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?

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Dinosaurs, lasers and portable x-rays!

Excitement is mounting....a few days from now, and it's South Dakota bound!

This field season, we get to use a top of the range Leica LiDAR unit (a C10 laser scanner) even comes with it's very own, branded, rain jacket! I love this kit. It's the attention to detail that Leica does with all its equipment that makes it so damn functional in the field. The new LiDAR unit will allow us to spatially map in 3D and in glorious colour, the whole of our field site to sub-millimeter resolution. Woof! This means that any samples we collect, which will mostly be rock and sediment this year, can then be later placed into a 3D framework. This literally provides a 3D virtual field map of our entire site, so we can re-visit the location again and again, but from the comfort of our office... where there are fewer mosquitoes, snakes and less sunburn.

We are also testing a portable x-ray fluorescence unit in the field for the first time. This wonderful piece of technology provides us with valuable elemental data from in-situ sediment samples, as well as information on our beloved fossils. The sensitivity of the unit allows us the luxury of pre-screening the elemental inventory of fossils....before we have to drag them all the way to Stanford (SSRL) to be scanned at the Synchrotron. This will hopefully save us both time and research money (which is always scarce!). The great thing about the looks like a large, we will look quite mad to anyone who comes across us, in the middle of no-where, styling the dirt of an outcrop!

We have also just gotten our supply of USGS 1:24,000 maps that cover the new field site. I love maps...precious things that are works of art in their own right. I have just spent the last few hours pouring over the maps and checking boundaries, access, etc. Nothing can be left to chance. The downside of my beautiful the end of the field season, they will be torn, tattered, scribbled upon and throughly used...but, totally invaluable.

As with last year, I will endeavor to write something every day about our fun and games in the field. Stay-tuned over the next few weeks to share the highs, lows, frustrations, excitement and hard work that is fieldwork with dinosaurs in the Late Cretaceous.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Heavy workload, then fieldwork....

I am sat working my way through dozens of papers, in the the vain hope I will have time to draft a paper with colleagues before I head-off into the field. Plus, I'm still coordinating folks from four different countries to converge in the same place to play, 'map this site'.  A fun game of lasers, heat, sunburn, bites and bone! Its going to be a busy few weeks. Sometimes, only sometimes, it feels like a large cliff is on top of you.... idea where I get that feeling from?

How to use dinosaurs: Jurassic CSI

Jurassic CSI is transmitted for the first time in the USA tonight on the National Geographic Channel. This is one of six episodes that follows my team and I around the globe, doing things to dinosaurs....well, at least their fossil remains. UPenn's Pennsylvania Gazette has already ran a fun story on the whole series...but I am hopeful the series is well-received by as wide an audience as possible....when it is completely aired later in August.

Laser-scanned dinosaur bones are fun, but nothing beats a bit of flesh...but where do you start?

Dinosaurs are often hailed as a scientific communication breakthrough, but is this really the case? Does the ‘and finally’ news story, usually based upon a recent publication, give credit to the years of painstaking work from discovery to final interpretation? The same can be said for many areas of science, where the object of the science becomes the story but not the science itself. This, in part, is the fault of both media and the scientists, given we must be more aware of how our science is translated into digestible chunks that can be understood by non-specialist audiences. Dinosaurs, however, are in a unique position. Apart from the fact that they are all dead (bar their descendants the birds) these animals have the potential to unlock many new areas of research to the public, given they provide a unique vehicle to deliver often complex science. 

Adding flesh to this sauropod dinosaur, but with a twist of 'giraffe' in the mix!

Whether it be particle physicists blasting fossils with high energy X-rays at a synchrotron (see earlier blog) or computational biologists making dinosaurs run in virtual environments (yes, we really do try!), it is clear these extinct giants have a role to play in engaging the public with more than just old fossil bones. 

The intense touch of synchrotron light reveals some of the secrets from Archaeopteryx 'In Living Color'

In the past ten years the science of palaeontology has been reinventing itself, looking to new disciplines to help solve very old questions. Now that palaeontology is such a diverse, interdisciplinary research area, it has successfully facilitated in the communication of multiple fields of science.  Interdisciplinary work with engineers, physiologists, geneticists, computational scientists, chemists (even paleontologists!) and many other disciplines provides avenues that might excite interest in what might be considered discrete or obscure areas of research.  Indeed, computational palaeontology is a splendid example of how the digitisation of specimens and subsequent computational analyses are both eye-catching and easy to distribute though modern media. The new series for National Geographic, Dinosaur CSI, was our take on this rapidly evolving field of science. I just hope that you all agree..... 

Computer graphics bring Archaeopteryx back to life in Jurassic CSI...albeit in a virtual world.