Tag Archives: camping

Feet On The Ground: The Menefee

After a trying time in the Crevasse Canyon Formation, we had high hopes for more abundant fossils in the Menefee.  This was our first time prospecting this strata but we had teamed up with Andy Heckert and his summer students from Appalachian State University to check out some sites that Andy had found several years ago.  As usual our first day was inspiring but also a bit overwhelming.  Looking out over the expanse of Menefee exposure, it felt like one could spend a lifetime out here prospecting…

IMG_1927
Menefee exposures go on and on…

Unlike the Crevasse Canyon, we found bone all over the place on day one out here, but much of it was encased in nodules. In most cases, mineral growth had invaded the bone, changing it’s structure.  We pulled a partial leg in decent condition before heading up section to find better preserved materials.

IMG_1930
exposed digits from a dinosaur limb

Turned out looking in the younger part of the formation was a good idea.  The next day we found a fruitful basin with a lot of exposed bone, a decent turtle preserved in a sandstone cliff face, and not too far from there, a couple of good sites with multiple dinosaur bones.

IMG_1948.jpg
This is what it looks like to find a turtle in a cliff. The shell in cross-section is sticking out just above Lisa’s right arm
IMG_1953.jpg
Although a portion of the shell was lost due to erosion of the cliff face, as we chiseled the sandstone from around it, a pretty good carapace began to emerge.
P1060458.JPG
why, I ask, does our most promising dinosaur site have to be found under 15 feet of this….?

We spent about 10 days in the Menefee prospecting and surface collecting from various sites.  Again the abundance of tracks, both dinosaur, croc, and turtle kept us fairly busy. We were fortunate to find a natural cast of an enormous croc track on the under surface of a sandstone lens bearing pad and scale impressions. It turned out to be a tricky but quick collect as we undercut the block, capped it with plaster, and let it drop to the ground (thankfully, not on any members of the team…) into a rimmed depression we devised.

P1070590.JPG
stabilizing the croc track before work begins

We had our fair share of injuries and illnesses this trip with altitude sickness, falls, and even kidney stones and a lot of long, back-to-back days of wandering around solo prospecting, which leads to some interesting bouts of creativity.

While Lisa was inventing camp mascots, I tried my hand at a desert snowman…

IMG_1996.jpg
Hi Hank
IMG_1945.jpg
not bad!

Although our fossil finds were few and far between, there was an abundance of wildlife discoveries including several close encounters with rattlesnakes!

P1070573 (1)
Rattlers didn’t seem bothered much by our traipsing around

P1070519

At the end of our season in the Menefee, we headed further south to explore the northernmost exposures of the Moreno Hill.  Here we found nearly nothing for days aside from some microsites and a single iguanodontipodid track.  Still, we had found enough promising localities this year and last to return in 2018 for a fruitful season. Even if it does involve a week of jackhammering through a sandstone cliff to get at the bones.

Next up….  Montana!

IMG_5187.JPG

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Kicking off in New Mexico

Long days and poor cellular service prevented us from blogging in real time during our first expedition of 2017 to Upper Cretaceous formations in northwest New Mexico.  We were able to keep up on Twitter though, so for the expedition play-by-play, check out #NMdinodig17 @expeditionlive.

Still… in the few days after Montana and before heading out to Utah this summer, I thought it’d be a good time to catch you up on how things went.

Last year we kicked off our pilot expedition to the Moreno Hill and Crevasse Canyon formations, strata that span a key, underrepresented interval in the fossil record of dinosaur evolution on the North American continent.  Finding fossils in the Moreno Hill Formation isn’t easy and we spent two weeks, prospecting 8-10 miles a day, with little to show for it last season.  We did find a productive basin near the end of our trip with fossilized turtles, a large croc osteoderm, a lot of random dinosaur bone, and one intriguing locality with over 40 ornithischian vertebrae exposed on the surface (Elk Run).

This year we hoped to open excavations at Elk Run, but our permits were not approved in time so… instead of excavating there, we continued to prospect for productive new areas in northwest New Mexico.  We were particularly interested in the Coniacian-Santonian aged Crevasse Canyon Formation and spent about four days hunting around in fairly good exposures.  The first two nights we woke up to snow (some of us with our tents collapsed onto our faces…), but soon enough things began to warm up.

IMG_1901
there’s nothing like waking up to snow in the desert

We could find only a single published record of dinosaur bone recovered from the Crevasse Canyon–a partial duckbill dinosaur jaw bone. Thus we knew there was potential, but also, that the Crevasse Canyon would make us work for it.  We didn’t have a great deal of luck this year but we begin finding some dinosaur bone on the last couple of days, and ultimately one nice limb bone that continued into the hill.

DAM1gRcVYAAvbCf
A bit of limb bone on the surface

We also found a great leaf locality, and a ton of dinosaur tracks, which are all over the Crevasse Canyon.  I literally pitched my tent on a track horizon in camp and tracks could be found just about everywhere we wandered.

IMG_1904
a little poking around my tent and voila! track casts

We wrapped up this part of the trip by revisiting a cool ornithopod dinosaur track site I found last year.  This time we brought geology undergraduates from Wake Tech, as part of our National Science Foundation GEOPATH award.  Here we documented the site, took photographs to create a photogrammetric model, and evaluated the track morphology and number of trackways preserved.  We’ll be presenting this research at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Seattle.

IMG_1905
Wake Tech student Katie Berry examines the track block

After wrapping up in the Crevasse Canyon we packed up camp and headed north to hunt around in the Menefee Formation.

 

Wrapping Up

IMG_1115
Our second prospecting area was near Muddy River, beautiful, but buggy.

After three weeks, we closed our active quarries, left our main field area, and headed somewhere new to search for promising areas further south.  If our primary areas seems remote, this new place was really isolated.  Our base camp was approximately 50 miles from anything with no cellular service, which is why we had to cancel our last Skype session with the museum and why, this blog comes to you after the end of our trip.

To reach camp we drove up a wash that cut into the badlands forming a steep walled canyon in certain areas.  The road is prone to flash flooding, making our drive in and out of camp an ever-interesting “who knows?” And we had to drive over long stretches of road that would turn to impassibly slick muck with just a bit of rain.  Thus, we tried to just stay put and prospect near camp, hoping it wouldn’t rain the day of or the day before our scheduled departure.

Temperatures here were more extreme than our previous camp and the team struggled to prospect all day in the sweltering heat.  Despite our best efforts, and despite ten boots on the ground for several days, we found only a few scraps of fossil bone here and not enough to warrant an excavation.  Some folks might view this as a failure, but it’s just part of the process for paleontologists.  Someone has to expend the effort and the funds to go to places where there might be good fossils and search.  Sometimes that means you find amazing things and others will come back to those same areas for decades, sometimes it means you’ve just “cleared” the area for future scientists.  I’d say we pretty much “cleared” these badlands.  Fortunately, we found bone in some other areas nearby to hear (about a two-hour drive) and it’s likely we’ll return and set up camp a bit closer to the promising area in future years.

There was some amazing stratigraphy here and a great marker bed full of marine oysters. so if you tired of hiking for hours on end in the heat finding absolutely no fossil dinosaur bone, you could sit and search for pycnodontid oysters or Ptychodus (hybodontiform) shark teeth.  Or bear prints….

IMG_1110
Fossilized pycnodontid oysters litter the surface in this area.
IMG_1119
Surprise! A bear and I had the same idea for a hiking route down the Muddy River this afternoon.

All in all, it’s been a great, and long field season for us with trips to New Mexico, Montana, and a few places in Utah between April and August of 2016 and we’ve made some great discoveries.  Check in with our Zanno Lab news page, our research blog, and our Twitter feed for real time research and preparation updates until next year’s field season.

IMG_0984
That’s all for now folks!

 

 

The Cliffs Close In

Our most difficult prospecting spots in this area are up in the Cliffs of Insanity, our term for a very steep section of outcrop that rises 1000 feet above Last Chance desert.  These beds are only accessible from the bottom in most areas and so it takes a fairly intense hike (long and sometimes treacherous) just to get to the prospecting area, let alone the hike up and down the steep hillsides in search of fossil bone.  The past few days we’ve had teams hunting for fossils in the Cliffs of Insanity and collecting from some sites.  We’ve also borne witness to the start of the rains and an end to the intense heat and dryness of the past two weeks. Although, the temperature drop is welcome, the storms have been intense, and dangerous for those of us up in the cliffs when the thunderheads roll in each afternoon.  It’s made for some scrambling out of the back country and a few muddy drives, not to mention some mucky crew members.

IMG_1098
The hike to the Cliffs of Insanity begins far below the red cliffs in the right of the photo… the outcrop we prospect is the rolling grey hills at the top of this rise.
IMG_1087
As is usual for our Utah expedition, the trucks and the crew are laden with mud.

IMG_1062.jpg

Meanwhile, the bone at Last Chance quarry continues, and continues to dive deeper.  We pulled out around 100 bones from this site and the overburden continued to rise as we went further into the hill.  We pulled our biggest jacket containing several dozen elements on the last day.  It was about a mile hike to the truck with this 250 lb jacket and the crew did well bringing her down the slopes safely.  We also had a bit of fun with summer movie madness, since the jacket reminded us of Slimer from Ghostbusters.  We didn’t manage to clear the entire quarry this year, and several croc bones turned up near the back wall, so we have at least two individuals here and will have to reopen the site next season.

IMG_1088
Last Chance quarry getting deeper and deeper.

IMG_7722.JPG

IMG_1092
Slimer is all strapped up and ready to haul.

IMG_1093.jpg

With our Cliffs of Insanity prospecting finished for the year and our two quarries closed down, we are headed south to hunt around in some new areas for the final week of our expedition.  Stay tuned for some amazing landscapes and hopefully, some great finds.

 

 

Getting ready for our next expedition!

Excitement is brewing in the Paleontology Research Lab as we organize essentials for our month-long expedition to dig up a new species of plant eating dinosaurs in the Utah desert.

20150710_143753

We’ll be blogging in real time during the expedition and you can follow our Twitter feed (@expeditionlive) for up-to-date, moment-by-moment connections with the team.  We’ll also be live streaming back to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences Daily Planet Theater each week to talk to folks from our quarries.  If your in the area, come talk to us! Tuesdays at 11 am EDT, starting July 21st!

Stormy Mountain

This afternoon we were hit by a massive thunderstorm. I was happily scampering about on the edge of a road cut when Bucky came pealing down the road shouting that the sky was falling (literally) and we better get off the mountain. We loaded the gear, I jumped on the back and we took off. Within seconds the skies opened and we were pelted with sheets of rain, high winds, and 10 minutes later… pea sized hail. unbelievable. Bucky did a stellar job, especially because we were loaded up with three people now that we are short one ATV. I took a backseat on this one, being the lightest to sit over the axle. This worked out well because I was able to take an awesome video of the lunatic ride down the mountain in the storm.

I will upload the video later but here are some photos.

The hail.

20120925-081527.jpg

Made it across the river.

20120925-081832.jpg

The scariest part–the hill that where our crewmember flipped his ATV last week. The hill is made of Mancos Shale, a rock that was deposited when a shallow seaway covered this area around 90 million years ago. When this stuff gets wet, it can be very slick.

20120925-082357.jpg

This is one of the reasons we were racing down the mountain, to get across this hill before it became impassable. In the end we all made it ok. This morning we head back up the mountain to put plaster caps on the bones we found. Collecting them will have to wait until next year!

Deep Freeze

The field team reports that it has been wicked cold on the plateau in southern Utah for the first part of their trip.  I thought they were just exaggerating until I received this photo yesterday.

I’m all for frosty beers in the field, but frosty backpacks??? It’s a tough way to wake up in the morning.

I guess it really is 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night.  Believe it or not, these guys have been sleeping outside in this, no tents.  Now that’s dedication!

At least it hasn’t all been bad.  Aside from the stunning views they have been afforded so far, Bucky and the team had a close encounter, with some elusive bighorn sheep.  Bighorn sheep populations were once a mainstay for Utah natives, but populations declined dramatically mid-century, and by the 60’s it was though that the species was extinct in Utah.  The culprit was thought to be diseases carried by domestic sheep.  Later biologists located the sheep in some of the most “inaccessible, most hostile country in Utah” according to the Deseret News.

Yeah, we know how they feel.

The team spots a bighorn sheep while prospecting. What a treat!