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

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