The Royal British Columbia Museum’s Exhibit on Mammoths and Ancient Proboscideans

Mammoth reconstruction in diorama, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, Canada

I was fortunate to have been in Victoria, BC recently while their Royal Museum had a magnificent traveling exhibit from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: “Giants of the Ice Age.”  With a short ferry ride, my two brothers and I hit the jack pot on our little tour of Victoria. We all had strong interests in mammoths and one brother is currently conducting an education based Columbian Mammoth dig in eastern Washington. To him this was like striking gold. In addition to the exhibits, we were treated to a 3 – D, IMAX documentary on Mammoths, complete with ice age snowflakes that melted in my hand!

Fossils, Coal, Building Stone, & Recreation -The Chuckanut Formation Part II

A palm fan fossil set in sandstone

Part I of this Chuckanut Formation story was mostly about the development of the formation and some of the interesting seaside sandstone features such as the tafoni. Part II will go into other features that the formation provides us including eocene fossils, building materials, coal, and recreation.

What a 54,000,000 year old rock formation has to offer us today


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Sandstone Formation in Chuckanut Bay at the foot of Chuckanut Mountain

In stark contrast to the mountainous Pacific Northwest of today, during the Eocene epoch (~ 55 ~ 34 Million Years Ago (MYA) it was quite flat.  However just as today, the region then was lush with vegetation and interlaced with braided streams meandering from what is now Eastern Washington on to the Pacific Ocean. This was a tropical swamp with exotic plants and animals (although some would be familiar yet today).  As the streams approached the ocean, they slowed and their sediments of sand, clay, and silt carried from huge rock formations to the east, settled out. Over millions of years these sediments accumulated, were compressed by gravity and tectonic forces, and solidified into immense geologic rock formations. This bucket is about one of these structures – the Chuckanut Formation made up primarily of sandstone, siltstone,  conglomerate, and shale, with pockets of coal from the ancient compressed vegetation.

I have referred to this formation in three previous diaries that were focused on various aspects of it including its Eocene fauna and flora, and more recently, graffiti  sprayed on the rock formations along its beaches. Here I want to focus on the formation itself and all it has afforded our region.

This formation is not only in my backyard, it is under it as well. These sedimentary deposits extend to depths of nearly 20,000 feet in places. My focus here is on the Chuckanut Mountains which comprise 10 separate but related mountains (and hills) in and around Whatcom and Skagit Counties in northwest WA. In particular, I will focus mainly on Chuckanut Mountain itself (for which the formation was named) and a bit on Sehome Hill which is most directly in my back yard. In addition segments of this and related sedimentary formations are spread across the northwest, including the San Juan Islands and up into British Columbia.

This diary threatened to get too long so I decided to do it in two parts. This is Part I.

Sea Star Recovery in Bellingham Bay – A good news – bad news cruise.


Early June,

Bellingham Bay,

Salish Sea

I have been monitoring the local sea star (Pisaster ochraceus) population following the devastating die-off from Wasting Syndrome over that past three years. As previously discussed, some pathogen and/or processes that are as yet not fully understood, have quite literally melted into goo upwards of 90% of west coast sea stars ranging from Baja California to Alaska.

Gray Whales of the Salish Sea & the Pacific Northwest


Gray Whale tail preparing to dive into the ghost shrimp infested mud at the bottom of the sound.

It is Cinco de Mayo and these whales are fresh out of Baja Mexico. So, how about some whales for a bit a diversion after a full day of “Trump this” and “Trump that …?”

Whales are so much smarter and better looking.

Mental Illness and Violence

Mental Illness and Violence


From the Rake’s Progress, William Hogarth, Bedlam, 1733

Bethlehem Hospital, (Bedlam) London, the source from which many of our stereotypes of the mentally ill have come.

Author’s Note: I published this post about two and a half years ago on Daily Kos following the Sandy Hook killings. However, it applies as much today as it did then and I am confident that no new data have been published to substantially change any of the conclusions. Much of the research described here was conducted by teams of Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Sociologists, funded by The MacArthur foundation, since the congress has prevented any government funding of gun violence research since 1996. As I heard from a leader of the Second Amendment Foundation, “Conducting research on gun violence is tantamount to taking our guns away.” Clearly, they know where the research would lead.


There is rampant hysteria today about the mentally ill being dangerous and having access to guns. To some, the mentally ill are the major problem with gun violence. Take for example, Ann Coulter’s headline on “Guns don’t kill people, the mentally ill do”.

Too often government policies are based on these erroneous beliefs as legislatures are spinning off new laws to constrain the mentally ill. New York State passed a law directing therapists to report any client thought to be “likely to engage in” violent behavior to the police. Such prediction is very difficult to do accurately and results in many false positives.

Lake Chelan, Beauty and Fire


Lake Chelan from Field’s Point Landing

Lake Chelan,

Washington State

October, 2015

Having traversed the North Cascades Highway (previous diary), I continued east, through the Methow Valley to Pateros on the Columbia River. From there I headed South on U.S. 97 to Chelan. This area, nestled in the foothills of the Cascades is arguably the center of the largest and best apple growing region in the country and maybe the world. They grow about one billion pounds of apples each year and export them to 60 countries. Although the region’s apples are impressive, I believe that Chelan’s major attraction is their 50.5 mile long, fjord-like lake. Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in the U.S. at 1,486 feet, behind Lake Tahoe, and Crater Lake. More remarkable is its setting within the Cascade Mountains. At the southwestern edge of the lake, Pyramid Peak rises to 8,245 feet above sea level and below, just off shore the lake bottom falls to 386 feet below sea level. This peak to bottom differential of 8,631 feet renders it the deepest gorge in the U.S., surpassing Hell’s Canyon which is the deepest river gorge. Further, the bedrock floor, covered with silt and sediment is several hundred feet deeper yet. The lake’s surface at “full pool” lays 1,100 feet above sea Level and the deepest point, as noted above is the 386 feet below sea level. Five percent of the lake’s water is below sea level which lays 76 miles, due west through the mountains to Puget Sound/Salish Sea. The lake’s clear blue water is fed by 27 glaciers and 59 creeks.


North Cascades National Park and the North Cascades Highway Loop

Silver Star Mountain

Silver Star Mountain

Late October, 2015
North Cascades Mountains
Washington State

A trip in late October took me over the North Cascades Highway, through the North Cascades National Park and to Chelan where I met my two brothers for our annual three day exploration of the region’s natural wonders. We traveled to the Grand Coulee and its Dam along with other remarkable remnants of the giant Ice sheets that carved out large segments of Washington State. At Chelan, we boarded a foot ferry for a 100 mile round trip up Lake Chelan to the isolated village of Stehekin. Finally I returned home to Bellingham via Stevens Pass to complete the North Cascades Highway Loop. I took too many photos for a single diary so I’ll break the trip into segments: the North Cascades National Park, Lake Chelan, and the Grand Coulee. All along the way the residue of the summer’s massive forest fires was prominent.

Gun Ownership, Gun Culture and “Accident” Prevention

Christmas card with Santa Claus, and father and son toting assault rifles.

Is there a “gun culture? And is it related to gun ownership and to accidental shootings?

Given the many disturbing facts, statistics, and daily poignant case examples, I remain continuously perplexed that Americans continue on this self destructive path. We (or law makers and those who vote for them), allow certain groups that idolize guns to demonize those who attempt to reduce the slaughter. Their answer to the slaughter is “more guns.” Even though a majority of Americans support greater gun control and responsibility, they continue to elect “anti-gun control” legislators. Where have we in the U.S. gone wrong? Even “Wild West” Australians allow greater gun restrictions.

In this diary I review a couple of recent epidemiological research papers concerning firearm ownership and safety that recently came to my attention. I hope they can open some discussion concerning future directions to address gun accidents and gun violence. While the results of these studies are not likely to astound this audience, they do provide some basic epidemiological data from which action programs might grow. Both studies are recently published in Injury Prevention, a journal of the British Medical Journal group.

Who owns guns and what do they do with them?

The first paper reports a study led by Dr. Bindu Kalesan and her colleagues of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University. This paper published in the June 2015 issue of Injury Prevention, reported results of a survey of a national representative sample of the adult U.S. population (n = 4,000) concerning firearms ownership and its relationship to a construct that the authors call “social gun culture.”

Although most of us have some concept of what a gun culture might be like (largely stereotypes of such as the NRA and rifle ranges), epidemiologist had not previously attempted to define and/or measure such a culture. For the purposes of this study they defined exposure to a “social gun culture” if respondents answered affirmatively any one of four questions concerning whether family or friends would think less of them for not owning a gun, and whether their social life (with family or friends) involved guns.

(Consider the Santa Photo above. What might happen if the little boy did not want to hold the assault rifle? Would he be thought less of?)

Twenty nine percent (29.1) of individuals surveyed in the U.S. reported owning at least one gun. Consistent with what most of us believe, the percentage of gun ownership varied widely by state and region ranging from only 5.2 % ownership in Delaware to 61.7% in Alaska. Regionally the lowest ownership was found in the Northeast, whereas the highest ownership region was the South, although Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho reported greater than 50 % gun ownership.

Other significant demographic correlates of gun ownership included being older than 55, white, and male. Further “Gun ownership was 31% more likely among those living in states with the least stringent gun policies and 51% more likely among those living in states with high gun death rates. “

A strong and significant association was found between gun ownership and being exposed to gun social groups. Overall, 13.7% of the entire sample responded affirmatively to at least one of the gun culture questions, (e.g. “My family [social group] would think less of me if I did not own a gun” or “My social [family] activities involve guns.”) Of the gun owners, 32.3% were associated with some aspect of “gun culture,” whereas 6.1% of non-owners were so exposed. (I assume these non-gun owners were family members of owners who participated in the culture.)

Surprising to me was the finding that while nearly 30% of Americans owned a gun, only 5.5 %. reported using them for hunting. My guess is that the real number of gun owners who actually hunt is less than those who report doing so. My experience is that while lots of people talk about hunting, fewer actually get into the woods. Those who actually use guns for subsistence are apparently very few.

This is gun “culture?”

Two men with rifles inside a Chipotle restaurant

Anecdotally, my search for photos to accompany this diary was informative in that a large percentage of the online photos were of young women wielding firearms. Apparently the gun purveyors are targeting women so that guns are no longer only a guys’ pastime.

<strong>What does the term “accident” mean to the public?</strong>
The second research article I read, also from <a href=”http://The second research article I read, also from Injury Prevention (2015), was entitled: “How members of the public interpret the word accident.” This research, conducted by Dr. Deborah Girasek of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences was reprinted from an earlier edition of this journal as being of particular salience yet today.”> Injury Prevention (2015)</a>, was entitled: “How members of the public interpret the word accident.”

This research, conducted by Dr. Deborah Girasek of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences was reprinted from an earlier edition of this journal as being of particular salience yet today.

This research addressed the public’s concept of “accidents” taken broadly but fully applies to firearm accidents as well as to auto accidents, fires, and the like. Some context is important here to understand why this might be an issue. During the 1990s several safety organizations proposed prohibition of the use of the term “accident.” For example, The United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wrote in 1997 that the term accident:

“… promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence and control.”

Since safety organizations wanted the public to think of accidents as preventable, they sought to avoid words that suggested that accidents were just random occurrences and/or due to fate. However, despite their well intended proclamations, these groups had never checked with the general the public to see what the term accident really connoted to them.

Dr. Girasek sought to find out just what the term accident meant to the average person by randomly surveying 943 US adults. Her Results were quite contrary to the beliefs of these major safety organizations. She found that 83% of adults believed that the term “accident” implied that the incident in question was preventable. Moreover, this belief held equally across all demographic groups and was independent of whether the respondents had been in accidents themselves. Furthermore, 25% of the sample explicitly considered accidents to be not just preventable but also predictable.
Finally, Also contrary to the safety organizations’ beliefs, only 26% of this sample felt that the term “accident” implied that the incident had been controlled by fate. So, by a substantial majority, Americans believed that accidents were preventable and to some extent, predictable. Shying away from the word “accident” was unnecessary.

A case in point:

Young girl and firearms instructor seconds before tragic shooting accident

Was the death by Uzi of the Arizona firearms instructor at the hands of a novice 9 year old pictured above:

An accident?



Just fate?

Did this have anything to do with the family gun culture?

Check out this website for gun culture:

A strong implication of these findings is that since a large majority of the public believes accidents could be prevented, it should follow that a wisely targeted nation-wide public educational campaign directed at preventing firearm accidents should fall on sympathetic or at least open ears.

Although the social gun culture may not be large in numbers as shown here by Dr. Kaleson, the gun culture’s influence (as exemplified by the NRA) is huge in deterring preventive efforts by congress such as forbidding federal research money to be used to study gun violence and safety at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

And we see States like Florida that passed a law forbidding physicians from asking patients about gun ownership and their presence in the home, unless it pertains directly to patient care. Since 89% of accidental firearm injuries to children occur in the home, it would seem that having a gun in the home would have health consequences worthy of physicians concerns. They allow physicians to address patients’ eating behavior and diet, smoking, and cycling without a helmet. Why not guns? Physicians tend to agree that gun control is public Health issue and we have an ongoing epidemic of gun violence in our country.

If we could just reduce the child (and adult) ”accidental” gun injuries, it would make a huge contribution to the country’s Public health in terms of both morbidity and mortality.

With the continuing startling incidence of gun violence (you supply the latest example), this issue clearly rises to the level of a serious public health problem, given that greater than 11,000 homicides, 21,000 suicides, and 500 accidental deaths occur each year.

Such a problem begs for an epidemiological approach that is broad, inclusive, and of the scope of the successful lung cancer prevention campaigns mounted against smoking. The CDC is the best equipped to mount such a campaign as they did with smoking. Congress must allow them to do their job.

Dr. Michael Siegel of the Department of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public recently stated:

Decades of public health messaging, TV and media campaigns have successfully changed the social norms surrounding tobacco, another public health hazard, and smoking has been on the decline…

“It’s pretty widely acknowledged that people shouldn’t smoke in public,”

“Someone may say with guns, there’s no way you can change social norms about that, but we would have said that about smoking 30 or 40 years ago.”

Owning a firearm has health effects, increasing the probability of your own injury, and education campaigns could highlight this…

“It’s not clear that it will protect you, There’s a lot of evidence that it results in accidents, and is more likely to be used in a way that injures the owner or someone in the household.”

What would an anti-gun campaign look like? In combating smoking, the overwhelming research liking smoking to cancer and emphysema, became public in spite of the lies and hidden reports of the tobacco lobbies. A tactic used successfully by epidemiology programs to combat smoking-caused cancer was the use of strategically placed poignant posters.

The NRA and second Amendment groups are little different from the tobacco industry of yore. They are small but loaded with money and zeal and see every attempt by the public to deal with the problem as an intrusion on their 2nd Amendment rights. They see gun confiscators everywhere.

For example, the city of Seattle recently proposed to levy a tax on the purchase of fire arms and ammunition with the proceeds to go to firearm safety and prevention efforts. Of course the “2nd Amendment people are in a frenzy about it. I recently listened to the local head of the 2nd amendment group on our local NPR radio community round table show. He immediately jumped into the meme that “prevention and research are part and parcel of gun control.” And to his mind gun control was unconstitutional so of course he was adamantly against even talking about gun safety or injury prevention.

There are millions of Americans supportive of taking greater control measures, even a majority, but they appear to remain impotent against the NRA with their campaign financing of congressmen. And recall that only 29% own a gun whereas 71% do not own a gun. Who should be in charge here?

David Atkins at the Washington Monthly hits the nail on the head when he states that:

“… we need to stop focusing on the motives of the killers, and start focusing on the gun.”

Similarly, we must stop blaming the carnage on the mentally ill as they account for but a small portion of the overall gun violence.

It seems to me the steps are clear: We need to change the cultural fascination with guns and we know how to do that. It would take a large effort at educating the public (who should be receptive, given the data), about the harm. The CDC can lead this effort as they have with anti-smoking campaigns and other major health initiatives. For them to be able to take the lead, Congress must fund them for the effort. The current congress will not do that. They must be voted out by the majorities who believe in gun control as the means of combating gun violence. And they need to know that gun accidents are not really “accidents.”

Gun “accidents” are preventable. As Smoky the Bear said 70 years ago: “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES.” And Gun Violence.


Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site, digging for Science & Education

Columbian Mammoth by Stev Ominski

Columbian Mammoth by Stev Ominski

August, 2015,
The Horse Heaven Hills,
Southwest Washington State

The Columbian Mammoth, (Mammathus columbi) once ranged all across the US, from its northern border to as far south as Costa Rica.The Columbian species evolved from the Asian elephants (Steppe Mammoth) that crossed the Bering land bridge approximately 1.5 million years ago.

The Mammoth became extinct about 11,000 years ago with the ending of the Pleistocene era. The Columbian’s cousin, the Woolly Mammoth entered North America about 100,000 years ago and occupied much of Canada. The ranges of these two species overlapped somewhat and there is evidence of cross breeding.

Exactly what led to their demise is unclear although we know that paleoamericans hunted them on their arrival some 13,000 or 14,000 years ago and up until their extinction. Climate and habitat change were also likely involved.

These huge creatures standing 13 feet tall and weighing 20,000 lbs were quite plentiful based on the number of remains found throughout the country. The remains of forty five mammoths have been documented in Benton County, WA alone, with most found in the Horse Heaven Hills where this site is located. The Columbian Mammoth is the official fossil of Washington State even though these bones are not yet fully fossilized.


The Coyote Canyon dig is located in the Horse Heaven Hills, just a few miles south of Kennewick Washington, also home of the famous, or infamous, 9,000 year old Kennewick Man who was found along the Columbia river. The photo below looking north shows Coyote Canyon with a sliver of the Columbia River in the mid ground. Finding mammoth remains is relatively common in this region.

Coyote Canyon, Kennewick WA

Coyote Canyon, Kennewick WA

As with most such paleontological sites, this one was found inadvertently during a quarrying operation on the edge of Coyote Canyon in 1999/2000, when excavating equipment dug up some large bones (a Mammoth mandible). Fortunately, after covering up the site the excavators moved elsewhere to dig. Eventually the land was sold to a local farming family who wanted the site to be preserved and developed as an educational site for K – 12 teachers, students, community volunteers and as an intern site for college students.

In 2008, an initial group of volunteer scientists and educators formed a non-profit foundation to pursue both educational and scientific goals. The Foundation was called the Mid-Columbia Basin Old Natural Education Sciences” (McBONES). Its professional leaders include: Paleontologist, Bax Barton, from the Burke Museum at the University of Washington; Geologist, George Last, with Pacific Northwest National Labs, and, High School educator, Gary Kleinknecht. Two weekends each month from March through October the site volunteers survey, map, dig, wash, screen, sort, process, and label their findings. Tours for school classes and community adults are regularly provided on these dig days so they can observe the ongoing dig process.

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Educator, Gary Kleinknecht leads a tour for an enthusiastic audience in the dig house

2015-08-08 Mammoth 035 The dig site from above

The dig process moves at a glacial pace, especially when all work is done by volunteers on a bare bones budget. They proceed slowly and meticulously as they are inventorying everything that comes out of the site in order to document all of the geology and biology buried in these flood sediments. When completed they will not only have the mammoth skeleton but a detailed catalog of the stratigraphy and paleoecology of all of the flora and fauna that lived and died here over the past 17,000 years.

Digging began in late 2010. After the site was surveyed and laid out in 3-D grids, incremental digging and scraping began. Now in its 6th year, progress is inching along in terms of uncovering skeletal remains. Here is a photo of the site in 2011, its second year when their trophies were just a few rib bones.

The site in 2011

Today, considerably more of the mammoth has been excavated as shown below. The colored pieces in the graphic are those that have been found to date although some remain in the ground.
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As the skeleton is relatively articulated, they expect to find most if not all of the skeleton relatively in place. It must have arrived in one piece likely having floated down stream after being swept up in one of the Ice age floods that roared through this area about 17,000 years ago. Supporting this hypothesis it is of interest is that there are several erratic pieces of granite that must have rafted along in ice bergs and were found within the same sediments as the mammoth bone bed. Granite is not found locally and these erratics are likely from British Columbia.

Once recovered and removed from the sediment bed, the bones are sorted, identified, cleaned, and preserved before being put on display in the dig house for students and for tour participants. 2015-08-08 Mammoth 017

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2015-08-08 Mammoth 039 The dig site, August 2015

All soil and remnants are put into labeled buckets for later washing, and drying before being sent to the lab for sorting and identification. From the buckets, the soil is washed over a fine mesh to separate the fragments. Then it is laid out to dry.

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Close up of current findings: Humerus, Scapula to the left, Vertibra in the back wall

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Close up of two humeri and a rib bone

So far the findings from this site have provided data for several poster presentations at various scientific meetings such as the Geologic Society of America and the Northwest Scientific Association.

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2015-08-08 Mammoth 012

Although as noted above, Mammoth remains are not rare in Washington State, this particular dig stands out in that it is so well documented and that its goal is not simply to dig up some old bones. Rather it is highlighted as an institution providing an outdoor laboratory in which to involve community members, teachers, and students in an ongoing example of how the scientific method is used to examine, explore, and describe the area’s ancient history. By the time the task is complete, thousands of K- 12 and college students, as well as teachers and community members will have observed this process and many will have gotten their hands dirty in the dig. They will have participated in detailing the paleoecology of all the flora and fauna that lived here as well as the geologic history of the area. This is truly a community based science education project.

Reference sites: (A three part TV documentary on the dig site)

(for tours of the site, call the numbers in the above brochure)