This is the third post in a series called “Cretaceous Cold Cases” in which the science of taphonomy, or prehistoric forensics, is explained by fascinating cases from the files of Terry “Bucky” Gates, a research scientist with a joint appointment at NC State and theNorth Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
This morning Lisa, Alison, and I unpacked our specimens and gear from the 4 x 4. Back in the lab, we carefully uncovered our leaf fossils and sorted our amber bits into tiny vials. We couldn’t help but feel a bit of sorrow… we split around two tons of shale over a three day period, yet turned up no fossil feathers at all. Beautiful Cretaceous leaf fossils, yes, sparkly veins of “fool’s gold”, seed pods and amber, sure, but feathers, no.
Truth be told, we had expected to come back empty handed in this way but our hopes had kept us going. After all, how could we embark on an expedition and not hope to find what we were looking for?
Its a good example of the common paleontological plight–days, weeks, even months of searching for ancient organisms sometimes turns up nothing but bloody feet, sore backs, and disappointed scientists. Yet we just keep on trucking, because around every hillside, in between every layer of shale, and just up that gigantic cliffside, the next big discovery might be made. Maybe we are just suckers for the adrenaline rush of a great fossil find, but thank goodness we are. If we weren’t, who else would put up with it?
This morning in the lab as we stabilized the multiple blocks of shale we collected bearing leaf fossils the discovery junkie hit me again… and I wondered… could there be feathers hiding inside the blocks we brought back?
Ah, the familiar rush…
Follow our research blog to learn more about the science of our Alabama fossils and stay tuned for the next expedition launching in June.
Last month the awesome folks at Untamed Science came to visit us at the Paleontology Lab. They wanted to know how we dig up dinosaur bones and we were happy to oblige. Have you ever wondered? Check out the video for a crash lesson in digging dinos.
Driving down from the top of the cliffs on the last day in the western canyon we were greeted by a a reminder… we were far from the first people to explore this rugged terrain. Just on the other side of the river crossing, we spotted a series of pictographs, painted images left on the rock cliffs by the native americans who inhabited this area. I couldn’t help but wonder from the artwork if this same spot has been the place to cross the river for hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years.
This morning we spent three hours pulling the lost ATV up the cliff. The good news is, it was still drivable and we were able to get it back to camp, sort of in one piece. The handle bars and the frame are bent up so this one is out of commission.
Nonetheless, one rider down, we trudged on. We stopped to prospect a basin with spectacular views.
After several hours of prospecting we finally hit paucity–an area of the basin with ancient river channels and overbank deposits. Inside of these sediments we found lots of bone: turtle, dinosaur, and crocodile. The bone was a rare and beatific shade of peach on the outside and black on the inside. Here’s a shot of a pelvic bone from a plant eating dinosaur sticking out from beneath a sandstone.
Right now I am standing on the edge of the world… or at least it feels like it. In front of me a hundred miles of terrain splay out like an ocean of desperation.
It took us all morning to get up here. Three hours on a few wicked ATVs. Frankly, I am surprised we made it, what with the rockfalls, river crossing, boulder climbing, and general lack of a trail most of the time. In fact, a little while back it got a little too hairy even for us and we had to leave one of the ATVs behind. In general I question our sanity. Only Bucky and I made it up here, probably because we have no sanity left. Now time for a look around!