Monday, June 30, 2008

In the Field Part II - June 3 - 6

Finally, we have good weather for prospecting. This is my very favorite part of paleontology—out in the sun, when it is like this—not too hot, fresh air, and nothing but the sound of birds, or silence.

There is so much to see beyond the fossils, and my mind is totally filled with the sights and sounds around us. Our first stop is where we will leave the cars, and then we split up. Bob and I each go alone, it is what we are used to and love. But the students pair up, and double the eyes on the ground.

Prospecting a new area for potential! My favorite part of paleo.

Because our student crew this year ranges in experience, it is also a great way for the ones with more experience to teach the ‘newbies’ what to look for, and how to see. For me, though, I love the challenge of walking to far outcrops and being the first to see what is there. I set my sights on this one…it looks particularly appealing, with the horizontal stripes of organic muds and sand, representing an ancient river channel, with waxes and wanes in current flow. Differential cementation and weathering result in this spectacular ‘hoodoo’ formations, or capstones.

This region could be called ‘the big empty’ - it is filled with beauty but you have to look hard sometimes.

It is steep, so a pretty rough climb but this is what I love…And just look at all that potential! I did find some material weathering out, but it turned out to be very fragmentary and not worth collecting. Darn it.

However, the stuff that I saw that WASN’T dinosaurian was just about as much fun as a good dinosaur.

One thing I always keep my eyes open for is examples of taphonomy in action—the processes that operate today to destroy a carcass also operated in the past, and by studying modern bones and tissues we can understand better what we see in the fossil record. So, as I walked down the road to the outcrop, I became aware of the odor of decaying flesh.. finally, the source!

This poor little cow had gotten too close to the edge of the road, apparently, and the road gave way, plunging him to the creekbed below, and partially burying him in the dirt. I didn’t get any closer, so the pictures are blurry, but he obviously didn’t get preyed upon…so the patterns we see will make good teaching. I LOVE grossing my students out! ☺

Thursday, June 26, 2008

In the Field Part I - June 3 - 6

Well, we had a few more days of rain….It is sloppy and cold in the tent, and COLD during the day. I know that it won’t last but brrr! The camp is a mudpit, and everyone is restless—we can’t get out to prospect or to quarry in this weather! Still, as miserable as it can be, there is something both healing and relaxing in falling asleep to rain on my tent wall. We had one town day, where we went to take care of some business that we needed to do but have put off to catch the weather when we can. We went to Gary and Barb’s to pick up some packages that were sent to us, bought groceries to feed the crews, and went to look at some topo maps at the BLM. A productive day, but not ideal. Still, weather is supposed to break a little so the plan is to go out and open an old quarry that was still producing—we just didn’t have any other places to put the bone. It is perfect for one of my student’s projects, and so when permits come through, we will take back the 40 foot wall to get at some pristine, untouched bone. In the meantime tho we can quarry down 1.5 meters, and things look promising. Lots of beautiful bone, including a spectacular braincase! It was cold in the morning but Jack (Horner, MSU) showed up in camp to check on the crews, and so joined us for some prospecting. He was pretty excited to see evidence that some skull material was still preserved!

We are working three quarries in this area, all of which are producing bone that seems to be appropriate for what I hope to do this summer, and which will make our mobile lab very important. The crew uncovered some beautiful bones in one of the quarries, including this very nice hadrosaur femur.

Hadrosaur braincase, with delicate bony ‘arms’ reaching up out of the sand.

Jack and I, examining the work of our students. This is the fun part!

It is a nice sample, and so I decide to do what makes most dinosaur loves turn pale….I believe that in order to better understand these critters, it sometimes requires that we destroy part of the samples. So after taking lots of pictures, careful measurements, and other documentation, I whack into it with my rock hammer. I took samples of the sediment too, as a control if we find biomolecules or tissues, but it is really clear that the bone is exceptionally well preserved. I collected bone wearing these beautiful purple gloves, and wrapped it tightly in tinfoil to keep light out (UV damages molecules) and then placed it into a jar with silica gel crystals. That will draw out all moisture, and prevent any damage, until we can get it to the lab for analyses. The bone will then be jacketed, and we will sample it again periodically to track degradation.

Next, we went to check out the quarry where my student Liz will be collecting data for her dissertation. She and her crew have a job ahead of them, as they will be cutting into a 40 foot cliff, taking it down to the bone layer.

Hadrosaur femur uncovered from the sandstone...

After sampling. Its no wonder most paleontologists don’t invite me to their digs…

Looking down from the top to the bone layer. All of this will have to be removed to get at our study specimens!

The Museum had previously worked this quarry, which has bones from many different hadrosaurs. It represents a flooding event, probably when, like caribou, these herds of dinosaurs attempted to cross at high water, and drowned.

Some of the bones came to rest against a gigantic tree trunk, which ran through the middle of the quarry. Although the majority of the tree was collected years ago, there remains enough of it still in the sediments to make another good control for Liz’s dissertation.

So, Liz removes what we can get to without a change in permits, and, wearing gloves, cleans and collects the bone for her study.

The sand is like butter. This type of deposit is every paleontologist's dream, because the material is so easy to prepare. As I mentioned, the bone is beautiful, undistorted, and easy to work with. So even though they must remove almost 40 feet of overburden, it will clearly be worth it in the end.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Back to Montana: Part III - May 12 - June 3, 2008

The crew has made good progress! They have opened two quarries. This picture gives a little perspective. Sometimes, when you are working them, the sites don’t seem all that impressive. But stepping back a bit to see all of it is pretty cool!
It is a lot of backbreaking work, but no one complains, and all pull their weight. I think paleontology is the perfect example of a completely egalitarian effort. No patience with slackers in the field….I think it is a great experience that all students should have! (not at all prejudiced, though).

You can tell this isn’t easy work. It is a far cry from the Indiana Jones scenarios. There is nothing at all glamorous about this backbreaking work. I love it tho—men and woman work equally hard, and earn the respect of each other. They move mountains, quite literally. I am always honored to be part of these crews. And I learn at least as much from these students as they ever will from me.

Bob and I walk out a bunch of gullies and outcrops. We revisited a site that our crew had worked about ten years ago. There are still bones coming out. I don’t think the crew missed anything, but maybe there is more than one dinosaur here!

Taking advantage of the shade to look a little closer at these bones….

So, back to camp, and relaxing after a full day…these guys work really hard, and the evening is when everyone just lets down. You never know what will come up in conversation, that is for sure. But I couldn’t resist this shot below….what a great advertisement for this trailer, and joint effort.

Relaxing after dinner in the shadow of the new lab….there are students from all over, and from all disciplines. It is so much fun to watch them all. What a great group!

Well, it has rained the last two days. I woke up to lightning flashing on my tent wall, and lots of rain, in the middle of the night. it is peaceful, I love sleeping in the rain, but we all know that it won’t be an early day of field work. So the camp is relaxed, with people slowly wandering in for breakfast, and it will be down days of reading, playing cards, and catching up on paleo news. Students swap stories of evil professors and bad field experiences. Occasionally, research projects get discussed. Friendships form, and opportunities for collaboration come out of these experiences.

We are hoping that it will stay dry today, so that we can get on the overburden tomorrow but the clouds are building and the wind is picking up. We have part of the crew in town as one student has an ear infection, but he did pick a good day to do this….

Well, I think that is a long enough report for now. Will catch you up if we turn up more dinosaur stuff, otherwise, I will be back in the field in late June….

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Back to Montana Part II: May 12 - June 3, 2008

So, here it is, Saturday, my 3rd week back home…and finally I am off for the field. I haven’t minded, as it has been rainy and cold constantly, but today looks beautiful. It is a 5 hour drive, and we are caravanning up. Part of the crew is already there, a bunch of students have gone to set up camp and open the sites we will work.

Preliminary reports are a little disappointing….I always hope for that fantastic, complete, articulated dinosaur revealing itself with the first shovelful of dirt, but alas, that hardly ever happens….

We head off in a chain. Because I have a bit of a lead foot problem—just a little—it is agreed that I will lead. So, I tune to my favorite country radio station, and I am off! East on the interstate to Big Timber, where we stop for a gas tank top off, and to let everyone catch up. The snow covered Crazy Mountains rise up above the valley floor, oh they are beautiful. We will follow them all the way to Lewistown and beyond. They are spectacular!

Then, it is north on a two lane state highway to Lewistown, the geographic center of the state. Historically an old cow town, but also a railroad hub that serviced the whole state in the early days. I love this little place. It is a last hold out of the old Montana. Cowboys and hard working basic folks, in touch with the rhythm of the land and the seasons….the buildings are awesome,reflecting the importance of this place, once. Then, it is north again, past the now familiar sounding names of the scattered ranch and cow towns. Judith gap, with the awesome windmill farm I talk of each year. You would think that all these windmills would ruin the scenery, but I love to watch their giant blades, turning slowly in all directions at the whim of the wind. I have heard that each windmill cost about $4 million to build, and there are at least a hundred of them, oriented in all directions so that some are always moving while others are still. If you are going to make money from the wind, this is definitely the place to do it.

Then, we pass small towns that I haven’t noticed before, with highway signs pointing the way to Buffalo, and Straw, and Grass Range. The ranching heritage is strong here, as is the connection to the land and the past. Somehow, it is appropriate to be studying dinosaurs here.

Finally, we pull into camp. It is amazingly plush compared to most of the sites we have settled before. This land where we will base our operations is owned by a North Carolinian who is interested in furthering education and opportunity there. He owns a lot of Montana ranch land, and has been so generous in his support of this effort of ours, to expand opportunities in Paleontology to NCSU students. There is electricity—sorta a must for running our lab stuff, and the local managers of the property—Gary and Barb Anderson—are awesome. They have dug and placed an outhouse for us—trust me, this is sure better than having to dig one ourselves—and mowed the grass near where we can pitch tents to keep the snakes away. MUCH appreciated. We can walk across the property to the river, and can swim away the grime of a day removing overburden in the hot sun….I decided to pitch my tent on a bank overlooking the river, far away from the rest of the crew. I am old, and my privacy and sleep are pretty important at the end of the day….

I have a new tent, sleeping bag and cot. Oh, the comfort! I can stand up in there! No more laying down to pull on jeans, and I am sleeping off the ground. It is plush indeed! So, the first night I crawled in, looking so forward to a restful sleep…only to be kept awake for hours listening to this pesky hoot owl, arguing with a pack of coyotes just across the field. It was ‘Hoo-to wooo Hoot’ and ‘Yip yip yip yowwwwwww weee’ back and forth for hours. I don’t know which one finally gave up on the argument first, but finally it was quiet enough to sleep….and oh, what a great good morning! The sun is shining and it will be hot. I feel so incredibly lucky to be here, to have the job I have, and all the opportunities, to leave the city behind and touch my roots, and all that I love so much about this land of my ancestors.

And so we are off, the whole crew. Bob and I will check out the initial sites, and see how the crew are doing, then we hope to prospect for more areas….I am still hoping for that articulated theropod…I love the meat eaters best…

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Back to Montana Part 1: May 12 - June 3, 2008

It is hard to believe that almost a month has passed since I have been back to my Montana. Not a lot of down time thus far, as this year, we had a BIG project going. My research into the way things are preserved in the fossil record has not only shown a lot of surprises, but has revealed some unexpected patterns. We have found that our chances of recovering both tissues and cells from dinosaur bone, as well as any molecular information, are greatly enhanced by examining the bone as soon as possible after it comes out of the ground.

So, on the strength of that finding, NCSU and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences found and purchased a 48 ft semi trailer that had been used previously as a wet lab. I was able to get a lot of equipment for the lab from donations (Glaxo Smith Kline and Roche) and from my Packard Foundation Fellowship.

This is the trailer as it looked when it pulled into Bozeman, ready for its remodel.

NCSU paid to drive it out to Montana, where Jack Horner and the Museum of the Rockies agreed to undertake the remodeling of it to fit our specific needs. The trailer arrived the day before I did, and from that time till this, we have been involved in some pretty intense remodeling. Mostly I worked with my buddy Bob Harmon, of ‘Brex’ fame, but we had lots of help from friends like Dave Butzin and Nels Peterson, and from students like Ben Novak,

Elaborate filtration and monitoring system, with lots,and I mean LOTS of plumbing.

Tim Cleland and Liz Johnson.

It was amazing.The trailer had been used previously to me by an investigator at NCSU who was involved in a fish ecology project. The trailer was extensively adapted to this, with a very specialized water system, capable of drawing in lake or river water, and passing it through a series of water treatment filters. Then, it would be put into large storage tanks where the water was constantly monitored through a complex system of knobs and gauges to maintain pH, oxygenation and other qualities. Then, it was specially reinforced with steel to hold all that water weight. And there was a very large double sink system, again supported by steel.

Two large (175 gal) water treatment tanks,
and associated plumbing and monitoring equipment

So, the first week that I was in Bozeman was spent ripping. My destructive genes were in full operation, and I got to use all kinds of ‘guy’ tools—saws and drills and screw guns and the like—to help dismantle this system. My excitement was tempered a little bit when we found that the water system had not been fully drained since its last use, several years prior to our purchase. So, most of these tubes still had pressurized water in them, and in that water, there had been ample time for microbial growth. Ugh. As we sawed into the old plumbing, brown thick sludge that smelled like sewage came squirting out…..ok, GUSHING out….all over everything, including my hair and clothes. Ugh.

Debris from the trailer. Yes, we took this all out, one piece at a time.

Itty bitty baby bunny, trying to be brave in the
commotion and debris piles. I didn’t notice him for
the longest time,. He was NOT about to move and
get anyone’s attention!

This is not something that grad school ever prepared me for, again. On days like these, or when sawing rotten ostrich legs and the like, I find myself truly wondering what grad school DID prepare me for????

We had originally decided to do rather minimal remodeling this field season, and come up with a more extensive and permanent plan over the winter months…but I came in one morning to find that Bob had started work about 4 am, and had dismantled the fish sinks and their steel support grid, and hauled them out, as well as the frame for the sliding glass doors. It made a HUGE difference in the amount of room we had to work in. I was VERY excited. As I helped him lift the steel braces to carry them out of the trailer, one dropped square on my knee, leaving a very large bruise. That, coupled with a lot of open sores from where the yukky microbe-laden water landed on my hands, made me such a glamorous sight…

Of course, nothing went as smoothly in reality as it did in my imagination. In the back of the trailer they had a 200 gallon water tank that would carry potable water to a small sink for dishwashing, and to the bathroom sink. However, when we put in water, it sprung a giant leak, completely filling the bed it sat in, and all the tubes and pipes, with water. The tank was specially made, and we REALLY didn’t want to replace it (and all the pipes and plumbing associated) so we tried one epoxy after another, each time convinced it would hold…and it did, sorta, except for one small leak that moved out of the line of epoxy each time we tried. So, after many valiant attempts, out came the tank. In pieces, because they had apparently built the bathroom walls around the tank. As you can tell, this was a bigger process than we had thought..always is. Always something….

The floor from the trailer was pretty shot, with the water tanks and steel supports, so we laid new subfloor, and then got tile from the local big box stores. I helped with laying subfloor, and thought that the next day I would go get a linoleum squisher thingy..(note….I write my papers scientifically, but I don’t talk that way). Once again Bob surprised me, because when I came in the next day, early, the floor was done. Bob laid it and then squished it down with a rolling pin on his hands and knees. Sheesh. Some guys have all the fun. We then built special supports for the two new water tanks that will feed our ultra pure water system, and Ben got the job of following in Bob’s footsteps with the linoleum glue and rolling pin.

We also had to order countertops, of course, that will be our lab benches. So Ben got that job too, building the frames on which the tops would sit. That is when I finally began to imagine the end product of all this work. We could actually see how big the lab would be, and how much room we would have for all the assays we will run on the new bone, and how much data we hope to collect from all this. It is hard to believe that this all came together in such an incredibly short period of time. It is a pretty historic thing, I guess, that marks the joint collaboration of four institutions, with one common goal, and that is to facilitate our understanding of the rock record, and the animals and plants that once shared this planet with us.

And, finally it is starting to look real! Benches are in, and the laminar flow hood will provide us with clean space for extractions. But, the final, finishing touch was probably the most exciting for me…the NC Museum of Natural Sciences art staff designed a special logo for the side of the truck. It is beautiful, and they did a great job of really capturing what we are all about. And…we will probably have a little easier time in small town northern Montana towns, if we DON’T have a US Army logo on the outside. They can be a little touchy up there…..

So, here it is, the finished product on the outside! Is that cool or what??? A tyrannosaur, a duck-bill, and the logos testifying to the joint effort here. AND….the first ever, totally cool, dedicated Molecular Paleontology Field Station. So, it pulls out tonite, and we will have it on site tomorrow. I can’t wait to unpack the equipment, get it organized, and start working! Let’s just hope the dinosaurs cooperate.