Tag Archives: paleontology

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.

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!

Dinosaur in a Cliff

Removing the bones of long dead animals from their rocky tombs is never an easy task, but sometimes the magnitude of what we’re doing really hits home.  On May 24th we met up with our friends and colleagues at Colorado Northern Community College (CNCC) to excavate a rather difficult site: a duck bill dinosaur buried in the middle of a 20 foot channel sandstone in the Upper Cretaceous Mesa Verde Group.  We teamed up with CNCC to lend them a helping hand since they had a summer field course they wanted to run at this site and in order for the students to actually dig up bone, we had to first plow through a 10 foot ledge of sandstone overburden.

The white plaster caps mark the level where the dinosaur bones are buried.  First job, clear all the sandstone on top!
The white plaster caps mark the level where the dinosaur bones are buried. First job, clear all the sandstone on top!

Typically removing overburden only requires hand tools (picks and shovels).  Sometimes we speed things up with a jackhammer, especially when the surrounding matrix gets too hard to pick through.  With sandstone, there aren’t many options, power tools are the only real way to go.  In this case, we used a jackhammer to plow through the ledge about 1-2 feet per day.

Even with a jackhammer, it was SLOW going.
Even with a jackhammer, it was SLOW going.

The other useful technique, especially when we get closer to the bone bearing layer, is using a rock saw to cut blocks and chiseling or picking them out.  This reduces the vibration on the bone as we get closer.

The quarry face is dropping.
The quarry face is dropping.
Cut block and chisel method, working well just above the bone layer.
Cut block and chisel method, working well just above the bone layer.
The team and the quarry back wall at the end of week 1.
The team and the quarry back wall at the end of week 1.

At the end of week 1, we’re still only half way there!

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.

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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!

My What Wicked Teeth You Have

Today we decided to hike the crew up to a new area for prospecting.  To be frank, I wasn’t sure we could get up the cliff face, but as it turned out, a rockslide made it possible to get up to the top.  My intrepid students were up for the trip (of course, they didn’t yet know what they were in for…)

We started the hike by heading up the canyon, where we found an awesome little abandoned rancher shack complete with mattress springs, and a broken down (literally) vehicle.

An abandoned shelter up the canyon.
An abandoned shelter up the canyon.
Arden something Creameries...
Arden something Creameries…

We then ascended to the first plateau on the climb, you can still see the blue Suburban parked at the base of the canyon in this shot.

Big Blue (our suburban) is the tiny dot at the base of the canyon in this photo.
Big Blue (our suburban) is the tiny dot at the base of the canyon in this photo.

Unfortunately for us, this was about halfway up the cliff side.  The total ascent was 680 feet as marked by our GPS units and of course, once at the top, we then had to go down about halfway into the prospecting basin and climb up and down hills all day.  Below is the next photo from the top of the ridge.

Total ascent to here 680 feet.  The suburban is still visible, at the base of the canyon, but good luck finding it!
Total ascent to here 680 feet. The suburban is still visible, at the base of the canyon, but good luck finding it!

The Mussentuchit landscape was different here.  More conglomerates and sandstones, perhaps more proximal to the sediment source at the time of deposition. If nothing else, higher energy deposition in many spots, which is bad for bone…

Mussentuchit landscape is full of sandstones in this area. Blinding white and full of little hoodoos very cool.
Mussentuchit landscape is full of sandstones in this area. Blinding white and full of little hoodoos very cool.

Prospecting did yield some cool stuff however, including a really nice microsite with loads of teeth.

Raptor teeth to the left, croc teeth to the right.
Raptor teeth to the left, croc teeth to the right.

Jared (a student at Appalachian State University in NC) found the tail vertebrae of a little plant eater with a couple of associated bones… perhaps a site for next year.

Jared hunches over his new find.
Jared hunches over his new find.

Weathering the Weather

There are lots of unpredictable things that arise in fieldwork… For example, you never know how much bone is hiding or not hiding in the hillside until you spend a week digging a big hole to find out. You never really know what you’ve collected until it has been painstakingly prepared out of the rock back in the lab, a process that can take years.  And, you never know how crew dynamics are going to go when you are living with a dozen people in a camp for a month.  But the most dynamic aspect to fieldwork is undoubtedly the weather, which can sweep over you in an instant and change everything.

We can see nearly a hundred miles in some directions from where we are perched atop the western slope of the San Raphael Swell.  So often you can watch the weather roll in and wonder if it is going to hit you or some other poor fellow nearby.

So far we watch a nighttime lightening storm pummel the town of Price, Utah, many, many miles away.  Spectacular to see from the dry safety of our camp, lightening struck every few seconds.

Lightening strikes the town of Price.
Lightening strikes the town of Price.

Yesterday we had persistent small rain clouds causing havoc at our northern sites.  I was excavating at Fortunate Son when they suddenly struck.  It’s always a gamble… sit at the site and wait out the rain for 10 minutes? collect your things and hide under a rock? decisions, decisions.  I sat through a couple of downpours but the air started to get colder so I found a sandstone boulder leaning to the northwest to hunch under.  All was fine at first as the rain was coming straight down and I had a sliver of dry ground.  Then, the wind kicked up and the rain blew in horizontally rendering my rock shelter a bit silly.  Even better, not a few seconds later the rain turned to hail stones, which blasted me against my rock, as if I was in a pellet gun fight with Mother Nature.

Not five minutes later and the show was over.  Mother Nature, you win again.

Mother Nature, ah how she is temperamental out here... 5 minutes of sunshine and roses to my left... dark and stormy to my right.
Mother Nature, ah how she is temperamental out here… 5 minutes of sunshine and roses to my left… dark and stormy to my right.

 

It’s All Downhill From Here (literally)

Expedition Live! crew at the end of week 2.  Crew includes four undergraduates in our summer Field Course at NCSU the staff from the PGL at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and NC State University, and volunteers.
Expedition Live! crew at the end of week 2. Crew includes four undergraduates in our summer Field Course at NCSU the staff from the PGL at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and NC State University, and volunteers.

A sad day in the field this morning as our Field Methods course came to an end and our four undergraduates hopped a flight back to North Carolina.  We’ve had an awesome crew these past two weeks and have made some great progress on our four dinosaur sites.

More and more bone is turning up at the Blue Bird Quarry (BBQ), formerly known as the sauropod site.  Paul Brinkman and his team have been jacketing any and all bones that can be isolated from the main block.  That block contains somewhere around 8 articulated sauropod vertebrae which we will try to pull in one extra large jacket.  Today, I’ve been engineering a strategy to get that block (which should weight in at around 800 lbs) into the back of the truck… so far the plan involves a ramp imbedded with pipe as rollers, a bunch of cables, and a portable winch… stay tuned to see if we pull this off!

Big Daddy continues to yield more probable skull.  We opened the site with a couple of days of picking, shoveling, and jackhammering, and now Lisa Herzog is leading the mapping and collection of Big Daddy bones.  We led the students through their first jacket pull, a relatively minor effort moving about a 150 lb jacket a mile back to camp, down into a valley, up a steep hillside, over a sandstone cliff.

Big Daddy keeps getting bigger...
Big Daddy keeps getting bigger…
Sunlight fades as we finish jacketing a Big Daddy bone for transport.
Sunlight fades as we finish jacketing a Big Daddy bone for transport.
Rain sweeps in as we ready a Big Daddy skull bone for the haul!
Rain sweeps in as we ready a Big Daddy skull bone for the haul!

Suicide Hill contains the bones of a juvenile duckbill.  The site is nice and flat, so not a lot of overburden to remove, which is nice… but many of the bones are imbedded in the top of a 6 inch sandstone block.  We’ve been using the rock saw to cut those out and haul them back to camp.  One of these jackets is going to be a real beastie to haul back to camp!

The students hone their quarrying skills at Suicide Hill
The students hone their quarrying skills at Suicide Hill

As for me, I’ve spent two quiet days deep in concentration collecting the surface exposed bones from Fortunate Son (our new plant-eating dinosaur site).  The bones are quite jumbled together and need to be carefully separated.  Because this site has the potential to yield a holotype specimen, it’s been slow and meticulous work.  The view is incredible and I’ve been enjoying the work and the serenity of the landscape.

View from Fotrunate Son
View from Fotrunate Son
Newly discovered bones eroding out of the hillside include a rib and a centrum
Newly discovered bones eroding out of the hillside include a rib and a centrum