Colorado Ivory


Elk ivories, which are technically vestigial tusks, are small– just over an inch long including the root. Photo by Meredith Swett Walker


Elk hunting is a big deal in Colorado, and while many hunters are primarily interested in harvesting an elk for its meat, some hunters are after a trophy bull. Trophy elk are scored based on how large their antlers are and how many “points” or tines they have on each. But if humans had been hunting for trophy elk 25 million years ago or so, they would have been after the animal with the largest tusks, not antlers.


Elk are members of the deer family, and while modern male deer are noted for their antlers, prehistoric deer lacked antlers, but had tusks instead. Tusks are technically teeth (usually canine teeth), but are distinctive in that they grow continuously and protrude from the mouth. Today’s elk still bear remnants of their toothy past. Partially hidden in the upper jaw of both male and female elk are vestigial tusks, more commonly known as “ivories.”


An elk’s ivories are actually canine teeth. They are not large­– less than an inch of the tooth is exposed in an adult elk– and they aren’t used in chewing. There is no corresponding tooth on the lower jaw for them to make contact with, but they do wear down some over time. While some elk ivories are pearly white, others are stained deep brown by tannins in the plants the elk eats and digestive juices. (Elk aren’t known to use Crest Whitestrips®.)


The term “ivory” technically refers to animal tusk material used in art or craft. Humans have used elk ivories to make jewelry and decorate other goods for centuries. Among many Native American tribes, ivories were used to adorn women’s dresses and were a symbol of prosperity.


A Kiowa couple, Eonah-pah and his wife Alma, photographed in the late 1870s by William S. Soule. Alma is wearing a dress decorated with elk ivories.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s elk ivory became very fashionable and the teeth were used to decorate watch fobs, the short chains attached to pocket watches. At that time these watch fobs were an unofficial symbol of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E.), a fraternal order and social club still active today and commonly known at “the Elks.” But elk ivory’s popularity led to a spike in prices for the teeth, which in turn created an elk poaching problem. In 1907, in an effort to stop the poaching, the B.P.O.E spoke out against the use of elk ivories for jewelry and helped establish the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming.


While humans use elk ivories for adornment, elk use them in a manner that recalls a time when these teeth were much more impressive– they use them to threaten their rivals. An angry elk will sometimes curl its upper lip in a “sneer display” that reveals its vestigial tusks.


It is thought that as ancient deer evolved antlers, they lost their tusks. Only a handful of modern species of deer and deer-relatives still bear prominent tusks. Chinese water deer, muntjacs, and tufted deer, are all relatively small species that live in Asia and still have tusks. These species generally lack antlers. With their diminutive size, big brown eyes and large fang-like tusks, these deer almost look made-up, like Bambi masquerading as a vampire for Halloween.

Siberian Musk Deer
Siberian musk deer live in Northeast Asia. This is a small deer, weighing less than 40 pounds, but it sports impressive tusks. Photo by Николай Усик.


Scientists are not entirely sure if any of the prehistoric deer that moved into North America from Asia many millions of years ago had tusks. Most of the fossil remains that paleontologists have found so far are incomplete. According to Dr. Darrin Pagnac, a paleontologist at the South Dakota School of Mines who studies ancient grasslands and the herbivores that grazed on them, “The earliest ‘deer’ in North America is Eocoileus, from the late Miocene (7-5 million years ago).  All we have of it is a partial antler and the back of the skull.  No teeth, so we can’t tell if it had canines or not.”


Whether or not any tusked deer ever roamed the plains of North America, elk ivories are a reminder of ancient times, when the wildlife on our continent looked very different than it does today. Once upon a time prehistoric cheetahs and camels roamed here. Giant sloths, weighing a ton, browsed on leaves and the giant beaver, who was over six feet long, presumably cut down really big trees. As magnificent as elk and Colorado’s other wildlife is today, the creatures of the past may have been even more impressive.

This article first appeared in the November 21, 2015 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

Colorado Ivory

Field Scientist or Secret Agent?



Field Scientist or Secret Agent?

Before I had children, in my previous incarnation as a rambling biologist, I spent over a decade working on various field ornithology projects. Naturally I acquired the skills you’d expect: I know how to identify birds, find their nests, catch them, etc. But whenever you do science outside of a lab- especially when you have to deal with wildlife that’s not cooperating or remote field locations- you inevitably pick up skills that you’d never think were related to science. I used Facebook to ask my friends (and friends of friends) what odd abilities they have acquired in the pursuit of science. This motley crew of field biologists and paleontologists possess an assortment of skills that in some cases seem more appropriate for some sort of spy or secret agent than a scientist. They fall into several broad categories and I will give you the highlights below.

Ability to use unusual objects as weapons (think Jason Bourne beating an assassin senseless with a rolled up magazine and then using it to blow up the apartment):

One field biologist “can safely stun small lizards using a marshmallow shot from a slingshot.” Catching reptiles with a noose fashioned from fishing line is another common skill. One herpetologist can catch frogs while swimming. I am not as skilled as some of my ninja-like colleagues who can wrestle seals, but I can deflect attacking gulls with a walking stick- a necessary self-defense skill when working in the midst of a herring gull colony.

Impersonation or seduction in order to manipulate or capture (think Jennifer Garner in “Alias” impersonating a sexpot in order to seduce and capture the bad guy):

There are biologists working on Hawaiian Monk Seal conservation that can flop around on a beach impersonating a female seal to lure male seals out of the water and onto the beach where they can be tagged. I know a sage grouse biologist who does a wicked cow impersonation. Apparently, sounding like a cow is a great way to sneak up on a sage grouse nest, because the grouse are used to cows grazing around the nest, but don’t take kindly to human visitors. One biologist can take on túngara frogs in an amphibian’s version of a rap battle, doing such a good cover of their song that she can get all the males in a chorus singing again.

Theft of bodily fluids (This veers away from secret agent territory into the vampire or alien abduction arena):

My grad school advisor is “known as the fastest phlebotomist west of the Mississippi” (and none of her feathered victims are donating blood voluntarily.) One of my close friends, a mammalogist, can express and analyze beaver anal glad secretions to determine the sex of the beaver (where do you put that on a resume?) Another mammalogist can milk a bat. Yes, I said MILK A BAT.

Lest you think we are monsters, I would like to point out that field scientists have a softer side as well. Sometimes, like a spy romancing a source (think Matthew Rhys’s character marrying the FBI secretary on the TV series “The Americans”), you have to coerce your study subjects with kindness.

Sometimes the way to your study subject’s heart is through its stomach. A few entomologists I know have become expert chefs for the insect set, concocting organic butterfly nectar, or (revolting sounding) fare out of wheat germ, carrageenan, and formaldehyde that is beloved by caterpillars who feed on toxic plants. One ornithologist chef can turn old road-killed deer into a fine entree for golden eagles. And sometimes its not food, but a warm hug that is needed. A butterfly biologist I know has lovingly nestled containers of caterpillars inside her clothing, warming them and speeding their development.

Sometimes you need to woo not your study subjects, but rather the humans who own your study site. One paleontologist mentioned that he had learned how to castrate and brand sheep and steers. The connection to paleontology is indirect at best, but I am guessing he was helping with livestock in order to stay in the good graces of the rancher who owned the property where he was digging. Communication with landowners is also important. Another paleontologist learned to communicate at a distance using semaphore, so as not to have to dodge bullets from angered landowners.


Ability to craft nifty gadgets and fixes out of unexpected materials. (Think MacGyver, that TV show from the ‘80s, where the hero could make devices out of chewing gum, matchsticks or whatever he found in the trash and get himself out of dangerous jam):

A physiological ecologist I know is crafty like MacGyver. His research often requires measuring physiological parameters in unusual subjects like sphinx moths or Antarctic seas spiders. No one makes devices to do this, so he constructs them himself. He and his technicians can make anything and everything out of plexiglass and plastic tubing. Another creative scientist needed robotic frogs for an experiment. His attempts to find a material to mimic the bulging throat sac of a singing frog left him with some explaining to do: “I once left my office a disaster after an all-nighter of faux frog fabrication, only to find that someone checked on the poison dart frogs on my office mate’s desk the next morning. With condoms, party balloons, medical catheters, and garbage strewn everywhere, this concerned citizen proceeded to show everyone in the lab my office while I was home sleeping.” Crafty science skills can be useful at home as well. One biologist now uses the tools of his science trade (veterinary surgical tools, needle and suture, hypodermic needles, and 5-minute epoxy) to fix everything from kitchen counters to cars.

Kidnapping/Extraction: Think Tony Mendez sneaking the American diplomats out of Tehran in the movie “Argo”(which was based on real events):

 One of my favorite books of all time is “A Primate’s Memoir,” Robert Sapolsky’s account of his time studying stress hormones and behavior in wild baboons in Kenya. Sapolsky was studying stress in a very social primate and he needed to get blood samples from individuals without freaking the baboon and all his baboon buddies out. (If the other baboons saw Sapolsky sedating and taking a blood sample from a fellow troop member, they would be scared, their stress hormone levels would be affected and the whole study would be a mess.) So Sapolsky became an expert at soundlessly darting a baboon with a blowgun when neither the baboon, nor his friends, were looking. He would conceal the animal in a burlap sack, sneak away with it to get a blood sample and then return the groggy baboon to the troop with no one the wiser.

Vehicular related feats (think Jason Bourne driving Marie’s ancient Mini through the streets of Paris

Field scientists often end up working in remote locations with bad roads, shoddy trucks and no cell phone reception. Learning your way around your vehicle is essential, as I have (not) learned the hard way. I have been stuck in the mud, backed into more trees and shattered more windshields than I’d like to admit. Several scientists mentioned being able to unstick any vehicle (truck, ATV, snowmobile) out of any substance (mud, sand, snow.) This is a good general life skill. Even if you are walking, not driving, there is always a chance of getting stuck in wet bentonite clay or quicksand in the middle of a mudflat with the tide coming in. Not knowing how to get out can be the difference between a lost boot and well…the end of your field season (and everything else.)

But back to the vehicles. Is the road to your field site washed out? One paleontologist has improvisational bridge building in his skill set. Does your beat-up field truck frequently get air in the brake lines? My biologist friend learned how to drive without brakes (thank god for manual transmissions!) And perhaps the most important skill: breaking and entering a vehicle. What field scientist has not locked themselves out of their vehicle, 10 miles from nowhere with no cell service? My buddy Dan has gotten “scary good” at breaking into vehicles (he can even do power locks!) And he is prepared- he now keeps one of his tools of choice, a surveyor’s stake flag, in the bed of his truck at all times. Next time I am locked out I won’t waste time with AAA, I will just call Dan.

Getting to use cool gadgets (think of any of the cool gadgets Q gives James Bond, and yes I am revealing my limited movie reference vocabulary):

 Field scientists get to use gadgets like net guns (Spiderman!), unmanned aerial vehicles or drones (to monitor raptor nests or get aerial photos of field sites), and bat detectors (Batman!) which are actually ultrasonic sound monitors. My husband, who studies sage grouse, has a device which (if we didn’t care about getting in trouble with his employer or CPS) we could attach to our children and receive emails 5 times a day detailing their location.

This post may make the life of a field scientist seem glamorous or adventurous, and in some ways, if you look at it right, it is. But sadly, money is usually tight and when you get to work with high tech toys or travel to exotic locations, your budget for living expenses usually takes a hit. So it’s important to learn how to survive on the cheap. Good things to know are:

  1. How to repair your boots- because your credit card is maxed out and Amazon does not deliver to your field site 25 miles from east Podunk.
  1. How to take a bath in a gas station sink- because you have been camping for 4 weeks and if you go into that redneck bar for your much needed beer smelling like that, you will get arrested for indecent olfactory exposure.
  1. How to cook rattlesnake- because if you eat peanut butter sandwiches or beans and rice one more time you are going to lose your will to live.



I wrote this post for my own amusement, and hopefully it amused you too. Thanks to all my friends, and friends of friends, that contributed their skills. It was a fun conversation to have even if it only was a Facebook thread. Maybe someday we can have it over beer. There are some skills that were contributed that I had to leave out because they are “top secret” (could be taken the wrong way out of context) or I ran out of time. I would love to hear more about scientists’ secret skills. Maybe someday I will write this up as a “real” article or essay. If you have some, please leave them in the comments!

Field Scientist or Secret Agent?

Sometimes it’s the little things…

Model of Fruitadens haagarorum at the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, CO. Photo courtesy of ReBecca Hunt-Foster.

Paleontologist George Callison knew as soon as he found the bones that he had something good.  The new field site, which would eventually be designated the Fruita Paleo Area, was yielding the smaller fossils which could be so hard to find. Dr. Callison had done his doctoral research on snake evolution and hoped to find an early snake species among these tiny fossils.  This find was no snake, but it was exciting. The distal tibia of the tiny leg bone he uncovered was distinctive, and unlike any he had seen before.  Dr. Callison likens it to finding a random car part.  “If you find a spark plug, all you can conclude is that you’ve found something with an internal combustion engine.  But if you find the hood ornament, then you know the make and model of the car you’ve found” says Callison.  These bones were a hood ornament, and they told Callison that he had found something new, a whole new species in fact- the tiny dinosaur that would later be named Fruitadens haagarorum.  

Dr. Callison found the first Fruitadens fossil in 1975, but it would take many years of study before the fossils would be formally described and named Fruitadens in 2009.  Paleontologists now believe Fruitadens was about 26 to 30 inches long and weighed about 1.1 to 1.7 pounds, smaller than your average chicken.  Like a chicken, it probably ate plant material as well as insects and other invertebrates.  Fruitadens walked on two legs like a bird and its front limbs were shortened, making it look vaguely like a miniature Tyrannosaurus rex – but not as fierce.

Fruitadens is not the only species that has been discovered at the Fruita Paleo Area and named for Fruita.  In the late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago, Fruita was in a floodplain, there were braided stream channels lined with gallery forests, while away from the water the land was relatively dry, much like today.  Fruitadens shared this habitat with other animals like Fruitachampsa. Dubbed “the housecat of the Jurassic” by Dinosaur Journey’s John Foster, Fruitachampsa was related to modern crocodiles, but it was entirely terrestrial and had the size and posture of a cat.   A tiny mammal, named Fruitafossor gobbled termites like an armadillo. With oversized forearms for digging, it earned the nickname:  “Popeye.”  But unlike Popeye or an armadillo, Fruitafossor was tiny– when curled up in a ball, it could fit under a quarter.

Terrestrial crocs and miniature mammals may be very cool, but Fruitadens had an outsized impact on the world of paleontology for such a small creature.  Prior to the discovery of Fruitadens, most paleontologists did not realize that dinosaurs could be tiny.  Small dinosaur fossils were thought to be juvenile specimens of larger species.  But Dr. Callison and his student, Helen Quimby, examined the Fruitadens fossils and realized that the ends of the long bones were fused as they are in adult vertebrates that have finished growing.  Also, the relative sizes of different parts of the bones suggested that they were from an adult.  Callison and Quimby looked at how the bones of birds like turkeys, ostriches and chickens changed as they grew up. (Birds are dinosaurs’ closest living relatives.) When these animals are young, the ends of the limb bones are large relative to their length giving them a “knobby” kneed look.  But the Fruitadens bones had adult proportions.  Based on these two lines of evidence, Callison and Quimby made a convincing case that Fruitadens was a small, but fully grown dinosaur.  This caused paleontologists to go back and look at other small fossils and realize that many of them were indeed tiny dinosaur species – not just young.

Fruitadens is in fact the smallest dinosaur discovered in North America. Now you may be thinking:  “Tiny dinosaur, don’t we call that a lizard?”  But Callison explains that, unlike other reptiles, dinosaurs had a unique hip structure that gave them an erect posture.  Picture how a Tyrannosaurus stands upright like a bird, or how a Triceratops’s belly is raised up off the ground like a cow’s compared to how an alligator’s belly drags on the ground with its legs sprawling out sideways.  This difference in posture also suggests that dinosaurs had a higher activity level than other reptiles, meaning they spent a lot less time sunbathing. So while they are related, dinosaurs are not simply overgrown lizards.

The city of Fruita has rightfully embraced its paleontological prominence.  We have a stylized Apatosaurus on our town logo and Greta the T-rex stands guard in Circle Park.  But perhaps we have embraced the wrong species – those giant dinosaurs get all the glory.  Shouldn’t a small town like Fruita appreciate the little guy?  Shouldn’t a town that celebrates a headless chicken that refused to die also celebrate a tiny dinosaur that dodged 1,500-pound predators like Allosaurus?   Greta the T-rex is here to stay, after all we need someone to protect us from the Grinch at Christmas. But I think that Fruita needs another dinosaur monument:  a tiny Fruitadens– right next to Greta.


Thanks to Dr. George Callison for teaching me about tiny dinosaurs. Dr. Callison is not only a terrifically interesting scientist, but also a very talented landscape painter. You can check out his work on this website:   To learn more about Fruitadens and see a model, visit the Dinosaur Journey Museum here in Fruita, -it’s fantastic.  This post is soon to be published at, check it out there and learn more about life in Fruita, CO.

Sometimes it’s the little things…