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July 20, 2009

POP Extra: Out in the Field

I've been a little out of touch for the past couple of weeks, and so haven't been able to post. However, it's been worth it: I've been out working in the field. And since I just got back, I thought I'd share my two cents about what goes on out in the middle of nowhere. So, in no particular order, here are my tips, laws, and memories of paleontology out in the field.

  • "A clean quarry is a happy quarry": I swear, this maxim is drilled brutally into every person going out into the field. It doesn't matter if you are in a leaf quarry, and dinosaur quarry, or even just out searching for ammonites laying on the ground. Every mentor I've had in the field has mentioned this repetitively. What this means in that, if you make sure there is not a lot of rock debris around the area you are working, you are less likely to damage a fossil. It has been a useful piece of advise. But after the 500 billionth time hearing it, it becomes a little annoying. Even this year, at my 8th field season at this quarry I've been at for the past couple weeks, my supervisor still repeated that at least 5 times.

  • Murphy's Law: While not a really a paleontology-exclusive law, it does seem to apply. At pretty much any quarry, when you have to dump a bucket of dirt and rocks down the hill, the wind will invariably change directions to blow as much as possible into your face. This year was easily the worst for everything that could go wrong, going wrong, though. When I arrived at the house used by the workers at this quarry, the sink exploded, the Internet did not exist, the quarry money could not be access, and the shelter tarps for on the hill had been misplaced. I lost about 2 days of field work, simply because absolutely everything went wrong. However, once all the problems were solved, the work itself went without a flaw. I suppose the cosmic balance had to be restored, as we had had too much bad luck in a row.

  • Animal Encounters: One thing about being outside, in the middle of nowhere, working on dinosaur bones, is that you do run into animals. Some of these are friendly, and become quarry mascots: small brown lizards, marmots, hummingbirds, butterflies.... Others are much less welcome. Scorpions, snakes, and gigantic wasps and bumblebees in the quarry are among the most concerning animal encounters I've had during my time in the field.

  • Field Conditions: Another thing about being in the middle of nowhere is weather. It's generally about 100+ degrees out on the rocks. One particularly memorable day, it was over 140 degrees fahrenheit. My little thermometer broke, and my solid sunscreen melted all over the inside of my backpack. Up until that point, I wasn't aware that sunscreen could melt.

  • Patience is a virtue: If you aren't patient, than paleontology isn't for you. I spend hours sitting in the same position, dilligently working very hard rock away from the bones. It can be rather tedious, and it's hard to see progress. However, at a point, that work makes it possible to remove the bone. Seeing the empty space left behind is one of the most rewarding experiences out in the field, even more than discovering new bone. After all, a new discovery means the headache of recording and then attempting to remove it. Taking a bone out means it is no longer an immediate problem. Eventually, it has to be prepared in the museum, but it is currently out of the way.

It probably sounds, at this point, like field work isn't much fun. However, my experiences have always been a lot of fun. Paleontologists are great people to work with, and are often very funny. I recommend, if you are interested, looking into opportunities through your local museum, or online with things like Dig for a Day.

As my mentor says, paleontology is a sort of affliction. It's not a field that pays well, and definitely isn't many people's cup of tea. For those of us bitten by the paleo bug, though, it is a wonderful experience, and a field of science that we just can't get free of.