An unexpected early return from China, but at least I got to see the inside of a Chinese hospital

July 7th, 2014

Sign Abdominal PainWOOSTER, OHIO — I am safely home far too early from my China adventure, and here begins a painful tale. I tell it first to complete the 2014 China Expedition story, and because there may be some lessons for geologists on field trips far from home. It is also a record to remind me of unexpected events in the field. I’ll say at the start that I’m fine now and was never in danger.

On my very first morning in China, after a good sleep in a Shenyang hotel, my host Zhang Yongli picked me up for a tour of Shenyang Palace. It was great, as you can see from the blog post, but I was not feeling well. Yongli took me to a restaurant with excellent dumplings, but I ate little because of stomach discomfort. I attributed it to the long series of flights that ended the previous evening. Yongli took me back to the hotel for a rest in the early afternoon. It was only when I returned to my hotel room that a familiar pain slowly manifested in my left-side lower back. It began to ramp up and I knew exactly what it was: a kidney stone was starting its own long journey through my urinary system. Since I had a very bad kidney stone episode two years ago that lasted for many days and required an operation, I knew I was in trouble. I telephoned Yongli and he arrived to take me to a hospital for assessment and pain medication. (Please note that I unknowingly brought this kidney stone with me. It had nothing to do with conditions in China.)
Shenjing Hospital of China Medical University WikimediaAfter walking to one hospital (which was actually less painful than sitting), we were directed to another with better facilities: Shengjing Hospital of China Medical University (shown above with a Wikipedia image). We took a taxi to get there. Quick-thinking Yongli telephoned his wife, Wang Fei, to meet us there because she had better English skills for translation. She was a critical player for the next several hours. Alas she now only knows me as a grimacing American gamely smiling through a long series of procedures and waits. She and Yongli were fantastic, supportive and generous friends of mine during this odyssey. They were, in fact, my only friends in China, and I had just met them.

The emergency room at Shenjing Hospital is a series of large connected spaces lined with various medical speciality stations. There were hundreds of people there when we arrived. Despite my first impression (and fear) of chaos, the medical system was efficient and effective. If I was in an American big city emergency room my time from arrival to diagnosis would have likely been the same. The processes, though, were very different from anything I’ve experienced state-side.

Fei and Yongli first took me to a check-in at the “abdominal pain” counter. We received several slips of paper that would eventually be passed through stations, signed and stamped before and after procedures were completed. They next took me to the ultrasonic scanning station to get a slip of paper in queue, and then do the same for a CT scan. I was clearly not the only kidney stone sufferer there. I may have been Kidney Stone #12 for all I could tell. While we waited for these procedures, I joined a line to provide a blood sample. When my time came I just extended my arm and they did the job, applying tags to the vial to be delivered to the lab.

At each station Fei would explain my situation to the nurses. Since there was always a crowd listening, I could tell when she got to the description when a dozen faces would turn to sympathetically gaze on my misfortune. I was the only Westerner I could see, but I heard there was another being shepherded around.

Kidney stone CT scanClose up of a CT scan of my innards showing the offending stone as that little light point. [Update: My doctor in Wooster was able to easily use the Chinese CT data to confirm the diagnosis.]

Kidney stone records 070314After the procedures, we waited two hours for an assessment by a doctor. For that we returned to the abdominal pain counter. Fei worked her way in and talked to the doctor on the other side of a computer monitor (above). She had my analysis results and the CT scan summary film, along with a CD of the scan itself. The doctor, in one sentence as far as I could tell, said there was a stone indeed present, it was “5 millimeters”, and it “will pass”. Case closed.
Medicine boxAt that point with a diagnosis in hand Fei and Yongli went to the pharmacy counter and got the above pain medication. At least we thought it was for pain. Note how it is labeled specifically for kidney stones with the image. It is called “Quercus salicina Extract” and now I’ve learned from Mr. Google that it is a treatment directly for kidney stones. Whether it is an herbal remedy or effective treatment is something I’ll ask my doctor in Wooster tomorrow. It did nothing for the pain, but I imagined that it did. Lesson there.

That evening the pain considerably diminished, so much that I thought the stone had passed and I would be OK. The next morning I was doing OK enough to leave with our team of four geologists on a flight to Guiyang, even enjoying a dinner there that night. The Fourth of July was pain-free. I didn’t know that the stone just found a place to rest.

At dawn of July 5 in my Guiyang hotel room the pain had fully returned. I knew then I could not continue with the expedition. We were going to be driving for several hours into the countryside. The remoteness and chance of a complication, let alone the continuing pain, made it clear it was time for me to go home. My new colleagues were completely supportive and worked hard to get me back to Beijing and a flight the next afternoon to the USA. Because I had good wireless I could text my wife Gloria, who called our travel agency’s emergency number and booked me a new set of tickets. Professor Gong very kindly accompanied me on the flight from Guiyang to Beijing, and then booked me into a Beijing hotel for that night. He stayed there too, making sure I knew how to get to the airport and my flight on July 6.
Beijing airport 070614Soon after Professor Gong left Beijing to return to his home in Shenyang, my brutal little kidney stone emerged in my hotel room and I captured it. This good news meant my long flight back home would be far more comfortable. (The start in Beijing is recorded in the image above.) That was indeed the case, and I arrived in Cleveland at about 10:00 pm on July 6. Home and family never felt better.
Stone 2 070714And here’s an image I made of my very inconvenient kidney stone this morning in the lab. I can’t tell, but it appears to be the common variety made of calcium oxalate, making the mineral weddellite. (See, there is some geology here!) I’ll update this composition after a lab analysis. [Update: Calcium oxalate monohydrate confirmed.]
Stone 3 070714While that first side may look all smooth and rounded, this other side shows one crystal spike in the upper right still in place. There are many broken spike bases around the stone’s periphery. Evil, eh? This stone will soon be analyzed in the Wooster urology lab to give me a better idea of how to prevent these from occurring again.

What did I learn from all this about becoming ill while on a field trip? A list —

1. Have good colleagues in the country or region who know well the local language, customs and laws. My new Chinese friends were fantastic, even though my malady had disrupted elaborate plans made months ago.

2. Book airline tickets through a good travel agency. We use the Professional Travel office in Wooster, with the incomparable Suzanne Easterling as our agent. She has saved us from travel problems numerous times, and when she is out of the office we are covered by a 24-hour service that is fantastic. It would have been very difficult for us to rebook tickets on our own, especially with me in extremis.

3. Bring a variety of electronic devices for communication. I had my iPhone, iPad and Macbook laptop computer. Often only one of these could catch the wireless signal enough to send and receive messages, and I could never predict which would be best.

4. Take all the medications you might possibly need. I was ready for intestinal disorders, infections, and malaria, and I had diphtheria and polio vaccinations in advance, but I didn’t imagine a kidney stone would chose this Chinese interval to start its fateful descent. I had no special pain medications other than aspirin — the good stuff is still sitting in my medicine cabinet at home.

5. Make sure all emergency numbers and addresses are easily available in a variety of formats. This is obvious to anyone who has taken students in the field. I print out and electronically store this information in multiple places. I could easily slip a list from my pack to show colleagues and officials.

6. For foreign trips, register your schedule with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. I always do this when I’m taking students to Israel, but I didn’t even think of doing the same for me alone in China. I could have been admitted to a Chinese hospital, or been detained by the police, without any US representative knowing where I was. I had all the correct USA numbers, but on this trip I learned that making telephone calls in China is not easy for a beginner.

7. If you have a condition that might cause problems, have a medical analysis before a long trip. Now this looks painfully obvious. I didn’t think I had a “condition”, though, because I thought the lack of a stone in the past two years meant that my diet changes had eliminated the problem. That was naive.

8. Finally, listen very carefully to your body’s clues. I may have been able to detect that my stone hadn’t passed while still in Shenyang, thus cutting probably two days out of the time it took to actually go home. I think I denied the small signs because I so much wanted to go into the field.

What did I gain from this brief trip to China? Quite a bit, when I think it through. A list again —

1. I met my new Chinese colleagues. We had worked together on manuscripts in the past, but this was the first time we could talk. I like them very much, and they are enthusiastic about geology and paleontology. Zhang Yongli is very interested in pursuing fossil hard substrate studies like I do along with my friends Paul Taylor, Michal Zaton, Olev Vinn, Leif Tapanila and others. Yongli will be the first in China to do this in earnest, so he will make a huge contribution to the field. I hope he can visit me in Wooster so that we can study together the hard substrate collections we have and visit classic field localities. In a way we had a successful conference during this short interval.

2. I saw China! Shenyang Palace was an inspiring historical location, downtown Shenyang showed me a developed northeastern Chinese city in action, and Guiyang was an example of a lesser-developed southwestern city. I even got to taste the special air in Beijing. I saw everyday China, and I conversed with top Chinese geologists. With no exceptions Chinese people were kind, considerate and helpful everywhere I went. They smile and laugh often, which is a contrast to people in most countries I’ve visited.

3. Through my discomfort I experienced much compassion and understanding from people I had just met. I disrupted their plans, but they adapted and had not a whisper of complaint.

My kidney stone was not life-threatening, so as far as medical emergencies go this was minor in scale and consequence. I had to leave a great field trip, though, without seeing the rocks and fossils. Way too bad, but such was fate. In her China travel advice to me before leaving, my friend Susan Clayton said, “Just remember if you’re uncomfortable with something on the trip that ‘this too shall pass’.” Who knew that she would be so literally correct!

The karst topography around Guiyang, China

July 5th, 2014

Karstic Guiyang 1GUIYANG, CHINA — I find this karstic landscape enchanting. Photo taken at the airport.

Karstic Guiyang 2

An evening dinner in Guiyang, China

July 4th, 2014

Guiyang Dinner 070414GUIYANG, CHINA — After the long flights from Shenyang via Nanjing, Team China (let’s just call it that!) arrived in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province. We had an excellent view of the surrounding karstic mountains. I hope to have images of these tomorrow because they are simply enchanting. Above is our evening dinner, hosted by two men from the city. On the far left is Guan Changqing, an associate professor of geology at Northeastern University, then Wang Lin Song, chief engineer of a steel company in Guiyang, Professor Gong En-Pu from the Geology Department of Northeastern University (and our leader), Guo Shu Wei, a senior engineer at the local steel company, and me. Zhang Yongli took the photo with my iPhone. A classic Guizhou dinner is before us. It was very good. Among the many toasts, Yongli and I managed to get one in to the Fourth of July.

Sea cucumber dish 070414One of the dishes contained these green slices of holothurian (sea cucumber). Turns out this delicacy is specially provided for honored guests, so I have now eaten my first echinoderm. I can cross them off the list of invertebrate phyla to taste. I’m sure I’ll have many more culinary surprises.

Speaking of surprises, just before bedtime a team of policemen visited my room asking many questions and studying my passport and visa closely. I’m assured this is standard practice when a foreigner comes to town.

Tomorrow we drive for about three hours to Ziyun County for the start of our fieldwork.


Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A barnacle and sponge symbiosis from the Middle Jurassic of Israel

July 4th, 2014

Barnacle boring bioclaustration 1

[Programing note: Wooster’s Fossil of the Week is now being released on Fridays to correspond with the popular Fossil Friday on Twitter and other platforms.]

This week’s fossil is again from the Matmor Formation (Middle Jurassic, Callovian) of southern Israel. (What can I say? We have a lot of them!) We are looking above at a crinoid pluricolumnal (a section of the stem made of several columnals) almost completely encrusted by a calcareous sponge (the sheet-like form with tiny pores). A round oyster is attached to the sponge in the lower center. In the left half you see the items of our interest this week: ovoid holes produced by barnacles. This specimen was studied by Lizzie Reinthal (’14) as part of her Senior Independent Study on the taphonomy of the Matmor crinoids.
Barnacle boring bioclaustration 2These barnacle holes are interesting because we can see in this closer view that the sponge grew around them. There is thickened sponge wall at the margins of the holes, and the feature in the middle is a thick mound built around one of these holes. The barnacles in the holes and the sponge were living together. If they weren’t either the sponge would have overgrown the empty holes or the barnacle would have cut through the dead sponge skeleton. This is an example of symbiosis. It would be a facultative relationship because the sponge and barnacle did not need each other to survive; each does just fine without the other. It could be considered parasitic if the barnacles acquired nutrients the sponge would have ordinarily received, or vice versa.
Barnacle boring bioclaustration 3This third view is of the edge of the sponge skeleton as it partially overlaps the barnacle holes. Now we see the nature of the intergrowth. The barnacle holes are actually borings into the crinoid pluricolumnal below. They are the trace fossil called Rogerella, which we have seen before in this blog. The sponge grew along the crinoid substrate covering all sorts of small holes, cracks and crevices, but when it reached these borings living barnacles were still in them filter-feeding away with their filamentous legs. The sponge thus laid its skeleton right up to the hole edges, eventually surrounding them with their spongy matrix.

The holes are borings, a kind of trace fossil. The structure created when the sponge surrounds a living boring barnacle like this is more difficult to name. It is not technically a bioimmuration (see Taylor, 1990) because the barnacles were not passively subsumed within the sponge skeleton. It may be a bioclaustration (Palmer and Wilson, 1988) because the sponge adapted its skeleton to isolate and surround the barnacle. I think we can at least say these are trace fossils in the ethological (behavioral) group called Impedichnia (Tapanila, 2005) because the barnacles acted as impediments, or limiting factors, to the growth of the sponge.

I love these examples of symbiosis in the fossil record, and the interesting debates about their interpretations.


Cónsole‐Gonella, C. and Marquillas, R.A. 2014. Bioclaustration trace fossils in epeiric shallow marine stromatolites: the Cretaceous‐Palaeogene Yacoraite Formation, northwestern Argentina. Lethaia 47: 107-119.

Palmer, T.J. and Wilson, M.A. 1988. Parasitism of Ordovician bryozoans and the origin of pseudoborings. Palaeontology 31: 939–949.

Tapanila, L. 2005. Palaeoecology and diversity of endosymbionts in Palaeozoic marine invertebrates: Trace fossil evidence. Lethaia 38: 89–99.

Taylor, P.D. 1990. Preservation of soft-bodied and other organisms by bioimmuration: A review. Palaeontology 33: 1–17.

Vinn, O. and Mõtus, M.A. 2014. Symbiotic worms in biostromal stromatoporoids from the Ludfordian (Late Silurian) of Saaremaa, Estonia. GFF (in press).

Wilson, M.A., Palmer, T.J. and Taylor, P.D. 1994. Earliest preservation of soft-bodied fossils by epibiont bioimmuration: Upper Ordovician of Kentucky. Lethaia 27: 269–270.

Shenyang, China

July 3rd, 2014

Shenyang Palace 070314SHENYANG, CHINA — My first post from astonishing China. I’ve been here about a day and a half now and am simply floored by all I’ve seen and experienced. I’ve seen a fair bit of the world, but no place like China. I’m providing here just a few images of Shenyang as just a taste of the adventure. We are twelve time zones away from Wooster, so I’m still feeling too ragged to write much prose. The image above is of Shenyang Imperial Palace, sometimes called by its old name Mukden Palace. It was built in the 17th Century by the first emperors of the Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty in China. This is the iconic Dazheng Hall, where the emperors held court surrounded by their Manchu cohorts. It is all stone and heavily laquered wood. The red color signifies happiness, the yellow royalty, and the green (not unexpectedly) the glories of nature.

Yongli 070314This is Zhang Yongli, my Chinese host and now good friend. He took me to the Palace this morning as both an introduction to China and a chance to walk around a bit to dispell the fog of travel. (It was 27 hours from Cleveland to my hotel in Shenyang. I will feel it for awhile!)

Shenyang Palace map 070314This is a map of the palace. It is the only Imperial Palace outside of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was, in fact, modeled on its Beijing equivalent, but it has a distinctly northern flavor of Manchu culture.

karstic stones 1 070314The geological notes here include most notably these naturally-eroded limestones from southern China used as statuary in one part of the palace. All the hollows and holes in these smooth limestones were produced by karstic weathering in a very humid climate. The Chinese call them “lake stones” and very much appreciate their elegance.

Shenyang busy street 070314Outside the quiet palace is the very busy business district of Shenyang. Traveling by taxi through this city of over six million people is extraordinary. Somehow it all works, though, and people get to where they’re going by foot, bicycle, bicycle-cabs, carts, trucks and cars.

Shenyang morning 070314And this, finally, is the view from my hotel window. I’m staying in a hotel owned by my hosts at Northeastern University very close to campus. Tomorrow we leave for Guizhou Province in the south (a five-hour set of flights) and begin our fieldwork in Carboniferous reefs.

More later!


Wooster Geologist en route to China

July 1st, 2014

China departure signDETROIT AIRPORT, MICHIGAN — My long anticipated trip to China has started. I have a bit of a wait in Detroit before boarding a 14-hour flight to Beijing, followed by a connection on to Shenyang. I am visiting China by invitation from geologists at Northeastern University in Shenyang. My host is Yongli Zhang, an invertebrate paleontologist and geologist. Soon after I arrive we fly to Guizhou Province in the southeast of the country to do fieldwork on Carboniferous carbonates, including fossiliferous reef sequences. My job is to assess the hard substrates and, we hope, find a boatload of encrusters and borings. I’ve never been to China, so this will be an adventure in many ways. Everything will be new to me in the oldest of countries.

Right now all four Wooster Geologists are in the field and, effectively, off the grid. Dr. Shelley Judge is in Utah, Dr. Greg Wiles is in Alaska, and Dr. Meagen Pollock is in British Columbia. We will post entries when we can. Don’t worry about Wooster’s Fossil of the Week — it has now moved to Fridays and several posts are already lined up to appear each week!

Going off the Grid for Pillow Lavas

June 29th, 2014

Tatogga Lake, British Columbia – We’ve been traveling for four days and have finally arrived at our destination: Tatogga Lake. Tomorrow, we’ll be traveling by helicopter to our field site. It’s the first helicopter ride for most of us and we’re pretty excited about the birds-eye view of our subglacial pillow ridge (not to mention the gorgeous scenery). Although we’re eager to get started on our research goals, we’ve enjoyed the journey. In Wells Gray Provincial Park, we saw some of the most beautiful waterfalls and glaciovolcanic features. On the drive, we visited the world’s largest fly rod. I think our bear spotting count is up to at least 9 now. The best is yet to come, and we hope to have some fantastic photos to share with you when we come out of the field sometime next week. Until then, we’ll be off the grid, happily geologizing!

20140628-230202-82922728.jpg Most of the crew at Spahats Falls in Wells Gray Provincial Park. From left to right: Dr. John Greenough (UBC Okanagan – not part of the pillow team, but conducting research in Wells Gray), Will Kochitzky (Dickinson), Dr. Meagen Pollock, Erica (Dr. Greenough’s grad student), Julia Franceschi (Wooster), Mary Reinthal (Wooster), and Liz. Placenscia (Dickinson). Not pictured: Dr. Ben Edwards, to whom the photo credit belongs.

Pillows, and Dikes, and Bears. Oh My!

June 28th, 2014

Guest Bloggers: Mary Reinthal, Julia Franceschi, and Liz Plascencia

Greetings from Smithers, British Columbia! It is day three on the road and we are less then 2 days away from arriving at our field site – Pillow Ridge here we come! So far we have seen an array of fascinating geological features, including massive walls of pillow lavas, dikes, glacial deposits, and water falls all at Wells Gray Provincial park. The stunning landscape and picturesque views have impressed all of us.

20140627-234355-85435269.jpg Roadside geology where the crew is looking at a dike that intrudes tuff-breccia at Second Canyon in Wells Gray Provincial Park. Photo credit: Liz Placenscia

20140627-235010-85810903.jpgHere’s an example of a pillow lava with a fractured glass rind, like the ones we’ll see in Pillow Ridge.

20140627-235333-86013931.jpg We also got to see a few of the 39 named Wells Gray waterfalls, like this one, Spahats Falls, with its fantastic columnar-jointed lava flows.

20140628-000004-4876.jpg Three bears have been sighted on the trip thus far. Here’s one that we saw along the side of the road, munching on some grass. Photo credit: Liz Placenscia

Last day of work at the Natural History Museum, and some special visitors

June 25th, 2014

pdt16846 copyLONDON, ENGLAND — I know it is an acquired taste, and way too esoteric, but I think the above scanning electron micrograph is beautiful. This is an undescribed species of the cyclostome bryozoan Corynotrypa from the Upper Ordovician Bromide Formation of Oklahoma. There are all sorts of juicy details in this image that tell us about the growth and development of this extinct colonial organism, its paleoecology, and even its evolutionary relationships. It is also just plain exquisite. Paul and I had a productive and enjoyable time scanning this and several other Ordovician bryozoan specimens in our exploration of the early cyclostomes.

Paul and I stumbled upon something very surprising in our scanning this morning. We think it is potentially significant. Sorry for the tease, but we’re not ready to announce it yet. I just want to say again that we had a very good day of science!

Davis family 062514This afternoon we had great visitors to the Natural History Museum in London and its behind-the-scenes collections. From the left is Hudson Davis, his grandfather the prominent structural geologist George Davis (Wooster ’64), another grandson named, curiously, George Davis, and Merrily Davis. Paul (on the far right) gave all of us an excellent tour of the museum, including special collections and an emphasis on the awesome bryozoans. Paul and I were very impressed at how well prepared the Davis family was for this experience. They had excellent questions and a deep appreciation for natural history. It was also good to see a bit of Wooster here!

Photo by George Davis.

Photo by George Davis.

B.C. Bound Part II: Here’s to Not Getting Eaten by Bears

June 25th, 2014

Guest Bloggers: Julia Franceschi and Mary Reinthal

A little over a week ago at Spoon market in downtown Wooster, we met our research collaborators from Dickinson College. Although it was the first time we met rising junior Liz Plascencia and Dr. Ben Edwards, after a little talking and a lot of food, it seemed like we had known them for years.

It turns out Liz is just like us: she loves the outdoors, she doesn’t want to get eaten by a bear in the field (*potentially*) and, of course, she loves rocks. It was a good sign for the weeks to come, because together, we prepared mentally and physically for the impending two-week trip to British Columbia, Canada (maybe not mentally, but we definitely went to the gym together).


Pillow Ridge in British Columbia has exceptional pillow lava exposure. These pillows were created by subglacial volcanic features, and were subsequently sheared by a retreating glacier, thus making for an excellent work site to study these lavas. It is our hope to observe, characterize, and model the pillow-dominated area for reconstruction of the stratigraphy, and study a variety of pillow samples for geochemical analysis.

So in the weeks preceding the trip to Pillow Ridge, Wooster students Adam Silverstein, Mary Reinthal, Julia Franceschi (and of course Liz) did a lot of preparation from previously collected samples from the area. We made pressed pellets, fused glass beads, picked glass chips for volatile analysis. It wasn’t all physical work. Sometimes we read papers on pillow lavas for three hours in Broken Rocks over coffee with Dr. Pollock. Sometimes we did equipment checks and learned how to use a Brunton compass. It was a very “independent minds working together”-type atmosphere, but everyday was a lot of fun. See below for an exciting array of pictures portraying the lab work. 

This is the much talked about Liz Plascencia (with 9/10 of Adam Silverstein). They are in the process of weighing samples.

This is the much talked about Liz Plascencia (with 9/10 of Adam Silverstein). They are in the process of weighing samples.

This is a happy teaching moment at the XRD. Pictured is the one and only Dr. Pollock, and one of the tree-ring-lab students, rising sophomore Sarah McGrath.

This is a happy teaching moment at the XRD. Pictured is the one and only Dr. Pollock, and one of the tree-ring-lab students, rising sophomore Sarah McGrath.

This is rising Junior Mary Reinthal doing major and trace element graphs on Excel. Doesn’t she look happy? Because she loves geology, that’s why.

This is rising Junior Mary Reinthal doing major and trace element graphs on Excel. Doesn’t she look happy? Because she loves geology, that’s why.

Julia Franceschi of the class of 2016 is packing equipment with incredible skill. This girl knows camping.

Julia Franceschi of the class of 2016 is packing equipment with incredible skill. This girl knows camping.


Having accomplished a lot in the past couple of weeks together, we are now preparing in the last hours to fly out to Vancouver. Together we make an interesting team. We range in field experience from beginner to advanced. We have put in a lot of work, and are now ready for “roughing it” in the field. We have our tents packed and our ugly sweaters prepared. Ready or not, British Columbia, the Wooster and Dickinson crew are coming. And we are prepared to make memories and come back more knowledgeable than when we left (or at least with better thigh muscles/definition). Here’s to a new adventure!

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