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  • Writer's pictureGary Vecchiarelli

Field Work In The Triassic!

What is field work like for a budding paleontologist? When it comes to the general public, a lot of folks believe it's as easy as finding a complete skeleton buried only under a few millimeters of dirt. Perfectly preserved in a rigor mortis pose where the head is bent back towards the tail. Although dinosaur skeletons can be found in great shape, paleontology rarely works this way. Not to mention, field work can often turn up animals that lived at the same time as dinosaurs, but are not dinosaurs.

I have been a paleontological researcher in New Mexico for many years in conjunction with my studies back home where I studied geology. That being said, I believe this would be a great time to take you though a day in the life of working in the field. I have been fortunate enough to have made many fantastic discoveries over the years. I can not go into detail about most of what I have found because these discoveries are still being researched. However, my professor and mentor has given me permission to use one find as an example for this article's topic!

During the summer of 2011, I found something magnificent. My day in the field started off like many others. I awoke at the crack of dawn and for good reason. Getting an early start in the field means cooler weather for digging. Temperatures out here can reach into the 100s! Drinking plenty of water is key in order to not suffer from the heat. I had just come off the heels of making a great find, so I was eager to start prospecting a new area within our site. That is one subject I should touch on briefly. Having an extensive background in geology is a vital key in the field. Knowing the landscape and what time period you're in makes tracking down a potential spot to dig a bit easier than aimlessly digging around.

It wasn't long before I began cautiously digging on the edge of our dig site. It is very important to be careful when excavating a site. Whacking away at rocks until you find something is not the way to go. Removing sediment and rock a little at a time is what it is all about. Starting from the top and basically working your way down. One piece at a time. A strong amount of patience and skill will assure you do not damage whatever may be beneath the surface. It wasn't long until luck had struck me again with a find. At first, I believed I had found a tooth. I couldn't be more wrong. I would soon find out that my "tooth" was indeed something more wonderful.

Immediately after making a discovery, it is important to alert whomever is in charge of the field site. In this case, my professor, mentor, and good friend, Dr. Axel Hungerbuehler. At this point, precise measurements and documentations are made. It is important to have proper recordings of what is found in the field. This information is vital for later analysis of your find. Orientation, level of elevation, and where precisely a fossil was found are just a few examples of documenting a find. From this point on, getting the find out in one piece was all that went through my mind. I diligently began working the rock around the find. Being careful to not displace the matrix in which my fossil was surrounded by. Working off the over layers of rock is a good idea, but loosening up the surrounding rock is also. The Triassic stone in my area fit together more or less like a puzzle. By removing a corner piece a rock about a foot away from my find made it easier to remove rock closer to it. Little by little, you need to think 10 steps ahead while trenching around a fossil. Moving one piece may upset another and so on.

You can see in the above picture that more and more of what was thought to be a "tooth" was now taking shape. Sometimes you are lucky and the matrix will pop off your find in the field. Although an Estwing hammer is shown in this photo, it was only used for scale. Dental tools, small brushes, and very fine tipped tools were used in removing the surrounding rock. On my belly, being very patient, I continued to trench around my amazing find. For the first time in millions of years, a bone from an extinct animal was about to see the light of day again.

Soon my find was beginning to take shape. A rib, but from what type of animal? Where we excavate produces many extraordinary beasts. Although dinosaur finds can be made, you are also likely to find other sorts of extinct animals. In this particular case, we had what could possibly be a gastralium or belly rib of a Typothorax. To the untrained eye, this animal can appear like an armored dinosaur. In fact, Typothorax coccinarum was not a dinosaur at all and from a group called aetosaurs. After two days, my rib was finally exposed. Two days! Did I mention patience should be your best virtue in the field? Yes, you must have patience. It is very exciting to make a find, but you must take your time. During the process of digging and after, special products were applied to keep the bone preserved. You have to remember, this rib was seeing the light of day for the first time in millions of years. When first exposed, it almost looked wet and appeared as if it was fresh off the animal. When air hit it, the bone started to dry out almost immediately and it became very fragile. Not all bones found in the field are robust and strong. The video that follows is me removing the matrix from this magnificent find while a colleague looks on.

Below you can see the rib pretty much free, but before taking any further steps, we had to secure it. Protecting fossils with a plaster jacket is sometimes needed. This will ensure the bones safety until getting it back to the lab. Once at the museum, we can take further actions to preserve a find.

In the following video, you can observe one of the crew members putting a field jacket on my find. Our field truck rattles and shakes like crazy when climbing up the steep cliffs surrounding our site. The next step will be to further protect the bone with padding and get it ready for the rough ride home. There are no paved roads into where we go, so we don't want fossils getting banged around. We managed to get this rib out on the very last day. Talk about perfect timing. Next stop, the lab!

Once back at the lab we unwrapped the rib and the prepping began. However, time was running and I would soon have to return home. I would not have time to prep my find completely, but during my leave, the good professor carried on. When I returned for my next field season, I was shown the finished work. Wow, was all that ran through my mind. There it was in all its glory. Cleaned and prepped.

Special thanks to Dr. Axel for his amazing work and help. He is brilliant man, my mentor, and I will always be his appreciative student.

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