Monday, November 16, 2015

Fossils in Disguise

As July progressed into August and we neared the end of our field season, it was time to start hauling blocks back to camp and closing down quarries. This is Suicide Hill, a spot I didn't work at very much but which contains lots of juvenile Eolambia. Lindsay has a great system for bringing large blocks back to camp with people-power only, since we cannot use vehicles at many of our sites. We strap them with ratchet straps to a backboard (or what everyone else was calling a sled, but it's a backboard guys! We were totally prepared for spinal injuries!). This way, 4-8 people can lift large jackets with relative ease and less potential for back injury. I think this jacket was somewhere over 500 pounds.

Closing down quarries also means Khai and Haviv and I got to haul gear back to camp, like pry bars and crack hammers and water jugs and all kinds of other heavy things. WHAT FUN.

We had started a new quarry called Mini Troll relatively late in the season after the sauropod site was largely completed. Lisa had found this spot last year and it looks like it contains a very nice small ornithischian, possibly something a bit like Orodromeus in general shape and size. It's not articulated, but it looks like a lot of it is in this little lens of sandstone.

Also, I found a TOOTH! Maybe from Siats?

Mini Troll kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and we were starting to run out of time.

That meant we had a couple of nights where we ate dinner at the quarry to save time. Did you know that mayonnaise tastes great in leftover chili? (This is probably my favourite photo from the whole field season - what a great moment of collegiality and teamwork and friendship.)

Click to embiggen this sort of ok panorama of Mini Troll at about 9pm at night!

By the final morning, Mini Troll had gotten so big that we felt we couldn't really call it 'mini' anymore, and so while the site is still Mini Troll, the jacket was dubbed Megatron. We were finishing the final layers of plaster at about 8am on the last day.

Megatron weighed over 600 pounds and needed to go up this extremely steep hill without many footholds. I still can't believe we got it up successfully and with, ultimately, minimal hassle or terror. 

And that finishes off my overdue fieldwork posts! If you find yourself in Raleigh, come visit Megatron! He's hanging out in the window of the prep lab and Lindsay and Lisa just started to open it up a week or so ago. I think it's going to be pretty cool!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Fortunate Son

Elsewhere in the Mesozoic, parts of the field crew were working away at Cretaceous dinosaurs in the Mussentuchit Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation. In may we worked at Crystal Geyser Quarry, which is in the Yellow Cat Member of the same formation and is about 125 million years old, in a part of the Cretaceous called the Barremian. In contrast, the Mussentuchit Member is about 98 million years old, or Cenomanian in age. The Cedar Mountain Formation is a giant unit of rock, and the dinosaur faunas changed dramatically throughout!

The dinosaur fauna of the Mussentuchit is still poorly known, and we still don't know very much about the dinosaurs of the 'middle' Cretaceous compared to the Jurassic (like the Morrison Formation) or the Late Cretaceous (like my previous fieldwork in Alberta and Mongolia). There are still many new dinosaurs to be discovered here! This quarry has produced a new small iguanodontian, nicknamed Fortunate Son for the time being while we prepare its bones and until it is formally described.

The views from this quarry are terrible. Just awful.

The Fortunate Son quarry was about a 30-40 minute hike from camp and generally a very pleasant place to work. However, when the weather looks like this, you're probably going to get wet.

This particular thunderstorm was threatening us for a long time, but when the sky opened up it was worse than expected and an almost instantaneous drenching. Here we are hiding from the lightning! For extra bonus fun, we had to walk over the highest hill in the vicinity in order to return to camp, so we had to wait this one out for a long time until we thought it was safe. When we finally tried heading home, the slick wet mud made us very slow, and the lightning started again by the time we got to the top of the hill. GOOD TIMES. Lindsay also posted about our stormy weather at the Expedition Live blog!

Camp wasn't much drier!

Later that day, a second thunderstorm rolled through, throwing hail onto us like I haven't experienced before. Grape-sized hail came down for at least 15 minutes straight, so we figured we may as well try to get some free ice for our drinks.

Haviv made the best of the bad weather with some mud sculpting!

We also spent some time prospecting for new localities, although I didn't find anything particularly exciting. The strata here are much more deformed than what I'm used to, making for some steep hiking! The red rocks towards the bottom are Jurassic Morrison Formation, and the buff coloured rocks above are largely the Ruby Ranch Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation, with Mussentuchit Member rocks closer to the top.

Here's a kind of ok 180-panorama from the highest point I climbed to one day. Click to embiggen!

Next time, we meet a Decepticon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead.

I can't believe that it's been more than 2 months since we got back from our fieldwork in Utah and I'm only getting around to posting about it now, but I guess that means things have been hopping around here! We had spent a week at the Crystal Geyser Quarry earlier in May, but our main batch of fieldwork lasted for four weeks from mid July to mid August. We drove from North Carolina to near Emery, Utah, to set up camp and work in the Morrison and Cedar Mountain formations.

Camp was comfortable and cozy!

And there were some pretty nice views!

I spent the first few weeks managing a sauropod quarry in the Morrison Formation. Although the Jurassic is not the main focus of our lab's research projects, its a nice addition to the museum's collection, and if I recall correctly this is some of the most western outcrop of Morrison. I was usually joined by an enthusiastic set of students from NCSU's palaeontology field school taught by Lindsay Zanno. Thanks for being cool, students! And thanks for introducing me to Welcome to Night Vale, which is basically the best possible podcast to listen to while digging up a dinosaur in the desert where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.

Most of our sites were within walking distance of camp, but it was a bumpy drive out to the sauropod quarry and back each day!

Here's what some of the block of diplodocid looked like early on - pretty hard to interpret!

And here's how it looked a little while later! Still hard to interpret, but this is probably part of the pelvis, and some sacral and caudal vertebrae. Last year a large block of articulated caudal vertebrae was taken out of the quarry from the area to the right in this picture.

Just when I thought we were mostly finished, I found this nice 'little' caudal vertebra from probably about the midpoint in the series.

Sauropod bones make for some pretty big blocks to collect. Here's Lindsay and the crew getting ready to plaster the top of this block, by stabilizing holes and cracks with some good old fashioned bentonite mud.

This was a new and interesting technique for me - building a ramp to move heavy specimens into the truck! We used dirt from the quarry to build a dirt ramp, then nailed some 1x2s to a piece of heavy duty plywood and set some iron rollers in the middle. Using a winch and some pry bars, we were able to roll the blocks up into the truck. A good method!

We also did some live presentations with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences from this quarry! Here's out little shrine to cellphones - a fortuitous spot with good reception. We rigged up a holder for the phone so that we could Skype with the museum into the Daily Planet theatre. We talked a bit about what we were doing, and the audience could ask us questions! I think about how much I would have loved to be able to talk to a palaeontologist at an actual dinosaur dig when I was little, and I'm continually amazed by what we're able to do with high tech gear and a little bit of ingenuity these days.

Here's what that looked like back in North Carolina! (Thanks Brian Malow for the photo!)

Next time: Cedar Mountain Formation shenanigans! And don't forget to take the blog readers survey, now with the chance to win your very own Galactic Coelacanth mug!