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A visit to the Rochester Shale

June 1, 2015

As I began to do research for my recent illustration showing Silurian environments of Ontario (see previous post), I soon came across the excellent website Primitive Worlds – a site that shows many exquisitely-preserved Rochester Shale fossils from a private quarry near Middleport, NY.  I corresponded with a couple of the quarry collectors who shared more photos with me, and I in turn licensed part of my illustration for the new book the collectors put together about their Rochester Shale fossils.

This collaboration led to an opportunity for me to visit the quarry, a short road trip I made this past weekend.

The Caleb Quarry

The Caleb Quarry

The quarry is in an idyllic location for fossil collecting; it’s surrounded by trees and is set back from the road so (when the heavy equipment and rock saws aren’t operating) it’s quite peaceful. The group of collectors who use the quarry have established a relationship with the property owner; the quarry is not open to the public. I felt fortunate to have been invited there.

photo 2

The Caleb Quarry

As you can see from the photos, there is water on the ground and the sky is gray; I chose the coldest, rainiest, day of May to schedule my visit! Normally, I welcome cloud cover and cool weather if I’m going to spend the day crawling around a quarry collecting fossils, however, the constant rain combined with the unseasonably low temperature made things pretty muddy and uncomfortable. Because of the weather, I didn’t do nearly as much collecting as I would have liked, but I still enjoyed the experience and I didn’t come away empty-handed.

Here are a few of my finds. These are common fossils from the quarry; nothing rare or especially remarkable. It’s about what I’d expect for an hour or two of surface collecting in an unfamiliar place.





tabulate coral

tabulate coral

horn coral

horn coral

crinoid calyx

crinoid calyx

My photographs of the fossils are nowhere near as good as the photos Paul Chinnici carefully created for the aforementioned book. Paul and Kent Smith, the other author of The Silurian Experience, kindly braved the chilly drizzly day to show me the quarry. Over the years, Paul, Kent, and the other Caleb Quarry collectors have amassed a hard-won knowledge of when, where, and how to extract the various fossils in the most effective ways; it was interesting to hear about their methods.

Here we are:

Kent, myself, and Paul.

Kent, myself, and Paul. I can’t believe Kent was wearing short sleeves!

The book The Silurian Experience is a real labor of love and would appeal to paleontologists as well as collectors. It’s available in hard cover or spiral bound format here. Not only does it contain many high quality photos of the quarry’s fossil fauna, it also includes a chapter written by paleontologist Carlton Brett about the stratigraphy and paleoenvironment of the Rochester Shale. Dr. Brett has an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge on the subject, as well as on other formations of the Niagara Escarpment; he gave me invaluable assistance as I prepared the illustration of Silurian environments. I’ll say more about the illustration in a future post.

Mural of Ontario’s Silurian environments at Giant’s Rib Discovery Centre

May 12, 2015

May 25 EDIT: Please note, this Grand Reopening is CANCELLED and will be rescheduled for a different date. I’ll post details when I know them.

On June 6, the Giant’s Rib Discovery Centre in Dundas, Ontario will have an event to celebrate two milestone anniversaries and to showcase its recent redesign, including the addition of a mural that I’ve been working on for the last four months. The large illustration shows three different Silurian environments of Southern Ontario: A muddy bottom community (The Rochester Shale), a reef (The Guelph Formation) and near-shore lagoon (The Williamsville Formation). Here are a few bits of the mural as a preview:

details from mural

Details from mural “Silurian environments of Ontario” © Emily S. Damstra

All are invited to attend the June 6 Grand Re-Opening. Details are here.

The Rochester Shale portion of the mural also appears in the soon-to-be-released book The Silurian Experience by Paul Chinnici and Kent Smith, with a chapter by Carlton Brett. Details and ordering information may be found here. Paid pre-orders are discounted $10.

Fishes named after animals

April 8, 2015

Today I came across this article showing lovely photographs of 15 different animals that have been named after food. The fried-egg jellyfish is spectacular! I also think the pineapple fish is wonderful. The garlic bread sea cucumber seems a bit of a stretch, though.:)

It reminded me of my mental list of fishes that are named after mammals: catfish, dogfish, redhorse, sheepshead, lion fish, hogsucker, sea horse, zebra danio. Some of these I’ve illustrated, including this redhorse and this seahorse:

Of all my fish illustrations in the book, this Shorthead redhorse is one of my favorite.

Shorthead redhorse © Emily S. Damstra

1/25 OZ Pure Gold Coin - Seahorse - designed by Emily S. Damstra

1/25 OZ Pure Gold Coin – Seahorse – designed by Emily S. Damstra

Then it occurred to me that somewhere on the internet, surely someone has posted a more comprehensive list. I immediately found this Wikipedia page listing not only fishes that are named after mammals, but fishes that are named after reptiles, amphibians, birds, mythical animals, invertebrates, other fishes, and more! It does not include a list of fishes that are named after plants or foods; but I bet there are others besides the aforementioned pineapple fish.

I decided to search for a list of mammals named after fishes….but no luck. Anyone know of any?

Taxonomist Appreciation Day: Use taxonomy to meet your hero? Ferdinando Boero did!

March 19, 2015

In 2003 I was illustrating animals for Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia; while doing research for the chapter on hydrozoans (relatives of  jellyfish), I learned that one of the species I was to illustrate was named after Frank Zappa. As it happened, the author of the Hydrozoa chapter was the same man who’d described and named that species. Italian scientist Ferdinando Boero (who enthusiastically provided me with guidance for the illustrations) had named one of these animals with the hopes that he’d be able to meet the musician. Of his plan to use taxonomy to meet his hero, Boero said:

“My strategy was a simple one:
that fauna was (and is) not well known;
I would find some new species for sure;
once I had found them I would have to give them a name;
I would dedicate one of them to FZ;
I would tell him about it;
He would invite me for a visit.”

He not only met FZ, but ended up on stage with him! Zappa even honored Boero with this song. You can find the whole crazy story here.

Here is my painting of the medusa stage of Phialella zappai:

Phialella zappai illustration © Emily S. Damstra

Phialella zappai illustration © Emily S. Damstra

You can see my painting of the polyp stage of Phialella zappai at here my website.

Great quote about art and science

March 4, 2015

Last weekend I visited the McMichael Collection with the Southern Ontario Nature and Science Illustrators to see the exhibit “Vanishing Ice.” As described in the promotional material, this exhibit “…offers a glimpse into the rich cultural legacy of the planet’s frozen frontiers. International in scope, it traces the impact of glaciers, icebergs, and fields of ice on artists’ imaginations. The exhibition explores connections between generations of artists who have adopted different styles, media, and approaches to interpret the magical light and fantastic shapes of ice.” Occasionally throughout the exhibit, a quote related to the subject was emblazoned on the gallery wall. One such quote caught our eye. It’s from a 1937 letter to Admiral Richard Byrd written by David Abbey Paige, who was the official artist on Admiral Byrd’s second expedition to Antarctica:

I believe that after the heroic part of the expedition has been forgotten, these colour records which I have will long be remembered by the future generations. I say this as a student of history: art and science always are more successful when they are joined together, because without graphic illustrations of its results, science is less comprehensive and sometimes very dry. All through the ages, the civilized world has left its best results graphically whether in print or in pictorial form.

Well spoken!

One of my favorite artists, Caspar David Friedrich, was represented in this exhibit with his piece “The Sea of Ice” or “Wreck of the Hope” though it seemed a rather dull reproduction of the original painting:

The piece that made the biggest impression on me was a large painting of a beautifully rendered block of ice with some penguins on it by Alexis Rockman. See it in this slideshow of the artist’s work (#5).

This piece by Spencer Tunick prompted much discussion with others in my group. Six hundred naked people lying down on a glacier! I hope it didn’t take too long for the photographer to direct that shot….

Danger! A beaver spies a wolf and warns others

February 16, 2015
$50 for $50 fine silver coin - Beaver (2015) - designed by Emily S. Damstra

$50 for $50 fine silver coin – Beaver (2015) – designed by Emily S. Damstra

The Royal Canadian Mint is now shipping this silver coin bearing my illustration of a beaver about to slap the water with its tail to warn other beavers in the colony of potential danger. Beavers do this when they detect the sound or the scent of a potential predator, such as a bobcat, a human, or in this case, the wolf standing on the shore in the background. This warning will prompt other beavers to seek the shelter of the pond.

A clearer, nicer image may be seen at the Mint’s website here.

This coin comes in a folded cardstock “package” bearing an image of the coin’s reverse on the front:

package front - $50 for $50 fine silver Beaver (2015)

package front – $50 for $50 fine silver Beaver (2015)

And on the inside, my original drawing:

package inside - $50 for $50 fine silver Beaver (2015)

package inside – $50 for $50 fine silver Beaver (2015)

The Mint’s talented engravers used this illustration to make the coin. The drawing of trees and branches that surrounds my coin illustration was done by someone else; unfortunately the packaging does not identify that artist.

Someone recently asked me what my favorite coin is (that I’ve designed), and I replied that my three favorites include this beaver, about to slap its tail. (The other two favorites are here and here).

The Mottled Duskywing life cycle: one reason Your Camera Won’t Steal My Job

January 6, 2015
Life cycle of the Mottled Duskywing butterfly © Emily S. Damstra

Life cycle of the Mottled Duskywing butterfly © Emily S. Damstra

Last summer, a local scientist developing a recovery strategy for the endangered Mottled Duskywing butterfly (Erynnis martialis) commissioned me to illustrate the life cycle of the insect. Apparently these types of reports usually include photographs, however,  she was unable to find adequate photos of every life stage, which is why she contacted me. I was delighted at the opportunity to illustrate an invertebrate and grateful for a chance to demonstrate why illustration is sometimes a much better choice than photography. In this instance, even if my client had been able to find photos of a typical example of every life stage, the images would all have had different lighting, the lighting may have been uneven or inadequate, parts of the subject may have been out of focus or obstructed, and unnecessary background elements may have been distracting. Additionally, she may have had to seek publication rights from several different photographers.

By working with an illustrator, my client could provide guidance and feedback along the way to result in a single image that concisely conveys all of the information she wants to include. With an illustration, I was able to eliminate all unnecessary information, make each element consistent in terms of lighting, detail, and style, and arrange them in a logical and pleasing way in a small space. Some parts of the illustration are based on written descriptions because there were no reference photographs available.

For more reasons why photography cannot replace illustration, read 5 Reasons Your Camera Won’t Steal My Job at Scientific American’s Symbiartic blog. Photography is a wonderful thing but it has its limitations.

As a bonus, this assignment took me out of the studio and into “the field” – a favourite part of my job. It is an uncommon instance when a subject I need to illustrate is actually available locally and it happens to be the right season to find it. My client gave me directions to a local population of New Jersey Tea, which was a pleasant hike through a natural area during the perfect time of year to find the species blossoming. I was able to take numerous reference photos of the Mottled Duskywing’s host plant from the angle I wanted to illustrate it. While there are many photographs of Ceanothus americanus online, none are taken from the angle I needed and none show the entire plant from its base.


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