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!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

June 21 Continued

It is quarry day. We have a lot of overburden to remove, and a wall to take back, so it will be a hot day with lots of heavy lifting, hauling, pounding and picking. This is what it looks like working….

Toni and Tim. Grad students and volunteers are good slave labor!

…and this is what it looks like when they pose for my camera…

Here they are posing between swings, looking relaxed and refreshed. This is how you know it either isn’t totally awful, or that I have threatened them….

It is really hot work, as you can imagine. I love to watch these guys…some of whom have never camped, and, because this is mainly an NCSU group, some of whom have never been out of the south…but it is, believe it or not, a healthy lifestyle, working outdoors in the sun all day, (beats playing computer games) and then coming back, eating lots, and falling into bed. Sometimes I wonder why people like this life, and come back to volunteer year after year. Then, I think it must have something to do with this…the freedom, the hard work, it is rare to find this in the cities where most of these guys live.

We have been joined by my colleague Clive, from the UK. He quarries right along side the rest, and has been GREAT to have out here. Because Clive is like me, a rather non-traditional paleontologist more into analytical, chemical ‘stuff’ than the descriptive science that characterizes most of paleo, we have a lot to talk about, mostly boring stuff like methodology, chemical paramters, conditions resulting in preservation, etc. He has provided great input for my students, and lots of ideas for me. And, the best part is always the collaborations that result from discussions in quarries or around campfires. So, we will aim for a paper or two out of this. I am really glad that he came, and we will all be sorry to see him go.

My colleague Clive, working alongside Toni, with a ready smile, always, no matter how tired. Clive, you are always welcome here!

I love the story the rocks tell. This is the back quarry wall. Can you see the change in texture?

My geology friends tell me that our quarry represents point bar deposits, and the switch from sandstone to clay is where the ancient river changed direction, and consequently, energy. I wish I knew more geology. Especially out here, where the rocks are so exposed and not covered with vegetation, they tell such a story, and help me understand the world of the past.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

In the Field Part IV - June 21

After almost 2 weeks back in civilization, I am ready for more of the solitude of the field. I had lots to do in town, but that is done, and so I am on the way to Billings, Montana’s metropolis, to pick up my technician, and head to the field. It is Megan’s first trip to Montana. It is also her first time ever camping, so she is in for a shock…

But, before I leave, we are going on a horseback ride up into the mountains…I appreciate this so much, and in part because it is SOOO different from where I will be spending the next 2 weeks.

Good bye to Bozeman for two weeks…the country here is vastly different than where I will be, and I love both.

Then, I head to Billings, arriving in time to shop for the crew before heading to the airport. When you have a dozen young people working 12-14 hours in the hot sun(finally)moving a mountain, it takes a LOT of food to feed them. So, my car is totally overloaded even before picking Megan up, with all her gear. The plane is on time, and I wedge Megan in amongst all the food, gear, and boxes of lab supplies, and, with 3.5 hours in front of us and Megan holding boxes and a suitcase uncomplainingly the whole way, we are off. The road is slightly different than my usual route, and we bypass the windmills this time, but it is north on a long straight road out of Roundup, almost direct to Malta. We pull in late, about 8, and I still have to set up my tent, so I conscript Tim, my grad student, to help.

My home away from home…did I mention the mosquitoes? They don’t show up well in the pictures—surprising. They are big enough to photograph well, it feels like.

Even though I know better, I still like to be away from the rest, and so I head back down to the river. It is peaceful there, and I love to hear the animals and birds upon both waking and sleeping. The first night it is always a bit hard to fall asleep, and the birds and coyotes seem to have the same trouble. The birds are very fat, as there is an endless supply of mosquitoes to keep them well fed…and, it seems that I perform the same function for the mosquitoes…sigh. Finally the coyotes and the owls sing me to sleep, and before I know it, the lightening on the horizon wakes me up and gets me going.

When I am dressed and sorta put together, I head up to camp. THEN I remember why I shouldn’t camp by the river. I have to walk through tall grass to get to the main camp, and there are clouds of mosquitoes that rise up so thick I can barely see through them, with each of my steps. Ugh. These guys are more resistant to bug spray every year that I come, and they just laugh with joy at this new meal offered them, despite my three layers of two different kinds of spray. If these companies REALLY want to test their products, they should try paleo field camp on the highline.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In the Field Part III - June 3 - 6

I love to see the tiny prairie flowers this time of year….they are so incredibly delicate-looking, but that belies their hardiness…they have to grow in the worst of soils, with a very irregular water supply…yet there they are, like tiny pools of sunshine, prettiest when conditions are harshest. You can learn a lot from a high plains flower!

This region could be called ‘the big empty’ it is filled with beauty but you have to look hard sometimes. And then, we can’t forget the ever-present Prickly Pear, the bane of the existence of every prairie crosser since Lewis and Clark, who wrote about them in their journal, and who never would have made it without the help of the Indians who had footwear that could resist the sharp spines.

Prickly Pear cactus hurt worse than they look like they would.
DON’T sit in one accidentally. Again, don’t ask me how I know this.

They blend in so well that you don’t always see them until it is too late, and their spikes can go right through my field boots. They have some kind of compound that makes them sting a lot worse than they should, and I can still feel them a long time after I remove them from my skin. But still, when they start to bloom and those spines are topped by lacy flowers, they are beautiful.

The other thing about the prairie is that because there are no trees a lot of birds nest in open ground. They rely heavily on camoflauge to keep their secrets from predators, and because they would be sitting ducks (so to speak), so the nests are untended mostly. Obviously enough of them manage to avoid being swallowed by snakes or stepped on by the zillions of cows, deer and other critters to create a new generation. Can you see them?

What a way to raise your babies! Isn’t this amazing?

Besides the living things though, we did (well, grad student Denver Fowler did) find some hadrosaur (duck billed dinosaur) remains. They were not very convenient, located in a densely cemented sandstone lens that formed an overhang, but there was definitely skull material present.

Pointing out hadrosaur bones under the overhang.

That was fun, but again I don’t know if we would excavate it. Not all dinosaurs are cooperative. Well, my last night in the tent before heading back to civilization…it has been cold and wet a lot of the time here and I welcome a hot shower!

That is always the best part of getting out of the field. Still as the sun sets, the birds and beasts come out to play. There is the sound of the mourning dove, haunting as it echoes across the riverbanks. And the coyotes again, singing seranades to one another, and of course, one of my favorite sounds, the deep throated ‘wooop’ of the night hawks as they dive from great heights. They are small birds, relatively, but the dive fast for their insect prey, opening their wings at the last minute to create a sound that is much more appropriate to a large bear. I am glad to fall asleep surrounded by nature. I have the world's greatest job!

Things to do when it is too wet to be out quarrying. Catfish hunting onthe Milk River.
And I always thought catfish were a southern thing!

I will head back to town in the morning, and return again at the end of the month. I can’t wait for the next big find.

Bob will ride back with me to pick up another vehicle for the field. Its always nice to have company, as this five hour drive can get pretty long. We stop in Judith Gap for a break. Remember those windmills from the way up? They have a single blade from one of them, just to convey how big those things really are. Bob is about 5’10, for perspective.

This is B. rex Bob, for scale. Helps to understand the power of the wind here,
that it can drive these things so well.

See ya in a few weeks, again from the high plains of dinosaur country!