs are exactly what you would expect: massive spheres (10-30 in diameter) of bait fish swirling and the Salmon attack it.
A female Silver at sea.
Getting solid hook-ups can be challenging. The mouth of a male Silver has an enormous overbite and is cavernous. It is important to get the fly deep in the mouth. When you seem them strike, you can see how aggressive they are for food. Their tiny little eyes can't see the end of their strike, so the mouth opens wide and goes from side to side to get its prey. I don't think they feel the pain of the hook, because when they would pop off at the skiff they would sometimes hit the next hook. However, when they feel the tug of the line they panic and put up an extraordinary battle to get away.
Another female. 
A male: check out the overbite!
TNW:  Where else have you been to catch anadromous fish?

WW: I have also been to Idaho to catch Steelhead trout.  They swam 850 miles. We drove 900. They were in better shape than we were. Bitterly cold fishing, but excellent. When we hook up the fish would weave back and forth in the current, as if irritated, then they would take off. You weren't always sure who caught who.  In truth the pictures I have don't represent how big they can get. Those were the ones I caught.
A steelhead.
TNW:  When you were in Idaho, 850 miles into the salmon journey, how much further did the Steelhead have to swim?

WW: We were near the end of their run by about 50 miles. Because Idaho is so far away from the ocean, they only get one run. Closer locations in Washington and Oregon get several.

TNW: I've noticed the overbite before, what purpose does it serve? It seemed to me that it came about only in the males, and after they were undergoing their pre-spawn transformation, is that correct? Does it play a role in attracting a mate?

WW:  For Cohos, it's an overbite, for Browns, Bows, and Steelhead, it is an underbite, called a kype or kype jaw. As the male gets older there is always some evidence of the kype. However, you are correct that when in spawning mode, it gets more pronounced, as do the colors of Bows, Browns, and Chromers (steelhead nickname). You may also see other changes ... for example I caught a very large Brown once and it was particularly slimy.  Trout have more slime than most fish because their scales are small and soft and don't offer any protection. So the slime is protective.
That's a Brown Trout caught in Mother Lake just west of Loveland. His name is Big Mike, slimy guy in pure spawn mode.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Wallace for taking the time to answer my questions!  It was very informative, and really interesting!  Thanks again, and make sure you check out his website by clicking HERE!  Before we go though, here are some of the pictures that I took while we were on the field trip with Wallace.

Unless otherwise noted, the photo credit for all of the photos in the post goes to Wallace Westfeldt.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Sargasso Sea and the North American Eel: An Interview With Dr. Joe Richardson

In our last post, we looked at the difference between anadromous and catadromous fish, as well as several examples of each type of fish.  Eager to learn more, I contacted several people who have been very helpful to me in the past so that I could learn more.  One of these people was Dr. Joe Richardson, a marine biologist who gives Ecology Tours (which I highly recommend) on Tybee Island in Georgia, and whose Facebook page can be reached by clicking HERE.  Dr. Joe has helped me out a lot in the past, including providing a guest post about moon snails way back in February (which can be reached by clicking HERE!  When my family and I were on the Ecology Tour several years ago, I remember Dr. Joe mentioning something about the Sargassum seaweed that could be found on the beach.  Therefore, when I was researching the North American eel for the anadromous/catadromous post and I came across mentions of this same seaweed, I decided to ask Dr. Joe a few questions about the eel and the seaweed.  I wanted to make sure that you all could benefit from his knowledge as well, so I am reproducing the interview here!  
The Natural World:  First off, what is it you're holding in the picture above?

Dr. Joe:  It's a Portuguese Man of War.  They sting real bad.  They are more of an open water, tropical species, but they float (I'm holding it by the float) so they go wherever the wind blows them. We don't get many on Tybee Island, but on some Florida beaches they can be a real problem.

TNW: Didn't you guys find another one pretty recently on one of your Ecology Tours?

Dr. Joe: Yes, within this past week. We found two of them washed ashore during one of my Tybee Beach Ecology Trips. I sure didn't expect to see them; but most anything is likely to wash ashore.
A picture of this weeks Portuguese Man of War.
TNW:  In a recent post, I discussed the North American eel. I was wondering whether you have any pictures or stories regarding the eel that you'd like to share!

Dr. Joe:  I don't have any pictures of the American eel; but my experience with them is that I always hated to catch one when fishing because they were so slimey.  And they would invariably wrap themselves around the rig and line so they were a mess to get unhooked.  The slime was also thick and would stay on the line even after you got them off.  Many years ago, while in college, I worked one summer in North Carolina on a shrimp boat and was involved in a few research projects on the side.  One involved developing eel traps to be used for catching eels in the inshore waters.  They were trying to create a business opportunity for catching eels, then somehow shocking them so they would die straight before flash freezing them.  By being straight, they could pack more of them in boxes than if they were all curvy.
The North American eel.  Photo Credit:
TNW: I also found that the eel spawns in the Sargasso Sea, and I recall you talking about all of the Sargassum seaweed washing up on shore when we went with you on the tour several years ago.  What can you tell me about this type of seaweed?

Dr. Joe:  This species of Sargassum (a brown seaweed) is unlike most seaweeds, that have to grow attached to a hard bottom or structure in shallow water where they get enough light to do photosynthesis. This Sargassum actually grows unattached, floating in open water, generally well out in the Atlantic Ocean. In fact some charts refer to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as the “Sargasso Sea” because there is lots of it floating around out there. The small berry-looking structures on the Sargassum are actually air floats that keep it floating near the surface. Clumps of Sargassum in the open ocean serve as places to hide for some animals and as structure for some small animals to attach on to. During late June, we found lots of those small animals (Sargassum shrimp, Sargassum Swimming crabs, small file fish, baby flying fish) on the beach and in tide pools because they have washed in with the seaweed clumps. All these animals are yellow-orange in order to camouflage or blend in with the seaweed. So the Sargassum has brought with it lots of interesting animals from far offshore, that we normally don’t see on our beach.
Pile of Sargassum seaweed along the high tide line at North Beach.
The berry-like structures on the Sargassum are actually air floats that keep the seaweed at the sun-lit surface.   
Sargassum shrimp (this one carrying eggs under her abdomen) were abundant in some of the clumps of seaweed.
This was one of many Sargassum swimming crabs that were common for a few days on Tybee's ocean beach. 
Small filefish with camouflage colors matching the seaweed were found among many of the Sargassum clumps. 
Although only about an inch long, what appears to be a baby flying fish was another type of fish found among the drifting seaweed.
TNW: Besides the eels and the other small animals you mentioned above, what other animals live in the Sargassum?

Dr. Joe: The floating clumps of Sargassum in the open ocean also serve as places to hide for small young animals that will eventually become larger as they age and grow. When the baby Loggerhead Sea Turtles hatch on Tybee’s beach later this summer, they will head out to sea, and many will hide among clumps of floating Sargassum far offshore. Many years ago, while on a research cruise offshore, we anchored overnight and found ourselves among a large area of floating Sargassum. Being curious scientists, we used some long dip nets to catch some clumps of the floating seaweed to see what sort of animals were among it. This was how I caught the only Sailfish I’ve ever caught!
Baby sailfish hide among the floating clumps of Sargassum far offshore.
TNW:  Do you know why Tybee was inundated with Sargassum when we visited in the summer of 2012?

Dr. Joe: I don’t recall our having a prolonged period of strong winds from the east, so I don’t think it was necessarily a wind-blown event. Instead, I’ve got a different hypothesis. The Gulf Stream current flows from the south toward the north well offshore of Georgia’s coast. It doesn’t flow in a straight line, but meanders a lot. Sometimes those meanders can be almost like huge hair-pin curves, and sometimes those big meanders, like loops, can break off and form large circular or oval water masses of warm off-shore water. If such a large ring of Gulf Stream and warm Atlantic Ocean water (and possibly water that recently had been in the tropics) happened to break off on our side of the Gulf Stream, it could gradually move toward our coast, and bring with it things like Sargassum. This is my guess: one of these offshore water masses, with its floating Sargassum, broke off and had moved into our coastal waters.
Laying among a pile of Sargassum seaweed along the high tide line was this lumber that had been drifting offshore long enough for these Goose-neck Barnacles to settle and grow. This species of barnacle only grows on drifting, open-water objects.
TNW:  What other ecological or biological effects did this inundation of Sargassum have on the coastline?

Dr. Joe:  Since the Sargassum seaweed event on Tybee, I’d been noticing (almost daily while conducting my Tybee Beach Ecology Trips) additional tropical and offshore species of animals. There was a group of Sargent Majors, a small black and white striped damsel fish that is common around coral reefs and rocky shorelines in the Caribbean and Florida Keys. They don’t belong this far north. We also got a Ballyhoo, a strange looking fish with a long extended lower jaw; and they usually live offshore where they are food for large gamefish like sailfish, marlins and dolphins.  So I’ve got a feeling that the Sargassum and all these other interesting tropical and offshore animals are signs that Tybee had been the landfall of a large warm water, open-ocean water mass. It sure made beach ecology on Tybee interesting this spring and summer!!
Small Sargent Major damselfish, common on coral reefs and tropical rocky shorelines, have shown up on Tybee in the last week. 
We've been seeing Ballyhoo in the beachwater, but they normally live in warm offshore open waters.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Joe for taking the time out of his schedule to chat with me for a bit about these fascinating animals, and the importance of the Sargassum!  I look forward to hearing more from you in the future, but in the meantime, make sure you like the Facebook page for his Tybee Beach Ecology Tours by clicking HERE, and make sure you check out his website HERE.

Unless otherwise noted, the photo credit for all of the pictures in this post goes to Dr. Joe Richardson.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Migrating Fish: Anadromous or Catadromous?

According to Merriam-Webster's online edition, the word "anadromous" means "ascending rivers from the sea for breeding."  This word is almost always used in conjunction with fish, as they are the main type of animal that do this.  There are a number of fish that are defined as anadromous, but of particular import for us are several types of salmon, including the Coho, steelhead, Chinook, and sockeye salmons.

You don't have to be in a school (of fish) to hypothesize that there might be a group of fish that behave in an opposite manner from the anadromous fish.  "I'll take the bait," you're saying.  "What's the opposite of an anadromous fish?"  Let's break the word apart.  First, we can break off the root "ana," a Greek root which means "up."  For you chemistry buffs out there, you might have felt an electric current running up your spine, as you've probably thought of the word "anion," a term used to describe an ion that contains more electrons than it does protons, giving the atom an overall negative charge.  If you follow the flow of my logic*, you might be thinking of the opposite of an anion: a "cation," or an ion that contains fewer electrons than it does protons, giving the atom an overall positive charge.  So judging from this chemistry example, you can either conclude that, A) The opposite of anadromous is likely something along the lines of "catadromous," or, B) I give really long and tangential comparisons that are neither helpful or correct.  Fortunately for you guys, option A is the correct one.  The opposite of an anadromous fish is, indeed, a catadromous fish.  To learn more about the life cycle of a catadromous fish, let's travel to the eastern coast of North America, and meet Anguilla rostrata, the North American eel.  (And yes, eels are a type of fish.)

To learn more about the life cycle of the North American eel, I consulted the website of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.  According to the Trust, mature Anguilla rostrata leave their brackish or freshwater homes and migrate to the Sargasso Sea in the fall.  The Sargasso Sea is not actually a distinct sea, but instead a large region of the Atlantic Ocean where a holopelagic species of seaweed called Sargassum reproduces.  The term "holopelagic" simply refers to the fact that, unlike other seaweeds, Sargassum does not require the presence of the ocean floor to reproduce, and can instead reproduce while just floating around in the ocean, or in the pelagic zone.  In turn, the pelagic zone is simply defined as an area of a body of water that is neither close to shore nor close to the bottom.  I remember when my family and I went on the Tybee Island Ecology Tour with Dr. Joe Richardson several years ago in Georgia, Dr. Joe commented on the large amount of Sargassum that was on the beach that day.  I've recently talked with Dr. Joe about the Sargassum, as well as the North American eel, and this interview will be the subject of our next post.

As winter rolls around, the adult eel spawns....then dies.  Sad day for the grown up eels.  Their eggs, however, hatch after a few days, and the young develop into a larval stage (which are then called leptocephali) that simply drift around for a few months.  Their days of floating casually around the ocean end as they enter the Gulf Stream, and are carried north towards North America.  Once the larvae find themselves near the continental shelf, they transform into what are called "glass eels," miniature little eels that, as you could probably guess from the name, are transparent!

It's not over for these eels yet, though!  Next, the young reach the estuaries, transitional areas along the coast where the rivers meet the sea.  Once the summer rolls around, it is in the estuaries that the eels enter the next stage of their life.  In this phase, the young eels are called "elvers," a name for a juvenile fish that is specific to eels.  After making their way into their adult habitat, they finally develop into their adult morph, where some eels stay for 8-25 years before migrating back to spawn in the sea!  

So there's a perfect example of a fish with a catadromous lifestyle.  Or, rather, nearly perfect.  In more recent years, scientists have begun to discover that while some adult North American eels fit well under the catadromy heading, other members of the exact same species simply stay in the estuaries to mature, while still more travel back and forth between the estuaries and the fresh water habitats further upstream!  This has caused many scientists to reconsider the stance of a purely catadromous lifestyle for these eels, and revise their description to "facultative catadromy," which essentially means that these eels seem to be able to choose whether or not they want to commit to a fully catadromous lifestyle.  But what about an anadromous fish, like the Chinook and Coho salmon that we mentioned earlier?  Don't worry, I'm not going to flounder: I know that if you're still reading this, then you're probably hooked, and want to hear more.
Speaking of hooked: my fishing contact Larry Quilling with a spring Chinook salmon in the Trask River in Oregon.  Check back soon to see an interview with Larry about his experiences fishing salmon!  Photo Credit: Larry Quilling
When it comes to the lives of several of the species of Pacific salmon, the saying "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" really applies quite nicely.  One of the keystone species in the American northwest, the annual "salmon run" is incredibly important to the functioning of the ecosystem.  During the salmon run, millions upon millions of these fish travel upstream to their breeding grounds.  Some travel up to 900 miles, as is the case for many Chinook and steelhead salmon who make their home in Idaho, as seen below.  The Chinook females also build an enormous nest, called a redd, that can be one to four feet deep and around six feet in diameter!  
Here we have another one of my fishing contacts, Wallace Westfeldt, with a steelhead in Idaho.  Wallace was also kind enough to help me out a lot, and we will also be seeing an interview post with him soon!  Photo Credit: Wallace Westfeldt
Another fascinating thing to note is the incredible transformation of these salmon, especially the males, as they travel upstream.  My personal favorite is the transformation of the sockeye salmon, whose changes can be seen in the picture below.  

With their fisshin accomplished, most salmon species die once they reach their spawning areas, just like the North American eel.  However, unlike the Pacific salmon, some individual Salmo salar, or Atlantic salmon, live to tell their gilling tale to future generations of salmon.  Not all Atlantic salmon die from their ordeal, as the bodies of these fish don't deteriorate post-spawning.  For the Pacific salmon, their method of reproduction is sometimes referred to as "semelparity," a situation in which the organism is physiologically incapable of spawning more than once prior to kicking the chum bucket.  The opposite of semelparity is iteroparity, where the animal can reproduce multiple times prior to death.  Almost all extant vertebrates (and, indeed, a large portion of extant organisms) are iteroparous, including us humans.  Notable examples of this semelparous lifestyle include some types of spiders, the genus of marsupial mice Antechinus, some types of bamboo, the aptly named century plant (or agave), and of course, several types of salmon.  

So in the course of this blog post, I've thrown a whole lot of new words at you.  Let's stop to reconsider them real fast, in the order that they were introduced in the post.
  • Anadromous: Refers to a type of animal that goes from the sea into rivers to breed.  Many types of salmon fit this ticket.
  • Catadromous: This term refers to a type of animal (typically fish) that goes from rivers into the sea to breed.  An example would be the North American eel (Anguilla rostrata).
  • Holopelagic: An organism that remains in a pelagic area for its entire life.  An example would be the Sargassum seaweed.
  • Pelagic: An area of a body of water that is neither close to shore nor close to the bottom.
  • Leptocephali: A name given to the larval stage of eels.
  • Glass Eel: The next stage in the life cycle of an eel, following leptocephali, but preceding the elver stage.  
  • Estuary: The transition zone between the ocean and a river.  The portion of a river that is saltier than the rest of the river, but not quite salty enough to be the ocean, and is influenced by the tides.  Essentially, the last portion of a river prior to its arrival in the ocean.  
  • Elver: A name referring to an eel in its postlarval stage following the leptocephali and glass eel stages.  
  • Facultative Catadromy: A term used to refer to an animal that can choose (facultative) whether or not they want to commit to a fully catadromous lifestyle.  A good example is the North American eel (Anguilla rostrata).  
  • Keystone Species: A species of animal that is integral for the functioning of a healthy ecosystem. 
  • Redd: A nest made by a fish, such as that of the female Chinook salmon pictured above.
  • Semelparity: A term which refers to organisms that can only reproduce a single time prior to their death.  Examples include some spiders, several types of Australian marsupials and salmon.
  • Iteroparity: A term which refers to organisms that can reproduce many times prior to their death.  Examples include humans, pigs, and the Atlantic salmon.
That's a lot of new vocab for just one post!  While I'm not sure if we will be returning to the life cycles of eels again in the future, make sure you hold on to the terms "anadromous" and "catadromous" (as that was the whole meaning of this post), as well as "keystone species."  We will hopefully be taking a broad look at several keystone species sometime in the near future!  And make sure to check back in during the next several days so you can hear from Larry Quilling, Wallace Westfeldt, and Dr. Joe Richardson!

*I'm sorry, I am really proud of that pun.  Not ONLY does it work in the context of fish in streams, but it also works in the context of electric current and chemistry.  Dang I'm good.


We're Back (Again)!

All righty, team: it's been awhile.  I've been pretty busy, but I'm hoping to get back in the blogging world very shortly, as I've got all SORTS of terribly exciting things to share with you from the classes I'm taking!  In the next few weeks, we should be learning about at least one thing from each of the classes that I'm taking this semester, including lactose intolerance (General Biology), "The Gray Wolf and the Prairie Dog: A Discussion of Keystone Species" (Environmental Systems: Climate and Vegetation), and "Evidence for Continental Drift" (Intro to Geology).  (If you know me, though, you know I rarely keep my promises when it comes to upcoming posts, I have the attention span of a squirrel.)  We will also be branching out a bit, too.  Branching up, I suppose, is more accurate: right up into space!  I am enrolled in a fantastic class called "Ancient Astronomies," taught by Professor John Stocke, which is a study of how ancient peoples used the heavens for calendars, religion, and much more.  It is super interesting, and really gotten me interested in space!  So in the next few weeks, you can also stay on the lookout for "Altair and Fomalhaut: Cold's Cottonwood and Big Woman," as well as a post about Venus!  Finally, I am hoping to combine what I've learned in all of my classes to tell you all about what I've learned regarding photosynthesis/chemosynthesis, life at the hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean, and what scientists are learning from these sun-independent ecosystems to predict whether life might exist on other planets and, if so, where to find it!  Tonight, I was researching the Chumash Indians of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands of California for an upcoming paper for Ancient Astronomies, when I came across a word I didn't recognize.  The word, "anadromous," was used to describe a type of fish that was a mainstay in the diet of coastal tribes of Native Americans in California.  Unfamiliar with the word, I decided to look it up, and share it with ya'll!
A picture of Venus (the little glowing dot below the moon that isn't a street lamp) and the moon (which if you couldn't find before then you'll be extra lost now since then you couldn't find Venus).
A picture I took of the moon and Venus.  It looks blurry because it is.
What I got was more than I bargained for: the word itself wasn't necessarily complicated, but one thing led to another, and what we've ended up with is a series of four posts that I've made pertaining to this single word.  The first post is a look what it means to be anadromous, as well as the opposite of anadromous, "catadromous."  During my investigation of these two terms, I came across the North American eel, a catadromous fish that is native to the Atlantic Ocean and is found in many rivers along the coast.  Curious to learn more about the life cycle of this eel, as well as its spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea, I consulted Dr. Joe Richardson, a marine biologist that conducts ecology tours on Tybee Island in Georgia.  After going on one of these fantastic tours several years ago, I asked Dr. Joe about doing a guest post on the blog.  He was very kind to oblige, and HERE is a link to that post.  He was also kind enough to answer several of my questions regarding the eel, as well as the Sargasso Sea, and the second post focuses on my discussions with him.
A picture of Dr. Joe Richardson holding up a Portuguese Man of War on one of his awesome Tybee Beach Ecology Tours!  Photo Credit:
I also wanted an example of an anadromous fish, and the classic example of one of these critters are many types of Pacific salmon.  To learn more about them, I consulted two fisherman who had come in to talk to my Outdoor Ed class last year.  They are both great people, really funny and very passionate about what they do.  I first talked with Wallace Westfeldt, the Head Guide at Front Range Anglers here in Boulder.  Wallace sent me several pictures and stories about fishing for salmon off the coast of Alaska, as well as in Idaho.  My interview with Mr. Westfeldt will be the third post, while the fourth post will be an interview with the second fisherman from my Outdoor Ed class, a man by the name of Larry Quilling, who also has had some interesting experiences fishing for Salmon in Alaska, as well as in Oregon.
Wallace Westfeldt holding a Steelhead salmon in Idaho.  By this point, these incredible fish have already swum 850 miles!  Photo Credit: Wallace Westfeldt 
Larry Quilling holding a spring Chinook salmon in the Trask River in Oregon.  Photo Credit: Larry Quilling.
I hope you all find this as interesting as I do!  Definitely glad to be back!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

No I Did Not Mean Triceratops, I Meant Ceratops

Recently, the folks over at the Best Western Denver Southwest purchased yet another fossil cast for their amazing hotel!*  This time, the cast is of a skull nicknamed "Judith," a specimen that is referred by some paleontologists to the dinosaur genus Ceratops.  And, no, I didn't mean to say Triceratops.  Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of Ceratops montanus: as a matter of fact, I hadn't really heard of it either until several weeks ago, when Greg Tally informed me that the Morrison Natural History Museum would soon be receiving a very large box in the mail!  Judith is still in the Cretaceous Room here at the MNHM, where she will stay for at least a few more weeks.  I really didn't know much at all about this dinosaur, and was eager to learn more.  Unfortunately, there's not much out there, as Ceratops is based on just a few bones that were discovered in the late 1800s.  Despite the lack of material, Ceratops does have a pretty fascinating history, and is an incredibly important dinosaur; not because of what has been discovered about the fossils themselves, so much as what these fossils resulted in.
Greg Tally peers through one of the fenestrae (literally means "window" in Latin) in the skull of Judith, the Ceratops montanus skull for the hotel that is temporarily on display at the Morrison Museum.  Photo Credit: Greg and Meredith Tally
When it comes to giving an animal or a group of animals a scientific classification, there are a lot of hoops you have to jump through, and a bunch of rules you have to follow.  Sometimes, groups of animals are named after the best known and understood animal in that group.  For example, Stegosaurus is the genus of dinosaur that defined the group of animals called the stegosaurs, and Tyrannosaurus is the genus of dinosaur that defined the group of animals called the tyrannosaurs.  Sometimes, it isn't quite as simple.  Think about it this way: Las Vegas is easily the most famous city in Nevada, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who spent a significant portion of their childhood thinking that Las Vegas was the capital of Nevada.  However, it is Carson City that holds the official title of capital.  Even though Las Vegas receives much more attention than Carson City, the state of Nevada isn't simply going to change where its capital is, and to the best of my knowledge, a change like that never really happens.
Although that comparison was a bit of a stretch and had about as many holes as the skull of Chasmosaurus, I think you get my point.  The same thing goes for scientific names.  Although Triceratops is the best known individual of the dinosaurian group called the ceratopsians, this group is still called the ceratopsians, as opposed to being called the triceratopsians.  That's because it was Ceratops, and not Triceratops, that was described by scientists first.
Ceratops montanus, temporarily on display at the Morrison Natural History Museum.  Photo Credit: Greg and Meredith Tally
The year was 1888, and paleontology in western North America was still going strong.  We've talked about the Bone Wars between paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope before, and we are going to revisit Marsh in this post.  To maximize the number of fossils he could describe, Marsh called upon the talents of a large number of fossil collectors, including the always brilliant Arthur Lakes in Morrison, Colorado.  Another of these collectors was a man named John Bell Hatcher.  Although Hatcher should also be remembered for a large number of his contributions to paleontology, for our purposes here we remember Hatcher as the man who discovered Ceratops.  On a trip to a known dinosaur fossil site near the Judith River in Montana, Hatcher discovered a number of fossils.  One of these fossil discoveries was composed only of a pair of horn cores.

Doesn't sound like much, does it?  Well, truth be told, it wasn't, though it was enough for Marsh to realize that he had something new.  If you click HERE, you can view the two page paper that Marsh published in 1888 that briefly described this new discovery as an animal called "Ceratops montanus."  There are several things of interest that we should take away from this paper, some of which are:

  1. Marsh originally suspected that this new creature was "nearly allied to Stegosaurus of the Jurassic, but differs especially in having had a pair of large horns on the upper part of the head."  Marsh got the location of the horns right, but the close relation to Stegosaurus.....not so much.  Given the enormously tiny sampling of bones he had to work with though, it's not a surprise that Marsh compared this new animal to something that he already knew a good deal about.  Keep in mind that this is the very first scientific description of a ceratopsian dinosaur, so Marsh just had to go off of what had already been discovered.  Which was nothing.
  2. Marsh notes that the "position and direction" of the horns could be likened to the enormous Meiolania, an extinct turtle from Australia, as well as the lizards in the genus Phrynosomax, the horned lizards.  He also notes that amongst the dinosaurs, the "only known example of a similar the single median horn-core on the nasals of Ceratosaurus," a mid-sized theropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation.   
  3. In 1887, the year before this paper was published, geologist Whitman Cross sent Marsh a pair of horn cores about two feet in length and six inches across at their widest point.  Discovered right smack dab in the middle of where Denver, Colorado is today, Cross relayed to Marsh that they had been discovered in beds of Cretaceous rock.  Marsh, however, decided that these horns must have belonged to some sort of enormous bison, and gave the horns the name "Bison alticornis."  Perhaps Marsh was still suffering from the misconception that the 1887 discovery was, indeed, an enormous extinct bison, as these 1887 Denver horn cores are not mentioned in the brief Ceratops paper.  It is mentioned, however, that if the horns were discovered "detached," their "resemblance in form and position of the posterior horn-cores to those of some of the ungulate mammals is very striking," and the horns would "naturally be referred to that group."  I have no evidence to support my hypothesis, but I wonder whether this comparison to the mammalian ungulates is insurance on the part of Marsh, as perhaps at this point he had recognized the true nature of the 1887 horn cores.  This is pure conjecture on my part, and is mostly irrelevant anyways, as in 1889 Marsh recognized the dinosaurian nature of the Denver cores, and referred them to the genus Ceratops.  Today, these horn cores are regarded as belonging to Triceratops.
  4. Marsh mentions that several limb bones, vertebrae, and teeth were also found in the Ceratops horizon, as well as several bits of dermal armor, and states that he believes they also belonged to Ceratops.  Whether this is true or not I do not know, but what I do know to be false is Marsh's next sentence, in which he states that the bones "indicate a close affinity with Stegosaurus, which was probably the Jurassic ancestor of Ceratops."  The specimen is housed in the Smithsonian today, under the catalogue number USNM 2411.  A search through the online records of the Smithosonian shows that 2411 consists only of a partial skull, which seems to be consistent with what I've read in other sources.  I'm not sure whether these other skeletal elements mentioned above have found a definitive dinosaurian home, or whether their true owner is uncertain.  
  5. The final paragraph is, in my opinion, inarguably the most important.  The paragraph reads as follows: "The remains at present referred to this genus, while resembling Stegosaurus in various important characters, appear to represent a distinct and highly specialized family, that may be called the Ceratopsidae."  In this paragraph, Marsh has created the group of dinosaurs that, more colloquially, we refer to as the ceratopsians.  Or, more colloquially than that, "those dinosaurs that look like Triceratops with those horns."

Ceratops was discovered in what scientists now call the Judith River Formation.  Several other ceratopsians have been discovered in this formation, and due to the small amount and fragmentary nature of the material that was originally described as Ceratops, most paleontologists consider the dinosaur to be a nomen dubium.  Nomen dubium pretty much means that the material is too fragmentary for it to be diagnostic, and can't really be used in the future to determine whether new specimens are the same as the original or not.  Whether or not the newly discovered Judith specimen currently on display at the Morrison Museum is, indeed, Ceratops is still up in the air, as the paper has not been published yet.  Almost all of my Ceratops knowledge is out on the table for all to see, so I am not going to speculate or attempt to draw conclusions about something that I don't really know enough about to have an informed opinion on.  Guess we will just have to wait and see!  In the meantime, come on by the Morrison Natural History Museum and the Best Western Denver Southwest to see Judith, and much more!

*If you've been living underground amongst worms and fossils for the last few months, you might not have heard of the hotel, so you can check out some incredible pictures of the best Best Western by clicking HERE and HERE.

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