The 2012 Hallowe’en Taphonomy Experiment: five versus the decay

CF Braban, J H Braban and, AJ McGowan,


In 2011 and 2012 the early pioneering experimental work of McGowan et al. was repeated with a  wider, and more interesting variety of vegetables and fruit to begin a systematic assessment of which may be most suitable for use as a Hallowe’en Tumshie to strike fear into neighbours most and create a long-lasting sense of unease for the longest period under Central Scottish meteorological conditions. The 2011 experiment pitted the neep agin, pumpkin and celeriac – as the celeriac is a fine vegetable and yay it won. The 2012 experiment expanded into taxa not routinely grown in Scotland. Five taxa comprised the starting field o’ 5: turnip, pumpkin, celeriac, pineapple and melon. The turnip probably won as it became old wizened and scary and sat on the shed for the longest, though the celeriac was a close second.  The pineapple was fab as after an initial period of watery decay it became a type of leather which weathered almost as well as the tumshie lantern and the celeriac.  The melon proved to be quite fragile and showed  brittle fracture properties after falling off the shed early in the experiment. It also then proceeded to decay rather quickly. As ever the pumpkin decayed into a pile of splat before all the other competitors (except the melon) were even looking particularly aged. This raises significant ethical questions about the sale of pumpkins for anything other than soup-making by retailers in Scotland.

Key words

Silly, vegetable, fruit, taphonomy, experiment, Halloween


After much whinging by Braban & Braban (lengthy personal communications 2011 onwards) that the experimental set-up was biased against any attractive, edible subjects, the methodology established in previous work (McGowan et al. 2010) was usurped, as McGowan was out of the country.

In 2011 a minor expansion of the 2010 McGowan et al. experiment with but in 2012, Braban & Braban took it upon themselves to blow the consumables budget, while using unauthorized suppliers not on the procurement system, to obtain five specimen taxa. In addition to the previously studied neep (Brassica napobrassica), [Linnean taxonomy is required due to the lack of clear geographical localization of the use of 'neep'], pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) and celeriac, a fine vegetable [P. Griffiths.personal communication] and (Apium graveolens var. rapaceum), fruit were added to the experimental matrix. A watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) and pineapple (Ananas comosus). AJM seeks to distance himself from these regrettable choices, especially given the lack of comparability in the structure and chemical composition of the fruit. You don’t grow watermelon to feed sheep on the fell over the winter. The tenuous selection criterion for these candidates was that they were of appropriate size and shape for carving a tumsie lantern from, although this assertion was unsupported by morphometric analyses. The array of lanterns looked great on Hallowe’en.


On the 31st October all the taxa had a  transverse cut made to expose the inner tissues of the subjects. The innards were scooped out, a ghoulish visage cut out, and a tea light placed inside.  The edible materials were devoured using the ‘Cannibal Ferox’ protocol . The finished lanterns are then placed on the relatively flat Braban/McGowan experimental site (aka the shed roof). On the evening of the 31st October, the candles were lit until JHB’s bedtime (about 2100 on this exciting night). Then the candles are removed and the tumshie lanterns left to decay. CFB is less than rigorous so if subjects got blown off once or twice they got put back up on the shed.  At the end of the experiment the remains were put in the Braban/McGowan compost bin.  Well, except for the turnip, which is now in AJM’s study, looking all too like a shrunken head (see SOM). The heads, you’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far, he’s the first one to admit it..

Results and Discussion

2010: See McGowan et al. blog post ~2 years ago…

2011: The photos from this experiment are on a broken camera, they will be published at a future date. However the result was that the celeriac won! Turnip second and the pumpkin last.

2012: The results are summarised in the photos. –

Decaying sujects

Figure 1: Time series of decay of subjects. Dates from top to bottom: 1) Day 1: 31/10/2012; 2)Day 36: December 6th; 3)
Day 46: December 16th; 4) Day 54: December 22nd; 5) Day 68: Jan 4th;
6) Day 82: Feb 16th

Final photos: The end to the experiment was called on the 16th February 2013, with the turnip tumshie declared the winner!

Conclusion and Future work

The neep rules supreme for a second run of the experiment, calling in to question the 2011 results. CFB has put in some appeal about the celeriac being too big this year, which only strengthens AJM’s comments about the lack of morphometric data included in the set-up of the experimental array. JHB was impressed by the durability of the pineapple, which is more than can be said for AJM about her choice of a watermelon as subject five.  Braban & Braban report that the pineapple was significantly more eerie than any of the other subjects. However, AJM notes that the limited sample size (n=2 and CFB is easily scared). CFB sees a potential boom in the Scottish aged Pineapple skin leather industry after this report.

The collapse of the pumpkin  for a third year running calls in to question whether this taxon should be sold in Central Scotland for the purposes of making lanterns.

The 2013 experiment is now in preparation and the critical shortcomings in data need to be addressed. An  experimental array of multiple specimens of each taxon, with morphometric and mass data, should remove confounding variables and settle this once and for all (AJM is down to do mot of the prep this time!!! CFB)



You can’t be serious.


CFB and JHB were greatly assisted by J. Neumann in preparing the subjects

Declaration: CFB declares no competing interests, but well she would, wouldn’t she? AJM has seen the letters from celeriac marketing board offering seeds. JHB declares that she thinks the pineapple was the scariest. AJM declares that this sort of abuse of scientific method is becoming rife and something must be done.

CFB and JHB designed the experiment. CFB took a lot of geotagged photos, that revealed the GPS unit on the phone was very confused about altitude. CFB, JHB and AJM wrote the paper. AJM procrastinated.

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Igor, release the pterosaurs! It’s BGS Doors Open Day!

Sign for BGS Open Day with pterosaurs

Fly my pterosaur beauties, fly!

The Edinburgh office of the British Geological Survey, where I am a visiting scientist, is holding its annual Doors Open Day on Saturday 28th September at Murchison House. Feel free to come along between 10 and 1700. We’ll be working from the core lab on Level 1.

I’ll be there to showcase our ongoing work on Save the Fishes!, a project to locate and rescue scientifically important fossil fish specimens that have ended up in paving slabs around the world. Some specimens were recovered last year from Edinburgh, including from the very doorstep of the parliament. Read more here on Tom Challands site Tom is actively researching the anatomy of these specimens with a range of techniques.

I’ll be helped by Claire Noble and Jordan Wright (School of Geographical and Earth Sciences) and Sally Wild, collections manager of the fossil collections at BGS in Edinburgh.

We now have our mobile fossil preparation lab in the final stages of assembly and we hope to be using chemical and mechanical preparation tools to start preparing the specimens soon. The equipment was bought with support from the University of Glasgow Chancellor’s Fund and BGS.

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The AT-ME project: blog and Twitter feed: coming soon

One of my other interests is far-from-help first aid and medicine. I’m involved in a project to explore the potential of using smartphones and light-weight sensors to help first-responders, especially those with on first-aid training, to deal with emergency situations. A sobering estimate made by St John Ambulance in 2010 is that around 150,000 preventable deaths occur in the UK because of a lack of basic first aid skills in the general population.

This interdisciplinary project arose from the Scottish Crucible 2012. We have an eclectic mix of researchers and practitioners, including computer scientists (Dr Verena Rieser and Dimitra Gkatzia of Heriot-Watt), a telemedicine specialist who has already adapted exercise heart rate monitors for use as lightweight ECG monitors (Dr Alasdair Mort, University of Aberdeen), a cognitive psychologist (Dr Michaela Dewar, University of Edinburgh) and myself and Sandy McSporran of the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow. Sandy is a first-aid trainer for the British Association of Ski Patrollers (BASP) and a member of Oban Mountain Rescue Team. I am not doing any palaeontology on the project but am the second, less experienced, ‘far-from-help practitioner’ on the strength of my training in remote first and and wilderness medicine through BASP and Wilderness Medical Training. My blog avatar shows me brushing up on my anatomy during break on an first-aid course at Glenmore Lodge ( being run BASP. I’ll be renewing my qualifications soon. You can see that the conditions for outdoor first aid, even in the carpark, are a pretty realistic training environment in winter.

First-aid training

Practicing outdoor first-aid skills in the January snows at Glenmore Lodge

We are hoping to run both ‘real-space’ and virtual workshops in the next few months, so if you are interested in this project, please get in touch and our AT-ME blog and Twitter feed should be going live soon.

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Alternative Carnethy 5: successful if slow completion

Last Saturday was a fine day for fell running, as atested by my clubmates who ran on the same day but a bit later. I had a good run up to Caerketton and then the descent on the long grassy rake from Allermuir to Swanston was fantastic. I even got a couple of moments of having the speed and co-ordination to briefly experience the sense of ‘take-off’ on the downhill stretch.

Sunday’s race along the beach at Portobello was held in the first ‘storm’ of the autumn but we set off to steeplechase our way across the groynes down to the Leisure Centre ramp and then out and back along the prom. I am the idiot in the running vest in the photos that accompany the race report.

You can read a set of reports of the various races on the Carnethy website.

The club has an eclectic mix of people who do a variety of things on the hills and off them, and sometimes manage to mix the two. The philosophical investigation by club members as to why the moon looked so large on the Wednesday night training run was worthy of the Lunar Society, although I suspect the dinner afterwards in KB was not as lavish.

We expect a fair turnout for the award of prizes this Wednesday evening after the training run. Although my times were not fast, I did complete all five races, which is an achievement in itself.

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Running with the Carnethies

The Alternative Carnethy 5 started yesterday, so I was able to find out whether all the tramping across Svalbard with heavy packs and four-season boots translated into better hill-running.

The event consists of five races to be run between 0700 on the 11th and midnight on the 15th. The races are self-timed and can be done in any order within the time period. We get a handicap of our age squared divided by 60 (for me this means about 28 minutes is subtracted from my combined time).

Last night I took to the Blackford Hill area, where Agassiz found the first evidence of glacial striae, revealing that at some point glaciers had formed in Great Britain. However, last night I could only see as far as the headtorch’s beam. I could definitely feel improvements in my performance on the flat and climbing the sides of Blackford Glen.

Today I returned to my old haunts around Penicuik by bus to do a couple of the hill sections in the Pentlands. The Pentlands are a fantastic range of hills just south of Edinburgh. These are Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Hills of Home’ and sometimes I run in his footsteps to Swanston. I worked on a footpath round the back of Carnethy during my time with Team 06 in Pathcraft, so it is appropriate that I belong to the Carnethies.

Pentland Hills coverd with snow

Although small hills, the Pentlands can have a real mountain feel to them

I had to jog a couple of miles to the start point of the Turnhouse Uphill race, which went off OK and again, I felt pretty good. Didn’t manage to run the whole way but was pretty pleased with my time of 24:19.

I then had a rather wearying walk from Flotterstone along the A702 to Boghall, where I ascended up to the summit of Caerketton. I’d not been this particular route to Caerketton before but it lacks the amazing views of the routes across from Allermuir or up from Hillend.

The descent from Caerketton was definitely the most fun I had. It is a pretty steep descent on grass, so some bumsliding was in order and I did get a couple of good runs. Made it down in 15:41. However, the course record for the 1.8 km, 300m descent is 5:04! I see a load of new age category records were set last night but I was glad just to get down in time for the bus.

Two more to do. Back on the North Pentlands skyline for Allermuir and Caerketton and then the grand finale on Sunday morning at Portobello beach.

Thanks to the course designers: Mark Johnston (Caerketton), Helen Bonsor (Braids), Andy Fallas (Turnhouse), Jim Hardie (Allermuir) and Digby (Portobello) and Bob Johnson (Club Secretary) for doing the sums prior to work out how we all did.

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Prof. Mike Benton on Radio 4′s ‘The Life Scientific’

Mike Benton of the University of Bristol and the current President of the Palaeontological Association was interviewed today on by Jim Al-Khalili.

I particularly enjoyed Mike’s discussion of his school days in Aberdeen. He explained the tendency of Scottish schools to get their pupils to apply to their ‘home’ university in the days before UCAS. Even in the late 1980s this was still common.

He also talked about his early research career and hitch-hiking out to Elgin to work on specimens.

Mike was instrumental in getting me back to university when I applied for the M. Sc. in Palaeobiology that Bristol started running in the late 1990s.

You can find the programme here

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A Field in Svalbard


While my primary goal up on Svalbard was the pursuit of fossils and accompanying geological data, this did not completely excluded other aspects of natural history.

I saw my first ever snow buntings the day I arrived in Longyearbyen, a colour-ringed wader that I still need to identify from my photos and send in the record to EURING, a site that helps to collate sightings of ringed birds across Europe. One evening/night (it all got a bit confusing) Tom Challands and I spotted around 10 ptarmigan advancing down the slope above Guest House 102 and one came within about 10 metres of our window.

Ptarmigan bird in centre of photo

Spot the ptarmigan

I was also able to spend some time watching the Arctic Terns fishing in the lagoon area created by infilling pits that gravel and sand had been extracted from near the campsite by the airport.

Arctic Tern fishing

The lagoons at the base of the campsite at Longyearbyen are a nesting site for Arctic Terns.

However, the influence of my friend Dr Andy McMullen, who is a botanist who specialises in mosses and bryophytes was apparent in some of my photos. The prevalence of moss and lichen was impressive, even compared to upland Scotland. A couple of photos of flowering plants (never call them ‘higher’ plants!) that caught my eye are included.

Small white flower

A small white flower I came across


Pale poppy of Svalbard

The Svalbard Poppy: pale and interesting.


However, the star turn for me were the fungi. Although I can’t put names to any of them, they were striking for their size and muted colours.

More mushrooms but we also saw puffballs and other types

More mushrooms but we also saw puffballs and other types

Red mushrooms

Russet mushrooms at Lusitaniadalen campsite.

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So, Al, what was the most interesting thing you found out there on Svalbard?

Research on fossil specimens and data often seems to divide into two modes. Much of my career has been spent making mediocre-looking material work hard by gathering lots of information and then running a lot of computer analyses and statistical tests. I get tremendous satisfaction from this work but it is not always the easiest area of palaeontology to explain to others. I am part of the group of researchers who will show a lot of graphs, maps, evolutionary trees and equations in a paper or a talk but not many fossils.

The other mode of palaeontology always seems to have the glamour of exquisite finds from remote places that are subjected to intensive anatomical, chemical, physical and ultra/micro/structural* (*delete as applicable) analyses that can then be presented to others as a series of beautiful objects and animations that almost seem to tell their own story. More importantly, these objects often fit into an understandable narrative of being the oldest/biggest/best-preserved * (*delete as applicable) member of their group that can be grasped by anyone. Or so it seems when you’re battling to write computer code. Of course, the analyses involved also require a great deal of skill and knowledge but the outcomes often seem some much more clear-cut than the fog of error bars and ordination plots that represent much of my research,

The expedition to Svalbard has both of these elements. Some collections were made on a bed-by-bed basis, with careful notes being made about the geological succession. The outcome of that work is many months down the road but will probably be very informative about the recovery from the Late Permian mass extinction. Will Foster, whose Ph. D. research this represents, is working on those analyses.

For me, the most immediately interesting fossil found was the ammonoid specimen pictured below that was found in the scree slopes high above Deltadalen by Prof. Rich Twitchett. With fine understatement, he casually produced this ammonoid after he and Will had been out collecting a final set of samples before we left the area. The slab shows an ammonoid with the body chamber preserved. Some of the dark material looks as though it might be the jaws of the dead animal.


This specimen, which is probably from the Middle Triassic, may preserve the jaws of the dead animal. Watch this blog for updates!

I will be proposing a final year student project to investigate the specimen but if none of the students wants to investigate the material, the taskwill fall to me, with some help from Tom Challands (University of Edinburgh) to prepare the material and Peter Chung, our crack SEM operator in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, to help to study the specimen. In the meantime, I will get it under the old-fashioned steampunk stereomicroscope and try to get some close-up images.

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The Northern Lights of Old Longyearbyen

All team members have now returned safe and more or less sound to Longyearbyen and departed for points south and west.

Despite another set of walks with heavy packs in tough terrain, especially between Lusitaniadalen and Deltadalen, where we had a couple of major ravines to cross, plus a significant river, we managed to press on with the scientific work and got a lot of work done and hauled about 120 kg of specimens out on our backs.

We did a lot of fossil hunting in river sections, where we could improve our understanding of when events happened by working bed-by-bed.

Geologists working in Deltadalen

Working on small quarry for microvertebrate remains.

You can see me looking very pleased with a Early Triassic ammonoid in this photo. Otoceras is part of a family of ammonoids that have a quite different external morphology from any other group. The group survived the Late Permian mass extinction but never flourished after the event. This led Dave Jablonski to use them as an example of a ‘dead clade walking’ in his paper developing this idea
Palaeontologist with ?Otoceras

Al holds two parts of a large Early Triassic ammonoid, probably Otoceras.

. The blue skies and T-shirt show that we did have some good weather.

Another example of sunshine is this ‘low winter sun’ shot I was able to capture on CCD during one of my stints on bear watch.

Sunrise over mountains at Deltadalen

The sun rises over mountains to the north during my bear watch stint.

This is not the BBC’s latest nature programme but the armed guard we put up every night as a precaution against polar bear attack. We are certainly not at the apex of the food chain on Svalbard. As we did not have dogs with us, we had no choice but to lose a couple of hours sleep each night on ‘stag’ but it was time to think and observe natural phenomena other than the rocks and fossils.

We had a 10km walk back over patterned ground, flushes, scree and rivers to our pick-up at Vindodden (Windy Point). We had to relay gear and samples due to the weight. On the final leg out from Lusitaniadalen to our pick up point on the beach at Vindodden we camped at a halfway point in Belvederedalen. I was able to get my bivvy bag out and sleep under the one big star visible, Sol.

Bivvy bag on ground looking across fjord to glacier

The view from my bivvy to the NE. You can see the glacier on the top left.

The only drawback was that I could only have looked more like a seal by having a bivvy bag made of sealskin. Fortunately, bear watch worked! Actually, we never saw a single bear in all our time in the field.

We made it to Vindodden in good time but we knew the wind was picking up from the east, generating waves down the fetch of the fjord. We had already had to scrub one drop-off on the 18th due to such conditions. Vindodden has a number of weekend cabins and huts and it was not reassuring to see the people packing up and getting their boats out of the anchorage. Despite the conditions, our RIB came in ahead of time, we piled kit in and were lifted off to Longyearbyen.

Spent the last day posting off specimens back to our home institutions, eating, drinking and repairing the knackered bits of our bodies. My hands are a mess from tying boots with wet hands and feet a bit sore but otherwise I’m fine.

The one big change between leaving for the field on the 19th and our return on the 25th was that the lights are on in Longyearbyen. Winter and the days of night are coming.

Street lights in Longyearbyen

The street lights now are now on in Longyearbyen.

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Boat in, walk, tents, fossils, wet and broken tents, walk, boat out

Festningen leg of fieldwork was cut short by gale force winds and driving rain that hit Svalbard on the 13th. Our team was lifted off by a Zodiac away team from the Polargirl, a charter vessel that was visiting Barentsburg in Groenfjorden around 1330 local time on the 14th. This saved us from another night out.

The gales flattened two tents and caused damage to Tom’s tent, which took a lot of pole repair work that involved sawing up part of one of my walking poles, using all the other tent repair sleeves and about 20 metres of duct tape.

We had headed out on the 12th into rainy conditions and an unexpectedly long walk from Kokerineset, where the water supply from Barentsburg is pumped. We had hoped to be dropped at, around 1 km from our camp site but instead we ended with a 6 km walk. We had to cache some equipment on the walk in, which was successfully retrieved later by myself and Torran.

Landing at Kokerineset

Unloading the RIB. I’m the one in the helmet with back to camera

The night of the 12th saw us settled in and we saw a number of whales breaching and spouting in the fjord. This gave those on bearwatch something less threatening to view.

By the morning it had become colder and snow was falling and lying. We opted to head out and examine the coastal sections of Carboniferous, Permian and Triassic rocks in the bays to the west of our campsite. We had considerable success in finding new fossil material, some of which is already in the post back. However, by the time we returned to camp, the winds had struck.

After doing what we could to get warm, dry (or at least drier) and fed, it was decided that the best course of action was to request an early extraction from the field. However, we were not the only party in need of extraction. All available boats were all committed to get other people out. Our only hope of getting back to Longyearbyen that day was a rapid move to the coast to the east of Festningen,

Festningen (The Fortress)

Festningen (The Fortress) A wall of rock that rises from the sea.

with wet gear and about an extra 15 kg of samples. This meant a system of relays of kit. Everyone made the final push to the coast across fell and flood, while watching the red and white vessel that would lift us off moving down the fjord. The slightly surreal aspect of the operation was that Barentsburg’s phone relays gave use full mobile phone coverage (hence the tweets from others), so the captain of the Polargirl called us up to say we had been sighted.

We regrouped around a derelict hut, having passed old traps for Arctic fox. The hut would have been given our tents some more shelter if we hadn’t made the pick-up or the Polargirl was not able to get a Zodiac to us. However, we made it to a point that the Zodiac team, with some fantastic boat-handling, could reach us on the shore and rescue us. We loaded up and got out, while being filmed on the GoPro camera of the Zodiac away team. The crew of the Polargirl were incredibly kind and modest about the help they gave us. We were put up in the crew’s mess area, fed and left to rest. I am no skald but this will have to serve as their mention in a saga. They are now out of the story but fondly in our memories. You can see their vessel here.

The charter vessel Polargirl

This is the vessel that we were lifted off by. Big thanks to the crew.

We’ve spent the last few days re-equipping, writing up our findings from Festningen and sorting out specimens. We return to the field in the Deltadalen area today, as planned. On this leg we have a staggered walk, stopping at Lusitaniadalen, leaving a cache and then moving on to Deltadalen on the morning of the 19th. Here’s hoping that science runs with us. It may be shorts weather in Longyearbyen today but we’ll pay for it later.

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