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!

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