Thursday, 22 August 2013

Another day on the set...of 'Hell Creek'

The team has expanded....not from the CCP Burgers from the local saloon...CCP=Chicken, Cow, have to be here to understand why this is great field tucker! The field team has been swollen by the presence of the vastness that is the legendary Carl Mehling from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and his splendid wife Fiona, but also from the hallowed halls of the AMNH, Wayne Callahan...who seems to have magnetic abilities when it comes to finding the bones and teeth of theropod dinosaurs...we all follow Wayne in the hope we too will learn from his innate fossil-hunting skills. The site has now started yielding little bundles of joy, in the form of fossilised turtle...some quite complete. It looks like this particular corner of our site was once a raging torrent, as the bones, teeth and turtles have been jammed together in a rather unnatural prehistoric soup. Carl, Fiona, Nick, Bill, Victoria and Indy got busy with plaster and water to start the process of protecting our chelonian beasties from their sandy tombs with a liberally applied straight jacket of plaster.

The folks from the AMNH and Manchester did a splendid job (above) of slicing and dicing the fossil bundles into luggable field samples...anything over 100 pounds in weight is too much on our precarious precipice and far too much for my shot shoulder and other cumulative ailments that I will not bore you with....but lets just say, I have been using our field doctor too regularly.

Dr. Nick Edwards (left) and Carl Mehling (right)...about to leap into the Hell Creek Abyss!
It was a longer day for the field team, as I had to head back to our field station early to rehydrate and see doc Charles. Carl finally worked out that he was no longer in New York and his lunch order for a skinny double shot half-caff mocha frappuccino light on the whip...was a longer time coming in the Badlands of South Dakota...his bizarre request (apparently a drink of coffee?) seemed a world away. Another member of our team was preparing for his own change of diet....Dr Nick is about to make a slightly longer culinary journey than New York City. He leaves South Dakota early tomorrow to exchange his CCP burger for spaghetti and meat balls....he is off to Florence (Italy)...lucky toad! His muscle, jokes and editing skills (see prior blog) will be missed....who now could possibly complete the 'Hell Creek' movie...stay tuned!

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain,.....and mud!

The raindrops in South Dakota seem to disobey the laws of physics when it comes to the fundamental hydrostatic bonds that define and constrain a single falling drop of from the skies. Here, or so it would seem, the drops coalesce into bucket-sized ‘orbs’ that have the ability to disinter whole dinosaur bones from their Hell Creek tombs…maybe we should replace our geological hammers with water cannon?  The frustrating cycle of thunderstorms with intense rain, followed by a brief blast of sun, is making access to our field sites impossible…or I should say impassable. Once you step-off the prairie onto the series of inter-bedded sands and muds…the muds seem to be instantly attracted to your boots. The cumulative effect of successive steps results in 50-pound buckets of mud attached to each limb, making walking a cumbersome and exhausting process. I look over my shoulder at our tracks and it appears that a 400-pound animal has been dragging its huge feet slowly through the Badlands…no doubt a Sasquatch-type legend will soon be born of the Hell Creek. The once crackly popcorn surface of bone-dry mud is now replaced with glistening streams of mud and sand, gently ebbing into larger hollows to help mire any unsuspecting cows, antelope, deer or palaeontologists. We often include in our lectures how mobile the Badland landscapes and environments can be and that erosion and weathering are the worst enemies of fossils…I never thought I would be stuck in the very processes that carves and shapes the very same landscape. It is August…the supposed driest month of the year.

Hail palaeontologists!

Wherever there is a yin…there is always a yang. Manchester has had beautifully sunny weather these past few weeks…the rain has moved to South Dakota. This is great for the ranchers…as they can now look at their green pastures and fattened calves. The Great Plains are a sea of green, interspersed with ephemeral lakes, rivers and waterfalls…and that’s just the highway! Yesterday we saw stormy skies that hurled golf-ball sized hail with a soup├žon of tornado. This is going to be a slippery field season.

On the downside, the mosquitoes have multiplied to biblical proportions and seem to be vying for position as top-predator in the local food chain. The said blood-sucking savages are so fat on the blood of cows, ranch hands, Sturgis bikers and now…me. Yes, the mosquitoes were so happy to smell the blood of an Englishmen; they did a fly-past in formation. I felt I was partaking in some bizarre air-show, in which I was the food-stall for the participants. The said beasties could choose to drink straight from the skin, or take an alternative slurp of haemoglobin through my T-shirt, hat or trousers…these vial creatures seem to disobey all laws of biting…quite unsporting!
The long and 'green' march from site to site.

As soon as our team exited our field vehicle, the swarms descended. Within a few seconds we were all swatting at anything that buzzed. This is the first field season for Dr. Nick Edwards and Dr. Charles Egerton…the rest of the team did not dare to say that the mosquitoes were worse than we had ever seen. Dr. Bill Sellers and Dr. Victoria Egerton batted the said beasties away…one even kindly bashed a mosquito on my left shoulder…reminding me of my torn rotator cuff…double ouch! The bite of the day had to go to Jennifer Anne (aka Indy), as she was bitten on the lip…soon swelling into a curious mix of snarl and pout. Once we had donned all our field gear, we headed to the ridge above our SUV where we had parked. We were greeted with a splendid view of beautiful Hell Creek Formation badlands, set amidst an ocean of green; gently swaying in the afternoon breeze…here begins another field season.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Twas the night before fieldwork...and everything was heavy

All I can see in my office is a vast pile of equipment, ranging from laser scanning units to trenching tools. Each time a nervously glance at the luggage, I hear myself sigh. Why do we have so much 'stuff'. I am sure that last year's field season did not require so much kit? However, my main concern is the 'final frontier' 'space' is rapidly dissolving in my densely packed luggage. It is one of those moments that you start to wish for a Tardis-like bag to swallow all kit, but at the same time generate an internal anti-gravity zone within the confides of the luggage. I pick-up my first piece of luggage and groan; it seems impossibly heavy. I check inside the bag for any stray neutron stars that might be lurking in the darkest recesses, anchoring this stellar remnant to my office add to my fun, this year I am hampered by having one functional arm (courtesy my a shoulder injury from the 2012 field season). It seems remarkable that by just starring at the pile of kit or closing my eyes to the shear lack of carrying capacity, this does little to help me. This is when you inevitably start the pairing-down process, isolating those non-vital pieces of field equipment, such as soap, deodorant or underwear. Just as you think you are nearly spy a pile of cable's, plugs and connectors...without which the mountain of multiple electronic gadgets will silently mock you and refuse to communicate. The travelling electronics store also boasts a significant computer section, with PC's Macs and netbooks gradually piling-up. Oh for a single plug/cable/software solution...isn't technology meant to be making our lives easier? Why does my bag now look like a bloated organism riddled with escaping tape worms...the abstruse wonders of 21st Century fieldwork.