Back to Africa (while the Utah team is out of civilization)

The Utah team is in an area of the state called Mussentuchit Flats looking for dinosaurs about 98 million years old.  There is nothing at all out there except lots of rock with dinosaurs!!  Cell phones are useless, which is one of the great things about paleontology field work every now and then…to go somewhere no one can reach you.  Communing with prehistory and yourself actually is healthy.  But the lack of showers gets old after about 10 days.

So while we all wait for the next field update I wanted to fill in a little more information about our trip to Botswana.

Conversations about my research trip to Botswana usually went something like this:

“Oh, you are heading to Africa!?  That’s exciting.  What kind of dinosaurs are you looking for?”

“Well, none.”

“None, then why are you going?”

“I am looking for dead animals.”

At this point their face would crinkle into a funny contortion of disgust at the thought of a dead animal, and smoke would arise from their ears as they tried really really hard to figure out why in the world anybody would actually want to find a dead animal, let alone as many as humanly possible.

The answer is really quite simple.  That is…because everything in the fossil record is dead.

Well DUH!!  But really think about that.  If everything that we are studying as fossils are dead, all of the experiences and history that each of those animals led is barely transferred to their fossilized remains.

So the best way to tease out every ounce of information about ancient life is to understand exactly what types of information can be preserved by studying modern dead animals.

The main purpose of this trip was to first find, map, and detect any patterns in what bone sites looked like.  We did not have armed guards with us on this trip, and the one short walk that was taken through a savannah felt like a literal death march because our guide spotted tracks from a pride of lions that passed through only a few hours earlier.  Therefore, most of our carcass prospecting was from the vehicle.  Nonetheless, we found over 30 carcasses, some over 10 years old.

And our preliminary findings are positive.  It seems that giraffe carcasses are found where the giraffes live, as well as the water buffalo (these animals don’t live in the same habitat).  Elephants are just everywhere.

Our next goal is to walk miles across the Okavango Delta to find even more carcasses.  Ultimately, our data can be used to assess conservation efforts, changes in populations, and predator behaviors through time.

Tomorrow, I will talk about the forensics of a carcass site…

–Bucky Gates  Earth Then and Now

North Carolina is Really Far Away from Utah

Two full days of driving and still a few more to go until we get to our first site.

Looking forward to getting out of the car and doing some prospecting.

Day 1: On the Road

It was well before the crack of dawn when I pulled into the loading dock at the Nature Research Center to pick up the crew and their gear.  With a 34 hour drive ahead of us, we needed to get out of Dodge with a lot of daylight to spare.

We geared up, gassed up, and hit the road eager to get to Kansas City before crashing for the night.

Just a couple of hours out of town my two-way radio lit up an a voice came over… “we are pulling over.”


“We just blew a tire.”

The crew at work. Still smiles??
Alex holds the remnants of our first blow-out.

Yep.  Its a given on every field expedition.  The flat tire.  Only, it doesn’t usually happen in the first two hours.

With a two hour delay under our belt, we were back on the trail.

Let’s hope to fairer skies.

Day -1: Who, What, Where, and Why???

Welcome to the Feathered Dinosaur Death Pit Expedition 2012!

After several long months getting the new Paleontology & Geology Research Laboratory up and running at the Nature Research Center, the paleo team is itching to get out of town.

We’ve purchased all our necessary supplies, plaster, shovels, tarps, glue… the list goes on and on.  In fact, we’ve got two Chevy Suburban’s stuffed full of field gear.

And now it’s finally time.  Time to dig something up, which technically, is what we do best.

Tomorrow we’ll head out on a three-week expedition to hunt for dinosaurs and ancient crocodiles in the heart of the Utah desert.  The first week of our expedition will be scouring a series of Early Cretaceous badlands for new fossil localities (a process termed prospecting).  This part of the trip mostly involves identifying good sites to dig up next year.

After that, we’ll head over to the Crystal Geyser Dinosaur Quarry (or what I affectionately call the Feathered Dinosaur Death Pit).  On this spot 125 million years ago hundreds of individuals of the bird-like dinosaur Falcarius utahensis died and were entombed in a single mass grave.  We’ll spend about two weeks digging here and hopefully collecting many, many bones of Falcarius to bring back to the lab for preparation and research.  You can learn more about the Crystal Geyser Quarry by visiting and searching for “dinosaur death pit.”  You can also sign up for rewards like a phone call from the quarry or a replica of a Falcarius claw, dug up during our upcoming expedition.

We’ll blogging as often as we can, so come back to read more about how the expedition is going.

Until next time.

A Killer Bite

When I cracked open the fresh binding on my senior yearbook an eon ago, I came face to face with the infamous superlatives list, bestowed (wittingly or unwittingly) upon various graduating members of our senior class.  Nicest Eyes, Best Dressed, Most Likely to Open a Gas Station… the list was thoughtfully crafted.

After a few days in Africa observing living animals and taking data off the dead, it occurred to me that if there is one animal in Africa that deserves the award for Best Bite, it’s unequivocally the hyena.

A killer smile? (c) Arno & Louise Wildlife.

The hyena gest this honor, not because it has the strongest bite—that record goes to another African native, the crocodile—but because it is an equal opportunity lender of mandibular destruction.  Or to put it another way, a hyena doesn’t particularly care what it lends its jaws to.  A hyena is no gourmand.

Time and time again, we found evidence of hyena feeding.  It got to the point that when we approached a carcass the first thing that would run through our mind was: lets see what the hyenas left us this time… But the truth is, it was awe inspiring to see the damage hyenas are capable of inflicting with their teeth.

On every skeleton we found places where hyenas had gnawed off thin parts of bones entirely, such as the shoulder blade or hipbones.

Hyenas love to chomp on thin bones. Check out the tooth marks on this elephant shoulder blade.

They also appeared to be fond of chewing off the faces of elephant skulls.

The face on this elephant skull has been chewed off by hyenas.

We even found scat (droppings if you prefer) containing small bones that were swallowed whole by hyenas.

Hyena scat contains whole bones and turtle shell.  Who needs to chew?

By far the wickedest evidence of hyena feeding was a turtle skeleton we stumbled across in the Kazakini area.  The hyena had taken a young female leopard tortoise up in its jaws and bitten half of it clean off, right through the shell, no finesse required.

This female leopard tortoise had a bad day.

After all that, I thought I had a handle on the wreckage inflicted by the hyenas.  Boy was I wrong.  Laying in our tent one night I was startled awake by series of hideous sounds—the deep, desperate howls of a large antelope in its death throws overprinted by the frantic, murderous yips and cries of a whole pack of hyenas echoing like a twisted symphony across the grassland.  Then suddenly like the fall of a black curtain, there was only dead silence.  It was enough to make your blood run cold.

Next day we followed the footprints of the successful pack as they walked 50 feet from our campsite.  For a moment the thought of following them to the kill site swept through my mind, but it was quickly followed by the memory of lunatic laughter.

I quickly came to realize I preferred studying the more distant aftermath of the hyena.  Perhaps some things are best left to the cover of night.

Dead Elephants REALLY Stink!

When Bucky asked me if I wanted to start a research project in the Okavango Delta in Botswana I was totally gung-ho.

I figured we’d be driving around on safari gazing through our binoculars at spectacular wildlife and documenting the incredible interplay of species struggling for survival in the African wetlands with our keen “super-scientist” powers of observation.

Then I remembered… we study dead things.

“What exactly are we going to be doing?”  I asked, not really sure that I wanted to know the answer.

“Walking around looking for animal carcasses…”  came the unfortunate reply.

“Of course,” I grumbled.

Now to be fair as a vertebrate paleontologist, I am used to studying skeletons… it’s just that, well, the animals have usually been dead for tens or hundreds of millions of years, so the “gross” factor isn’t really an issue.  Even when I taught gross anatomy to med students, the cadavers were (thankfully) embalmed.  To put it mildly, Botswana was a bit different.

A field of elephant carcasses outside Sankuyo

Our first stop?  An dumping ground with one dozen, I repeat, one dozen, fresh elephant carcasses baking in the hot African sun. (Thanks Bucky).  Now you might ask, what might one dozen fresh elephant carcasses be doing in one spot?  And that would be a fair question.  I certainly wanted to know.  Turns out that the government allots the local community here a certain number of permits for the hunting of elephants.  In the Sankuyo Community this year that number was around two dozen.  And this?  This is where they compile the aftermath.

As a scientist, I generally take a matter of fact approach to data collection and I’m no neophyte when it comes to flesh and bone.  So I was surprised to find myself suddenly surveying the morbid scene splayed out in front of me with a heavy heart.  Having only seen elephants in the wild a few times in my life, they still held a certain majesty to me—an almost ethereal beauty—and it was hard to imagine a good reason for  this loss of life.  Later, in taking to the wildlife officer we learned that after the hunters flew home with their trophies (nearly all Americans and Europeans on the record books), the Community Trust distributes the elephant meat to feed the families within their care.  (We’ll post more about this controversial and difficult topic later).

Sometimes the hardest part about being a scientist, is sticking to the data… but stick to the data we did.

Taking data on the elephant carcasses.

After collecting our data on decomposition, predation and bite marks by hyenas, area of scatter, and  so on, we paid reverence to the fallen elephants and headed off to find carcasses of animals that had died in the wild.  Just as we were packing up to head out we witnessed a fleeting moment of beauty on one of the elephants, a Foxy Charaxes butterfly.  We snapped a few photos for a colleague at NC State University who studies butterflies and went on our way.

A moment of beauty lifts the mood.

As I climbed into the vehicle, my science-self was grateful for the reminder: in the natural world, death begets life.

In Africa, such reminders are not in short supply.

Time to Test the Field Vehicles…

Expedition Botswana June 23 – July 8 2012

Last month, Expedition Live! launched its first digital expedition—to Botswana.

The goal of this trip was to survey field localities for a long term study on animal carcasses and decomposition. But it is always wise to test *cough, cough* your field vehicle’s capabilities pronto to make sure they are up to par.  (Who said science is boring?!)

Here we kick off our blog series on Expedition Botswana 2012 with a few of our favorite driving moments.

Big surprise… Third Bridge in Moremi Game Reserve is down again.  Time to test our 4×4’s field readiness.

Bridge?!  Who needs a stinkin’ bridge?!  Watch Dr. Z go mono y mono with the Khwai River.

Sand.  Its smooth as silk to drive on.  Except when it is three feet deep, 30 kilometers long, and washboarded to all heck… but who’s complaining?

Can’t get enough sand? Apparently, neither could we (even if we wanted to).  Here we are on route to Nxai Pan.