A Greater Appreciation For: Paleontology
As the new Director for Research & Collections at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, I want to learn more about the individual specialties of the Museum’s research staff. The more I know about what the staff members do, the more effectively I can advocate for them, right? This is my thinking. So, my plan is to spend time with each Museum Research Unit in order to gain a greater appreciation for their work. And, it seems, this would make for an interesting series of blogs so that you can share in my education…we can all learn together about what’s going on, research-wise, here at the NC Museum.
Let me also preface this blog series by explaining that I’m no slouch when it comes to fieldwork. I’m a seasoned field researcher, having worked in more than 20 countries, all around the world. Central America….been there on 6 separate expeditions; South America: 5 expeditions; Africa: 5; Caribbean: 3;
Asia: 2; Australia: 1. I’ve worked in rainforests, jungles, savannahs, and swamps….in all kinds of conditions. I have the ‘street cred’ of a field biologist…so I’m figuring that I can ‘hang’ with my Museum staff here in NC, and maybe even teach THEM a thing or two! (Can you see where this is headed?).
First-up: Paleontology. The NC Museum’s Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, Vince Schneider, recently invited me to accompany him, along with Paleontology/Geology Collections Manager Trish Weaver and Librarian/Registrar Janet Edgerton, on a fieldwork trip to collect specimens at a quarry in southern/central North Carolina. This is a site where the Paleo Unit has had previous success in finding various fossils including phytosaurs, crocodilians, amphibians, etc. Like any paleontological newbie, I immediately envisioned that I’d be the one to uncover a fantastic, fully articulated skeleton of some awesome ancient beast…despite the fact that I’ve never taken courses in Paleontology or Geology, and have absolutely no fossil-hunting experience whatsoever. Still, how could I refuse the opportunity for an entomologist to show off his fieldwork prowess?!?
My spirits were high as I stepped out of the Museum’s truck upon arriving at the field site. The site, a quarry (basically, a big pit dug into the Earth), looks like a scene from a science-fiction movie set on the surface of Mars.
It’s desolate. And hot. Vince and Trish, being the professionals they are, started explaining to me a bit about what and how to look for fossils: the fossilized bones at this site could be “white, brown, black, or various shades in between”; substrate erosion (due to water run-off and the mechanical action of the quarry machinery) can uncover fossils, so surface scanning is the usual method of searching for fossils, rather than random digging. Sure, Paleo-folk…stand aside, watch me, and see how awesome I am!
So, off I go…eagerly scanning the ground for my big find. It quickly dawns on me that I really don’t know what I’m looking for….or at, for that matter. I’m an entomologist….I don’t know a rock from a bone; if it doesn’t have an exoskeleton, I’m a bit lost. Am I concerned about that? Not really. Not yet, anyway.
Five minutes into my searching….SUCCESS! I’ve found what appears to me to be some sort of large bone, perhaps the femur of an unknown Gigundosaurus, partially uncovered in the substrate. Tremendous! I briefly pause to wonder how Vince, being the experienced fossil-hunter he is, passed by this specimen just seconds before me. No worries, I tell myself….it’s my sharp eyed observation that made this important discovery.
I call Vince back to report my find. Oh, silly entomologist. Turns out that my fossil Gigundosaurus femur is, in actuality, a scrape-mark from one of the giant bulldozers that are trundling around the quarry. Hmmmmm.
Undaunted, I continue my scan for other important fossils, aware that Vince is now looking at me funny. I still have a lot to prove. So I walk on for a while…searching, searching, searching. And what do you know…SUCCESS! I’ve found what appears to me to be some sort of wing-bones and spinal column from an undescribed pterosaur, a flying death-lizard! Amazing! This paleontology fieldwork is easy as pie. Oh, silly entomologist. It turns out that my flying death-lizard fossil is, in actuality, just a vein of rock with a different geologic composition than the surrounding substrate.
Apparently, a common phenomenon, stratiographically speaking. With increasing sheepishness, I search on. Vince is really looking at me funny now. And he and Trish are whispering to each other.
Determined to redeem myself, I search for a while longer, being VERRRY careful not to call undue attention to myself — unless for a good reason. Searching, scanning, searching, scanning. SUCCESS! I’ve found what appears to me to be some sort of partially uncovered skull of an Enormasaurus! Eureka! Maybe I should take a closer look, before calling the Paleo experts over, though. Let me just observe this find a little more. Oh, silly entomologist. Upon closer examination, my Enormasaurus skull is, in actuality, just a weird-looking rock. At least I didn’t tell everyone about my ‘scientifically significant’ find this time.
And so the day wore on in the same fashion. Eventually, I tired of not knowing what I was looking at, and redeemed myself (in my mind, anyway) by finding my favorite insects (planthoppers, treehoppers, and spittlebugs) in the shrubs surrounding the quarry.
During the searching, our little team unearthed several fossil teeth and bits of ancient poop (coprolites). But wouldn’t you know it…the most significant paleontological find of the day was when Vince located an ACTUAL femur of an ACTUAL extinct animal. And, of course, this happened when the entomologist was looking at bugs instead of looking for fossils. Sigh.
The day ended up being a success for everyone involved. Vince and Trish obtained a new specimen for the Museum’s Vertebrate Paleontology Collection, and Janet collected some cool wave-impressions made by some long-lost body of water. As for me….I learned two important lessons:
- I learned that paleontological fieldwork requires patience, experience, and knowledge; although I’m sure there’s some amount of ‘luck’ involved in making fossil finds, there’s really no substitute for the years of experience and developed skill that can minimize the need for luck.
- I learned to be a little more humble about my own cross-disciplinary scientific abilities; my fieldwork experience doesn’t necessarily translate to being adept at fieldwork in the other sciences! Oh, silly entomologist.