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!