Sunday, 11 March 2018

Argentina 2018: Patagonian adventures

I've recently returned from my most recent field work excursion, again to Argentina. However. this time I was not with Anjali, but with Alejandro Otero with whom we are currently collaborating on a project on Mussaurus as part of the DawnDinos research that I am a part of. As such I would not be returning to Salta Province, I would be heading much further south. To Patagonia.

Flights from London to Trelew took the better part of 30hrs (including layovers in Rome and Buenos Aires), and when I touched down in Trelew I had flown about 8500 miles/13700 km.

Thankfully it all went off without a hitch and my bag rapidly arrived in an amazing little airport filled with dinosaurs and fossils.

Baggage claim
Dinosaur diorama
Some of the vertebrate fossils
This is due to the local museum, the Museo Paleontol√≥gico Egidio Feruglio (MEF for short) being one of the primary tourist attractions in the city. The MEF may not mean much to you, but you probably will have heard about its star dinosaur, Patagotitan (also known as the biggest dinosaur in the world and co-star in Attenborough and the giant dinosaur). Patagotitan is an enormous dinosaur belonging to the sauropod family, which also includes things like Diplodocus (as in Dippy from the Natural History Museum), Brachiosaurus etc. which are all famous for their large sizes, and highly elongated necks and tails. Patagotitan is just crazily big (photo with me and its leg here taken inside the MEF), and the American Museum of Natural History in New York has a great mount with its body in one hall, and its head popping out into the next corridor (photo of me with it here). If you are in the USA and want to see one, a newer (apparently more accurate mount) is appearing in the near-ish future in Chicago at the Field Museum in the main hall where SUE the T. rex used to be on display.
The house of the grand dinosaur. They are building an extension to the museum to house Patagotitan.
The MEF also happened to be home base for most of the equipment, the technician (Mariano), and Diego Pol (also a collaborator on our project, who would join us later in the trip), so it was here that I would go after dropping my bag into a hotel room for the night to help load the vehicle for the trip. In fact most of the equipment is stored in an amazing old factory/warehouse where wool used to be processed. Now it is home to Patagotitan bones, many moulds, and the casts that are going into making the new Chicago mount.

Patagotitan vertebrae moulds, with the wool processing machines in the background
Alejandro, Mariano and I loaded the vehicle, got an early night, and were on the road at 7am the next day. We drove from Trelew southbound, first through fairly flat plains dominated by yellow grasses, and small bushes ranging from greens to dried out browns and purples. The roads here are regularly lined with rhea (known locally as nandu or choique), guanacos (llama relatives), and tinamous.

Awful picture of a rhea
There is a fox here (promise)

As you approach Comodoro, the flat plains disappear into hills and gulleys as you drop down onto the coast and continue to Caleta Olivia and cross from Chubut Province into Santa Cruz Province. The 3 highway from Comodoro to Caleta Olivia (and the bit just beyond) may be one of the most beautiful coastal roads (we had nice relatively nice weather, suspect in winter it would be less beautiful) and we saw a range of birds, sea lions on the beach and whale spouts in the distance. Another hundred or so kilometres down the road we got to Tres Cerros which was the last spot for internet, paved roads, and true running water we would see before we turned off onto some dirt roads.

Another couple of hours, including brief moments spotting foxes and armadillos, and we hit the estancia we were staying at, which whilst basic, still had rooms we stayed in (sleeping bags on the floor style), gas burners for cooking, fresh water, and a toilet flushed by buckets of water. Not bad really. This was base camp for the next 12 days. The next day we were joined by 3 others (Adriana Mancuso, Claudia Marsicano, and Roger Smith) who had worked on the site in 2012/2013 when it had last been visited.

Cannot fault the sunrises and sunsets in Patagonia
We were working in an area known as El Tranquilo (The Tranquil). The locations are all Triassic/Jurassic in age, and have plant fossils above and below (actually the reason the sites were found back in the 1950s/60s), with basal sauropodomoprhs being the dominant vertebrate fossils. Sauropodomorphs is the larger family which includes sauropods (long necks and tails return), but includes some earlier forms that tend to have shorter necks and are much smaller (previously known as the prosauropods). In El Tranquilo the main sauropodomorph is Mussaurus. The site is home to a full growth series from eggs to adults, but the first individuals found were the young ones ranging from hatchlings to juveniles. It is these young ones that were the inspiration for the name Mussaurus which translates as mouse lizard (due to the small size of the little ones).

Over the next two days we would focus on one of the sites where a skeleton had previously been excavated (the hole is still very visible) and prospected, with finds of bits of skull, a new partial skeleton, some bits of eggs and plenty of plant fossils.

Plant fossil
Plant fossils
Bits of two articulated vertebrae
We moved onto another location that was also well known where there was an abundance of fossil bones, several nests of eggs, and a beautiful 3D skull (you'll just have to wait for this one, and it is worth it).

Fossil egg shell
Rhea egg shell
Bits of dinosaur bone
In between walking through the fossil rich areas, you would regularly come across stone tools (scrapers, debitage-the unwanted flakes produced during stone working, and even an arrowhead).

Whilst in the field we were joined by Paul Sereno and a group of his friends from Oklahoma who were doing a motorbike trip from Chile down to the southern tip of Argentina. In return they very kindly brought us beer (in a suitcase full of ice). After a week of not having any cold food/drinks due to our fridge/freezer not working, a cold beer was amazing. They were an interesting group from a range of walks of life, with some having bought a large area of land that has dinosaur fossils and actively engaging young Native Americans (who are typically really under represented at university and in higher degrees) and teaching them about the land/natural history. The group was back on the road the next morning and the rest of us returned to the field.

The team out in the field
Over the next few days more bits were found, but most of the areas seemed prospected out. As such a few people continued to prospect, whilst Ale, Mariano and I returned to an old skeleton that had been winter jacketed a few years ago. Basically a plaster/burlap jacket was made over the top of the exposed skeleton to protect it from the elements and it was left in the field to be collected. We dug around the skeleton exposing the limits where a few ribs extended the previously jacketed limit, then trenched around the whole area, and then re-jacketed it.

Successful workers
Inevitably this was the final day, and the last hours went quickly. As we got ready to take a photo of the group before heading off, Diego was found lying on the ground in an area we had prospected past several times (as had the field trips years before). Typically he had done the usual thing and found one of the best fossils right at the end, in this case a nest of eggs, with tiny embryonic bones in at least one of the eggs. Whilst not the first at the site, it didn't make it any less amazing to see!

The rest of the day went by in a hurry as everything was packed and we had our final asado (Argentine BBQ/grill) with the locals who owned/maintained the estancia. Then it was up bright and early and on the road at 7am for the long return back to Trelew, getting back in at 7pm and getting into the hotel to have a proper shower. First one since leaving Trelew to go to the field (ignoring 2 buckets of water and some baby wipes), and it took a few rinses to finally get all the dirt out. Ale and I had dinner in the old hotel in town and got an early night. The next day we unloaded all of the equipment and fossils from the dig, and then I got to have an explore around the museum. What an awesome little museum!

Main dinosaur hall of the MEF with various sauropods, the Patagotitan leg (left) and Giganotosaurus dominating the middle
Then it was onto a plane, another plane, another plane and I was back in snowy England at 11pm, trying to clear immigration and customs before jumping the last cab to leave Terminal 4 at Heathrow and get home sometime just before 1.

S. Atlantic from Trelew
Buenos Aires at night
Snowy touchdown in London

It was a great trip and I've been invited again, although I am not sure when they will next be doing a big explore there (although bones were found in some new rocks on the last day that need more searching). Patagonia is beautiful, and the food, drinks and people are always amazing. If you ever get the chance to go, do it, although maybe skip the 12 hour drives!

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Caution: Animals may bite

So the past 6 months have been absolutely manic as many people may have known. For those of you who don't know the reason, it was possibly the worst kept secrets at the vet college. Crocodiles, Nile crocodiles. We had been working with a group of them trying to understand their locomotion across a range of behaviours (see the project website here). What this actually means is we had been trying to get crocodiles to walk, run, turn and jump in a runway or a treadmill (all work fully approved of by both the RVC in-house ethics board, and the UK Home Office). During these activities we were looking at the crocodiles' movements, and to get the best insights we used a combination of light videos, X-rays (to look at how the bones move during locomotion), force plates (to measure the forces exerted by the crocodiles on the ground as they move) and EMG (electromyography - measures muscle activity by measuring their electrical activity).

And when I am talking about working with crocodiles, everyone instantly thinks of the famously enormous ones in the Masai Mara taking on wildebeest. It leads to an abundance of concern (the health and safety people had a field day), which is obviously healthy to have around animals that have dozens of teeth and eat meat. Let me allay fears now, or reduce how impressed you are about my awesomeness as the new Crocodile Dundee, these crocodiles were all small (all less than 2m and 7.5kg, with most less than 4kg). Why would we pick small ones? Besides the health and safety, and the difficulty in working and housing large crocodiles, small crocodiles actually exhibit a wide range of locomotor behaviours, including low walking/belly sliding, high walks, trotting/galloping, jumping, and climbing (ours regularly were found in the foliage added to their enclosures). As crocodiles get bigger, they are unable to perform some of the higher energy behaviours due to their increased weight .
One of the crocodiles looking out of the straight runway through an acrylic end
Crocodile showing off a high walk. Force plates just visible below the crocodile's neck, and the two X-ray systems receiving drums visible in the background.

Our work with them has now ended, and in the end we have something like 150 hours of working with the crocodiles and have collected some incredible data. There will be many months of analysing it, writing papers, and then combining the data into digital models of an "average" crocodile.

X-ray picture of a crocodile skull
However, it was not all smooth sailing. Working with animals is incredibly difficult (see post on felid field work), let alone mostly aquatic animals who tend to enjoy dominance in their environments. This means motivating them to walk (or run) on demand can be difficult. Or often, impossible. As such, we often had hours of crocodiles being nothing more than angry lumps refusing to do anything. This leads to great videos of stationary crocodiles, and increasingly delirious conversations between the people present.

For our data collection we also needed to move the crocodiles regularly from their enclosures to the research area, which undoubtedly meant lots of handling crocodiles. We were trained by crocodile experts in how to handle crocodiles safely (more for our safety than the crocs I think). Inevitably, I was the one who got it wrong one day trying to tape the jaws of our smallest crocodile shut (in the oral history of this story, she was far bigger, and I may have been doing some heroic act to save some small child). The tape slipped and the croc did what crocs do, and bit the nearest thing. Just this time it happened to be my finger. 
All taped up, finger still attached. The healed picture is even more disappointing so wasn't worth showing
No major damage (think cat bite), just a few punctures and a nice cut across the top of my finger which will leave a memorable scar. I had to go to the hospital to get it cleaned up and get my antibiotics. Funnily they had run out of tetanus jabs (in a walk in centre for minor injuries no less), and it has led to health and safety having to write a bunch of new forms (oops).

I have to say this was one of the more interesting and most frustrating parts of my career. However, the work continues on new things! Keep an eye out on the blog for future updates on our research, and crocodile updates.

A year to never repeat

For long term readers of my blog (thanks and apologies to you all at the same time), you know that I seldom talk about personal feelings linked to work, besides a post on the stress of finding jobs. And stress linked to the job is what I am going to talk about in this post. Academia has a mental health crisis that often goes undiscussed and overlooked (a study on it here). This post won't be me preaching how to manage it (read on and you'll see why). It is a discussion about why I am ready for my year to be over.

Work has been crazy. There is no better way to say it. I have enjoyed academia, particularly the flexible working hours and doing what I love. However, the part of the project I have been doing has meant that the hours are less flexible and have been long for months on end. Added to that is a lack of holidays. I haven't really been able to take a break of anything more than a 3 day weekend since February because doing so means stuff doesn't get done, and major deadlines are approaching. Add to that additional academic things like completing papers and work from previous projects, and the never ending search for a permanent position (I got awfully close to one) has meant that I am drained.

And it is noticeable. Not as much at work, where I hope the quality of my work hasn't decreased, but I have grumbled a lot about needing a break. I am still getting things done on the long hours, but I have not had a functional personal life since the end of July. I remember having a conversation with my boss early this year where I discussed trying to get a better work life balance (I was pretty exhausted by work at the end of last year too). Clearly I failed, and I am aware of what it has done to me. To friends and family who I have not seen much of I am sorry, but I am overwhelmed. When I get home after a day of work (or across weekends), I just want to be alone and shut down/relax. Chances are I am already feeling like awful and feeling like I am letting you down further that I really really don't want to be going out (I don't like people seeing me down, and it takes a lot of effort to hide). Relaxing doesn't come easily and I often have a drink to take the edge off. Sometimes it is many. This is particularly true after some of the things I have done at work which haven't been the most pleasant. I don't sleep properly anymore, the joyous combination of crappy sleep at night and just exhaustion/naps on the weekend. The lowest I got was the two nights in a row I actually cried myself to sleep (thankfully only those two).

I am not calling out for help and I think I am getting through the lowest bit, particularly now the workload lightens into the Christmas break. I got all of my side of things caught up and completed last week and I will get the better part of 10 days off with only some work to get done. I also hope people do not judge me for it (writing this has been hard and a worry that publishing it will affect my career). I am merely hoping to bring awareness and general conversation as no-one knows quite how low I have been. I have always encouraged friends with their issues to talk to others and I have not practised what I preached and have been the stereotypical academic suffering mental health issues.

In the New Year, I already have things I am looking forward to such as 2 trips away early in the year (ok, both work related, but a conference and a dig are different and far more enjoyable than the current workload). I will also be making sure that I actually get home at a reasonable hour and get out and do more things (even if it's exercise which has mostly been dropped, and is usually the first thing that goes when it gets busy). A request for anyone who reads this though, please don't look at me or treat me particularly differently. If you see me working long hours many days in a row again and drifting away, just encourage me to join in things (preferably ones that aren't always drinking), and accept (without kicking up a fuss) that sometimes I do just want to go home and do nothing.

I will be back blogging normally in the New Year (probably about the conference), and work will resume. Hopefully you all will have stuck around!