Thursday, 30 August 2012

Lightning storms, hot goop and getting plastered.

 We arrived on site this morning and the atmosphere was hot and humid, with thunderheads looming on the horizon. Rain in the badlands is a problem…but lightening can be life-threatening. We only have a few more days to finish our site survey and remove a few obvious bones that might not make it through the harsh Dakotan winter.

Today we had planned to extract a rather stunning bone, but the lightening storm slowly shifted over us and started to spot the dry dirt with rain. Usually we would turn tail and head for the field vehicle, but we took a gamble and hunkered down under a butte. Thankfully the storm passed over and we could head-off to get plastered. The single tibia that stuck proud of a channel sand had a stunning surface texture and a possible bite mark from a large predator. The removal procedure involved plaster, bandages, copious amounts of water and a bucket. Carl Mehling pointed out that we were reenacting a scene that has been played-out countless times in the Badlands. The temperature was rising at our site and Carl whipped-out his multipurpose tool to open the plaster bag to start the field-jacketing process.

The bone we intended to collect still lay in the wall of the butte. The prior day we had completely exposed it, and identified it as being a large tibia from an Edmontosaurus. We had named the specimen Phindy, as both Jennifer Anne (aka Indy) and I had discovered the bone earlier in the week. Carl was clearly impressed by Phindy’s huge bone.

We soon got down to business and started encasing the bone in a field jacket for extraction. I checked that the initial bandage jacket had dried from the day before. It was nice and hard, so I could get to work on the bone. We mixed-up a batch of plaster, Carl pouring water into the bucket…as I poured plaster into the mix. The goopy mix soon started to get hot and I worked the mixture until it was nice and smooth, indicating it was nearly ready to smother the bone with. This outer jacket would provide the final protection for the bone for its long journey from the Badlands of South Dakota to New York City.

As I smoothed the mix over the shaft of the bone, Carl and Indy watched and offered ‘helpful’ words of encouragement….that might alter the rating of this blog so forgive there omission. The goop started getting hot, as the exothermic mix began to harden around the bone. I had to keep moving the mixture over the bone, keeping it smooth and even as it hardened.

Tomorrow we will be able to safely remove this awesome bone from its 65 million year old Hell Creek tomb.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Hot, Hot, Hot...and getting hotter!

This is an overdue blog. I have been in the field for over a week and not had time to write my blog. That said, I have had time to mark exam papers, submit a paper, start a new grant and not sleep...tonight being a great example! However, the fieldwork has been most productive with several excellent fossils being plucked from the ground, by a VERY reduced field size, but not in enthusiasm! The reason for this years field crew being so small...well, we have been mapping the corners of our BLM sections. This is hugely important, as it constrains how and where we will get access to our excavation sites next this is when we intend to expand our crew and run the full dig!
A new site that has surprised us with some rather nice fossil bone!
We are also shipping some of the giant hadrosaur and ceratopsian bones back to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) that we excavated last year. The field-jacketed bones require careful packing in a vast wooden crate, that we will send ahead of us to New York at the end of this week. One of the AMNH Paleontology collections folks (Carl Mehling) is also with us in the field, as the 'Night at the Museum' museum is the designated federal repository for all the bones, teeth, scales and sundry that we have been extracting from the productive Late Cretaceous loins of the Hell Creek Formation. I think Carl is having fun....but the heat is baking him daily...which is clearly not much fun for him, as we hear many a groan and sighs, in-between his gasps at fossil delights.
Dr Victoria Egerton (right) and Dr Bill Sellers (left) work their way through a pond deposit in the Hell Creek Fm.
The bugs, snakes, and beasties have been pretty good this year...I am particularly happy about this, as prior years have had me donating large quantities of blood to the local mosquito population. We have only bumped into one rattle snake and that was yesterday, and yes, it made me jump high in the air and got my heart racing to the amusement of all. Our biggest problem at the moment is heat. Today it was around 100 degrees fahrenheit (this being nearly 38 C), making the treks between sites and any lifting very hard and hot work. Tomorrow (which I might add is already here, as it is 2am local time) will be even hotter, with a promised high of 100 degrees fahrenheit (that is a mind-addling 43 C). We are currently drinking 4-6 litres of fluids a day, but that will significantly rise tomorrow. When the ambient temperature is greater than your body temperature, you body and mind start to do strange things. The most basic tasks become ordeals, so the thought of lifting a 100 lb field jacket the mile or so a from our site to transport...fills me with joy! What should only take 20 minutes, ends up being a simmering 1-2 hour slog.
Lets just hope I do not meet this beastie in-person...this was a skin moult on our dig site....gulp!