Anjali Goswami, my UCL supervisor, has spent a long time searching for new field sites to add to the India fieldsite she has been working on for the last decade (or more). As such she has been looking for locations in Gondwana (the old southern continental land mass of Antarctica, South America, Australia, Africa and India), particularly sites that have never been searched for microfossils. Microfossils are the little fossils that are often overlooked when people are hunting for dinosaurs, but can be anything from dinosaurs teeth, down to any microscopic remains. Anjali however, is interested in the mammals, particularly with work from Thomas Halliday who finished his PhD at UCL (and continues as a postdoc) on Palaeocene mammals, suggesting that the placental mammals (what we are, compared to marsupials - e.g. kangaroos, and montoremes e.g. platypuses) originated just before the K-Pg mass extinction (the one that killed all the non-avian dinosaurs). As such the time just before and after the mass extinction are incredibly important in understanding mammalian evolution. Argentina is a well known locale for its dinosaurs. Patagonia in the south, is home to loads of different dinosaurs from large theropods, to some of the largest sauropods that ever lived. However, in the north of Argentina there are also dinosaurs, and some of the beds extend into neighbouring countries as well as covering the really important K-Pg boundary (although damned if we saw it). Enough of my rambling prelude though...
So we flew into Salta in NW Argentina, Anjali, Thomas and myself where we met our Argentinian collaborators, Agustín Scanferla and his friend and technician Javier Guillermo Ochoa. After a night in Salta acclimatising to the altitude (with the help of some wine and empanadas), we drove up to Parque Nacional Los Cordones (The National Park of the Cactuses/Cacti) where we would be based.
|Wiggly road from the "lowlands" into the mountains.|
|The Incas could build straight roads!|
|Whilst Anjali isn't exactly tall, the cactus sure is!|
|Moon rise, sunset, and a wall of clouds arriving.|
|The least flattering picture of Thomas I took in the field, but shows our adobe brick home, with a mud roof covered by tin held down by big stones.|
|Stromatolite in section. The layers showing how they build up are clear.|
|The vertical rock beds, showing the different colour layers. Somewhere over there is fossils.|
|From left to right Agustín, Javier, Anjali, Thomas. Up the hill (mountain) on day one.|
|Mammal vertebra in-situ|
|Spines, spines, and red rocks|
|My first Argentinian bits of dinosaur bone.|
|Chunk of dinosaur bone|
|View from the top of the hill. Note the clouds rolling in.|
|My nerdy photo of a fossil fish scale, with lichen growing on it, taken with an iPhone through a hand lens.|
That evening, after a bit of a rush due to my find, we left our field station, and headed down to the south to a town called Cafayate (although one of the things I learnt is that Argentinians, at least those from Buenos Aires, pronounce the y like a sh sound) where we stayed in a hotel for the night. We then headed to a previously published ancient lake full of fish and frogs. So we sat and split lots of slabs of rock. We found a few partial frogs, before Thomas found something that might be the biggest tadpoles at the site. Whilst packing up were were working to sort the good from bad (ie the keepers vs those we were leaving), and there was a nice pelvis on one rock I was keen to extract. I hit the rock and one of the layers popped apart, exposing a beautiful frog fossil, preserved down to the individual bones in the phalanges in the hand and foot. It was probably the find I loved most, despite always loving dinosaurs more than amphibians,
|The fossil frog, part and counter part. The left specimen has the head facing down. Big man thumbs for scale?|
|Myself looking very proud of my frog|
If you are still reading, I did a things I've learnt from the field in my last blog on the matter, which I will add some new things to here:
- Altitude is hard. Don't get tired because getting your breath back is far harder than taking it easier the whole time.
- Coca leaves taste like tea. Basically you chew leaves, get a buzz, don't feel altitude, and in my case feel sick. Everyone has a different experience though.
- Walking sticks can be useful. Everyone else used them and raved about them. I however, did not, and this links to point 4.
- Walking sticks have downsides... Climbing steep slopes with them becomes a pain unless you are Agustín and climb like a mountain goat. How I envy him. I am very much a scrambler requiring 2 hands as well to climb things.
- Pumas are everywhere but remain hidden. Same goes for snakes.
- People look ridiculous wrapping fossils whilst wearing gloves.
- Argentina does good steak, wine and cheese (as if people didn't already know).
- Despite this I still lose weight in the field even after getting fit for the altitude first,
- The scenery in Argentina is the most spectacular anywhere I've ever been. I'd go back just for that!
- I remain lucky (or have some crazy 6th sense) at finding fossils. Long may it last as it means I get taken to go hunting for more!