Sun, sand, salt, sores, blisters, baijiu, bruises & bone

There is, as promised, quite a little flurry of posts today and with my e-mail backlog finally cleared and most of the more important work off my desk till tomorrow morning I can try and do some real writing. Sadly for many, I suspect this first post will not be especially fascinating – I’m not going to talk about anything we found, I don’t have my photos on me currently so it’ll be image-less, I’ll not even mention where we were (geologically, temporally or geographically) and I rather think that readers will either be well aware of the issues I’ll be tacking, or will find their glorious illusions shattered. What I do want to do is simply jot down a few quick observations about the field.

As I mentioned before, I have only done some very minor prospecting in the German Triassic marine beds and cast some footprints in Peru, neither of which is especially ‘typical’ for someone who really likes big whole skeletons of big dinosaurs so he can get to grips with whole animal biology. Thus getting out into an area famous for producing lots of big, complete, high-quality dinosaurs is actually quite a change, and over quite a period of time, with a decently sized and experienced field crew. At some point I will do a post on what we did, and when, and where and with who etc. and another on the actual ‘what happens on a dig’ post (with my now minimal experience) but this is limited to just some of my notes as to things that were not quite what I expected. Mostly these are clearly because I had never really thought about them that much and hindsight is rather 20-20 so it may not surprise people to learn them at all. Finally, it may not actually be that typical an experience either – I don’t exactly have much to compare it to!

1. Just how much bone was out there. It was everywhere in some areas, you could stand still and see 100 pieces within a 5m radius of yourself, and not necessarily just becuase they were parts of a single specimen that had been broken and weathered apart, but were from multiple things (if all smashed up and useless). Clearly in other areas you found nothing for hours at a stretch, but soem of these productive areas were hundreds of metres across – they were not isolated patches, but swathes of exposed rock with bone coming out.

2. Just how good much of the bone was. Again, there was plenty of rubbish too, and where we were was famous for the high quality of preservation and amount of material, but I was sill stunned. Even smashed pieces were often beautifully preserved and on occasion just about everyone ended up with a fragment of bird, camel or sheep that you were not quite sure was not fossiliferous.

3. How few articulated bits there were. This really should have been obvious to me, but for some reason I had simply not thought about it and had kind of assumed that you either tended to find a partial skeleton or fragments. In fact what you (well, I) mostly found was the remains of soemthing that used to be pretty good, but had simply eroded into rubbish (or was well on the way to disintegrating). Where were all the partial feet, or the three-vertebrae-and-nothing-else everyone else seems to find? (and describe).

4. How hard it is to work out what things are on the spot. I readily admit I am a pretty poor anatomist. I know a few bits of some skeletons well and not much else. I am pretty handy with a skeleton and can do fine with an illustration or 27 for comparison and a couple of pieces, but I was completely overwhelmed out there. I never expected to be able to diagnose fragments (though I know several terrifingly gifted and knowledgeable palaeontologists who find this no problem at all) but I could find a pice that I knew was diagnostic but had no idea what it was. I could find a nice end of a longbone and not know if it was fibula, tibia, humerus or radius, let alone ornithischian or saurischian, let alone what it might have come from. I simply do not have the knowledge and it was frustrating. When you have no idea what you are holding, its very hard to even mae a start. I know a fair bit about soem things (like theropod humeri) but if I don’t even know if what I have is a humerus how am I supposed to look for the characters that I think might reveal it’s identity?

5. How few teeth there were. I always thought teeth were supposed to be really common -each dinosaur has a large number, they shed them often (well many species do) and their enamel coating should make them nice and resistant to weathering or destruction. Again, this could fall into the category of ‘just not at this site’ but they were far more rare than I had expected, and often in far poorer condition than the bones themselves which was also a surprise.

Well that’s it for now, four posts is quite some going for one afternoon for me and I still have plenty to be getting on with. More tomorrow and this time with some photos if I remember the hard-drive.

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