The Research Staff of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences includes experts in a wide variety of scientific disciplines who conduct exciting research investigations, maintain and expand the Museum’s natural science Research Collections, and participate in the Museum’s public education and outreach mission. Check this blog often to learn about all of the great science happening at the Museum!
We received some helping hands about half-way through our two-week dig in Arizona. Dr. Andy Heckert and a hard-working crew of undergraduate students from Appalachian State University made the cross-country trip to search for fossils. A total of 8 students with interests from sedimentology to paleontology began digging within 30 minutes of their arrival in the field!
The extra hands allowed us to cover more ground. This was great because we were able to open two additional dig sites alongside the original one we started at the beginning of the week! The last 5 days were spent digging for as many fossils that could be recovered.
This year was actually the 4th year that the NC Museum of Natural Sciences has returned to the Placerias Quarry site on a quest for Triassic remains. Each previous year proved fruitful and a decision was made to return for what other bones might be awaiting discovery. So far, this year seems to be one of the most productive years yet! With all the helping hands, we were able to discover and recover a very high volume of fossils. Currently, the team is hauling approximately 40 jackets back to the Museum. In fact, the van was loaded down to full capacity and there were still items left over and in need of transportation! The remaining jackets and fossils had to travel back with the ASU team.
All in all, this year was a great year! The materials must await prep in the lab before the most interesting finds during this field season adventure can truly be discovered! Please, stay tuned!
by Meg Lowman
One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating. – Luciano Pavarotti, opera singer
One of the best parts of spring is waking up with Mother Nature. Eagerly hitting the trail for an early morning walk, I was confronted by a charismatic denizen of the temperate forest: a chipmunk! He trembled in haste among the leaf litter, foraging for his cache of buried nuts, and ravenously nibbling extraneous pine needles as part of his banquet-on-the-go. Pausing to observe this elegantly striped creature devour a vegetarian breakfast, I was struck by his frantic attitude. Was he anticipating the next snowfall? Or did he fear an imminent enemy about to pounce? Throughout his feeding-frenzy, he did not relax for even a minute. As a scientist, I could not help comparing his behavior to the animals of tropical forests. Sloths in Panama hardly ever move, casually taking a bite of leaves here and there; egrets in the Everglades strategically stand still for long periods of time during a fishing expedition; and many Amazonian insects exhibit the same behavior all year round.
A geographical law of nature was unfolding before my eyes. Closer to the poles, animals experience relatively short summers. To survive, temperate and arctic critters must eat, grow, mate, nest, rear young, and gain weight in a relatively short summer season before the onset of winter. In contrast, organisms in the tropical equatorial forests do not experience the same extremes of the temperate zones, and — while competition for resources is nonetheless tough — they do not anticipate the rigors of leaf-fall and freezing temperatures.
As with all of Mother Nature, there are always exceptions; but most animals and plants living closer to the poles pack a lot of activity into a relatively shorter season as compared to their tropical counterparts.
In the natural world of North Carolina, every animal is finely tuned to perform perfectly within its environment. But what happens when that environment changes suddenly? How will the predicted trends of warmer temperatures, higher storm surges, or sudden clearing of forests affect the survival of natural populations? With such rapid changes, the laws of Mother Nature are put to the test. But I am cheering for the chipmunk, with high hopes that he will adapt and continue to find his breakfast despite a changing environment.
Citizen science activity: Did you know that North Carolina represents the southeastern edge of the range of the Eastern chipmunk? The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is mapping the distribution of chipmunks to better understand their role in our state. If you observe a chipmunk, please join our citizen scientist team by submitting your observation to: http://bit.ly/18i6cGE
We have been digging up bones for over a week now. So, what are we looking for anyway? Broadly speaking, we are looking for archosaurs. Archosauria is a group that includes extinct dinosaurs and crocodilians, but also includes living birds and crocodilians of our world today. More specifically, we are looking for archosaurs from the Triassic. The Triassic is a geological period in history that we recognize as existing approximately 250 to 200 million years ago. The Triassic, along with the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, are all part of a larger segment of history known as the Mesozoic Era. For all you dinosaur lovers, dinosaurs (a sub-group of the larger group known as Archosauria) began to thrive towards the end of this Triassic period.
The photograph below is one of our great finds! This is thought to be the lateral osteoderm spike of Desmatosuchus. In other words, this is the side spike of an ancient and extinct reptile from Triassic times. The image below this photograph is a reconstruction of Desmatosuchus. Take notice of the spikes on each side of the creature. This animal could grow to approximately 16 feet in length and 5 feet in height. Desmatosuchus was not a dinosaur (although closely related), but part of a group known as Aetosauria.
The many fossils being uncovered from this site will have to await study in the lab before any definitive identification and classificaition can occur. This is when our volunteers are especially appreciated! Their time and effort given to prepping these fossils is invaluable and our lab here at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences is dependent on our motivated and dedicated volunteer staff. So, get ready volunteers! We have numerous bags full of fossils and 20-plus jacketed specimens coming your way this very weekend!
After a day in the field, we stopped by C & E Rock Sales to visit a friend and owner of this local business. C & E Rock Sales specializes in producing prepped and polished fossilized wood which is then sold locally from the shop or sold to external gift shops for public purchase. This first photograph shows only a few of the many carts, tables, and boxes in the shop that are currently filled to the brim with petrified wood specimens ready to be polished.
The wood slabs are then cut into all sizes using the cutting machine featured in the second photograph.
Next, the wood – in all its various shapes and sizes – is placed in a circular slab of plaster that hardens and holds the wood in place. The plaster slab is placed on this polishing machine (shown below) and the machine rotates the slab, buffering one side of the wood until perfectly shiny and smooth.
When this is complete, the slab of plaster is removed and the individual pieces of petrified wood are hammered out – by hand – of the circular encasing. The product is a shiny section of fossil wood, each adorned with different patterns and colors. In fact, the colors are determined by the type of mineralization that occurred during the fossilization of the wood.
The final photograph exhibits the finished products; beautifully colored and skillfully crafted fossil wood ready for you to buy! These are the souvenirs that are most popular in gift shops across the country and it was incredible to see how they are made first-hand. What was even better was to see a bit of Arizona culture and a local business thriving inside and out!
If you found this interesting, be sure to check out C & E Rock Sales website and additional products:
On Wednesday we each returned to our holes we had dug the day before and started the bone searching right away. Unfortunately, I dug in my little unit of dirt all morning and never came across a single fossil. It can be rather disheartening to realize that you just spent the past 4 hours chiseling away at a pile of dirt only to find more dirt at the bottom and nothing else of significance. Nonetheless, this is the process; sometimes you find what you are looking for, sometimes you find nothing at all, and sometimes you even find something completely unexpected. The adventure is in the search for what might be — or might not be — hidden below!
The afternoon brought more luck as we scraped and shoveled through the layers of rock, mudstone, and clay before reaching the bone layer (where the desired fossils are most likely to be found). Two of our volunteers — Nancy and Nancy — recovered an overlapping mass of bones in between their respective work areas. The arrangement and fragility of the bones made excavating on site difficult and made jacketing the specimen necessary. Jacketing is a technique that was founded and practiced by some of the earliest American paleontologists in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a technique that paleontologists still find useful today! In brief, jacketing a specimen can be summarized in a 5-step-process:
1) Find a fossil! Here, Nancy is pointing to the mass of bones recently discovered.
2) Create a pedestal. This means digging a trench around the specimen while slightly undercutting the dirt layer at the very bottom. This creates a mound of dirt to support the specimen in its removal from the site, travel back to the museum, and prep in the lab.
3) Apply the plaster! After mounting the specimen on a pedestal of dirt, you want to apply a layer of tin foil over the fossil (for protection) before applying the plaster cast. The plaster and water are combined to create a gooey and quick-drying mixture. Working quickly, burlap strips are dipped into the mixture, applied tightly and evenly across the pedestal, and left to harden and dry, thus protecting the specimen from the field to the lab. The plaster and water mixture is essentially the same material that comprises a cast one might wear to help heal a broken bone.
4) Map your specimen. Next, you want to ensure that you record where you found the fossils. This is important information for research purposes now and in years to come.
5) Let it dry! Finally, the plaster encasing the specimen will need to dry. This usually takes at least 2 hours. Once dry, you can undercut the bottom-most dirt layer and flip the jacket upside down. Then it is time to cover the base with tin foil and apply the plaster to the bottom of the pedestal, completing the jacket process.
Today we found several more fossils in need of jackets. I mixed the plaster and water and helped apply the dipped burlap onto a number of the pedestals. The below photograph is my attire in the aftermath of the jacket process. In the end, it looked like I tried to plaster up myself instead of the fossils. It is a messy job and practice makes perfect….
Today was a successful day at the Placerias Quarry! The weather was perfect, the company pleasurable, and the bones plentiful. We arrived on site and began work around 7:30am, working through the morning until lunch at noon. We returned to work and finished out the day, packing up the van to head back into town around 4:30pm.
The field crew is working in a designated 9 meter x 3 meter grid. This area is divided into sections and each section is given a unique number for data purposes. Each crew member is then assigned a unique workspace within the grid. Every fossil found must be accounted for and its location within the quarry recorded. This grid is essential for keeping work within the quarry organized.
Over the course of the day, our team recovered a number of fossils. The majority of the fossils found were vertebrae, the bone segments making up the spinal cord. Some were found in a mass together while others were scattered throughout the site. Several large limb bones were also recovered. Coprolites — fossilized poop — were abundant, as were bone fragments.
When you are out in the middle of nowhere, anything can happen and today we had a special visitor (featured below). This curious horse decided to check out our progress, although he did not contribute much to the effort (other than being a cute distraction for a moment or two)! All in all, it was a good day and we hope for productive day tomorrow as well!
The Department of Paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has made it out to the desert to dig up some dinosaurs (among other creatures)!
Vince Schneider, the Museum’s Curator of Paleontology, and two of our loyal volunteers made the cross-country journey from Raleigh, North Carolina to Springerville, Arizona. They covered 2,100 miles in 32 hours on about 5 hours of sleep in an old, but reliable, van packed down with the necessary gear for our two-week dig in the desert. I, on the other hand, took the easy way out and caught a flight into Phoenix, where I met up with another one of our wonderful volunteers before undertaking the beautiful 4-hour-drive to Springerville.
Over the next two weeks, our team will be working a site known as the Placerias Quarry. This quarry is a bone bed; an area that has become the final resting place for numerous fossils from the Triassic period. This site, located some miles from the small and charming town of Springerville, Arizona is not, however, a new paleontological scene. In fact, the Placerias Quarry has been a center of activity since the early 1900s. Featured are some early photographs of the dig site decades ago (Courtesy of the University of California Museum of Paleontology).
Although we will not be making use of horse and plow, we will be using many of the same techniques that have worked for paleontologists across the world for the past few centuries. With a pick in hand and a patient attitude, we look for long-lost treasures of our past. Please stay tuned to our Arizona adventures as I promise more pictures and posts to come!