Perks of Suicide Hill

It’s not ideal when it rains in the field, but the rainbows definitely make up for it! It’s impossible to not look forward to the digs with views this beautiful. So far at Suicide Hill, we’ve found a few caudal vertebrae, some ribs and their fragments, and some unidentified teeth. We still have a lot of progress to make too so hopefully much more to come!

 

We’re Off and Running

The crew arrived at the exit to camp after three days of driving from Raleigh.  We knew we were in for a tough camp set up as we drove west through the San Rafael Swell, in the face of a dust storm and dark skies.  After some serious mud-driving, and a couple of mirings (one of which left me stuck in the middle of a mud pit with bear feet), we made it to camp with just enough daylight to scramble up the shelters and our personal tents.

The following morning we gathered our gear and headed to two of our Mussentuchit localities.  This year we have four intrepid undergraduates from NCSU along with us to learn the ropes as part of our Paleontological Field Methods course.  It is always a joy to watch the new cohort scramble down the drab gray badlands that weather into “popcorn” and powder.

NCSU students scramble down the Mussentuchit badlands (grey hills) into the valley below.
NCSU students scramble down the Mussentuchit badlands (grey hills) into the valley below.

Our first query was to uncover Suicide Hill, the burial ground of a juvenile Eolambia (duck bill dinosaur).  Here we spent a few hours picking drainage tunnels and shoveling off the sediment we had covered the site with at the end of the season.  Almost immediately we found more bone and had to slow down.  Suicide Hill is still quite a productive locality.  So far the most interesting turn of events has been the sudden appearance of several theropod teeth near some of the bones…. a feeding site perhaps?  Only time, maps, more excavation, and careful research will tell.

Later in the day we hiked another short jaunt over to Fortunate Son, the home of our new undescribed species of plant-eater.  Last year we took 25 jackets or so out of a single square meter at this site.  There were not bones left exposed here at the end of the season, but we are hopeful that there is a lot more in the ground here.

The crew works carefully to explore Fortunate Son.  No one knows if more of our new dinosaur remains in this little hill.
The crew works carefully to explore Fortunate Son. No one knows if more of our new dinosaur remains in this little hill.

The following day we headed deeper in time into the Late Jurassic, to reopen our diplodocid (probably) sauropod site in the Morrison Formation 6 miles or so from our Cretaceous sites.  This is an area we pulled nearly 3000 lbs of jackets out of last year.  Its always gratifying to see that the site looks relatively “reclaimed” by the weather and undisturbed.

BBQ after being undisturbed for a year.
BBQ after being undisturbed for a year.

After several hours of overburden removal we uncovered some bones we left under a protective plaster jacket at the end of last season, when we didn’t have enough time to get them out of the quarry.  More picking around with hand tools reveals at least one huge bone diving under that plaster jacket (a limb girdle element perhaps?… too soon to say).  At any rate, BBQ is going to keep being a logistical challenge for years to come.  Ah, sauropods.

A bit of shoveling reveals a plaster jacket containing a single sauropod vertebra, left over from last year.
A bit of shoveling reveals a plaster jacket containing a single sauropod vertebra, left over from last year.

Hoping for a Dino-Mite flight

After a few (million) weeks of learning about bones, I’m ready to go find some!  I know the field experience will leave us worn and weathered, but there’s so much out there to learn from. I cannot wait for all the humerus jokes we’ll share, and the discoveries we’ll make. And who knows! We could even find a few spare ribs. Hopefully we’ll find enough to fill up the dino-lab.

Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here until tomorrow morning.

There’s more to records than B-Sides

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It goes without saying that documentation is an integral aspect of any science, but I’m going to say it anyway.  DOCUMENTATION IS AN INTEGRAL ASPECT OF ANY SCIENCE!  Without the proper records and record-keeping procedures, the context of the specimen is completely lost.

This is going to be my first real in-field experience and the concept of following proper methods has been drilled into my head from both hypothetical and practical perspectives.  Case in point:  this bucket of matrix that came from…….wait…….we don’t know where this came from!  Take a wild guess why  🙂

Dinosaur in a Cliff II

After two weeks of sawing and jackhammering, the team has cleared the sandstone ledge from above the quarry face.  This is always the moment when the real excitement begins… what’s actually buried here?  Something amazing?  Just a few ribs or frags?  Our first exposed elements consist of a limb bone and several ribs.  The best parts are the patches of skin impressions scattered here and there among the bones.

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NCSU graduate student Tyler Bridges collects skin impression samples for analysis. Several ribs are exposed in the foreground.

Exposed skin impressions were one of the reasons we went after the specimen, despite the cliff.  Where there’s skin, there’s usually good preservation, and good preservation means there’s likely to be good scientific data.  Much remains to be learned about skin preservation in the fossil record, which is a line of research being pursued by several NCSU graduate students.  From a taxonomists perspective, the dinosaurs of this age and region are important.  Most of them no doubt represent new species.

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As the summer excavations draw to a close, we hope to learn more about which bones were recovered.  The fruits of this summer will be prepared in the CNCC lab over the coming year.  We’ll keep you posted on the research.  In the meantime, the team is happy to be done with the jackhammer until next time!