Friday, August 8, 2008

June 28 - July 4: Part IV

The other thing that points to why things preserve well out here is showcased in this graffiti carved into the sandstone wall behind our hosts’ home. Things don’t weather much here, and a love caught in sandstone almost a hundred years ago still remains.
Look at this! 1917!! Can you believe it?

We were walking out some beautiful views in an area that our hosts had not prospected, when JoAnne came upon bone fragments. When I went to look, it was not just ANY bone, but a large chunk of what appeared to be the limb bone of a small theropod, and even better, TEETH! And they were definitely meat-eating teeth.
Possible theropod bone, and DEFINITE theropod teeth!

Just as we were digesting this find, Tim and Liz hollered from around the corner “BONE! We found BONE, and lots of it!” and then Megan rounded the corner, and she said “I think I found some BONE!” It was pretty exciting, and when we all got to comparing notes, it appeared that we had found a new site, with evidence of at least two dinosaurs!
Look at the variety of different bones weathering out of this site!

There was more and more bone, everywhere we looked. It definitely met Jack’s criteria for a quarry-able site, and our hosts, who had been told that the best material was gone, were pretty excited.

In one area of the site, we found a lot of vertebrae coming down out of the hill. They were quite large, but it was impossible to tell from what we had what kind of dinosaur they were from. As I looked at them, I was surprised to see what appeared to be a small dinosaur, drawn on one of the vertebrae. I thought that someone had gotten to the site before us and that this was some kind of practical joke, but closer inspection showed that it was a secondary mineral deposit on the bone. It is sure suggestive of a fat long necked dinosaur!
Do you see the tiny dinosaur traced in mineral on this bone?

This was a very cool site. The more we looked around, the more we found. And when we dug just a little bit into the ground, we found enough to indicate that more bone was still in there. All in all, would have to say that it was a really great day! We surface-collected a lot of bone for the
landowners, because when this well preserved bone is exposed to weathering, it doesn’t last long. I am not sure what they plan for the rest of the material, but as this is on private land, it is their call.
Uncovering buried bone at the Madsen site, duly recorded by grad student Liz in her field notebook.

Thus ends our longest stint in the field for this year, but I have one more short trip back to our area before I head back to NC. In the meantime, there surely is a lot to get done. I have such a great life! And it is a real treat for me to share some of that with my students, out here on the high prairies of the place I will always love and call home….despite the less pleasant wildlife we sometimes see!

Baby diamondback says ‘see you later!”

Thursday, August 7, 2008

June 28 - July 4: Part III

One of the best things we got to do during this field week was to prospect for bone on land owned by one of the local ranch families. We rely so much on the good graces of the people who surround us, and they are, without fail, incredibly warm and generous. This family went out of their way, taking an entire day to show us where previous finds had been made, and allowed us to look around on our own.

Distant view of some of the land we prospected. Look how green the valley lands, in this dry, high prairie! These bluffs are amazingly productive for dinosaur bone.

It is an incredibly beautiful stretch of land, like a green oasis in the desert. And it is incredibly rich with dinosaur bone, all of which is extremely well preserved. In the company of our hosts, we saw a lot of dinosaur bone, still in the ground, that hinted at the possibility of more bone to come. Jack (Horner) has a minimum criterion of 3 or more bones, in association, of a single animal, before it is deemed a ‘quarry-able’ site. Many that we visited fit this category.

Need a hand to look closely at this bone—the cliff face is steep and slippery.

This one required a hand up from my grad student Tim (handily cropped out of this image to save him embarrassment), but the bone embedded in the hill also looks like it might belong to a theropod, big for this time period, and, if it is a meat eater, probably Albertosaurus. Its dense outer bone and hollow core look more like a theropod than anything else.

The bone is hollow, with a very dense outer layer—this might mean it is a meat eater,on the line of dinosaurs related to birds.

But, the cliff face is steep and slippery, and some of the sand is highly cemented, so quarrying would be difficult. In another area, it looks even more promising, with two bones that I think might be the blade of the ilium, one of the bones making up the hip, and the other possibly the femur of another large dinosaur. The bones are protected by a large, overhanging ledge, again making quarrying a bit risky, but this is pretty exciting, I think.
Under a sandstone overhang are hidden the remains of a dinosaur that may even be articulated! It would take some digging to know for sure.

It is impossible to tell how much of the animal remains in the cliff. But this setting is tailor-made for the kind of work I do, as our work indicates deep burial in sandstone is the best environment for preservation. The views are spectacular. It is fun to be able to share the love that I have for this land with my students and technician. I think they have caught the bug! One of the best things about being a paleontologist is right here—away from office, desk, computer and phones, and out where one can imagine that the land hasn’t really changed all THAT much since these magnificent beasts walked here…

Megan, Liz, Tim and me. Is this a great job or what?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

June 28 - July 4: Part II

So we had our fun prospecting, and now it is back to the hard work of quarrying. The crew have exposed the bone in the upper quarry and gotten it to the point where we can begin to jacket it. The quarry seems to be running out of bone, and when we get the big jackets out, we will be ready to clean up and focus all the efforts on the lower quarry that is producing some really great stuff. The crew has done a great job of exposing the bones, and they pedestal the blocks so that we can form the jackets around them. As you can see from NCSU student Alex McCall, it is sometimes necessary to be a contortionist to do this job. It’s a good thing we have skinny students.
NCSU student Alex, clearly head over heels enjoying his work!

They finally got it pedestaled, which means that they necked the bottom sediments to make it funnelshaped. Then, because it was such a big block, they made tunnels in the sediment supporting it, so that they could pass 2x4s and plaster strips through them for support. Finally we are ready to add the plaster, which can sometimes be a real mess. If I am involved, I usually wear as much as ends up on the bones…
Jacketing a pelvis is a lot like being in kindergarten!
More plaster on me than the jacket, maybe! Look at all those white hands!!
Like Mickey Mouse with plaster gloves.
At last the bones are top-jacketed and ready to flip. Bob will come and collect all these jackets with Big Red, because it is probably asking too much of grad students to carry them up a 75 degree incline….I don’t know though, maybe we should try?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

June 28 - Jul 4: Part I

Well, town day was great….I know that after a few days in the field, I will never ever take a shower, or the presence of water in more than bottle-sized containers for granted. But, the sun comes up, and camp stirs and once again it is time to get going. So after a quick breakfast of cold cereal, or maybe a granola bar, we fill water bottles and camelbacks, pack sandwiches for lunch, shoulder into our packs, and cram into the pick up trucks. This morning, the teams split up, because I wanted to prospect to see if I could find a site I’d seen earlier, in a previous summer.

We park the truck and walk across a grass field, crawling up the face of a weathered bluff. A small bird flew out directly from under my feet as I passed a clump of sharp prairie grass, and there, laying on the ground, was a small nest with unhatched eggs. I probably would have stepped on them if the little momma hadn’t given away their presence with her flight. Birds here have a precarious existence. Many are ground birds, meaning that they nest on the bare ground rather than trees. That makes sense, as trees are few and far between in this dry, harsh land, but it sure puts the babies at risk from snakes, foxes, coyotes, and all the other critters equally desperate to eke out a living here.

Hidden nest of the shy prairie ground birds. There are no trees, and their eggs are vulnerable to predators.

I took the high path up the bluff, Megan was walking low, and Ben, recovering from heat exhaustion in the quarry, took off by himself to walk out other outcrops. I came around the corner, and there it was, the quarry I remembered. It had been worked illegally, and bones with commercial value taken while others were left. There were fragments everywhere, indicating the possibility of many bones. There were also still big bones, half exposed to weathering, remaining in the wall.

Possible theropod femur remaining in the wall of an abandoned, and illegal quarry.

It’s a shame, really, this femur is broken and pretty useless at this point, though if they had been recovered correctly, could have contributed significant information about this ecosystem, underprinted beneath our own recent traces of human culture, familiar yet so exotic. Trapped in the gravel beneath this bone there was another femur (thigh bone), larger still, but in much worse shape.

This one might be a hadrosaur, but it is much, much greater in diameter than the above, and resting squarely in a high energy gravel layer.

The above has the hallmarks of a big theropod, probably Albertosaur, the ‘Trex’ of this period of time, but the larger one is probably a duckbill---a BIG duck. Theropods are fairly rare from the Judith River, and the find would have been important if it had been properly taken. But the real find from this abandoned quarry is this small gracile bone that I think is the metatarsal (foot bone) of a smaller meat eater—one that is on the lineage to birds.

Small, gracile bone, probably metatarsal, of a small meateater, maybe an ornithomimid?

It is a beautiful bone, almost complete. This one might be a first, but there is no other evidence at this point for any more of the animal…and this one is not so diagnostic without some additional material. Still, the importance of finds like this is that it documents, at least at some level, the presence of these guys, living together…the first step in understanding the ecosystem and dynamics of this not-well-studied time.

Friday, July 11, 2008

June 23

I have been really glad to have Megan here this week. She has been a true partner in this effort for a while now, and I am glad that she can see the other end, what is involved in getting the bones out of the ground so I can dissolve them….she has proven to all that she is every bit as diligent and hardworking in the quarry as the lab. She is also an excellent teacher, and students and colleagues alike have watched her to learn the methods we apply so that they can repeat our experiments, either with samples of our bone, or with bone in their local regions. I can’t wait for these results!
Megan delving into another side of paleontology.I think that Megan likes her regular job better—

She is more at home in the lab, showing Ben and Clive what they need to do to repeat our work.

Three days ago, we were treated to a spectacular sunset. I love the sunsets here, the sky is so big, and I think that, just like with human art, the bigger the canvas the more can go into the painting…little did I know that this gentle, beautiful sunset would presage a night-long gale. I woke up to a tent wall smashing into my face, practically smothering me. I spent several hours trying to sleep while one arm kept the tent at bay. It didn’t work. When I woke the next morning….or rather gave up the fight and just got up….my tent was very lopsided. I was exhausted, but we planned another prospecting day and I didn’t want to miss anything, so even though the wind still howled we were off to explore the lands belonging to our private donor. We split into two teams, with Paul, Toni, Jim, Alex and Eric exploring the far side of the badlands, and Liz, Clive, Megan Tim and I hitting those bluffs closer to town. I have never been out in the badlands when the wind has blown so strong, so consistently.

The beginnings of sunset over the river. ….and the last time my tent looks normal…sigh

Best form of art ever!

Sky painting…

It was gale force, it felt like, most of the day. It wasn’t too bad when we were on the lee of the bluffs, but when we hit the tops we all quite literally walked at an angle to keep from falling over or being blown off. We had sand in every fold and crevasse of clothes and skin, and grit is everywhere. But there is something pretty exhilarating about it anyway, and particularly when Tim finds a bone that looks possibly dromeasaurid, the small-ish meat eaters most closely related to living birds. There is not nearly enough to be diagnostic, and try as we might we couldn’t find more of it weathering, but we may go back. If nothing else, the view from the site is spectacular…

Prospecting a new area. Wow…what a view

But, unfortunately my tent did not fare so well in the wind. It is new, and a good one, but one of the anchor straps ripped out of the tent bottom. I will hold my breath and hope that there is no more huge winds until I can get it repaired. Did I mention product testing in the field? If a tent can make a season out here, it is a well made tent indeed. Maybe these companies are afraid to let us test their wares under field conditions?????

Thus ends our first full week out here. I thought I would end with a shot or two of the visitors to our camp. There are rabbits everywhere, and they are not shy at all. They hang out close to the camp—waiting for food I suppose. And, what makes this a very ‘plush’ camp, the metal Quonset hut where we are allowed to store food and gear and get out of the sun, wind, snow, and rain, is also home to many barn swallows. They build their nests in the rafters, and dart in and out during dinner. They are fun to watch—and they seem to equally enjoy watching us!

Bunny friend… they multiply like…well…Like rabbits I guess.

I think this is a mom, with young in the nest, because she sure is nervous…but it is too high for me to see for sure. The nests are a true engineering marvel.

These two are never far apart, and appear very protective of one another…

Well, tomorrow may be another quarry day, or it may be a lab day. I have a lot to do that requires a computer, but I hate to make the students do the hot hard work unless I can help as well. We will see what the morning brings, I guess. One thing about being here, it will be fun, beautiful and relaxing. I can feel the stress melt away. And we have another week yet, with another quarry to open (hopefully) and more experiments to do, as well as new recruits (fresh blood).

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

June 22 Continued

Our prospecting comes to a close an hour or so early. We are pretty far out, and while looking in one direction is fine….
We have all clear in one direction, but unfortunately this is NOT the direction the weather is coming from….

Quite literally turning just a few degrees we get an entirely different picture.

….This is. We make a run for the vehicles.

I love the prairie storms. It is so different here, in that you can watch the weather for a long time (usually) before it reaches you. But the storms here build very quickly and can turn violent just as fast. These roads are not passable when wet, and the clays take a long time to dry. We do NOT want to get stuck out here… We made it back to camp, but I am rather disappointed in the lack of dinosaurs! To find a dinosaur, normally one walks the base of outcrops to look for bone fragments, then follow the trail of eroding bone up the hill until you find the region where there is bone below, and no bone above---the bone horizon. When that is noted, then dig back into the wall a bit, to see if there is bone going into the hill that might indicate a long bone, or better, more than one bone, in the hillside. Today, there are bone fragments from dinosaurs weathering out pretty much everywhere we go, but they are small and worn, and there doesn’t seem to be anything at all in the hillsides that would indicate my dinosaur lurking in the sands, waiting to be found. So, it is back to camp, avoiding the rain, and the usual routine of dinner, dishes and conversation around the fire before we fall exhausted into bed.

Just to show you that camp life is not all work, there are daily chores to take care of, like one of the favorites, lighting the burn barrel. With help of acetone or gasoline. This is done very gingerly, with a cautious approach, and a fast getaway.

Here we have Jim, one of our Texas volunteers, approaching the task in an orderly and scientific manner. First, build a torch on the end of a VERY long stick….

Then, light it carefully in a roaring campfire and approach previously isolated barrel with extreme caution…

Then….be prepared to run like crazy—too fast for my camera to catch. What can I say? It can be boring here, and this is a case of make your own entertainment.

We also play brain games….or, as I prefer to call it, learning? It is easy to find bones of recently dead animals here in these hills, along with our long dead dinosaurs. I have several times passed around these bones, and quizzed the students on aspects of osteology. It helps them to learn to ‘see’ bones better, and to realize how much can be learned about an animal, when all you have are bones. This is a good skill for a paleontologist to have! Much of it is common sense. When Toni and Jim first arrived, they weren’t willing to offer much of an opinion, but after a while they were very good at noting small features that let them make statements about the age or function of an animal. It also results in the accumulation of a lot of bones (or teaching tools). These, of course, are also subjected to random experiments by crew, including a ‘design your own vertebrate’ game….which can be rather interesting.

How many different bones can you see in this guy?

Monday, July 7, 2008

June 22

Tuesday, we get to do my favorite thing—prospect for new dinosaurs. There are a couple of regions I have seen in previous visits that I have wanted to walk out, to see if we can find more dinosaurs, but I have never had time before. So, everyone is glad for a break from quarrying, and we split into teams and head out for promising badlands. It is hot and sunny, so I am hopeful. We are encouraged at first, as we find a lot of areas with bone fragments weathering out. But, following them up and out doesn’t reveal any more of them, so we move on. The dinosaurs in this region are rarer than what we find in the Hell Creek, but when we DO find one, they are usually beautiful, and almost complete. So far, no sign of that though. We do, however, have some of the best views in the country as we sit in the shade and eat lunch…fancy restaurants in the city just can’t offer this kind of ambience.

This is about as big as our prospected dinosaurs got…sigh.
I know there is more out there, just waiting to be found….

It’s just too bad that this photo can’t convey the shimmering heat waves!

Shade and a spectacular view…what more could you want in a lunch break?

And, this is not anywhere near as hot as it will be, trying to do this same work in a week or two. Still, for all of it, I would rather be here, in the empty, than in any town…we see hawks and terns and rabbits and deer, and even the tracks of the big mountain lion that hunts these gullies. One thing about prospecting is that you train your eyes to see small things. It is amazing how my perspective of the prairie and badlands and the life they contain has changed as my eyes become trained to look for small fragments of bone. Well, not just my perspective, but my stance, as I now walk like a very old person, hunched over and squinty eyed, but that’s another story.

I also find this lone wild rose, growing up in the middle of a sand outwash. I always marvel at how, out here, under such harsh conditions, life still finds a way, and there is beauty to be found in the harshest circumstances. The badlands are a good lesson for life, I guess.

Wild roses always remind me of my mom. They smell better than any store-bought version!