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.


  1. Hey Phil, it's Ali.

    It sounds like you all had a fantastic field season! I really wish I could've been there but you'll have to tell me more when we next meet. Also, I spotted an Ankylosaur tooth in an earlier post! Very exciting!

    Anyway, have a safe trip home and I will see you at some point soon.


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