John Flynn, Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, sent me this photograph (below), asking if I remembered the specimen depicted. A complete and well-preserved skull of Hyrachyus eximius, I recognized it immediately as the first notable specimen I ever collected for the Field Museum back in the summer of 1994, when I was a volunteer preparator and a novice – but very enthusiastic – collector of vertebrate fossils. I will never forget the thrill of that particular discovery.
I kept a somewhat prosaic journal that summer, which failed to capture the excitement of that first expedition to the Bridger Basin of southwestern Wyoming. Nevertheless, inspired by seeing the specimen again, I excavated the long-neglected journal from a dusty desk drawer. My entry for Monday, July 18 reads (in part):
Down in the badlands I find early discouragement. I am distracted, I find nothing, and I conclude that this area is destitute of fossils. Even the turtles are scarce…. I wander for another 30 minutes before I spot what appears to be limb fragments, but in fact turns out to be a toothless jaw frag[ment], quite large. It is black in color and stands out distinctly on the pale … butte. I trace a line above and below the specimen and find more fragments but little to be excited about. Below and downstream … in the dry wash I find 2 more fragments of the same color and of compatible size to be associated with the jaw. I put them in the same bag. Back at the butte I scrape the topmost weathered layer with the pick end of my hammer. Just under the surface I find more jaw frag[ment]s. I get out my awl and brush and I soon realize that I have a complete lower jaw. Next to the jaw I uncover what turns out to be a complete skull – it appears to me to be a camel. [Hyrachyus is actually a small rhino.] The rest of the afternoon, minus a sorry lunch that I share with Robin [Whatley] on a nearby hill, I spend in uncovering my specimen.
Fortunately for posterity, this episode was also recorded by my late friend and colleague Steve McCarroll. Steve published an entertaining account of the following day – when the specimen was finally collected – in the Field Museum’s membership newsletter, In the Field. Steve wrote:
Paul had found what he was calling a skull and said he would have to go back and collect it in the morning. This was Paul’s first summer collecting with us in Wyoming, and so John and I were a bit skeptical about his identification of the specimen as a skull. Specimens are often [found] crushed and covered with bits of rock, so field identifications are often changed back in the lab once the specimen is cleaned up.
Even so, the thought of finding a skull was exciting. A complete fossil skull is a very rare find, so John decided to take a look at the specimen…. All morning I had occasionally glanced over to the spot where John and Paul were crouched down over the ground, the spot, I assumed, where the “skull” was. As I waited I … reread some scientific papers…. But by 9:20 a.m. I had run out of things to do. I glanced one last time over at John and Paul and saw that John was no longer at the site. I walked over to the edge of the ridge … and saw John below just starting the long walk uphill…. Carefully cradled in his arms was a small block of rock. About halfway up the hill John looked up at me, a huge grin creasing his face, and said, “It’s really cool.”