Kathy Reichs of Bones (Temperance Brennan IRL) visits HMNS and talks scientific vs. script-writing, creating the “crimedy” & more

What better place for the creator of Bones to give a presentation than at the Houston Museum of Natural Science?

Dr. Kathy Reichs — forensic anthropologist, best-selling author and real-life inspiration for the popular television series (and original “crimedy“) Bones — spoke to students of HCC’s Northwest Audio Recording & Filmmaking Department on Sept. 7 — and we snuck in to share some tales from the real-life Temperance Brennan.

Dr. Kathy Reich

For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Kathy Reichs has spun her real-life experiences into more than a dozen best-selling fiction novels since 1997. Then in 2005, FOX adapted her novels into a comedic crime series (called the “crimedy”), based around Reichs’ semi-autobiographical heroine, Temperance Brennan. And in a quirky TV twist, TV’s Temperance Brennan also writes crime novels in her spare time — about a fictional forensic anthropologist named Kathy Reichs.

With her latest book, Bones are Forever, out now, with Bones entering its eighth season and with a new series of young adult novels written with her son Brendan, Reichs took the time out to talk process, crack some (OK, a lot of) jokes and chat about how she sold her first novel on the first try — and won an award for it.

Dr. Kathy Reich

Here are the highlights:

Reichs found success via the old adage “write what you know.” Although the crimes featured in her novels draw from real-life experience, she changes names, places and dates. “I take a case and then ask myself, ‘What if?’ and spin off from there,” she says.

To say that Reichs has had an adventurous career would be an understatement. She has been hired by the Catholic church to exhume the body of a 1700s woman being considered for sainthood. She did disaster recovery work after Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks. She has also worked on human rights cases in Guatemala and Rwanda.

Reichs is extremely involved in the writing room on the set of Bones, keeping the science honest and even penning an episode — “The Witch in the Wardrobe” — herself! She says the lab featured in the show is realistic — nothing exists in the lab that doesn’t exist in the real world — but she’s never been in a lab that nice.

The Tempe on TV is not the Tempe of Reichs’ books, but she’s OK with that. “I think of the TV show as a prequel,” Reichs says. “It’s early Tempe; she hasn’t come into herself yet.”

Reichs says being a good anthropologist aided her writing. “If you’re a good observer, you can’t help but be a good writer.”

Dr. Reichs donated her honorarium to raise awareness for Houston Community College Northwest’s Audio Recording and Filmmaking Department. To learn more about Reichs’ work, her latest novel and her young adult series, “Virals,” click here.

The Seymour Blob: Putting something in your head from the ground beneath your feet

As you may already know, the Houston Museum of Natural Science has long been digging up wonderful Permian fossils in Seymour, Texas. Curator of Paleontology Dr. Robert T. Bakker and his team of hot, tired and pink (from the dirt) volunteers have made major finds, but sometimes it’s the little things that count — like finding little amphibians, such as the boomerang-headed Diplocaulus and the snake-like Lysorophus, too.

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The rock stars of the Seymour dig are people like Chris Flis, who finds bones everywhere. There are also geologists on the team, like Gretchen Sparks, who are interested in sedimentology (how the dirt got there) and who pick up interesting bits and wonder what they are.

This is a warty blob (that’s a technical term) that she found. It sort of looks like a bone or a burrow dug by something. I tested it and found that it is made of calcium carbonate.

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To see more, I ground and polished the end. Now we can see that this is not a bone because it does not have a marrow cavity or bone lamellae. Warty surfaces like this are frequently found on the outsides of arthropod burrows because the animal lines the burrow with spit and sediments balls — but the warty parts of these structures are inside and on the exterior, so this is not a shrimp burrow.

The flowery appearance of the growth indicates that this is caliche, one of those sedimentary features that often get little attention.

Caliche is a hard-water deposit on steroids. Caliche forms in dry areas like North Texas when more water evaporates from the surface of the ground than falls as rain. Ground water dissolves minerals like calcium carbonate and gypsum from the soil and rock. When the water evaporates from the surface, these minerals are deposited in flowery growths called “efflorescences”.

The climate in Seymour is so dry that caliche is growing right now. During the Permian (about 250 million years ago), the climate must have been even dryer, because we find bands of caliche in the soil. Each band represents an ancient soil layer.

CalichiCloseupc Annotated

We can even tell the history of the caliche deposition. The interpretation is based on what covers what:

A.    White layer was deposited in a nearly flat crack in the dirt. Note the white flowers.
B.    The pink layer covers the white and has the same shape of flowers but contains more iron.
C.    Layer B was partially covered by darker pink laminations. The laminations indicate that crystal growth was much slower.
D.    The blob fractured and the dark red layer of sediment was deposited along with fragments of Layers A and B. This is a mini sedimentary dike.
E.    Since Layer D is made of sediment and not hard caliche, it shrank and cracked in the process of drying. This crack was filled with a quickly-deposited rind of fine grained white material followed by very slow growing clear crystals, making the darker band inside the white. This looks like an agate filling but is still carbonate.

Were all these layers deposited 250 million years ago? That actually would be easy to tell, because young carbonate has a carbon delta C13 signature well within the 50,000 year sensitivity range for the method. It just costs money to have the analysis done, and there are probably better uses for the resources right now – like having more specimens mounted!

I conclude that the warty bone-looking thing is really an inorganic crystallization of carbonate and possibly gypsum. Did you know you could learn so much from gravel?

Mystery Skeleton – Update 4

While I was waiting for the skull to dry I checked out the bits and pieces.  A few curious traits stood out and I may be a bit closer to the cause of death for our mystery Fido.

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A weird chalky white substance was on several of the teeth.  I noticed it first on the big back teeth dogs use to crack bones. At first I tried to figure out where the skull would have been that mortar could have gotten on the teeth.  Then it hit me.  Not mortar.  Tartar.  This is what old bleached tooth plaque looks like.  Who knew.  So, what does any good skeleton preparer do with tooth plaque?  She gets herself a dental pick to clean said teeth.  No joke.  It is in my car right now.  This is a significant build up.  You can also see where the gum-line ended as that is the highest place the plaque rests on the tooth.

Item 2:

The next item of question is the amount of wear on the teeth in such weird places.  Here you have a picture of Millie’s teeth.  I went to the vet at the end of June and she told me to get soft Frisbee for Millie as her teeth are really getting worn.  Compare her canine teeth (the pointy ones in front) to mystery skeleton’s.

Mystery skeleton upper jaw.Millie’s worn teeth. Broken bottom canine teeth.

Now, in the first picture, you can see mystery skeleton’s canine’s resting on my thumb.  The point is nice and sharp. Millie’s teeth are in the next picture. Her upper teeth are squared off, but still fairly long.  The lower teeth are flat and end at her gum line.  She is about six years old.  So comparing the two sets of teeth, I would say that the mystery skeleton is an adult – all the bones in the vat are completely fused – and probably about 2 or 3 years old.  NOW!  Look at the third picture closely.  This is where things get weird.  The lower canines are totally broken off, but have been worn smooth.  You can actually see the quick – look for the two tiny dark colored circles in the center of each tooth.  This means that the tooth was broken off and that the dog lived long enough to work the teeth on something to even out the rough bits.  It had to have been painful.  Think about an exposed tooth when you get a crown.

Item 3:

On the inside of the lower right jaw, I found an interesting spot.  Literally.  There is a huge cavity in one of the teeth.  Huge.  I have had a couple small ones in my life, but never one that big.  Once again.  Painful.  Cavity.

Conclusion:  This dog had serious issues with his teeth.  The pain from the teeth probably made it uncomfortable to eat and quite possibly contributed to his demise.

Fossil and Fact Finding: Digging Dimetrodons

Today’s guest blogger is Carol Bourke, a teacher at Duchesne Academy who accompanied our paleontology team to Seymour, Texas two weeks ago. Carol and the rest of the team spent their days learning about prehistoric creatures as well digging in the field for Dimetrodon bones. Here’s what Carol had to say about the experience:

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Dr. Bakker gives a lecture to the teachers

The Paleo Field Trip was terrific; excellent, knowledgeable and friendly staff, tons of experience and great camaraderie. 

Doing real paleontological field work has been a goal of mine for a long time.  I would have settled for a lot less than the HMNS trip, but the experience I had, working with the museum team at one of the best sites in the world, was as good as it gets. 

Key to the benefits of this trip was working alongside Dr. Bakker, a fountain of facts, insights and humor.  What a guy! 

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To the untrained eye,
fossils can be hard to distinguish from rock

So, there I was, on my hands and knees, trying to distinguish fossils from rocks and hard clay, hoping to find something important and worried that I’d lose or destroy invaluable clues from the past. 

I’d expected to be hot, dirty and challenged – well, I was right!  And I loved every minute of it, well almost every minute. 

Each morning, we left our house fortified with a tasty breakfast, loaded with gallons of water, anticipating the finds of the day and knowing that we would place additional pieces into an historic puzzle.  We were rightly intrigued by the nature of the puzzle, because its solution will reveal the life and times of the first carnivorous vertebrate that walked the land, our direct ancestor and the ancestor of all mammals, the Dimetrodon

In the evening we returned to the comforts of our house tired, dirty, hungry and satisfied with our work.  Even as we relaxed and chatted, I struggled to sort out our findings and their implications.  Fortunately, I had the help of my teachers.

As a teacher myself, I often wonder what questions reside in the minds of my students, and now I’ve garnered more grist for the mill.   

Maybe you didn’t know that: 

  • You can find fossils that are at least 300 million years old, like trilobites, sponges and brachiopods, just by looking on the ground. Better watch your step!

  • An amphibian is better distinguished from a reptile or a mammal by how its skull fits onto its spine, rather than by its moist, naked skin. So much for keeping it simple.

  • Those great looking “dinosaurs” with the big back fins aren’t dinosaurs at all. In fact, they lived more than 40 million years before the first dinosaur was a hatchling.

  • Separating animals into major groups (amphibians, reptiles or mammals) can hinge on seemingly minor skeletal features. The schizophrenic angular bone, located at the angle of the jaw in our vertebrate ancestors, morphs over time into the rim of our eardrums.

  • Dinosaur skin and other soft tissues can fossilize. Just ask Leonardo.

  • Mothers should continue to count the toes of their babies, but don’t forget the fingers!

  • Centipedes are as beautiful in real life as they appear in textbooks and web sites.

  • Snakes would rather scoot than shoot, so give them space.

  • Bullets are sometimes organic, but you won’t find them at health food stores.

If you’re curious about these factoids or others, do something about it – like staying tuned to this site.  I for one will be tuned in, working on lesson plans that will integrate my first hand experience into the experiences of my students. 

Before signing off, I want to thank Dr. Bakker, a master teacher for sharing his knowledge, insights and table with me.  Thank you, Dave Temple, wildlife photographer extraordinaire and assistant curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, for taking such good care of me and my fellow novices.  Chris Flis was also great to work with; he answered all my goofy questions patiently and with a straight face.  The museum volunteers were expert – - always helpful, with experience and information to spare.

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Be careful – as volunteer Gretchen Sparks discovers
here, there are dangerous creatures all around