Monthly Archives: November 2009

Natural Trap, Wyoming, 1975

In August 1975, there were three ways to get to the bottom of the Natural Trap — scaffolding, rapelling and falling. I liked to rapel into the cave but climb the scaffolding back to the entrance.

In August 1975, while working for the University of Kansas, I was assigned to report on a dig in a cave in Wyoming. I didn’t know the Miocene from the Eocene, but I was happy to be on the road, it was a paid week out of the office, and I wanted to get back to Wyoming for a visit. I didn’t get paid expenses, so a friend and I camped out along the way to save money, making a stop at Yellowstone National Park.  I still remember the bird-sized mosquitoes buzzing around the tent, driving us crazy.  We eventually slept in the car.

Here I am standing outside of my Army Surplus tent. To the left you can barely see an overturned car from the early 1960s that had been used for target practice. The paleontologists’ camp was near derelict uranium mining camp cabins. (August 1975)

The dig itself was a thrilling adventure beginning with the drive up the boulder-strewn single-lane John Blue Canyon into the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains (below the road was the carcass of a Range River that didn’t survive).  Once there, we lived in Army surplus tents, ate grilled Cornish game hen and rapelled into the cave, which was packed with fossils from the Pleistocene epoch.
I soon got a crash course in paleontology. For thousands of years during the Pleistocene Epoch, mammals had fallen into an 85-foot-deep cave on the western slope of the Big Horn Mountains. Paleontologists from KU and the University of Missouri at Columbia were digging up the bones of thousands of animals, such as mammoths, cheetahs, camels, bison, bears and horses. (After horses went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, they didn’t populate North America again until the Spanish brought them in the 1500s. )

Paleontologist Larry Martin examines a specimen.

I’ve been hooked on paleontology ever since this trip. I don’t mean that I love the dirty and painstaking work of actually uncovering bones and fossils and trying to figure out what and how old they are, but the excitement of seeing discoveries made in exotic locales and learning about how these animals lived and died. I’m afraid that makes me a bone-digging voyeur.

 The dig revealed a lot about the climate in the area by the types of animals that were found.  The Pleistocene climate was marked by repeated glacial cycles.  At the maximum of this Ice Age, 30 percent of the Earth’s surface was covered by ice.  At the time of this dig, it was thought we were heading into another Ice Age. Newspapers and magazines warned that it could happen very quickly and that possibly a little more carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels might stave it off and keep us from freezing to death.

The food in camp was great!

Larry Martin, now head of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Kansas, was one of the expedition leaders at the dig, which was conducted with B. Miles Gilbert from the University of Missouri at Columbia from 1974 to 1980.  Some of the Natural Trap specimens are on display at K.U.’s Museum of Natural History. Paleontologist George Blasing featured Dr. Martin and the Natural Trap in Episodes Nine of “Jurassic Fight Club” on the History Channel. Dr. Martin has also appeared on NOVA.
I’ve kept up with Dr. Martin through the years and have written about K.U.’s dig of Jurassic dinosaurs near Newcastle, Wyoming. (More on that in a future post.)
Below is a story I wrote that appeared in several newspapers in 1975, including The Kansas City Star.  Except for a few minor editing changes, the story appeared as published below.

AUGUST 1975 — The western foothills of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains are arid, red and rocky, peppered by clumps of pungent sage brush and dwarfed juniper trees.

A few cattle graze on the sparse grass, and an occasional deer bounds through a ravine, but the harsh terrain supports few animals.

It wasn’t always so desolate.  In the Pleistocene Epoch, 10,000 years ago and earlier, the Big Horn foothills teemed with large mammals.  It was a wetter climate.  The seasons were more moderate, the land more lush and more forested than today.

Herds of bison, horses and camels grazed on the meadows, stalked by fleet, long-legged bears and cats.  Mammoths lumbered through the valleys.  Bighorn sheep cropped hillside grasses.

The hills are limestone and pocked with caves and hollows.  One cave mouth was open to the sky at the end of a finger of land, affording no escape for a panicking herd pursued by a fast-moving predator.  This narrow peninsula was flanked by canyons which funneled predator and prey toward a rise, and then they all plummeted into the hole.  Hungry wolverines and jackal-like dire wolves, catching a tempting whiff of rotting meat, crept daringly on a ridge of melting snow along the edge and tumbled below.

Here the crew digs in the Natural Trap Cave. Working hours were short because the crew relied on natural light, which only fell in the cave from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Daylight was augmented by a few lamps.

As thousands of years passed, the cave gathered a scrambled mass of victims, preserved in layers, until a severe change in the climate wiped out most of the large mammals above, ending the cave’s carnage.

 Today (1975), paleontologists and anthropologists from the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri – Columbia are making an easier descent to the bottom of the cave to return the bones of those Pleistocene animals to the surface, where they become the survivors of their age.

A grate covers the opening of the Natural Trap to keep modern animals and people from falling in.

The hole, known as the Natural Trap, is a vast 85-foot-deep dome-shaped limestone cavern (karst sinkhole).  Tens of thousands of years ago part of the cavern’s roof fell in, making it a death-trap.

The names of the Pleistocene mammals in the trap may sound the same as some of the modern-day Big Horn animals — bighorn sheep, bison, bear — but the Pleistocene specimens were larger, different animals. The Pleistocene versions often had longer legs. The modern counterparts of other animals also found in the Natural Trap are smaller, such as wolves, wolverines and pronghorn antelope.  Other animals found in the Trap, such as horses, camels, American lion, mammoth, woodland musk ox and American cheetah, all went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.

“I don’t think we have a good potential in a specimen from the cave that is a good ancestor of any animal now in the area, ” Dr. Martin said.

Humans, who hunted the large Pleistocene mammals for food, partly has been blamed for their extinction, but most of the evidence points to climatic change as the cause, not only in North America but world-wide, Dr. Martin said.

The paleontologists are studying soil samples and bone deposition, looking for clues to the climatic fluctuations of the past, useful in anticipating future climate changes.  The types of animals found in the trap probably will indicate the climate at the time since animals migrate to their favorite climates, Dr. Martin said.

In the forefront are Dr. Miles Gilbert, left, and Dr. Larry Martin, right, sorting a tray of specimens.

The specimens from the trap went to K.U. Museum of Natural History, which has the tenth largest vertebrate paleontology collection in the country.

There have been some remarkable finds, such as the cheetah-like cat, which has the characteristically long radius and ulna limb bones of the modern-day cheetah and has been found nowhere else in North America, Dr. Martin said.

“The cheetah-like cat found in the cave is the first good evidence that there was one in North America,” Dr. Martin said.  There were several cheetah-like cat specimens found in the trap with the small cheetah canine teeth, necessary to give more space in the nose area. To run as swiftly as it does, the cheetah requires a large lungful of air.

Larry Martin digs in one of the areas staked out in the Natural Trap.

The short-faced bear specimen is one of the most spectacular finds do far (as of August 1975), Dr. Martin said. The beat was a long-legged open country animal, adapted for running and more carnivorous than modern-day bears. (A fight between a short-faced bear Arctodus simus and an American lion Panthera atrox near the Natural Trap is featured in episode nine of the History Channel’s “Jurassic Fight Club” in 2008.)

The bones of horses are the most abundant specimens found. Many seemed to have landed on their feet, snapping their leg bones. The cave’s fine limestones preserved the bones well, but most were broken from the initial impact or later by roof fall and other carcasses.  To find the bones fragment, the crew sieves all of the dirt from each five-by-five section.  The pieces are then painstakingly washed, scrubbed with toothbrushes and sorted at camp. Some are glued there, the rest to be assembled at K.U.

Temporary scaffolding is erected and dismantled each summer, the most dangerous part of the expedition, Dr. Gilbert said.  The group couldn’t afford permanent scaffolding.  Many team members prefer to drop into the cave by rappelling, which was the only way to enter the cave before 1974. There is a natural ledge just below the cave opening from which it’s easy to rappel. Climbing out by jumaring on a rope is a much more strenuous exercise, so everyone climbs up the shaky scaffolding to get out of the cave.

The scaffolding rests in a depression where deposits continually are eroded by rainfall even though the annual precipitation averages less than 15 inches. Bones remain intact in a mound to the east of the scaffolding where the crew lie on their sides and stomachs picking at the dirt, ice picks and whisks brooms.  Dig sites were selected at random until a few productive sections were located.

The dining tent at Armpit Camp.

There are possibly 30 feet of deposits to excavate, Dr. Gilbert said. Specimens could be as old as 50,000 years at the bottom, but there’s no way to tell except to dig there.

“I personally don’t want to dig the entire cave,” Gilbert said.  “I’d like to leave a third or half of it for the future to investigate when they have better technology to understand it.”

George Blasing’s Blog “Dinosaur George” is on my blogroll at the right.

History Channel’s Jurassic Fight Club

About Larry Martin.

About the Pleistocene Epoch.

When the crew wasn’t working, there were classes about the area’s plants, animals and history. Some of us could barely stay awake after a late-night trip exploring another cave, which required climbing in and out by rope. We were led by a geologist mapping the caves for the U.S. Geological Survey. He liked to scare us by leading us into a cavern and then ask us which way we’d come. We never knew. Another time he told us to turn off our acetylene head lamps. It was very dark and unsettling to be so far under the earth. A couple of times while exploring caves we felt the earth shake from dynamite blasts and worried that more rocks would fall from the ceiling to join those on the cave floor.

Armpit Camp.

This is a section of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area north of the Natural Trap.


Sign at the opening to the Natural Trap, which is now closed.

An update: Natural Trap to Be Reopened. and The Daily Mail: The Natural Trap to Be Reopened.



Filed under Animals, Biology, Environment, History, Natural History, Nature, Paleontology, Science, Travel, University of Kansas

Cooper’s Hawk

A Cooper's Hawk waits on a tree near my bird feeder today. As much as I wanted this hawk to eat, I didn't want him to grab one of the black-capped chickadees or cardinals. They were smart enough to stay away today.

Click on these links to learn more: Wikipedia on the Cooper’s Hawk  and  Cooper’s Hawk  


Filed under Animals, Bird-watching, Birds, Kansas, Life, Nature, Photography

Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa

Artist assistants stand next to 3,604 cups of coffee which have been made into a giant Mona Lisa in Sydney, Australia . The 3,604 cups of coffee were each filled with different amounts of milk to create the different shades! Those Aussies sure do know how to have fun (as I know from personal experience.) 

Another fun-loving, art-loving, puzzle-loving person is Shouts from the Abyss (despite his grim name), who posts some of his pixel puzzles.  To find them, click on pixels in his tags on his blog (on my blogroll).  Here’s one of his puzzles. They get harder, but I thought I’d start you out easy.



Filed under Art, Australia, Humor

Malcolm is a Norwegian Forest Cat — Cat of the Vikings!

Malcolm on the Stairs
Malcolm stands here showing many of the traits of a Norwegian Forest Cat — a mane, a bushy raccoon-like tail, tufted ears and toes, very thick fur. His belly fur would drag on the ground if we didn’t trim him. He’s probably really a Maine Coon cat, but that breed likely is descended from the Norwegian Forest Cat that traveled with the Vikings to North America in the 11th century.

Malcolm doesn’t have a pedigree.  Almost eighteen years ago, he was just a fluffy stray kitten with ear mites and fleas when we chose him at Wayside Waifs, an animal shelter in Kansas City, Missouri.  Through the years, as he grew larger and fluffier, people would tell us he might be partly if not all Maine Coon Cat.  We didn’t care about breeds, though.  To us, Malcolm was one of a kind, special,  unique, in a class by himself.  We barely remember life before he joined our family.

Malcolm loves the sunshine and follows it as it moves across the floor.

Lately, though, we’ve been watching shows about the different breeds of cat. I had no idea there were so many, although still not even close to the number of dog breeds. Our daughter has a Turkish Angora (now living with us), and I knew about a few others.  

There are 80 breeds of cats recognized by one cat registry or another.  The IPCBA (International Progressive Cat Breeders Alliance) recognizes 73 feline breeds, while the more conservative CFA (Cat Fanciers’ Association) acknowleges only 41, according to WikiAnswers.

Wikipedia says: The Maine Coon is one of the oldest natural domestic cat breeds in North America, specifically native to the state of Maine, where it is the official State Cat.  The breed was popular in cat shows in the late 1800s, but its existence became threatened when long-haired breeds from overseas were introduced in the early 20th century. The Maine Coon made a comeback and is now the second most popular cat breed in North America, according to the Cat Fanciers’ Association. The Maine Coon is noted for its large bone structure, its rectangular body shape, and a long, flowing coat. The breed can be seen in a variety of colors and are known for their intelligence and gentle personalities.

One theory of the origin of the Maine Coon Cat is that it evolved from the Norwegian Forest Cats that traveled to North America with the Vikings in the 11th century.  We decided that Malcolm must be a Viking cat.  My children have one set of Norwegian great-grandparents, so this seemed the perfect origin for Malcolm. We should have named him Erik the Red!

Even in his old age, Malcolm managed to find ways to groom some of the more difficult to reach areas by propping himself against furniture.

Like the Maine Coon, Norwegian Forest Cats have a thick fluffy double-layered coat, long tufts of fur in ears and between toes, and a long bushy tail to protect them against the cold. They have a lion-like ruff or mane.  Their coat is fairly waterproof  because of its coarse outer layer and dense undercoat. They are very large cats with adult males weighing 13 to 22 pounds (6 to 10 kg),  while females are about half that size. Their hind legs are longer than their front legs.  Malcolm fits this description perfectly.  At his largest, he weighed 16 pounds.

Maine Coon and Norwegian Forest cats are described as very intelligent, playful cats that enjoy human company but can get upset if left alone for a long period of time.  Malcolm would always meow very bitterly when we left him for a couple of days.  He had plenty to eat and drink, but he missed us. And we missed him.

Malcolm followed me around the house and always wanted to sit with or near me. In his later years, he slept next to me. He was my faithful companion, and when I called to him, he always answered.  Malcolm is very sick now, and has all but his tail in Valhalla. Who would have thought a little cat (ok, not so little) could steal your heart so completely? I can barely write any more about him, I’m so sad. There are tears on my keyboard.  Below is a link to a post (Good-bye, Mr. B) about another person’s tears on his keyboard over his beloved cat. (Written from the dog’s perspective.) Hold your pet close today.  I had no idea when we were recording his vacuum grooming just a few weeks ago that Malcolm would decline so quickly. (The video is on this blog.) One day he was jumping on the sofa to sit next to me, the next day he retreated to the closet and refused to eat.  Tests showed an inoperable tumor. 

Malcolm getting vacuumed.

When I took Malcolm to the vet last week, a man who had come in to ask for directions, took a look at Malcolm and said:

“Now that is a cat!”   Well said, sir!

Maine Coon Cat.

Norwegian Forest Cat.

Good-bye, Mr. B

Malcolm looks regal as he sits in one of his many favorite chairs.


Filed under Animals, Cats, Family, History, Life, Personal, Pets, Relationships

Vacuuming the Cat

Our cat Malcolm, age 17 1/2,  enjoys being vacuumed, although he’s a bit camera-shy here. (My son is wielding the vacuum here.) Usually, he rolls around in ecstasy (seen briefly in the video), making sure every part gets vacuumed.  He often presents his head to make sure his cheeks are groomed.  When much younger, Malcolm would dash away at the sound of the vacuum, the door bell, any noise at all, but now he goes with flow. 

Malcolm getting vacuumed.

Malcolm getting vacuumed.

 In this case, it’s the soothing flow of air over his luxuriously thick fur, which, as you can imagine, is all over our house. We’re so grateful he enjoys this type of grooming.


Filed under Cats, Humor, Life, Pets

It’s Grand!

Rock squirrel at the Grand Canyon

This rock squirrel hangs out at a scenic outlook at the Grand Canyon. He's got his eye on another vista -- your backpack full of snacks.

We made a detour to the Grand Canyon on our drive home in September from California (Yes, I’ll be wringing posts out of that trip for some time to come!)  It was well worth the four hours’ deviation from our dash (just ask a certain highway patrolman in New Mexico) back to Kansas City, even though we’d visited the Grand Canyon before.   We visited the South Rim, which is about 80 miles north of Flagstaff, in northern Arizona. The North Rim is where that transparent walkway juts out over the canyon. You will not be getting me on that!

Backpack thief!

Rangers caution against giving the rock squirrels any food. It isn't good for them, and they can bite. This rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) thinks he can sneak in, grab a granola bar and scamper away.

You feel very small and insignificant standing near the edge looking out at a vast display of millions of years of erosion.  One of these days I may actually make the grueling hike to the bottom.  My sister and her family have done it.  Others I know have rafted the Colorado River, which looks like a skinny ribbon at the bottom. It’s supposed to be a spectacular trip.  If you’ve done either, please comment below and tell me about your experiences. If you’ve been to the rim of the Grand Canyon, please comment.  If you’ve never been, add your thoughts. If you think it’s a just an overrated ditch, let me know, too. 

Here’s what the Grand Canyon National Park has to say about the Grand Canyon:

A powerful and inspiring landscape, the Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size; 277 river miles (446km) long, up to 18 miles (29km) wide, and a mile (1.6km) deep.

While standing at the edge of this breath-taking sight, I got a cell phone call from my son.  I’d forgotten my phone was even on, and even though I was glad to hear from him, it didn’t seem quite right to be talking when I should have been deep in contemplation. But that didn’t stop me from getting an update on his job search. (He got a job!)  I was one of the few speaking English there, too. There were probably a dozen languages being spoken.   Five million tourists visit every year. I was thrilled to be among that number.

Link to the National Park website: Grand Canyon National Park   Part One of the California Road Trip Saga is Surf’s up.

Tourists at the Grand Canyon.

Tourists at the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon. Everywhere you look, it's grand!

Pronghorn antelope.

Pronghorn antelope graze near the Grand Canyon.


Filed under Animals, Life, National Parks, Nature, Personal, Photography, Travel

Farmville on Facebook


A cousin's virtual farm.

I signed up for Facebook a few years ago to see what my children were doing at college.  Yes, that sounds like spying…. Instant Messenger, MySpace, Facebook.  They signed up, I signed up.  (They weren’t sneaky enough to keep it a secret.) As soon as they moved on — it took me a while to catch on — I trailed after. (The latest is LinkedIn.) I wanted to reassure myself that my children were still alive, since they weren’t big on calling home or answering their cell phones, which never seemed to be charged — or so they said.   When my daughter was very sick with mononucleosis, I saw it first on her status update. She had dragged herself to her computer, typed in that she had never been more sick in her life, and then collapsed.

Both children are graduated now, and although my anxiety is no less, I have found that I’ve been sucked into some of these sites without giving much thought to my children’s online activities. (They seldom post anyway…)  A recent Time Magazine article reported that Facebook  isn’t even for young people anymore, even though it was started for college students.  Too many parents have invaded it.  Middle-agers are the ones who seem to use Facebook the most.  I’ve re-connected with far-flung relatives and friends.

A friend, also on Facebook, recently urged me to sign up for the Farmville game on Facebook. I’d never seen much from her on Facebook, but she is very active on Farmville.  She claimed it was addictive.  I signed up as a favor, since you need neighbors on Farmville.  But you can’t sign up and forget it.  Immediately, my strawberry crop withered because I forgot all about harvesting it.  Farmville is a very interactive game, because you help out your neighbors, rescue their crops, give them livestock and other gifts, etc., a very idealized version of the real world.  You can’t rise in the Farmville world without helping out your neighbors or getting help from them.

It’s only been a week since I’ve joined, so I don’t know how long I’ll last. I’m not a video or computer game player. I’ve accepted other invitations for other Facebook games and never played them.  I waste too much time already in the “real” world.  However, I already feel responsible to my neighbors in this virtual world.  I was amazed to see how many Facebook friends were playing this game. You can publish your results on Facebook, but most don’t, so it’s not until you join that you see the “closet” players.   It’s fun to see what different “neighbors” have chosen to plant or raise. Masses of daffodils, vast herds of cows, avocado trees, acres of corn….An Aussie Facebook friend playing Farmville has a lot of leisure equipment, a pool, many topiaries and a lovely banana grove on her farm, which looks more like a resort. Those Aussies know how to live!

P.S. on Nov. 8, 2009.  On Farmville, a popup informed me that I needed to buy more coins.  I said ok, but it asked for real money!  I could pay with a credit, paypal, whatever.  Pay real money, no way!  I feel I’ve logged enough hours that I should get paid! 

Here’s the Time Magazine article.  Oh Crap. My Parents Joined Facebook.


Filed under Entertainment, Humor, Internet, Life