On our last days in New Mexico, we hit another couple of promising basins, with little luck. Most of what we found was alive…
So we collected all the materials we could from our surface permits, took in the beautiful views, and packed up and headed north to prospect the Crevasse Canyon Formation before heading back to Raleigh.
Our short time hunting in the Crevasse Canyon Formation turned up a few promising things, including some beautiful dinosaur tracks. Unfortunately these are two big to fit in our gear, so we’ll just have to bring equipment to get some 3D models of these beauties next year!
Now we’ll take everything back to the lab and begin the long process of cleaning and preparing the fossils we recovered. Next year we’ll have some serious excavating to do on the sites we found, particularly Elk Run, from where we picked up a ton of bone from several individuals. Stay tuned to find out more on what we found on our trip to New Mexico this year and visit for more info on our next trip to Montana in June!
With things going great at our main Mussentuchit localities this year, and an abundance of crew, we decided to carve off a handful of our team and hunt for new dinosaur sites in southern Utah for three days. Our target area consists of poorly mapped Late Cretaceous sediments near Bryce Canyon National Park. Yesterday we did our first prospecting run and came across a few microsites containing croc, turtle, and fragmentary dino material. Today, we took it up a notch, deciding to trek down a 900 foot section from the top of the stunning Claron Formation, to sediments of the Kaiparowits and Wahweap formations below.
At the base of the canyon was a creek bed with a clear flowing stream. Fragments of the Claron Formation lining the creek bed, made for a beautiful site. We named it Rainbow Creek and sat for lunch under some pines before working up the energy to prospect the steep terrain in front of us.
The outcrop here was no picnic, in this image you may be able to make out two of the team clinging for dear life to a grey patch of sediment on the left side of the picture.
After scrambling around the hillsides for a few hours, we had very, very little to report, two croc teeth, a gar scale, a gastropod impression, a bit of eggshell, and some trace fossils. The best things we’ve seen on the prospecting trip so far were alive! We’ve stumbled on mule deer, pronghorn, gopher, prairie dogs, snakes, and some horny toads.
It was a tough and disappointing prospecting day. But that is how it goes. The best way to tell if an area is good for fossils is to get out, climb around, and look with your own eyes. With the news that no one had had much luck came the joy of the ascent 900 feet back up to the top of the plateau. The views here really were worth the climb, sore feet, sore shins, backs, lungs and all! Boy are we a tired crew tonight.
Today we headed back to the same basin for more prospecting and to try and excavate the nice bone we found yesterday. Unfortunately, the “nice” bone is buried under a sandstone ledge in some nasty hard siltstone. After an hour and a half of pounding on an inch wide chisel all I had uncovered was another six inches of bone…
Next I found a croc scute and two more sites with fossil bone. Tomorrow we will poke around and see if those new sites are worth collecting from.
At the end of the day we tied some firewood to the ATVs and hauled it back to camp.
On Monday Eric and I ventured back to the Book Cliffs in order to find the location from which the bones of a new duckbilled dinosaur were excavated about 20 years ago. We drove to Thompson Canyon, parked, then started our climb.
The site was supposed to be about 400 feet up the cliffs, only a quarter mile from the road. Piece of cake right?
The first 50 feet of the climb was easy, then the grade went to near vertical. It was an awesome climb as we passed through an ocean then beach and ended up in an estuary.
We never found the site, but got some good prospecting in, finding some bone scraps.
We did not want to go back down the way we came up so an adjacent canyon was the route. Easier it was, but easy it was not.
In addition to narrow slots we had to squeeze through, the wildlife decided to pay us a visit out of bush, only 6 inches from my boot. Luckily Eric and I descended unharmed and with hope that our next locality will be just as inspiring.
There is a strange juxtaposition as one stares at the Book Cliffs. They look so small in the distance, five miles away. Yet at their feet you feel so small staring up the five hundred foot edifice.
The dinosaurs we are hunting lie at the top of the cliffs with a confusing labrynth of roads criss-crossing the valley and only one leading to the top.
After provisioning in Grand Junction, Colorado we headed out toward the Book Cliffs for the night. Tonight we are sitting by the camp fire between Green River and Grand Junction on our way to western utah near a lake narry looked at by paleontologists for dinosaurs.
Visit tomorrow for pictures of our next field site.
Thanks to awesome shows like “Matlock” (does anyone remember this show?), “Law and Order”, and “CSI” we all know the routine that police investigators follow when examining a crime scene. Find the victims, gain personal/demographic information, carefully sweep the crime scene for clues left by the perp, run evidence through fancy glowing machines in dimly lit club-esque police laboratories, then nab that killer. Easy enough, huh?
Honestly, investigating wildlife scenes is almost exactly like that…we don’t actually catch the animal that killed the other animal.
Our purpose investigating skeletons in the Okavango Delta was to determine what happened to animals from the time that they died until we arrived at that scene. And every skeleton we find, we will revisit on every trip to see how the bones may have changed over time.
First, after the death, what happens? There have been great studies where scientists watch a dead animal bloat as their insides fill with the gas of the bacteria that are decomposing the body from the inside out. If left unharmed by scavengers, the body will eventually rupture (no, I will not show a picture), and trust me, you don’t want to be near a body that does…it really stinks!!
Most often scavengers find the carcass and begin pulling meat away. Different scavengers feed differently, and most all of the skeletons that we find are scattered over large areas, hundreds of square meters. Smaller animals are consumed in one sitting by a single animal or one group so remains may not be as spread.
The bite marks left on the bones tell us who was eating what parts of the skeleton. Lions, hyenas, and vultures all leave very specific breaks and scratches on the bones because of feeding styles and the tools they have in their mouths.
So we have a body, we have the weapons of destruction, what next?
Time of death…
this can be trickier to determine. With a fresh carcass it is not that difficult, but the further away from the time of death the larger our error becomes. The easiest carcass we found was a leopard tortoise that died the previous night. We know this because one day the shell was not there on our drive, the next day it was. Yet, as years go by more and more evidence is destroyed, but that destruction can be a great clue. See, bones crack when exposed to the sun, and the pattern of cracking estimates the time of exposure. So we can determine if a skeleton was laid down up to 15 years prior!!
The killer. Sometimes we know what killed an animal because our guides saw it happen and can tell us. Or there are clues such the placement and size of carcasses that tell us leopards versus lions were the culprit. But a lot of times we can’t be sure. Once multiple animals begin feeding on a carcass bones get scattered and bites overlay one another. Still we try our best to determine patterns of predator behavior. Changes to the way predators feed can be wonderful indicators of ecosystem health.
Finally, game trails, or animal highways, can be a terrible disrupter to bone sites. As animals walk through a bone site they kick bones around, break them into pieces, or push them into mud. All around causing us grief. It was interesting though to see so many carcasses along game trails. Predator killing behavior? We need more data.
Lots of other information can be obtained from bone sites to help us understand the lives of the animals, including DNA sequences, stable isotopes revealing diet and travel of the animal, and amino acid decay to help time death. We hope to pursue many of these in the future on our quest to breath new life into old bones.
The Utah team is in an area of the state called Mussentuchit Flats looking for dinosaurs about 98 million years old. There is nothing at all out there except lots of rock with dinosaurs!! Cell phones are useless, which is one of the great things about paleontology field work every now and then…to go somewhere no one can reach you. Communing with prehistory and yourself actually is healthy. But the lack of showers gets old after about 10 days.
So while we all wait for the next field update I wanted to fill in a little more information about our trip to Botswana.
Conversations about my research trip to Botswana usually went something like this:
“Oh, you are heading to Africa!? That’s exciting. What kind of dinosaurs are you looking for?”
“None, then why are you going?”
“I am looking for dead animals.”
At this point their face would crinkle into a funny contortion of disgust at the thought of a dead animal, and smoke would arise from their ears as they tried really really hard to figure out why in the world anybody would actually want to find a dead animal, let alone as many as humanly possible.
The answer is really quite simple. That is…because everything in the fossil record is dead.
Well DUH!! But really think about that. If everything that we are studying as fossils are dead, all of the experiences and history that each of those animals led is barely transferred to their fossilized remains.
So the best way to tease out every ounce of information about ancient life is to understand exactly what types of information can be preserved by studying modern dead animals.
The main purpose of this trip was to first find, map, and detect any patterns in what bone sites looked like. We did not have armed guards with us on this trip, and the one short walk that was taken through a savannah felt like a literal death march because our guide spotted tracks from a pride of lions that passed through only a few hours earlier. Therefore, most of our carcass prospecting was from the vehicle. Nonetheless, we found over 30 carcasses, some over 10 years old.
And our preliminary findings are positive. It seems that giraffe carcasses are found where the giraffes live, as well as the water buffalo (these animals don’t live in the same habitat). Elephants are just everywhere.
Our next goal is to walk miles across the Okavango Delta to find even more carcasses. Ultimately, our data can be used to assess conservation efforts, changes in populations, and predator behaviors through time.
Tomorrow, I will talk about the forensics of a carcass site…