Friday, 23 December 2011

Stuffing the dinosaur at Christmas...

One in particular put Solnhofen on the map: Archaeopteryx, long famous as the “first true bird.” A single feather was discovered in 1860, a tantalizing glimpse of the creature it fell from. Beginning the very next year, a series of Archaeopteryx fossils began to come to light, at an irregular rate, and eleven specimens are currently recognized (one from only a few months ago). From its many dinosaurian skeletal features, its long bony tail, and the fine teeth in its jaws, Archaeopteryx might easily have been identified as a small theropod dinosaur, and indeed an amateur mistakenly classified one specimen as the small predatory dinosaur Compsognathus. However, the marvelous preservation afforded by the Solnhofen limestone has given us specimens of Archaeopteryx surrounded by imprints of their feathers, showing that they looked rather like a modern magpie in their plumage. Wing feathers are asymmetrical like those of modern birds’ flight feathers, showing adaptation for aerodynamic use. So detailed are some of the fossils that we can even detect the fine structure of some of these feathers, showing for instance that the fibers of the large flight feathers of Archaeopteryx were organized via the barb-and-barbule arrangement that makes modern bird feathers so stable and structurally effective, despite their lightweight and delicate construction.
Several years ago I first visited the Humboldt Museum (Museum für Naturkunde) in Berlin, the home of arguably the most beautiful Archaeopteryx fossil in the world. Discovered in 1876or 1877, it lies on its back with its wings widespread, tail pointing down and head swung over its back. More important, the arms (or, should I say, wings) and tail are surrounded by stunningly clear impressions of feathers. If I had the opportunity to save any single fossil in the world, it would be this one. It is simply stunning.
The roast turkey that many of you might well partake on December 25th, is a direct descendant of a distant maniraptoran theropod dinosaur.  The expression “as rare as hen’s teeth” is based upon the reality of socketed teeth growing in the jaws of birds, courtesy of their ancestral toothy theropod dinosaur gene being activated and socketed teeth growing during the chicken’s development. However, you don’t need ‘hens teeth’ to make your turkey a dinosaur…as you tuck into your meal, take time to nibble the ‘arm’ to reveal the fingers, often still tipped with tiny claws. As you pull the wish-bone (fused clavicles) think of Velociraptor and T. rex…who also share this very theropod character. Its food for thought, that 65 million years ago, it was probably our ancestors that were on the menu for the turkeys ancestors…vengeance is a dish best served 65 million years later!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Skipping with Dinosaurs.....

The main dinosaur movement that is of interest to paleontologists is locomotion, primarily running ability.  One thing that we are very interested in at Manchester is….maximum running speed.  This is especially important for both predator and prey. One trying to avoid becoming lunch and the other trying to catch lunch.

The methods available to biologists when studying modern species, such as cinematography, video recording, measurements of energy consumption, force and pressure plate studies, are not easily applied to the extinct species, unless time travel is miraculously invented!

One avenue of research that the Manchester group has focused on is the relative running abilities of different groups of dinosaurs. We particularly focused upon the challenge of determining, if possible, the top running speeds of various dinosaur genera. This work has been led by Dr Bill Sellers, who works in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester.

Both Bill and I had a fun day explaining to Apple Inc. about our research into dinosaur locomotion, amongst other things. We both use Apple computers for the work that we do at Manchester. Here is a short video that might give you a little more insight to what we do at Manchester.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

How did the dinosaur cross the road....

Taphonomy is the study of what happens when something is buried, literally meaning ‘burial-laws’ (‘taphos-nomos’). Ivan Efremov (1907-1972) can be considered the father of taphonomy, since his groundbreaking work in 1940 invented this often-smelly approach to paleontology. Most studies since then have been undertaken by organizations such as the FBI, who have a keen interest in the grave secrets of humans, especially those who end up in shallow graves as a result of foul play. Diagnosing the length of time and time of year that a body was buried can be crucial to solving a grisly crime. The temperature, moisture content, and insect activity are but a few of the variables that have to be considered when deciphering the decomposition history of a body. The soil and microbial communities it contains are also critical to understand if we are to disentangle the taphonomic tale of a body (or preserved fossil). Almost all terrestrial plants and animals end up in a patch of soil, whether that is in the parch-baked sands of a desert or the sodden channel sands of a river. We have to examine the above and below ground ecology and microbiology to identify the key players in the recycling process. Many studies have shown that the process of decomposition of large bodies into soil is primarily regulated by the size of the said body and the activity of scavengers and humble insects. Surprisingly, insects are key players in processing some of the largest animals that walk on the earth’s surface today. Our taxonomic friend Linnaeus from the 18th century commented on this fact, saying, “Three flies could consume a horse cadaver as rapidly as a lion.” More recent work has supported this view, indicating that insects can consume a body before a scavenger has fully utilized it. The complex intertwining roles of microbes, insects, and scavengers are also affected by season, for some species are more active at specific times of year. When one or more of the decomposition processes is inhibited, a cadaver can persist for much longer on a surface or near is a rather fun experiment we did with a chicken, for National Geographic. Dr Dino Frey and I were trying to work-out how the exquisite remains of Archaeopteryx survived 150 million years. Just be grateful you cannot smell what we had to inhale...

Friday, 4 November 2011

Come to the University of Manchester and take Earth Sciences.

I was asked today, 'Why would you want to be a student at the University of Manchester?'.....and here is my reply.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Synchrotron time ahoy!

The Manchester Palaeontology Research Group has been awarded two more years of beam-time to work at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light-source (SSRL). The whole group is over the moon about this wonderful opportunity. We can now build upon our earlier successes, which include working on the taphonomy of Archaeopteryx (above) and also mapping eumelanin pigment patternation in Confuciusornis (below).
The beam-allocation will provide the Manchester/SSRL team with the time to work on enhancing both data-capture techniques, whilst also updating of the experimental station... so we can enhance our x-ray vision on the innermost elemental secrets of both extant and extinct beasties.
Like so many University of Manchester research projects, the collaboration with SSRL is critical to expanding our knowledge of both past and present life on Earth, whilst working at the interface of several disciplines. The collaboration between beam-line physicists (Dr Uwe Bergmann, above right), PhD researchers (Holly Barden, above centre) and computational biologists (Dr Bill Sellers, above left), makes such research possible. However, it has been the geochemistry of the fossils that have relayed so much information from our synchrotron-based studies and that is the realm of Dr Roy Wogelius (below)...
For me, as a palaeontologist, its just damn exciting working in a field that shows so much promise, in terms of expanding our knowledge. This new field not only has the potential to yield insight to the exceptional preservation of past life, but also provide crucial information and clues as to the very biological pathways that once synthesized the compounds that remain hidden within the elemental inventories of such beautiful fossils. Its a splendid time to be a palaeontologist.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Toxic dinosaurs and blue-sky frontiers

This Monday I have the pleasure of giving a lecture in a wonderful English Pub in the village of Bollington, near Manchester. The Vale Inn is this weeks venue for the Bollington SciBar, one of many such organizations that facilitates the public engagement in science. Splendid! The talk is from 6:30pm on Monday the 17th October and will be the first of many public lectures and events that I speak at between now and Christmas.

The topic for discussion at this meeting is something very close to my heart, public support for ALL scientific investigation. My argument is simple. How can we predict advances in science, when they so often come from disciplines that are quite 'left of field'...the ultimate scientific googly. It is clear that this is something that is on the minds of many folks when it comes to publicly funded science, as I am often asked, 'How can you justify playing with dinosaurs on public funds'...a fair question. In my preliminary defense, I must raise that most of my funding comes from abroad, however...this is not the case for all dino-diggers.
Can digging for dinosaurs provide insight to burying waste?
To hear my full answer to this question, come along to the Bollington SciBar and you will see how science does not always follow a predictable course. I will argue that advances in one field are so often ricocheted from another. But can I dare justify playing with dinosaurs from the public purse...

I have always argued that dinosaurs are a passport into science. Many grow-out of this dino-phase, but some do not...I am living proof of that. The universal appeal of dinosaurs has sometimes been pigeon-holed as nothing more than 'blue-sky' science or 'stamp-collecting', with outcomes offering little relevance to 21st Century life. However, in my talk I will argue that this is changing with the advent of multidisciplinary approaches to the analyses of fossils. These new approaches to antediluvian life will undoubtedly have major impacts on both present and future generations.... interested? Why not come come along to SciBar and find out more.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

GSA-o-saurus minneapolensis

My time in the USA working at the University of Pennsylvania sadly drew to a close last month. My year in Philadelphia was quite an eye-opener as to how the US University system differs from that in the UK. I shipped myself back to the University of Manchester...and my feet have not stopped since. Finally, I find a few minutes of peace and quiet to sit and write my blog...ironically, at a meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA) in Minneapolis, USA. Yes, I just jumped back on a flight to the US for this vast (~3000 scientists) conference. I may have told tales of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (notice the dropped 'a' in palaeo...its a US thing), who meets annually and to which I usually attend...but this years choice of conference was GSA, who kindly invited me to give a talk on behalf of the Manchester PalAeontology Research Group.

The topic of my talk for this meeting are chemical ghosts of past life....and no, I've not been spending too much time reading Harry Potter! The authors of this talk are myself, Roy Wogelius and Uwe Bergmann, as multiple authors are often the case for such international meetings. Without the team, such science could not happen....especially when working with a synchrotron light source!

Our abstract is a tad dense, but I thought I should post it anyway. It gives you an insight to the wonderful world of conference abstracts, where you have a paragraph or two to sum-up your last 7 years work. Not easy!

Title: Synchrotron light reveals chemical ghosts of past life.

Authors: Manning, P. L*., Bergmann, U. and Wogelius, R. A.
* is presenting paper.

Abstract: Multidisciplinary approaches to the analyses of fossilised soft tissue have shown that endogenous organic compounds can survive through geologic time. The work presented here will show how coupling synchrotron-based X-ray and infra-red methods can serve to non-destructively resolve the survival of organic compounds derived from fossil and extant organisms, but also how spectroscopic details can assist in understanding the chemistry of exceptional preservation. Here we use Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to spatially resolve organic functional groups within Eocene (~50mya) to Cretaceous (~120mya) aged fossils that show biological control on the distribution of amide and sulfur compounds. These compounds are most likely derived from the original biomaterials present in the structures analysed because other non-fossil derived organic matter from the same geological formations do not show intense amide or thiol absorption bands. Infrared maps and spectra from the fossils are directly comparable to extant samples. X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (XAS) of sulfur in some fossil tissues shows it is present in several oxidation states, including organic sulfur compounds and inorganic sulfate minerals. By using this information to tune the incident X-ray beam energy to a value below the critical excitation energy for inorganic sulfur, we were able to use Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-ray Fluorescence (SRS-XRF) to discreetly map organic sulfur in discrete biological structures. This approach resolves fossil-derived organic compounds with striking detail. In addition, in this and other fossil specimens, XAS analysis of trace metals correlated with soft tissue structures indicating that a significant and in some cases dominant portion of trace metal inventory is organically coordinated within tissue residues. Quantitative synchrotron-based XRF point analyses are presented to show that concentrations determined within fossils are comparable to those of extant organisms, that phylogenetically bracket fossil samples. A taphonomic model involving ternary complexation between fossil bio-derived organic molecules, divalent trace metals, and silicate surfaces are here presented to explain the survival of the observed compounds.
Synchrotron light captures the phosphorus (P) of feathers and the iron (Fe) of fine feather structures.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Dinosaur's can be lickable.....

Forgive my absence from the blog these past few weeks, but a move back from the USA to the UK, an earthquake, a hurricane, two tropical storms and a conference have kept me busy! I would never have guessed that Philadelphia could yield so many natural disasters in such little time...a mere two week period! However, it is fair to say that I miss Philly. A fine city, but am nervous that a plague of locusts might have descended if I stayed a week longer!

A couple of blogs ago I posted an image or two of a spectacular pair of dinosaurs from the Hell Creek Formation. Many have since contacted me after salivating over the couple of beauties locked in immortal combat since the late Cretaceous. I cannot say too much about their this has to be done properly...and I know a rather nice chap in South Dakota who is the right man to do it. So, here is a few more images of the said 'Dulling Dinosaurs'...enjoy...first the theropod!

Gorgeous gastralia.....
Moving along....

Clear not an 'armless' theropod....
Up the body cavity towards the skull....

Bent double, kissing its.........goodbye!
But now the skull.....


Enough for one night....more to follow!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Synchrotron, dinosaurs and Hell

Waiting for a grant is painful. It's hard to second guess the slings and arrows of peer-review. However yesterday, I got some great news...a grant was awarded for two more years work on the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light source (SSRL). This will mean that the University of Manchester Palaeontology Research group can continue our work on elementally mapping beasties from the past.
SLAC, so big!
The next fun step in this work, is raising funds to ship-in the team of 8-10 folks for each beam run. The 24 hour experimental runs can be brutal in terms of sleep depravation, so a large rotating team is a must. The experimental station is manned 24 hours a day and their is always prep-work of some variety in play prior to and after every experiment. Funding the transport, food, accommodation and vast quantities of coffee for such are large team is not cheap. Raising the funds to support such a beam team is often the hardest part of undertaking synchrotron research. Out of the last ten or so beam runs, only two of the 'expenses' bills have been picked-up by external funders (thank you to those external funders!). The remaining beam runs, each team member has had to pay expenses from their own pockets. To date we have papers in PNAS, Science and the Royal Society...with several in review or preparation. So, it really is worth it. We all love the science we are working upon. Even with this regular financial headache, we each and everyone look forward to beam time at SSRL. The correlation coefficient between financial support and high-ranking papers is not as high as we would hope, but maybe this will change in the future. We just need to keep pushing out the science and showing folks the relevance of palaeontology to  everyday 21st Century issues (see my prior post on 'A pigment of our imagination').
A 'holy' leaf...shows evidence of leaf-mining predator, Hell Creek Formation, South Dakota.
You may recall some of the beautiful Hell Creek fossils we plucked from the ground this field season. They too, I hope, will come under the quantitative x-ray gaze of the synchrotron. The opportunity to unlock the elemental inventory of plant and animal fossils from the last gasp of the Cretaceous has interested me for some time. I wonder what environmental or biological secrets are locked in the samples from Hell........Creek?

Friday, 12 August 2011

Just like a dinosaur fossil....only better!

Even after a good nights sleep....the dueling dinosaurs are still amazing. To say they are not the most impressive dinosaurs I have ever seen, would be the understatement of the century. When Pete Larson explained that these were his favorite dinosaur fossils....ever...I knew they would be good. However, nothing could have prepared me for the site that met my eyes yesterday in Montana. The preservation of the theropod dinosaurs bone is akin to black porcelain and the ceratopsian it choose an immortal embrace with, is a stunning dusk brown. These timeless beauties will someday be the centre-piece of a VERY lucky museum. I am grateful to have seen these beautiful fossils in transition between their 65 million year old tomb and their future resting place.
Woof......stunning, gorgeous, amazing....just one part of an incredible find!
The rancher who dug-up the specimens and the couple who have lovingly prepped the bones have only added to what is an amazing specimen. Folks who devote their lives to such endeavors have my heartfelt respect and special thanks for showing me their special find. Since I picked-up my first fossil as a 7 year old and asked the simple question, 'What is this?'...I have dreamt of seeing such a fossil (ideally finding it myself, but hey...I'm not choosy). Even when we were digging-up the dinosaur mummy ('Dakota') in 2006, I joked that the only thing that could make the fossil better, was a T. rex holding the tip of Dakota's tail between its teeth. Little did I know, that such a fossil was literally being excavated as I said those words....a fossil that pretty much fulfills my optimistic statement. 
Aladdin's Cave.....more than any palaeontologist could wish for!
If you are within a 1000 miles of this specimen, it's worth the drive to see it.

Gob-smackingly gorgeous dinosaur!

Forgive this short post, but it's late in deepest South Dakota....Today, the remainder of our field team drove 'just around the corner' to northern Montana...a mere 800+ mile round trip, to see a VERY special fossil.

Some of you may be familiar with the 'fighting pair' that consists a greyhound sized Velociraptor locked in 'immortal' combat with Protoceratops....the fossil we saw today was even more impressive than this pair!

I shall try and find time to upload some pictures of the 'dueling dino's' in the next day or so. This unique pair of fossils, one a Hell Creek theropod and the other a ceratopsian dinosaur, appear to have exchanged blows some 65 million years ago and come to rest in sediments that are now in northern Montana.

Their fatal embrace seems to be one of the most impressive dinosaur fossils on the planet....I promise you that this is no exaggeration from a travel-worn paleontologist. The last time I was gob-smacked by a dinosaur, was the hadrosaur mummy that we excavated with Tyler Lyson nearly five years, once again, I was totally and utterly...gob-smacked!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Rattle snakes and Go Go Arnau!

What can I say. Today was the last day of our field season at Site 1. After tidying-up and finishing off the last few plaster field jackets, we decided to scout a new area, as the said plaster dried.

This past 24 hours I have been slower than a narcoleptic tortoise, after putting my back-out whilst digging a trench to collect sediment samples for analyses in Manchester. All I could manage today was my backpack...which is more than yesterday!

We split into two teams (always in contact via walkie talkies) and agreed to meet behind a large butte that was west of our main site. We had not explored this area yet, as Site 1 and 2 had kept us so busy the past two weeks. Brandon (one of my graduate students from UPenn) found a Rattlesnake. He screamed loudly, his girlfriend calmly led Brandon away from the said snake. Cathy was brought up on a ranch and is used to dealing with squealing townies....and slithering snakes...often easily confused.
Brandon in a less squeamish moment...
The relatively mild winter and wet summer has made a great year for rattlesnakes. The weather and plentiful supply of food had allowed many more to survive and breed. The hemotoxic venom they are capable of delivering makes them potential field problems for all crews. However, the distinctive rattle, a series of modified scales at the tip of the tail, usually gives plenty of warning. I am always more worried about the very young snakes, which do not have a rattle and cannot gauge how much venom to pump into their prey, often delivering too much. Small snake does not always equal less venom! The availability of anti-venom has reduced the fatality rate of rattler bites to a mere 4 percent. I was glad that Brandon did not add to the statistics today!

One of the team from Catalonia (Spain) shouted over that he had struck bone. Arnau Bolet, a micro-vertebrate expert, spotted the tell-tale line of bone weathering from a sandstone ledge high on the slope of the butte. I was already marking another trackway horizon across the butte from Arnau and soon found a partial ceratopsian skull whilst walking towards him. However, I would have dragged myself over far quicker, had a known what he had found.
Bernat's leg (left), then Judit, Arnau, Albert, Brandon and Cathy...all admiring 'Arnau's Ledge'
He beamed a smile at me, pointing at a beautiful collection of bones. Sat on the ledge was a pile of limb, backbone and even skull elements from a sub-adult ornithischian dinosaur. Stunning! There is little doubt that this is at least a partial skeleton, the most complete found this field season, but of course...we did not have the time to dig the said beastie. All we could do was make safe the site and hope that the South Dakotan weather does not relocate this pile of bones between now and next year...when we will come back and excavate another part of the Hell Creek jig-saw puzzle. My back-pain was forgotten for a while as we tweaked our way through the toe bones of a dainty little dinosaur.
Bone, bone, bone, bone and bone :-)
As we walked back to the field vehicles, I let the team walk ahead of me, until they disappeared over the ridge to where we had parked. I stood one more time on a high butte that overlooked the whole site. All I could hear was the wind blowing through the sage-brush. Shadows of clouds gently dipped the site in and out of shade. It had been a productive, hard, sometimes wet, but thoroughly enjoyable field season.

A very peaceful place.

Monday, 8 August 2011

48 Hours to go in the field.....then the work really starts!

It is coming to the end of this summers field season. Only a few more days in the field, before I fly back to Philadelphia. Several members of the team have already started their way back to their respective corners of the globe, leaving eight of us in the field.

We all toasted an anonymous donor again, known only to me as the 'Leprechaun' from Philadelphia...this kind person provided funds for two full dinners for the field team. Top of the day to you sir/madam, as you have a very grateful and well-fed group of palaeontologists.

Tomorrow we will close the main site, in so far that we will hoover-up any surface bone and remove any sign of our being in this beautiful wilderness. Whilst we love to dig, scarpe and excavate...we also like to leave as small an environmental footprint as possible.

We have bagged a decent part of a Torosaurus skull, several hadrosaur post-cranial elements (from a very large beastie), not to mention several bones from the infamous T. rex. To top it all, the micro-vertebrate finds have provided us with evidence for many other non-dinosaurian organisms that thrived in the shadow of the mightiest of all beloved dinosaurs. Teeth of several species hail their presence, but accompanying bones still allude us....for the time being.

The fossils plants, insects and amber will hopefully yield information on the late Cretaceous Hell Creek environment, but this will take many months of sifting through samples accompanied by many experiments. Some of the samples will undoubtedly end-up under the quantitative x-ray gaze of the Stanford synchrotron.

The LiDAR survey scans will soon be aligned and linked, so we can revisit our site in a virtual environment, placing samples we have collected within a 3D framework. The initial previews of our 3D site survey are looking good...but again, more time must be spent on this data. The digital outcrop models will be updated every year to map changes to the site and the relative position of bones as we uncover them.

The samples collected from the sedimentary succession below, within and above our hadrosaur site will be diced and sliced and made into polished thin-sections of rock at the University of Manchester. These will then be analysed at both at the University of Manchester and at the Stanford Synchrotron (at SSRL).

The tridactyl Hell Creek footprint(s) will need describing, but not given a name. I baulk at naming tracks of dinosaurs...unless the hapless maker of the track is found literally dead in its tracks (a termination of my favourite terms). We also now seem to have at least one more track horizon and at least two much work here.

All-in-all, fieldwork is great fun, but the real work starts when your sifting through and interpreting the vast piles of data and samples collected in a field season. It will be this data that forms the backbone of next years field season and many years research. This years finds allow us time to construct preliminary hypotheses that we can then test and validate using corroborating data from other studies and sites relavent to our own. It also allows us to strategically plan next years BIG excavation. Our three weeks in the field this summer, might translate into 2 months next year. The future logistical and financial nightmare is already yielding a few sleepless nights.

Before I close the curtain on this years field season....our team still has another 48 hours to nail another spectacular find. As I recall from last year...our best finds were made in the last 48 hours!

Friday, 5 August 2011

Getting plastered with dinosaurs!

The last few days have been a tad frantic...plaster not setting, bones keep appearing, bugs keep biting, rain stops play...too many variables trying to thwart our teams dino-bone-extraction hopes. The team have worked very hard, but it seems we now have to work even will be a 5:30am start for some of us tomorrow, in the hope we can get thoroughly plastered...well, at least finish the plaster field jackets for the extraction of a large fibula and rib from our hadrosaur site.
Cathy, Marco and Brandon plaster the end of a VERY large femur.

The plants and amber are also still coming and getting bigger and better preserved with every layer of Late Cretaceous pond that we pick from he Hell Creek sediments. We are keen to search for a feather in the pond I KNOW one has to be lurking in there somewhere.
Hell Creek Formation leaf the insect-chewed one at the top!

We even managed to add another dinosaur to our haul today...maybe an Ankylosaur! Only a tooth left behind, but with a maybe more to follow! These armor-plated beasties from the Cretaceous include some of my favorite dinosaurs.
Ankylosaur? tooth :-) 
Tonight...I will be dreaming of extracting a rather long, thin bone from its 65 million year tomb...and hoping we get the jacket to hold this great piece of hadrosaur together....
Hadrosaur fibula...and yes, thats a 10cm scale bar!
...I'll also be hoping we do not find another bone underneath the fibula, as I want to close this site to move onto our main site...our next excavation fun will entail a skull!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Rain stopped play....but we soon slipped into fossil action!

Last night it rained. It rained so hard, it sounded like the Dutch clog dancing team were choreographing a new routine in the roof of the motel. Rain in the Badlands is not much fun, as it equates to mud, not just any mud...the sort that stocks to every and any surface that comes into contact with it. As I feared, as soon as we touched foot from prairie to 'solid' was suddenly not so solid after all. As one of the BLM Officers with us commented, 'Slippery as snake-spit'....something I do not wish to validate.
Threatening skies over the Badlands....taken on the road, during a hasty retreat the day before!

We headed down to one of our two dig-sites and were all soon skating through the slippiest landscape I have trodden in many years. Soon our walking boots resembled giant clods of mud...and became heavier with every step. We ended-up tracking along sandy river-beds (that were thankfully not flowing) up to our first dig site. On arrival at the site, we all realized it was pointless trying to start was a mud-bath. To add insult to injury, our first site was facing to the west, with a tall cliff above no sun for us until after mid-day.

We decided to trek the mile or so across the Badlands to our second site...we can see each site across the prairie,  but as soon as we dip into the channels and valleys of the Badlands, almost all landmarks (bar the tallest buttes) disappear.  Luckily the twisting canyons and river beds are becoming more familiar, so we soon wound our way to the other site. I'm pleased that we did!

As soon as we hit the base of the butte for the other site, we found tracks. Not deer, antelope or fox, but of the dinosaurian variety. Dinosaur tracks in the Hell Creek Formation are relatively we were all a tad pleased. Many photographs and measurements were this will be a publication, we hope, in the near future. All I will say now, the track maker had three large toes.

After a quick scan of the bones at the second site, we sat and had lunch in the shade of some channel-laid sandstones, that were deposited over 65 million years ago. It was the same sandstone units that housed the dinosaur tracks at their upper surface. After a swift lunch of water trail mix and beef jerky, we headed back to our slippy site, in the hope that the mid-day sun had dried-out our site a little.
Hadrosaur caudal (tail!) vertebra

Thankfully, our site was quite sandy, so much of the water had either evaporated or drained away by 2pm. We set-to on excavating a femur, fibula, several vertebrae and a rib from a VERY large hadrosaur dinosaur. Our youngest team member, an undergraduate from UPenn named Emma, spent the afternoon hunting for the beautiful fossil leaves and amber that was rapidly becoming the highlight of the whole site. The leaves are simply beautiful and the amber has much research potential. This is Emma's first time into the field and she has made a name for herself by helping collect some gorgeous plant fossils (see below).
65 Million year old fossil leaves from the Hell Creek Formation....gorgeous!

We worked until 6pm, at which time drinking water was running low, it was time to head back to endith another day at the office!

Monday, 1 August 2011

Hot, hot, hot....bug, snakes and bones!

My apologies for a slow update...there is simply too much to say! We have been busier than a team of ants pushing water up-hill.

The team have been fantastic and so too have the finds. One and all have been worked into an overheated ball of dribbling energy every the field at least 10 hours every day. With temperatures reaching 110 Fahrenheit in the shade, its hotter than Habanero chili sauce in the, we're seeing plenty of wildlife....rattle snake, scorpions, ants, birds, bugs and beasties.

The bones just keep coming, as does the beautiful plant fossils, amber and all manner of late Cretaceous beasties...including some stunning mammal fossils. We are happy....this is an understatement!

In fact, some of us will be staying in the field a little longer, to eek a few more prehistoric morsels from our two productive excavation sites.

We even managed to LiDAR scan both field sites....stunning!

My apologies....I will try and find time to write more when I am not dribbling with tiredness.

I'll stick some pictures up later....when I have time!

Monday, 25 July 2011


The weather in the Chicago and Denver regions is doing its best to delay and/or prevent field team members getting to South Dakota. Having only been delayed an hour myself, I feel lucky...some of my colleagues were sat between 5-10 hours waiting for 'weather' to get out of the way of their respective areas.

I'm sat typing this blog, waiting for Bill Sellers. He too has suffered the slings and arrows of weather delays at Denver, but thankfully only one hour. Hopefully he will not be too trashed after his 18 hour ordeal from Manchester to South Dakota.

Tomorrow morning, its a 7am breakfast, followed by a test run of the Leica LiDAR....I was checking the charge of batteries today, in reparation for the mornings dino-surveying session. We have a rather stunning...or was that stunted...T. rex to squeeze into digital format...a NEW specimen. Quite wonderful.

Once we are happy we have mastered the loaned Leica LiDAR unit, we will set off into the field.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Juggling planes, theses and automobiles!

Waking-up at 7am today I was greeted by a cool outside temperature of 87 F….yes that’s over 30 Celsius., with a mere humidity of 40%. This is the coolest its been in the last few days….cool?

I was dropped off at Philadelphia Airport by a colleague, who will be joining the field-team next week. As we drove to the airport, traffic reports from the prior day recounted tales of roads ‘peeling’ in the heat…'imagine what that does to your body’ a overheated Philadelphian recounted in the same news report. Too true.

Even the usual freezing wall of aircon that smacks you in the chops when you enter the airport, was struggling to keep pace with the now 98 Fahrenheit (36.5 Celsius) temperatures outside…its not even 10am. It's going to be a hot day in the city today.

I don’t need to complain to you all about flying again, but yes…I still hate flying. Thankfully a quick hop to Chicago and then Rapid City is all I have to endure today. Looking at the weather, it’s going to be bumpy…thunderheads on the horizon. Great L

My reading for the flights and also for the next few days (we can’t dig fossils at night!), is a PhD thesis I am reviewing.  Thankfully its great work, so not too much of a chore.  

I think it will be cooler at my field site...I hope! Here begins my Hell Creek fieldwork season for 2011.

Twaz the night before fieldwork.......and all was hot and frantic!

Those of you who are not in the USA at the moment, might not have heard that its rather warm over here. In fact, I sit writing this post in a puddle of perspiration, with an aircon unit optimistically puffing air in my direction, shifting the 85 F (~29 C) air around my office. I can't complain, as it is 105 F (~40+C) outside. With temperatures soaring into these dizzying height, it must time to do some fieldwork!

Dealing with both high humidity and temperatures in the City of Philadelphia is bad enough, but when this is combined with the splendid isolation of the Badlands...keeping cool and hydrated is a matter of life or death (This is just a subtle/gentle reminder to all my field crew who might read this post tonight!). The heaviest thing we haul into the field, bar our own bulks, are gallons of water to drink. The heat in South Dakota is wonderfully dry, so evaporation from your skin is rapid, and you don't even know your loosing pints of water an hour. One of the most important things to remember, is to simply drink. This is why my spanking new hydration pack can take two gallons of water at a time...and is insulated...there is nothing more amazing than a cool slurp of water, when the ambient temperature is above that of your body. I will drink between 2-3 gallons of water per day when working in the field, and not gain an ounce by the close of play each day!

On a more challenging and practical note. I'm sat looking at a pile of impossibly full bags. One for clothing, the rest... field gear....lots of field gear...and there's more to pick-up at our destination. I shall even be dragging my MacBookPro into the field, as I have coaxed it into talking 'PC' via Parallels (a crafty piece of software), that will allow me to run the Leica software that stitches together the digital data from the LiDAR scans. Whilst we still take brushes, spades, trenching tools, dental picks and plaster into the field, the array of digital and electronic equipment is now quite staggering....and heavy.

The bags look full, but I have that nagging doubt...I must have forgotten something?