Thursday, 15 January 2015

Field work

So my roughly every 2 weeks for a blog post is running a bit behind, but I get to use my beloved fieldwork as the excuse. Indeed, this is the topic on which I am focussing this week.

For many palaeontologists around the world summer is the time of year when labs empty and the usually empty, great open rocky places become filled with sounds of digging and hammering. Except of course in the UK, or at least with regards to most vertebrate remains. The UK plays host to a great many talented palaeontologists, and through the years many amazing fossils have been found, but despite most of the country being great open spaces, the climate means that nearly all of the country (at least down south) is covered in vegetation. It's what makes England so beautiful, but sadly means that fossiliferous exposures are tough to come by.

Typical English countryside, sadly no rocks...
Because of this, there is little field work in the UK for most vertebrate palaeontologists for most of the year (barring any major and unexpected finds which sometimes involve small crews from a single university), which I believe to be a great shame for our palaeontological community. Do not get me wrong in saying that it is vital for palaeontologists to all do fieldwork. I am not, especially as it isn't for everyone, and I believe that this lack of fieldwork has allowed the UK to develop and flourish when it comes to developing a great suite of techniques for studying the many fossils that others around the world do find. What I am saying, is that fieldwork is a key component of palaeontology. At the end of the day all the techniques for studying fossils will eventually run dry if we do not keep supplying new material (be it new species, or new specimens of previously described species). It is also a shame for many of the budding palaeontologists here who, at least at Bristol, don't do any geological/palaeo fieldwork beyond the summer after the first year of undergraduate unless they originally pursue a geology degree. It narrows the scope of future work, and I believe it is to the palaeontological communities detriment if researchers don't understand the context from which their material came. I know there are other factors that need considering when it comes to fieldwork and organising it, whether at a course level, or a proper field season level and cost is perhaps the most prohibitive to any of it but should it not be thought of as an investment?

Anyway, enough of my ranting, and onto my experiences. I am one of the lucky ones in that I have had the pleasure of doing field work a few times and can't get enough of it (my experience is dwarfed by pretty much all students in the USA/Canada, and it would be cool to hear their experiences). If you are keen and willing there are a lot of opportunities out there that don't cost you money (beyond normally getting yourself to the location/crew). My first two adventures into the field arose from my volunteering in the Bristol prep lab. For the most part that was just acid prep work on the Bristol dinosaur but I worked hard and the preparator kindly spoke to some colleagues around the world for me about joining their crews. It was one of the great things about going through Bristol was that there are many many connections to other universities and Bristol palaeontologists seem to be everywhere. Anyway, the first trip was off to Montana to join the Museum of the Rockies crew (Jack Horner's bunch for those who don't know) in the Hell Creek Formation. I was only going for 2 weeks at the end of their season so knew I wouldn't be there making any crazy discoveries. Plus being a big guy I knew I would be the one getting to carry heavy things. I flew out to Montana where I was met at the airport by one of the crew, we picked up supplies and then drove out to join the crew. As far as field camps go (I'm told) it was fairly cushy with everyone tenting in a field, but a big kitchen tent, an outhouse, and a camper van which sometimes had wifi, and a small wooden house (to which people ran when tents were flattened in some of the thunderstorms).

MOR camp site in Montana, Hell Creek. circa July 2010
The crew was also quite large with about 10 of us (still convinced that a palaeo field season would make a fun reality show). My first field day I was taken to a site which had a triceratops face exploding out of the hill named Yoshi's trike after the finder. The nose horn (I believe) had been found down the hill and excavations had started exposing a few bones. Being a complete amateur with no experience I was stuck on the edge of the area and told to dig around an area. Over the next few days through no measure of skill but blind luck I found a few bits more bone, as did others around the small quarry and so the decision was taken to expand quarry.

Triceratops dig site. Large brow horn at bottom right
It was around then I believe I was told about how different bone sounds when you whack it with a pick axe. Of course I'd go on and find out in person when excavating I hit a chunk of the parietal with it. I believe there was no lasting damage ... Stupid frill being slightly higher than the rest of the skull. So the rest of the trip passed relatively quickly with various explorations around some other exposures, and with joyous weekend trips into town to shower and have a bed. Wasn't until the last day I found my first dinosaur tooth, a T.rex tooth next to the Triceratops skeleton. In fact the skeleton had turned out to be so big that we had to rebury part of it, and they spent the whole next field season digging up the rest. However, the whole experience was truly amazing, in no small part due to the people as much as the fossils. I was hooked and on the look for my next dino dig fix.

Me looking far too happy hammering in a shade guy line, before falling down the slope.
The next year I was to join Phil Currie and his University of Alberta crew out in Dinosaur Provincial Park and was one of the "core" people who was there for the entire 3 weeks in the park (they do digs in several places across the entire summer). The camp facilities were much the same as in Montana with individual tents for sleeping, then a big communal tent for cooking (although the meat was cooked on a fire), and one for all the fossils. The site is by a river next to an old farm house known as Happy Jacks. Picturesque most of the year, although the river was so close to overtopping the banks for the first few days, so it was a little unnerving to start.

View to the East, Happy Jack Camp, June 2011.
But most of the season was spent digging up a relatively complete Daspletasaurus found the year before. The skull, most of the thorax, pelvis and left leg were all there.

Daspletosaurus skeleton. Skull to left, ribs and vertebrae top left, pelvis right. Photo from Phil Currie.
However, the rains were prevalent occurring pretty much every other day. As such getting to the main site was difficult (it was 5km away) over some rough terrain that wasn't doable in the trucks in the wet. This gave us quite a bit of time to go explore and prospect in pairs. Found some bones, a claw, and a bunch of tyrannosaur teeth.

Caenagnathus claw I found, just missing the tip. Now on the Dinosaur 101 course at University of Alberta

The trip also gave me a chance to spend some time with people working on other things. I trekked all over the badlands with an ichnologist trying to find trace fossils, but I found a tyrannosaur phalange instead (was pretty chuffed). I also got super fit, one day I walked the equivalent of half a marathon (horizontal distance, no idea the vertical), and another I had to carry a sack of plaster to the dig site from base camp. One memory that will always stick with me is walking back to camp one day in the pouring rain with lightning crashing all around (ok, that bit was scary), and I was smiling because I was so happy to be out there despite being dripping wet. I also had my 23rd birthday out there and it still is the best birthday to date. Again my favourite find was that of the last day. Camp all packed up, Phil, Eva and I went to a site where they a fairly complete turtle carapace had been discovered.

Turtle carapace, with leaf (near the scale bar although an awl went through it)
As we were getting ready to go, I walked behind a hill to, well lets say survey the scenery, and looking down the slope where I was going to go, the ribs of a dinosaur were sticking out. Informing Phil, he confirmed it, gps-ed it and we went back to carrying the turtle out. Not sure they ever have been back. Probably wasn't good enough but it was first skeleton (or at least associated material) I found. On the walk back Eva decided to one up me though with the skull of a ceratopsian that was showing the occipital condyle that we all had walked over to get to the turtle site (NEVER STOP LOOKING DOWN!).

Unfortunately the next couple of summers got taken up by museum visits to China/Mongolia and then PhD writeup, and then the start of my postdoc limited my chance to do much more field work. Luckily one of my supervisors, Anjali Goswami, was talking about going to India for more digging so I nagged quite a lot until she said I could go. As such 27th December 2014 I was on a plane with her and Thomas Halliday to go digging in India. We spent most of our time based in Ariyalur, a town in Tamil Nadu. Instead of camping we were in a hotel! Now that's posh fieldwork.

Hotel Rolex (you know its posh with that name), Ariyalur. January 2015
The area is home to the largest Cretaceous basin in India, with some of the best exposed outcrop anywhere. During our 10 days in the field we covered everything from 100Ma marine sediments to 66Ma terrestrial sandstones. In this fleeting visit we spent a lot of time in the terrestrial beds which cover 10s of square kilometres (not much in terms of some of the North American locales people work on), but a massive area when you consider it's not protected and rapidly being encroached on by the surrounding fields full of crops. The areas can be littered with huge exploded chunks of sauropod bones and bits of fossil trees, but other areas can be completely barren. Luckily I managed to find one exploded femur that was in decent (by Indian standards) condition and most of the proximal end was in good enough shape to collect it (by literally picking up the pieces).

Exploded sauropod femur. Doesn't look like much but articular surface is the rounded bit mid/left
Not far from there is a microsite where mammal, dinosaur and croc teeth have been found, and by the time I got there there were already a bunch in a bag. A few days later we returned to it, and where we put our bags down, I looked down and found one for myself. Otherwise we wandered through marine sediments in one locale finding loads of shells, echinoids and a couple of nice ammonites, and in most of the others lots of sharks teeth, a nice ichthyosaur tooth and a vertebrae of some as yet unidentified reptile (prob croc). The highlight for me wasn't carrying mountains of bags of sediment (final tally was 400kg that we shipped up to Delhi, and most of that had been previously screen washed), but in one location where we normally find lots of turtle shells, I found something we believe to be a tooth plate of a fish, and what may be my first new species! We'll wait and see before I get too excited though. All in all another fun trip that made for lots of ridiculous and juvenile moments. I just wish there wasn't always curry for breakfast (I only lasted 4 days before having to jump back to bread and jam).

I realise this had been a lot of writing, so the TL;DR version is field work is awesome, I wish I could do more of it and I am excited for whenever the next chance may be!

Things I have learnt:
Water is your friend - showering or drinking (vital to avoid heatstroke).
Water is your enemy - rain really messes up field work and water is heavy to carry.
Check under toilet seats - spider bites down there would be awful.
Mind your step/always look down - don't want to be the person who steps on a valuable fossil. Equally don't want to be the person who steps on a snake!
Field work is the best diet ever - sod the rubbish paleo diet fad of unprocessed food etc. Do fieldwork. I always lose 10lbs in the field even eating loads.
Big guys get given lots to carry - be it plaster, water, dinosaur bones, or sediment.
(maybe they shouldn't) I am not as strong as I think - a female triathlete in Canada put me to shame a few days in the field.
Air mattresses are the best - who wants to sleep on a mat for weeks?
Fieldwork gives you a break from civilisation - clear the mind of other work (not always possible/true)
The people make field work - it takes a special sort of person to want to be out there, and they are all awesome.
Never say no at a chance to go looking - bed or rest day? No! Odd thing at top of the hill, go for it! Nothing would be worse than missing that once in a lifetime fossil because you were lazy.
Things are less scary if fossils might be nearby - There were some crazy places I've looked for fossils, e.g. beside sinkholes/up steep hills.
Phil Currie makes great pancakes - the birthday ones were the best ever.
You don't have to be an expert - just be damn enthusiastic and willing to learn!
Beer always tastes amazing in the field - It just does. No dry camps... that sucks.
Somehow field work places always have great sunsets - they just do.
Best anatomy revision/learning is in the field - What better way to learn than looking at a bone upside down in the mud, or with just a tiny bit sticking out?
Don't be afraid to ask around to do some - what's the worst that happens?
Don't pay for field work (besides getting there and maybe getting some drinks/food for the crew) - There is plenty out there for free!

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