Wonders never cease … I think not

by Nicole Morgan, Museum Education Specialist

I grew up here in Indiana, born and raised. Through the years, I have heard tale of many oddities around this beautiful state of ours. There have been a few of these old fables that have caught my fancy, enough so that I have ventured out of Indianapolis to witness these wonders on my own.

I heard about Gravity Hill in Mooresville and took the short trip to experience this phenomenon. The story goes that an Indian witch doctor was buried at the foot of a low hill in Mooresville and anyone who stops their car at the bottom of the hill and puts it in neutral will find themselves mysteriously coasting back up the hill for nearly a quarter-mile. I’m not sure if my Subaru was just too scared to attempt this feat or if I was just not a true believer, but my car merely stood still. Maybe the witch doctor was taking a nap?

I also took a trip to Lake Manitou, sometimes referred to as Devil’s Lake. The lake got this diabolical nickname to due to the legend of a giant serpent-like monster that is believed to reside there. This mythical creature is so old that the story is part of legend told by the Potawatomi Indians. I stood on the banks of the lake for hours. Searching. Waiting. Hoping. Nothing. Not even a fish did I see.

So when I was asked to think about something to write about for Arbor Day, I saw the perfect opportunity to explore another Indiana marvel in one of my favorite places in Indiana — Brown County. In Yellowwood Forest, there are mysterious rocks called Unexplained Resting Boulders, or URBs. These boulders are so unusual because they are found in the tree tops and no on can explain how they got there. The largest one discovered was called Gobbler’s Rock because it was found by a turkey hunter. It was a 400 pound sandstone boulder that rested about 40 feet in the tree.

Rita on the lookout for lurking URBs.

My mission was clear: Round up the dogs, get to Yellowood Forest, take a picture of aforementioned boulder and then blog my little heart out. I found a website that gave coordinates and foot directions to the tree, packed the dogs into the car and drove south. The directions seemed easy enough to follow but when we arrived to the location of the tree, it was no where to be found. I sent the dogs on the hunt and we came up empty. How could I miss a 400 pound boulder in a tree, you ask? Well, when I returned home, muddy and defeated, I did a little more research only to find that the Gobbler’s Rock tree fell down in 2006. Another missed marvel by yours truly. The trip was not all for naught. I did get to share the beauty of Yellowwood Forest with my dogs. Who knows, with all of the state forests Indiana has to choose from, maybe I am meant to discover the next URB. We could name it after my dog, Rita Rock.

Forests and fire: A love/hate relationship

by Katherine McFarland, Science & Technology Program Specialist

This Arbor Day, as we celebrate all things tree, let us take a moment to reflect on the importance of fire. If this statement seems confusing, allow me to explain. Despite its seemingly contradictory appearance, fire is a necessary part of most forest ecosystems. I have taken part in a few controlled burns and, while earning my Smokey Bear pin, I found out that the distinction between wildfires and other fire is an important one.

Prescribed burn in the Loess Hills of Iowa.

Most people are familiar with Smokey Bear and his famous message, “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.” Growing up I took this message very seriously. I pestered my parents whenever we picnicked to make sure that the fire was completely out before we moved on, and watched for discarded cigarette butts. However, since my childhood Smokey’s message has changed because “wildfires” instead of “forest fires” are now the target.

Smokey Bear has been promoting the prevention of forest fires since his creation in the 1940s by the Forest Service and the Wartime Advertising Council. At the time, forest fires were a threat to national security as a Japanese submarine in 1942 had almost set the Los Padres National Forest ablaze when a Santa Barbara oil field was hit by incendiary shells. With statistics at the time showing that nine out of 10 domestic fires were caused by people, not lightning, it was thought that eliminating forest fires caused by U.S. citizens would greatly reduce chances of a national disaster. Eventually, Smokey was chosen as the mascot for the campaign (after his predecessor Bambi retired), and has been promoting his message of fire prevention ever since.

1956 U.S. and State Forest Service stamp from http://www.smokeybear.com.

Interestingly, in 2001 Smokey’s message changed to, “Remember … only you can prevent wildfires.” This statement emphasizes personal responsibility in using fire while allowing for its importance as a tool of ecosystem management. In the hands of trained professionals, a prescribed fire (a.k.a. controlled burn) can eliminate excess undergrowth allowing plants and animals to flourish, while preventing fuel for a large wildfire to build.

Controlled burns are planned in advance to take into account weather and societal conditions, insure firebreaks and fire crews are in place and decrease chances of wildfire.

Diagram of a controlled burn created by the Florida Division of Forestry.

This Arbor Day, Friday, April 29, the Indiana State Museum is celebrating with tree plantings, activities and educational opportunities. Please join us from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to explore the wide variety of ways you can care for Indiana’s trees.

The birds of Belmont and Bracken Hill

 Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

All winter long, pileated woodpeckers and their smaller cousins, the red-headed, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers hammered away, echoing the carpenters working on the Sunroom Restoration at the House of the Singing Winds. Lately, eastern bluebirds have added to the human and avian percussion section with their warbling melodies.

Birdsong is such a welcome and spirit-lifting sound, bringing relief from winter’s cold and snow. “Real birders” can identify individual voices of these spring arrivals, but nature’s music — like art — can be enjoyed without specialized knowledge.

Both birds and art-lovers flock to T.C. Steele State Historic Site, but for different reasons. As a flower and shrub covered clearing amidst deep hardwood forests, the site’s ridgetop setting provides the edge habitat needed by birds, and scenic views enjoyed by humans. Where there are hills, there must be valleys, and Salt Creek and Hunnicutt Valleys, depicted in many of Steele’s paintings, are a fine prelude to what awaits above.

Last week’s heavy rains caused Salt Creek to overflow onto the fallow fields bordering T.C. Steele Road. I was concerned, since a flooded road could mean a long detour, but all was fine — even more than fine as I spotted several migrating sandhill cranes feeding in the cornfield stubble transformed into a temporary wetland.

As I stopped to watch, I wondered about their diet. Had the floodwaters washed up fish or frogs into the fields? That’s what’s on the menu for great blue herons, which are similar in size to cranes and prefer the same marshy areas. Time for some research.

It turns out that the sandhills feed on corn, left from last year’s harvest, with perhaps an insect or two as an appetizer. But they may have been attracted by the water, since they were gone in two days, along with the puddles. This year, the rains coincided with their migration, and it was the first time I’d seen them there.

I also learned that the herons’ arrival comes a week or two after the cranes pass through — but they stick around. In summer, these large herons can often be seen flying over or wading in Salt Creek’s shallows. I’ll be glad to welcome them back.

Passing by the same field earlier in the week, a large shape in a tree caught my eye. A resident bald eagle was eyeing the field for a possible meal. What a treat to see! Even though Selma Steele found the Belmont grocery lacking when she moved here in 1907, the area wildlife isn’t complaining.

Soon daffodils will add color to the drab winter landscape, but for now, birds are on the move. So bring your binoculars to Brown County for some birding on what was in the Steele’s time known as Bracken Hill.

Eau de old stuff

 by Gaby Kienitz, Conservator

I have a secret to tell — historic artifacts smell. They often smell bad. When you get close and personal with historic artifacts like I do in the Conservation Lab, you realize they have odor issues. It’s not their fault. Dust, mold, bird droppings, mouse pee and, shall we delicately say, various “debris” from human use contribute to a potent olfactory cocktail. If I could bottle it to sell at the perfume counter it would be called “eau de old stuff.” But, I don’t mind, I’m used to the smell.

I’ve been lucky; I hear stories from friends at other museums about a collection of artifacts that smell of old cigarette smoke and even worse, a contemporary art object that smells of rotten flesh. I’ve never had to deal with objects that smell so bad they make you feel sick. This year, I hit the jackpot with artifact smells. Not because it was terrible, but because it was so very good. Enter the bee skep …

What is a bee skep exactly? Well, other than a hollow in a tree trunk (à la Winnie the Pooh), this is the traditional home of the honeybee. Those efficiently square bee boxes we’re familiar with today weren’t invented until the middle of the 19th century. For hundreds of years before, humans provided the humble, hardworking honeybee with a home that’s basically an upside-down coiled basket made of straw, held together with strips of tree saplings. After the bees move in, they create their own honeycomb, by building directly onto the inner walls of the skep.

Our bee skep is an exile from the Odd Indiana exhibit. It was intended to be part of the display of torturous farm tools, but was cut from the show several months before installation. It didn’t look like anything special when it was brought to the Conservation Lab. Heck, I didn’t even know what it was. But, when I leaned in to take a closer look at the interior, that’s when it hit me – the smell, that fabulous smell. The inside is glossy from a thin coating of wax and high on the inner dome of the skep are small hexagonal remnants of honeycomb. There is still a faint, warm smell of beeswax mingled with the sweet earthy smell of straw.

For the first time ever, I found myself wanting the smell from an object to linger. I’d love to spend my days with my nose up against the inside of the skep, making myself giddy with the smell, but then who would do the work? Although the skep was rejected from exhibition, I wanted to give it another chance. I’m hoping to have it placed on exhibit in the second floor main gallery in the summer of 2011. But, before it’s ready for exhibition it needs to be treated in the Conservation Lab; part of the lower coil on the skep has detached and there’s some straw missing.

Look for an update in the coming months on the treatment and installation of the bee skep. Until then, I’ll be keeping my nose to the skep … er …grindstone.

All photos by Anna Yu.

The Naturalist’s Lab needs you!

by Karine Huys, Coordinator of Volunteer Services

Coral reefs and crochet, photomicrography, and animal noises! It’s an exciting time to be a volunteer in the R.B. Annis Naturalist’s Lab here at the Indiana State Museum.

Just outside the door in the Ancient Seas gallery The Indiana Reef has opened. A coral reef in landlocked Indiana? Absolutely! Volunteer crocheters from across Indiana have created all aspects of a real coral reef. The Lab volunteers can answer questions about the reef, talk to people about the fossilized remains of the real coral reefs that used to be in Indiana or just enjoy the view through the large glass wall.

A new videomicroscope has been installed in the Naturalist’s Lab! With this microscope guests (and volunteers) can capture images of items at the microscopic level and then e-mail the images to their home e-mail. I was just downstairs explaining the process to today’s volunteer and we captured a microscopic view of the fossilized coral! 

Of course, guests can still mimic animal calls and replay them over the loudspeaker, try to figure out the difference between mastodont tusk and bone, and all the other great things always going on. And lots of volunteers have been reporting great interaction with guests visiting Indianapolis from different countries.

Join us as a Naturalist’s Lab volunteer — find the crab in the Reef, take a microscopic picture of your hand and make new friends … what more could you want?! More information about volunteering is available on the museum webpage at indianamuseum.org/volunteer.

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Do you like puzzles?

by Elizabeth M. Scott, Natural History and Archaeology Preparator at the Indiana State Museum

When archaeologists and paleontologists excavate bones, sometimes they are found in several pieces or are so fragile that they break into pieces during excavation or processing. So, how are these finds identified, tracked and pieced back together? Why bother to mend bones back together? What do we learn from this process? It’s a giant 3-D puzzle!

Let’s follow a group of bones from the Bothwell mastodont site, a site in northern Indiana that yielded material representing seven individual mastodonts.

Pieces of jaw oriented and laid out prior to mending.

Paleontologists in the field found a group of bones. The characteristics of the bones and the presence of teeth led scientists to identify this clustering to be a jaw. They gave this grouping of bones a field identification number and marked its location on the excavation’s site map. Back at the museum, the material was washed, dried, catalogued and consolidated (saturated with a resin for preservation). After this, the preparator —me! — began the process of mending the material back together.

Many things can make it difficult to piece a bone back together. Material can be damaged or lost at the time of the animal’s death; or as the carcass deteriorates, pieces may be moved during a site’s development over time; damage can happen during excavation or laboratory processing. Also, non-fossilized bone material acts similar to wood in that it can warp and distort as it takes in and gives off moisture. This can dramatically affect the bone’s shape and preservation during a site’s formation, excavation and laboratory processing.

During the mending process, there are several ways to deal with distortion and lost or damaged fragments. The piece may be placed at an angle during mending, and there’s the addition of fill material to replace missing pieces and to strengthen weak areas. This takes a complementary blending of biology knowledge and art skill.

This fully mended jaw contains 80 pieces.

But why bother with mending these bone fragments? Well, mending bone fragments is important for several reasons. First, it can assist in better specimen identification. One group of small fragments originally listed simply as “vertebra?” can now more accurately be identified as “third or fourth cervical vertebra.” Second, it can reveal better biological information. Only after mending was it possible to determine that one of the five jaws recovered from the site was from a fully mature older adult. Third, it means fewer fragments to track in storage. The jaw in our example is now one large item and not 80 individual ones. Finally, it can give us clues about site formation processes and the relationships between different bones and individuals found across the site. The jaw in our example was constructed of fragments from two different areas of the site.

Check out this video from the Bothwell site.

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What is it?!?

by Sarah Boutwell, Museum Store Sales Associate

Check out this unbelievable creature! Does it remind you of something from the Kevin Bacon movie Tremors

Fossils of this unidentified species were found in a cave in Quilpie, Australia. Several experts have examined this “worm-like” creature and its young ones, but have yet to determine the species. Some of the fossils we sell at our store are from the same cave and are thought to be sponges that inhabited the same living space. What’s truly amazing about these fossils is that they are filled with opal! When held under light, you can see the beautiful colors of the opal shining through the rust colored rock exterior.

The Indiana Store at the Indiana State Museum now has an entire wall dedicated to fossils, rocks and minerals! Many of them are from Indiana and the surrounding states, but we also have some of the rarest fossils in the world. Come check out these fossils and more at the Indiana Store today!

And don’t forget to mark you calendar for GeoFest on Oct. 22, 23 and 24!

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Something about water

by Danesa R. Stolz, Chief Naturalist for Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve

There is just something about water. Of all of our natural resources, there is no other as precious, as plentiful or as fragile. Water is essential to all life. And as far as habitats go, in my opinion, none is more precious than a wetland.

The Loblolly Marsh at Limberlost State Historic Site is teeming with wildlife ... if you know where to look!

Wetlands were once considered wastelands. They could not be farmed and they were a place where mosquitoes flourished. In order to rid themselves of the nuisances associated with wetlands, people drained them, plowed them and attempted to control them.

But we were wrong and now know that wetlands are important. Hopefully, we have come to realize this before it is too late. It is essential that we protect wetlands. Wetlands are valuable resources. They sustain more life than almost any other habitat. At least one-third of the nation’s threatened or endangered species live in wetland areas. The productivity of wetlands, their cleansing ability and their water storage capacity make them a resource to be highly cherished.

Join us for Wetlands and Watersheds at the Indiana State Museum on Friday, Sept. 10, 10 a.m. to noon and Sunday, Sept. 19, noon to 2 p.m.

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I Wanna Check You for Ticks

That’s Brad Paisley … but applies to Peccary Digs, too … but more about the creatures of the day in a second. Day four of a 17 day dig = my second day. Started all wrong;  a knock-knock had me flying out of bed in my jammies, hair unruly, to find Ron Richards, museum paleontologist at my door … our alarm hadn’t gone off! OMG! Leap into clothing and out the door … cavers don’t need makeup or hair fussing. *whew* Luckily its a 40-minute drive to the cave, which is plenty of time to drink coffee and wake up.

Many creatures today … spiders (again) and butterflies and ticks. But the real find of the day was a copperhead snake! Yes, they are venomous. Neal reached down for something next to his chair and the snake moved; thankfully it didn’t strike, but chose to slither away instead.   

The other interesting find amidst over a hundred buckets full of cave dirt was a shark tooth, probably over three hundred million years old, from a geological period of time when Indiana was covered by water. The buckets are brought out of the cave and carried to the screeners, who carefully wash off excess dirt and rock, picking through for anything unusual, which they set aside in special containers.  The rest is put into plastic bags, brought back to the museum, and carefully studied under microscopes.

It was a long day of hauling heavy buckets, shooting dozens and dozens of photos and video, and sweating. But what an honor to be part of something as cool and important as this. We are literally picking through history! More tomorrow!

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‘Diggin’ Up Bones’ and other Famous Songs

Cave digging is exhausting. That’s just one of the things I learned today, on my first paleontological dig with museum staffers and other volunteers. We’re in southern Indiana, clearing out a cave, on an expedition that has been repeated nearly every summer for 23 years.  Hauling 60 to 70 giant buckets full of rocks and mud uphill for a few hours is a workout! And my shower tonight ranks up there with the best showers of all time; dirt and sweat and mud had permeated every crevice of my body! When you can actually smell your own self, you KNOW you need a shower! And luckily the tick I found had not yet fully attached itself … 

Some other things I learned: helmets are a very important piece of caving equipment. As I hauled those buckets to the mouth of the cave, I probably hit my head on solid rock approximatedly 24 times. And its a good thing I’m not as terrified of spiders as my sister and my daughter, because I was definitely sharing quarters with at least a dozen big juicy ones (as long as they stayed on their side of the wall, I was okay with them being there).

Balance: this is a surprisingly important skill when you’re climbing uneven hills and when you’re teetering on rock, trying to heave a heavy bucket onto a metal roller system to get it out of the cave. I was not keen on slipping and falling face first into the mud! 

So about the music … do you ever get some song stuck in your head? Well, when you’re in a group of people, its really not nice to push that song upon the others, because then THEY get it stuck in THEIR head! First it was the old country song “Diggin’ Up Bones,” then it suddenly became  Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” since my husband and I are the resident “paparazzi” on this dig. Speaking of which … here are some photos …

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