How one Singapore scientist can slow down global warming

Mammoth hair sample

Mammoth hair sample

In 1980, Russian geophysician Sergey Zimov moved to the Republic of Sakha in the northern Siberian region of Yakutia, to study causes of Pleistocene extinctions and atmospheric changes in greenhouse gases at one of the largest research stations in the artic, the North-East Scientific Station.

Sergey learnt that the permafrost has been locking in 500 gigatons (billion tonnes) of organic carbon over millions of square kilometers. This is equivalent to 2.5 times of all present rainforests combined. This carbon is sequestered by the frozen soils that presently measure about -3 degrees Celsius, yet is warming up at about one degree each decade. This means that by the year 2045, all of that carbon could be released to the atmosphere.

Thankfully, Sergey has a plan to prevent this from happening. He has shown that the temperatures are 10 – 15 degrees Celsius lower in regions where there are animals, and postulates that animals trampling on snow will expose the ground to colder temperatures that prevent the ice from melting. The presence of grazing animals will also lead to grasses replacing the mosses that will stabilize the soil, while the lighter colours of grass will further reflect more sunlight.

In 1988, Sergey initiated a side project ‘Pleistocene Park’, to restore the republic’s former biodiversity in a 160 square kilometer of pilot lowland comprising meadow, forest, and willow shrubland that is accessible only by helicopter. His team has gradually re-introduced extant animals that had survived the Pleistocene (or their closest descendants), including under a hundred animals from six large animal groups: bison, moose , musk oxen, reindeer, Wapiti, and Yakutian horses. He has plans to eventually acclimatize carnivores such as the Siberian tiger and the Asiatic lion, but can greatly speed up his objective of recreating the Ice Age ecosystem if the wooly Mammoth were revived.

This is where the recent work of a Singapore-US team, comprising researchers from NTU, The University of Chicago, and Penn State University, comes in. Scientists from The Mammoth Museum of the Institute of Applied Ecology at the North-Eastern Federal University (with some 2,000 specimens including the world’s best preserved specimen “Yuka”), Korean biotech firm Sooam, and the Beijing Genomics Institute have been searching for mammoth DNA, while but the Singapore team has produced and released a high resolution genome or genetic blueprint that identifies 1.4 million genetic variants unique to the mammoth.

Professor Stephan Christoph Shuster, research director at NTU’s Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) and former co-lead of the Mammoth Genome Project at Pennsylvania State University (where his work was recognized as one of the “Top 10 Scientific Discoveries” of 2008 by Time magazine and earned him a place in Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list in 2009!), explained to the Straits Times that his team has identified and replicated the gene that affects temperature sensation and hair growth from mammoth hair samples, and believes that there clearly will come a time when there will eventually be a resurrected mammoth either by swopping a viable mammoth nucleus into an Asian elephant (the mammoth’s closest relative) egg or re-engineering the Asian elephant’s genome to build a mammoth-elephant hybrid.

We’re so amazed that the first steps of recreating this Ice Age creature is happening right here in sunny Singapore, and certainly looking forward to witnessing the mammoth’s revival in our lifetime!

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Is that fossil real?

One of the most popular questions we’re asked is how to tell if a fossil is fake. Especially to urbanites in a young country with few historical relics, it seems almost mindboggling to be actually holding a specimen that’s millions of years old. This apprehension can be a barrier to starting a collection, and is therefore important to address even though we’ve written about this before.


We will start by reviewing the ‘Eight Levels of Fossil Fakery’:

Many fossils coming out of the ground are actually cracked and crumbly, and fossil preparators use Paleobond (basically superglue with different viscocities) to stabilize the specimens. These field repairs are very normal and expected.

In the preparation process, certain parts of the fossil may be missing and preparators may perform restorations, such as carving out and attaching attachments on a spiny trilobite, or filling out a crack in a bone with glue, epoxy, or wax. It is important that an ethical dealer states the percentage of the specimen that is restored, as it significantly affects the price.

Enhancements are often done to an actual specimen, such as painting or polishing the specimen. Although they are still original fossils, such treatments reduce their scientific value considerably but may still  be of appeal – not least due to their improved aesthetic value – to some collectors.

Some preparators and collectors may also assemble parts of the same species from different animals (e.g. the digits of a dinosaur finger or claw). Such composite fossils are common and often found in museums, but should not be presented by commercial dealers as 100% complete fossils (e.g. ‘associated’ digits) even though the parts are original.

Large specimens such as dinosaurs are often found disarticulated such as in an ancient riverbed. These original but incomplete specimens may have the missing parts (e.g. a section of the vertebrae or a femur) entirely fabricated in resin or crushed fossil bone, and are known as reconstructions. Similarly, missing Keichosaurus limbs or fish fins are sometimes simply painted in.

At the moment we do not have any qualified paleontologists in Singapore to identify specimens, and in any case sometimes even famous paleontologists make mistakes. It is therefore important to develop your own intuition and expertise and trust your judgement over time. A perfectly-authentic fossil can be mis-identified as another species. This may be an honest mistake or a deliberate way to sell a specimen at a higher price. For example, juvenile Spinosaurus teeth are similar in form to crocodile teeth (only slightly longer) and may be unknowingly misidentified. Raptor or even Tyrannosaurid teeth (sometimes even Carcharondontosaurus teeth) posing as the teeth of T-Rex get higher valuations due to its ‘celebrity’ status. On the other hand, a crocodile skull was recently labelled as a Plesiosaur skull, which is pretty much an outright deception. Rounded rocks with cracks are sometimes unwittingly marketed (and sadly, sold) as dinosaur eggs. Authentic specimens may even be sourced to a plausible yet unfamiliar geological formation or country, just to pique the scientific interests of the paleontology community.

There is also a healthy market of fossil casts. These are spectacular yet affordable items for everyone to collect, and may often be cast directly from a museum specimen (a first or early generation cast). Paleontologists often encourage people to purchase casts, as they generate revenues for museums without depriving the public or researchers access to rare or scientifically-important specimens. It is important that casts be identified as such.

And then there are outright fakes: Fossil specimens fabricated to masquerade actual specimens and sold as such to defraud and profiteer from. These can be fabricated with resin, carved into limestone or even real fossilized bone, or simply painted onto rock matrix or another partial fossilized species. Collectors need to handle as many authentic specimens as possible to acquire an intuition about real or fake, as there isn’t an easy answer to this question.


There exist more robust but expensive techniques such as CT scans, X-Rays, acid tests, radiometric dating using mass spectrometers and fluorine chemical analyses that institutions use to authenticate fossils. However, here are a few general tips for novice collectors to get started:

  1. Provenance. The information that a specimen comes with is sometimes more important than the specimen itself. It guides prospectors to a locale where more of such specimens may be found, provide useful knowledge to collectors, and perhaps most importantly help to verify the specimen’s authenticity. For instance, is that locality of the right geological age for that species? Does the seller have actual access to the quarry and to his own preparatory lab? Does he have a long and perfect track record (feedback rating) of selling fossils of that category, or have doubts ever been cast on his reputation? Trilobites, Mosasaur jaws, and crocodile skulls from Morocco;  Keichosaurus, feathered dinosaurs, and dinosaur eggs from China; as well as ambers with interesting inclusions (e.g. ‘mammoth hair’, lizards, feathers, flowers) are most often faked and worth careful scrutiny.
  2. Price. On occasion, we see a specimen that may be statistically rarer to find offered for a very low price, such as a feathered dinosaur going for a couple of thousand dollars, or a spiny trilobite (which takes days to prepare) priced at a few hundred dollars. This mismatch of the market value can be a warning sign; when something looks too good a
    (LEFT) Tail of a dinosaur that's too perfect to be true vs. (RIGHT) Actual museum-grade preservation level of a similarly sized dinosaur tail

    (LEFT) Tail of a dinosaur that’s too perfect to be true vs. (RIGHT) Actual museum-grade preservation level of a similarly sized dinosaur tail

    deal to be true it usually isn’t. Collectors should steer away from a seemingly good deal on eBay, if no one else seems to be bidding on that rare item. This is of course only a guide, as you can always still find sellers putting a very high reserve price of many thousands of dollars on a pebble pretending to be a dinosaur egg. Knowing market price is also helpful as fossils that occur abundantly in nature (e.g. small Orthoceras or Ammonite shells, or even Green River fish) only cost a few dollars anywhere, and is rarely worth the effort to fake.

  3. Context. We occasionally come across outright rock carvings of animals such as full-bodied snakes with their scales intact, animal “brains”, fruit, phalluses, or gods that may have auspicious value. Collectors with any rudimentary knowledge of taphonomy will know that soft tissue will rarely be preserved intact, yet casual tourists may still purchase these unwittingly. Purchasing from a supplier who has dozens of identical specimens is certainly a sign of fabrication, as every fossil is unique. Mortality plates where multiple fossil specimens or specimens from different geological eras (e.g. Cambrian next to Devonian trilobite species) are assembled together on the same matrix – sometimes in aesthetic circular or auspicious shapes – should certainly be suspect. Animals that are strangely larger in size (or have disproportionate body parts) than the norm should be re-looked at carefully; this is where an experienced eye would be helpful.

    FAKE Trilobite mortality plate, carved in China

    FAKE Trilobite mortality plate, carved in China

  4. Morphology. Anatomical accuracy is a sure sign, and knowledge of this can only be gleaned with experience and study. Does the animal have symmetry in its body? How do the proportions of its features compare with documented examples? Does it have a missing or extra skull opening? The overall shape, size, and flatness (due to fossilization) of a dinosaur egg can inform if a specimen is truly an egg or simply loose pieces of shell glued onto a base.
    (LEFT) Entirely wrong head shape of a 'Psittacosaur' carving vs. (RIGHT) Actual juvenile Psittacosaur fossil specimen of comparible size

    (LEFT) Entirely wrong head shape of a ‘Psittacosaur’ carving vs. (RIGHT) Actual juvenile Psittacosaur fossil specimen of comparible size

    Fine details are hard to fake. These include the serrations on dinosaur or Megalodon teeth, growth rings and blood grooves on bone, sutures in a skull, tiny ‘goosebumps’ on a lobster or crab shell, as well as the even and fine spines and schizochroal (compound) eyes on Phacopina trilobites. (Entire industries have been set up in Morocco and China

    Fine pores in the honeycomb bone structure of a T-Rex can be hard to fake

    Fine pores in the honeycomb bone structure of a T-Rex can be hard to fake

    to fake fossils, and this article offers an excellent exposé on some of the detailed faking techniques for trilobites) Raptor eggs have a ‘leathery’ texture with ridges, and should not be smooth to the touch. Fossilized animal bones and exoskeletons often have spongy parts with fine and deep pores. There is a ‘Lick test’ where unlike rock or fossilized wood, fossil bone is supposed to stick to your tongue (although some of us personally may not enjoy how rocks taste). The positive and negative slabs of a fossil should match perfectly.

  5. Physical properties. Study surface details carefully, such as changes in material, texture, grain, airscribe markings, or bone pores. Authentic fossils are composed of heavy, compressed rock, and sometimes feature micro-crystals under a magnifying glass or loop. Modern animal bones are sometimes painted, aged, or even attached to rock matrix to look like fossils, but bones are much less dense than fossils (which are essentially rock), and can be discerned by the lower weight and hollow sound made when tapped with your fingernail. The colour on the fossil should be reasonably uniform; teeth that remain light-coloured without veining in the enamel, or darker colours found in areas of greater bone porosity, indicate that the specimen may have been from a modern animal dyed to resemble a fossil. Skull deformation is a sign that the specimen may not be modern. Casts are also much lighter than the solid rock composition of real fossils, although forgers have learnt to attach casts to real rock. Differences in matrix colour may be indicative that a resin cast ha
    Plastic bag wrinkles below a rock matrix?

    Plastic bag wrinkles below a rock matrix?

    s been attached to a real rock base. Look out for air bubbles, which form in plaster or resin casts but will not be found in actual fossils. A fake may also have a thin, tell-tale seam running along its sides because the mold needs to be opened to remove casts, although skilled forgers may know to sand these down. We have also come across a matrix base which was betrayed by wrinkles left from the plastic bag that the concrete mix was poured into.

  6. Damages. Many times fossil prospectors use destructive methods to identify rocks with fossils in them; basically using field hammers to smash the rock. As a result, many fossils – Devonian Moroccan trilobites in particular due to the hardness of the limestone they are found in – often have a repaired hairline crack running across the fossil. This is a good sign that the specimen may be real, but of course no guarantee that it is. Dinosaur eggs always come with shell cracks and indentations as they need to have been buried under considerable mud or sand in the fossilization process; I have never come across authentic dinosaur eggs with smooth shells in some 30 years of fossil collecting.
  7. Tests. These may be non-intrusive or intrusive. Fossils restored with resin, epoxy, or plastics will glow under a UV lamp, although this may be masked with paint. Composite bone fragments from different sources may show slightly different colour tones under black light. Resin and plastic is also softer than rock, which might be detected with the sensitive nerves of your teeth if you give it a small bite. A drop of acetone can remove paint (useful for modern mammal bones masquerading as fossils) and you just need to look if the colour comes off on the cotton swab, although this would already be considered an intrusive test. Real Mosasaur teeth are often glued into fake roots or jaws (made of crushed matrix) to increase their value, and rubbing with a wet cloth can dissolve this. Taken to an extreme, connoisseurs have used diamond saws to cut a specimen in half to reveal plaster compositions within!Amber is another type of fossil that is often faked, sometimes with plastic, sometimes by inserting inclusions (insects) between actual reattached amber slices, and when confused with copal or immature amber that is only a few hundred or thousand years old.  Only amber is warm to the touch and rubbing amber with soft cloth gives off a fragrance and charges it with static, but could start melting copal. Amber will float in seawater or brine (This is how they are washed up in the Baltic Sea) but copals and plastics would sink. Amber is hard and fractures if cut, but plastics can be easily shaved by a penknife. A drop of alcohol, acetone, or nail polish remover will start to dissolve copal, but does nothing to amber. A hot needle easily pierces through copal and gives off a fragrant smell, creates a black spot and smelly fumes with plastic, and does not as easily penetrate amber and produces whitish fumes.

The commercial fossil industry is growing and those manufacturing fake fossils are constantly improving their techniques, so it is best to avoid acquisitions that are at all doubtful even if the price is attractive and to only work with trusted, reputable sources. Beginners should start with affordable specimens to limit their risk, consult the opinion of more experienced eyes, and the very best approach is gain hands-on experience over time by handling wide a range of specimens as possible.

What other useful approaches do fellow collectors use to tell real from fake?

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Exclusive interview: Artistic Director of the Dinosaur Zoo


Erth Artistic Director Scott Wright with some local fans

Founded in 1990 in Ballarat Victoria, Erth has been creating art for the public domain and is internationally recognized as an innovator of physical and visual theater, with its truly fantastic aesthetic with performances that include large-scale puppets, stilt-walkers, inflatable environments, aerial  and flying creatures.  Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo is one of their most amazing shows, where audiences can come in close contact with prehistoric insects, mammals and dinosaurs. The show came to Singapore in February 2015, and Singapore Fossil Collectors had the honour of sitting down with their Artistic Director Scott Wright for an exclusive interview.

What’s the genesis of Erth?

It came about because we were doing a lot of shows on the street 15 years ago, and we made a conscious decision that we were interested in going into museums, because there were all this information and these things that few people got to see. It was only by coincidence that the Director of the Melbourne Museum asked me if we’d ever thought of making dinosaurs, and I kinda lied and said “yes”.

Three weeks later we had money and were making dinosaurs. Even from the beginning we made only Australian dinosaurs, and they were a big success. Other museums started hearing about it, and we were making museums for Los Angeles, Auckland, and the Australian Museum.

It took a while for us to realise that other people were achieving some success out of what we made, so then we realized that we should actually just make them for ourselves.

How do you get inspired creatively?

When we work for the museums, we’d always work with the paleontologists. Out of that would always come some really good relationships. I really like Luis Chiappe, he’s the feathered dinosaur expert at the LA Natural History Museum. In Australia there’s Scott Hocknull, who was recognized as Young Australian of the Year. They’re the kind of people that are accessible. I can talk to them about stuff, and in so doing we learn about the dinosaurs.

It then goes to our in-house designers. They collect as much information as they can such as from online sources, and they start drawing and making models. It’s exactly what we all dream about, isn’t it? Making them come alive is the big thing. There’s this conflict of anatomy because they’re puppets – the human body doesn’t belong inside a dinosaur – and people point out that their legs are sticking out. But it really doesn’t matter. It’s the awe and that visceral experience. The fact that we work really hard on behavior. We don’t dumb things down. We look at chickens, cassowaries, emu, dogs. I would take the puppeteers to spend days at the zoo.

The puppeteers will pass the performance art down to newer puppeteers. The way it works in the company is that people inherit behaviors. The way that people learn the show is based on how croissants or sour dough is made; we take a little bit of the original and we put it in with the new ones. It’s really nice.

It takes two weeks to learn how to move properly, and averages a month before they’re instinctive. Different people have different traits. Sometimes it’s a bit schizophrenic in that some people who are very gentle and quiet and humble, they get inside one and they go like “rawrr!” They have to have that right to make decisions.

As the director of the show, how do you manage between allowing the actors to have the autonomy while keeping to a coherent story and narrative?

I’m a pretty generous director. All I ask is that people keep the puppet alive, and I also encourage them to change what they do themselves, to keep things fun for themselves and for me. As the host, when you present the show, if it’s the same over and over again, it can get boring.

When collaborating with the paleontologists, how do the worlds come together and how do you spark that inter-disciplinary collaboration?

erth dino

Dinosaur petting at the Dinosaur Zoo

Actually, no. There’s been a few people who’ve been a little difficult to work with, just because as you say it’s the left side of the brain. Luis Chiappe said to me, “Paleontology is a science of the imagination. Imagination is our most admirable tool. It’s only with imagination that allows us to hypothesize how dinosaurs behaved.” There’s a mutual admiration that we can deliver something that they may not, but we will need the knowledge that they have, and that’s the collaboration in its truest sense. But I’ve also met paleontologist who only want to argue. We tell children all the time, it’s all just theories. There’s no hard science. The only things we’ve got are their fossils. We don’t have anything else. No one know what they really ate or what they sounded like. We can base ou
r informed guesses on other living creatures. The problem with carbon dating is that no one has put a piece of bone on their desk and watched it for a million years to see what happens.

When you think about the science and art and what you really bring, what are some unique ways where Erth has contributed to paleontology?

What we do is a bridge between art and science, between the theatre and the museum. We give them a fresh perspective. We honour the science, but love the art. When we’ve done the show in museums, in some cases the museums will do surveys. For example when we did a residency at the Auckland Museum for two years, we had this story about a female dinosaur and a male dinosaur, they didn’t like each other and had to be separated. Eventually they made a nest and laid eggs and the eggs hatched. The evolution of this story happened over two years. So people returned to the museum five or six times. At that time only a third of the museum was open because they were retro-fitting it for earthquakes. So there were less museum space to visit, but their attendances were more and they made some astronomical returns. But they also realized that some 45 percent of the visitors had never been there before. It’s amazing.

Dinosaurs are a gateway. Once upon a time, dinosaurs were just something that kids liked. There was a time when dinosaurs were sort of going ‘out of favour’, and then with Spielberg’s Jurassic Park suddenly the world got interested. And now dinosaurs are a way for children with learning disabilities to learn big words. Children with autism or Aspergers they become obsessed, they learn Latin, they learn to identify a whole taxonomy. Parents and grandparents now have discussions with their children about science. The value of dinosaurs to our society is far more than in commercial gain. I get asked a lot, “Why do children like dinosaurs?” The child sees the world with infinite potential. When they are introduced to a dinosaur and told “This really existed”, we have the fossils to prove it, then they see the world with a whole new potential. Their imagination and knowledge is widened. It’s not like say vampires or unicorns, there’s not enough evidence. With dinosaurs, it’s the world. Wow, the world existed before me.

What’s your innovation process like?

It’s whatever we can get our hands on. Because we’ve been working together for 25 years, as Artistic Director it’s my job to come up with the ideas, and up to the team to work out how they can make the ideas happen. We’ve experimented many different things to create our toolbox of tricks. It comes down to what’s the idea, what do we need to do, and what do we need in order to do that. It comes down to things as complex as registered projection, tracking things with infrared, and video mapping, or something as simple as inviting a child onto the stage. We are a company that does puppetry, but puppetry by our standard is a very broad spectrum. I’ve made shows where you need a magnifying glass to watch it, right up to doing shows to open the Sydney Olympics, and everything in between.


The new generation of Singapore Fossil Collectors

We live in such a fast world that everything almost needs to be delivered as quickly as you’ve thought of it. The only challenge we really face is patience. Actually what I desire most is more time away from society to just create. We are a resident company in a really great performing arts building, and I bring in my peers, guest artists. We’re making a new show called Erth’s Prehistoric Aquarium, looking at everything from coral reef spawning, bioluminence, Plesiosaurs, Kronosaurs, Paracyclotosaurus, the whole story underwater that seldom gets told. Sometimes the things we do are so simple, like having balloons fall out of the roof. Other times we’re using iPhone devices to programme LEDs to make bioluminescent creatures. That’s what we do as smart human bein
gs; we love to creating our own problems and to solve them. I have such a privileged job, and I’m always learning, I’m never going to stop.

Erth has achieved global renown as an arts company. Do you have any advance about how more nascent Singapore arts companies might also break into the international circuit?

By building your own reputation where you are. We participate in most of the major arts festivals. We didn’t go overseas until someone noticed us, supported our reputation through word-of-mouth, and started inviting us. We grew up in a small regional town, we had never even thought of going overseas. Doing what we did patiently and persistently for at least ten years. Perfection really comes from making lots of mistakes, so you just got to do things for the sake of it and make lots of mistakes. If you stumble on something that people really like, that’s when you start to exploit it. You go “This image or this idea works, you stick to it, you keep doing it, you grow that reputation.”

Thank you so much Scott for the interview and the inspiration. We look forward to your new shows!

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Dinosaur Workshops at The ArtScience Museum

Dinosaurs: Dawn to Extinction is Southeast Asia’s biggest dinosaur exhibition. Organized by the ArtScience Museum, it features over 400 fossils and models, and 50 original artworks from the American Museum of Natural History, San Juan National Science Museum, SCI! Expo at Monash University, and paleo-artist Peter Trusler.


Singapore Fossil Collectors partnered with The ArtScience Museum to organize a series of workshop sessions from February to May 2014, where visitors to its dinosaur exhibition can gain hands-on experience handling actual fossils to further deepen their prehistoric experience.


Over a series of ten sessions, we exhibited a wide collection of actual dinosaur fossils ranging from bones, eggs, and tracks, to teeth, claws, and coprolites. Visitors were taught to handle the specimens and examine their morphology, texture, weight, and details. Our speakers brought the audiences through the beginning of life, from the Pre-Cambrian through Mesozoic various eras, to the Pleistocene and modern day animals.


The visitors included locals and foreigners of all ages, and were delighted to handle the specimens and even take selfies with them! Their excitement was palpable and some of their kind feedback included:

“Good to have interactions and experts to answer any doubts.”

“It’s fascinating to hear more about the fossils , touch and feel them too!”

“I think the presenters were very knowledgeable and was able to engage with the participants. We want them back!”

“Very detailed and informative explanation. It’s great that they allowed us to handle the various fossils. Very friendly and approachable and definitely relevant to the exhibition.”

“Very interesting and the fact that we would touch all different fossils was great. Very educational.”

“Interesting exhibition and learning journey.”

“Workshop organizers are great! Very passionate!”


We were honoured to be asked to help review of the docent scripts and prep them for potential questions and ‘fun facts’, and were really humbled by their hard work, deep knowledge, and warm welcome.

Anna Salaman, Associate Director of Public Programmes, ArtScience Museum, said,” It has been a pleasure working with The Fossil Collectors. The workshops conducted were engaging, and complemented our Dinosaurs: Dawn to Extinction exhibition perfectly. The visitors, especially the children, were really intrigued by the interesting specimens that were provided and by the explanations provided by the facilitators.”

Thank you ArtScience Museum for bringing this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition in, and for the opportunity to contribute!

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Rocking it at the United World College

United World College (UWC) was embarking on a new Grade 4 academic unit about the Earth and changes to its geology. After spending weeks investigating the structure of the earth and types of rocks and visiting the Science Centre’s Earth: Our Untamed Planet exhibition, UWC wanted to offer its students a hands-on understanding of “the secrets that rocks reveal”, and invited Singapore Fossil Collectors to conduct a lecture and demonstration to its students.4

We started our session with UWC’s 200-strong Grade 4 cohort at their Dover Campus in the morning of 6 February 2014, by cutting an aloe vera fruit to illustrate the structure of the earth, and peeling a Mandarin orange (Chinese New Year was just last week) to demonstrate the effects of plate tectonic movements on the geography.

With a four-billion year old zircon slab – the oldest rock in the world – we went through the geological time scale and radiometric dating. We then showed samples of Igneous, Metamorphic, and Sedimentary rock, to discuss the important permineralization process that offers palaeontologists fossil evidence.

The students were surprised by the range of fossil types beyond traditional fossilised skeletons, and handled samples of trace fossils such as coprolites and footprints, amber with inclusions, living fossils like Coelacanth and Ginko, casts, fake fossils, and even the mummified fossil of a Wooly Mammoth ear.

We then moved on to the main topic of how geological changes over deep time shaped the diversity of life. Firstly in the Pre-cambrian, students saw the earliest record of life as cyanobacteria, whose traces were left in three billion year old Stromatolite.

In the Cambrian, fossils preserved simple multicellular lifeforms such as Naraoia and Kimberella graduated into simple exoskeletons in Paradoxide trilobites. However, the first predators such as Anomalocaris ignited the Cambrian Explosion, an arms race which eventually led to advanced defence mechanisms such as the spines, bumps, antenna, feelers, compound eyes, and even eyes on long stalks that helped in camouflage.

The Silurian period was important as it saw the emergence of the Eurypterid, the first creature that could walk on land due to their exoskeleton and whose descendants include modern day arthropods such as insects and crabs.

Terrestrial life radiated freely in the Devonian, with plants spreading across the land and forming forests. Apart from the complex defence features of Devonian trilobites, this period of high sea levels also saw the spread of fish, from bony fish and sharks to armoured species.


As the super-continent Pangea came together in the Carboniferous, sea levels declined and this gave rise to extensive lowland swamps in North America and Europe. Trees with hard bark fibre lignin started to appear, which was too tough to be decomposed by the bacteria and fauna then. As a result, there was widespread burial of wood that became fossilised as the coal deposits extracted from the ground to power the earth today. This carbon burial led to very high oxygen content in the atmosphere; estimated at 35 percent compared to 21 percent today. The moist environment and heavy oxygen concentration reduced the respiratory effort of terrestrial creatures, and led to insect and amphibian gigantism. The Carboniferous is unique for its fossils of the two-foot long giant dragonfly Meganeura – the largest flying insect to ever roam the planet – as well as the 2.6-metre long millipede Arthropleura, the largest known land invertebrate of all time.

Subsequently, the Permian period that was not only infamous for featuring the largest extinction event of all time, but witnessed Pangea’s breaking apart. The students saw fossil specimens such as Mesosaurus and Glossopteris, whose appearance on once-united continents offer compelling evidence of continental drift.

The Permian period is known as the age of amphibians, but there were also marine reptiles such as Claudiosaurus germaini, whose descendants in the Triassic included the common marine reptile Keichousaurus. The Triassic also saw the appearance of dinosaurs, with the earliest dinosaurs such as Eoraptor and Coelophysis.

By the time of the Jurassic, dinosaurs became dominant. Fossils of the apex predator Allosaurus could be found all over Laurasia. (At that time, tyrannosaurid ancestors such as Dilong paradoxus and Guanlong wucaii only measured a couple of metres in length). By the Middle Jura
ssic, Pangaea’s separation into Laurasia and Gondwana which formed the Tethys Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Deeper seas led to the growth of marine reptiles such as the pliosaurs and plesiosaurs.


Finally, the Cretaceous period witnessed the widespread distribution of our favourite dinosaurs, ranging from the Triceratops and the T-Rex in North America, to the larger ‘African T-Rex’ the Carcharodontosaurus as well as the largest carnivorous dinosaur, the Spinosaurus, in Africa. Interestingly, students learnt that tyrannosaurids and spinosaurs have been found as close to Singapore as in Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia. Students also saw samples of the KT-boundary layer, evidencing the global asteroid impact that brought about the extinction of these dinosaurs.

Following that, the more modern periods of the Miocene and Pleistocene were marked by fossils of megafauna such as the Wooly Mammoth, Giant Kangaroo, Giant Sloth, and Sabre-tooth Tiger, as well as the first appearance of the earliest humans.

The UWC students had a wonderful time, and left the following comments:

“I really liked how you explained the whole history of the earth. It was so interesting to find out about the earth clock and that humans have only been around for three seconds. It was so cool!”

“This was really good information and an amazing presentation. I never knew we still lived in the Ice Age!”

“I think you answered all our questions that we couldn’t find the answer to.”

“Your presentation was awesome, loved it…I was inspired.”


The teachers of the Grade 4 Team at the United World College of South East Asia also were also generous with their feedback:

“Calvin, Han and Andy were a wonderful addition to our unit about The Changing Earth.  Prior to the presentation, Calvin was in contact to ensure the talk was tailored to our needs with age appropriate content. The talk was well organised and interesting for the audience and both the students and teachers learnt a lot! The display of fossils was wonderful for our students to observe and they enjoyed being able to look so closely at such a wide selection. The students were so enthusiastic about the presentation!”

Thanks for this opportunity to share our passion. The Singapore Fossil Collectors look forward to meeting the students again next year!

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Upcoming Dino-craft event at Kino

Dino models

I remember many childhood days building dinosaurs with cardboard, Lego, or Play-Doh (or for those of older vintage, Plasticine), and was delighted to learn about the launch of an upcoming series of books where kids can also build their own prehistoric creatures.

Japanese publisher Shogakukan is teaming up with Kinokuniya this month to organize two public activity sessions for children, parents, and art and craft enthusiasts, where they will launch four English language paper craft books on dikinonosaurs!

Life-Size Dinosaurs is the first book in the Shogakukan NEO Life-Size Series and features dinosaurs from various time periods. 3D Dinosaurs 1, 3D Dinosaurs 2, and 3D Tyrannosaurus are part of the Shogakukan NEO Paper Craft Series, authored by paper craft artist Masanori Kamiya.

As a father, I especially appreciated how the author advocates the importance of building close parent-child relationships, and encourages the expansion of children’s creativity and imagination.

Fellow Singaporeans who would like to join in the fun can visit the Kinokuniya main store at 3.30pm next Saturday 15 March. The second event will be at 4pm on Saturday 22 March at their main store.

See you there!

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Exhibition Review: Titans of the Past

After a few wonderful months, the Titans of the Past exhibition is finally approaching its final two weeks. We made a third visit today, this time with our nieces, and were pleasantly surprised to see that the Science Centre was really packed even on an early Saturday morning.

The exhibition started with an in-depth look at four of the most ‘popular’ dinosaur species that everyone is familiar with: The Triceratops, the Pachycephalosaurus, the Hadrosaur, and of course their predator, the Tyrannosaurus Rex.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We saw a most complete collection of Triceratops, detailing their size (at 9 feet in length, their keratin-covered and blood vessel-grooved skulls are among the largest of any land animal!), the usage of their horns (most likely for recognition, rather than for defense or sexual display), and an excellent growth series of juvenile to adult Triceratops horridus.

Adult Trike with opening in frill

Large juvenile Trike with thinning frill

Large juvenile Trike with thinning frill

This series of skulls illustrated Dr. Jack Horner’s thesis that Triceratops orbital horns that arched backwards in youth curved forwards in adulthood. Of particular interest were two specimens that showed the Triceratops frill thinning in an adult.


Pachy adult and sub-adult domed skulls

Pachy adult and sub-adult domed skulls

The Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis display was even more controversial. Paleontologists have always believed that the adult Pachy, whose solid frontal-parietal dome measures 10 to 13 centimetres thick, was developed for head-butting. The exhibition however postulates that because the Pachy’s spongy bone tissue was only found in juveniles and the solid domes of adults might be associated with skull damage in a head-butt, that the Pachy may not have used its solid skull for territorial disputes after all.

Hadrosaur adult and juvenile skulls

Hadrosaur adult and juvenile skulls

The most fascinating aspect of the Hadrosaur display was how scientists build a rapid prototype of the nasal crest of the Hypacrosaurus stebingeri, and blew wind through it as a resonating chamber to simulate the sounds that these duckbill dinosaurs used to make. They found that the different shapes of the adult, juvenile, and baby Hadrosaurs made very different sounds. Interestingly, this research approach to mimic dinosaur sounds was dramatized in the Jurassic Park movie, where Dr. Alan Grant used a 3D-printed resonating chamber to communicate with the raptors.


MOR 008 - The largest real T-Rex skull in the world!

MOR 008 – The largest real T-Rex skull in the world!

The T-Rex display was particularly educational, showing how the rounding out of juvenile T-Rexes flat teeth as they matured showed that they transitioned from being meat slicers to bone crunchers. It suggests that T-Rexes might have been scavengers rather than the fearsome predators they are typically portrayed as, based on evidence of T-Rex fossils being in relative abundance, T-Rexes having had a keen sense of smell through their large olfactory bulbs, their rounded, bone-crushing teeth, and biomechanic simulations that suggested that they might not have been able to run very fast and were therefore not very effective predators. The highlight of the exhibition for us was the actual fossil of MOR 008, the largest T-Rex skull in the world. Measuring 59 inches long (the closest contender Sue at the Chicago Field Museum is only 55.4 inches long), this very special specimen was discovered at Hell Creek Formation in Montana USA by Donald Bender in 1965. It was 80 percent complete and originally found in some 1,000 pieces, and was only recently fully assembled.

The Fossil Collector with the Segnosaur egg nest and Machairodus giganteus skull

The Fossil Collector with the Segnosaur egg nest and Machairodus giganteus skull

The exhibition also featured other fossils including the Stan, the second-most complete T-Rex skeleton ever found in North America; a Giganotosaurus Carolini, a carcharodontosaurid that hunted in packs in the Early Cretaceous of Patagonia, Brazil, and Africa; some trilobites; as well as some coprolites, an actual Segnosaur egg nest, and a Machairodus giganteus skull that I had the pleasure of loaning to the Science Centre.



Ice age mammals

Ice age mammals

The finale of the exhibition brought visitors through time into the Ice Age, and featured megafauna such as the giant sloths Megatherium and Glossotherium; the South American hourse Hippidion; the saber-toothed cat Smilodon; the large, armoured armadillo relative Glyptodont; the llama-like litopturn Macrauchenia; the rhino-sized notoungulate Toxodon; the Pleistocene bear Pararctotherium; and of course the Stegodon and Wooly Mammoth.

All in all we found it a really fun, interactive, and educational experience that was really professionally-put together and enjoyable. Do catch the exhibition in the last two weeks that it is here!

The Titans of the Past exhibition at the Science Centre is open from 25 October 2013 to 23 February 2014, with admission charges at $25 for adults and $19 for children.

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Fossil Show & Tell at The Science Centre

On the 6th Dec 2013, The Fossil Collector was invited to give a special talk to an incredible group of 30 dinosaur enthusiasts at the Science Centre Singapore.


Aged between nine and twelve years old, the attendees were participants who had signed up for the Adventure Camp with Dinosaurs, an intensive overnight camp that included a hands-on workshop on fossils, a guided tour of the Titans of the Past exhibition, a wildlife discovery tour at the Ecogarden, and the opportunity for campers to make their own dinosaur documentary.

Our team, comprising Han, Andy, Kemi, Cindy, Cayden, and Calvin, arrived early to set up the fossil exhibits we had brought along and to do quick run through of the exhibition so as to customize our talk accordingly.

Setting up our fossil exhibits

Setting up our fossil exhibits

However, as soon as the excitable children started filtering in, we were immediately presented with an endless stream of questions and thoughts about dinosaurs. This allowed us to improvise our storyline on the go, but most of all it simply astounded the team with the sheer breadth of knowledge the children had and their obvious passion.

“Was the Kronosaurus a type of pliosaur?”
“Yes! It should have been called Cretaceous Park!”
“Why isn’t the Dimetrodon considered a dinosaur?”
“The Spinosaurus was 13 – 18 metres long!”
“Carcharodontosaurus was the largest theropod predator, not T-Rex!”

Simply. Amazing.

We used our time together to dispel some dinosaur myths, talk about the relative sizes of prehistoric fauna, and share about topics such as the practice of paleontology, the fossilization process, trace fossils, plate tectonics, living fossils, and the impact of dinosaurs on human culture.

Kemi & Andy

Kemi & Andy answering questions from the floor

Han showing the geological time scale

Han showing the geological time scale

The kids were particularly spirited in discussing evolution and debating controversies in paleontological science. The highlight of the session must have been when the campers got an opportunity to handle actual fossils ranging from a large Triceratops horn to a massive Mammoth femur and even an actual Allosaurus jaw.


“Thank you so much for the team’s presence. The talk was well-organised and presented in an interesting way,” said Ms. Anne Dhanaraj Senior Director of Education Programmes at Science Centre Singapore.

“Although there was a lot of information, the participants were really on your wavelength and asking so many questions! All of you really impressed them since they were asking for autographs! Thanks again so much guys and I will definitely look for ways to work together again,” she said.

Thank you Science Centre for this opportunity to share our passion and in so doing, get doubly inspired ourselves by the next generation of fossil enthusiasts!

Do like the Science Centre’s Facebook page to receive information on their future Family Programmes.

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Set in Stone Gallery Winter 2013 exhibition

Tucked away in the warehouse district of Tanjong Pagar Distripark is a collection of high-quality fossils available for sale. The Set in Stone Gallery returns for its second exhibition, and positions itself as Asia’s premier fossil gallery.

Founded by our friend and fellow Singaporean collector Cliff Hartono, the exhibition features sixteen fossils including ammonites, a horseshoe crab, fish, palms, sea lilies, sea urchins, and turtles sourced mostly from the Eocene deposits of the US, and a few items from the Jurassic layers of Germany, Madagascar, and Morocco.

Here are a few of our favorite specimens:




Trionyx Green River Turtle from Wyoming, USA (50 myo)


Closeup of Trionyx



Sea Lily Seirocrinus subangularis from Holzmaden, Germany (160 myo)

Sea Lily Seirocrinus subangularis from Holzmaden, Germany (160 myo)


Heliobatis radians stingray with Knightnia eoceana fish from Wyoming, USA (%0 myo)

Heliobatis radians stingray with Knightnia eoceana fish from Wyoming, USA (%0 myo)




Pachycormus bollensis fish from Holzmaden, Germany (160 myo)

Pachycormus bollensis fish from Holzmaden, Germany (160 myo)







Closeup of Pachycormus bollensis

Closeup of Pachycormus bollensis


Sloenbachia Ammonite with hollowed core from Arbala, Morocco (170 myo)

Sloenbachia Ammonite with hollowed core from Arbala, Morocco (170 myo)

White River turtle trio Stylemys nebrascensis from South Dakota, USA (30 myo)

White River turtle trio Stylemys nebrascensis from South Dakota, USA (30 myo)









Mesolimulus walchi from Solnhofen, Germany (160 myo) with trail

Mesolimulus walchi from Solnhofen, Germany (160 myo) with trail

Closeup of horseshoe crab

Closeup of horseshoe crab







Exhibition details
Date: 6 Dec 2013 – 19 Jan 2014 (Open Fri – Sun)
Time: 12:00pm – 7:00pm
Venue: ARTSPACE@Helutrans, 39 Keppel Road, Tanjong Pagar Distripark Singapore 089065
Entrance: Free

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Jack Horner in Singapore

This was a very special week for many of us, as the most famous paleontologist, Professor John “Jack” Horner, visited Singapore to open the Science Centre’s latest exhibition Titans of the Past.

photo 1

Titans of the Past tells a story through time, from the era of the dinosaurs, with “The Growth and Behaviour of Dinosaurs” segment in collaboration with The Museum of the Rockies and animatronics from Kokoro in Japan that showcases real fossils including MOR008, the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus rex skull that measures 59 inches long from its snout to the back of its skull. This is even larger than Sue from The Field Museum in Chicago, whose skull is 55.4 inches long. It also features a skull growth series that evidences the ontogeny of the Triceratops and evidences Prof Horner’s hypothesis that Triceratops and Torosaurus were in fact the same animal. The second segment, organized in collaboration with Aurea Exhibitions, features life-sized cast of an Argentinosaurus,  a Giganotosaurus, and a T-rex. In the final segment, “Ice Age, The Exhibition”, visitors will marvel at animatronic mammals from the Ice Age including a mammoth, a mastodon, and a saber-toothed tiger.

photo 2

As the world’s most famous preeminent paleontologist, Prof Horner is a legendary superstar who needs little introduction. He is Regents Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University, Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant”, technical advisor to Steven Spielberg for the Jurassic Park franchise, and inspiration to author Michael Crichton for the lead character Dr. Alan Grant. Perhaps even more than that, Prof Horner’s personal story of how he achieved the epitome of success in spite of his dyslexia has been incredibly inspiring. In his inimitable style, Prof Horner gave a special Science in the Café talk on “Why Some Dinosaurs had Horns, Frills and Crests on their Heads”.

Here is a summary of his arguments:

Dinosaurs have evolved to become birds. In the past, dinosaurs were portrayed as slow, unintelligent, cold-blooded reptiles. However, the fossil record has shown over 100 characteristics that dinosaurs shared with birds, such as being warm-blooded, feathered, having wishbones, hollow bones, oblong eggs, hard-shelled eggs, and sharing similar growth phases.

Dinosaurs were social. The largest concentration of dinosaur fossils is a monospecific bone bed of an estimated 115,000 skeletons averaging 30 bones per square meter for two square kilometers in North-Central Montana. This mass mortality of a single species show that duckbill dinosaurs lived in large herds, and needed to migrate frequently as the large size of their herd would have continually exhausted the vegetation in each area they travel to.

Dinosaurs cared for their young. One of Dr Horner’s earliest discoveries was dinosaur nests in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the first dinosaur embryos. These were of the Maiasaura species he discovered and named. Cutting into the bones of Maiasaura juveniles still congregating in a nest, he learnt that their bone structure was not fully ossified, with relatively soft and spongy ends made of cartilage that would not have allowed them to move out of the nests. This nest-bound behavior for grown, 3-feet long juveniles (hatchlings were only 12 inches long) indicated that their mothers would have stayed on to feed them even after their birth.

Examining the author's Stygimoloch spike specimen

Examining the author’s Stygimoloch spike specimen

Dinosaurs changed their appearances as they matured. One of Dr Horner’s research approaches is to collect many of the same species, so as to study the developmental differences across specimens when they age (as indicated by the growth rings in their bone). He has amassed a growth series of over 100 Triceratops specimens of all ages, which evidence bone deposition and resorption in the horns, frills, crests, and spikes of Triceratops as they mature to dramatically change their appearances over time. These not only demonstrated that there were in fact fewer species of dinosaurs than previously thought, but also that dinosaurs’ physical appearances changed as they grew. For instance, he postulated that the Dracorex hogwartsia, the Stygimoloch, and the Pachycephalosaurus were the juvenile, sub-adult, and adult variations of the same dinosaur species. This indicated that the change in appearance could have been to signal maturity to their caregiving parents.

Physical features mostly likely as a signal to parents. Prof Horner believes that the dinosaurs’ horns, frills, crests, and spikes were not for combat, as birds are visual creatures who rely on display rather than physical attacks. Triceratops postorbital horns for instance hollowed out internally at the base, which would have rendered them unsuitable for territorial clashes.

It was also unlikely that the horns were used as defense from predators, as the changed in orientation as they matured. Postorbital horns are straight as babies, curved posteriorly in juveniles, straightened in subadults, and recurved anteriorly in adults.

Because there is no evidence for sexual dimorphism, i.e. male and female Triceratops horn features were not differentiated, it is also unlikely that they were used for sexual attraction.

Prof Horner argues that it is most likely that these features changed as dinosaurs attained sexual maturity, in order to visually signal to adults that they no longer required caring. This is similar to how modern birds such as the Cassowary only form their crest when they are 80% into adulthood, dinosaurs retained juvenile characteristics in their bone structures so they would be cared for by adults.

Prof Horner's autographs on the author's fossil and book "How to Build a Dinosaur"

Prof Horner’s autographs on the author’s fossil and book “How to Build a Dinosaur”

In person, Prof Horner turned out to be really passionate, informed, and humorous. After a lifetime of collecting fossils, his eyes still light up when he talks about dinosaurs. He backs up his theories with hard evidence, and despite his self-effacing charm you can tell that it is his contrarian opinions that have been really pushing the envelope in paleontology. Best of all, he is incredibly nice. He was gracious to stay till the very last visitors (our group!) left, generously answering all our questions, and signing autographs on our books, fossils, and memorabilia. We also got to meet his lovely researcher Vanessa, who very kindly helped to identify this fossil as a rarer Stygimoloch spike rather than a Pachycephalosaurus on the basis of its provenance and longer size. What a day!

The Titans of the Past exhibition at the Science Centre is open from 25 October 2013 to 23 February 2014, with admission charges at $25 for adults and $19 for children.

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