Tag Archives: vertebrate palaeontology

Home Again – Dispatches from Montana 3 (The Photo Edition)

Missed the previous Dispatches from Montana? see them here and here.

Well I’m back in jolly ol’ England and as promised here’s the photographic edition of the Dispatches from Montana. I’ll try to explain all the photographs as and where they need it.

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First off here’s the field crew as a group, Liz was the crew chief (the dig boss if you will) with Cary as second in command, Denver was the only other member of MOR staff with us. Danny, Will, Nick, Tom, Dana and Bobby were all undergraduates of various universities and Cracker is the Redding family’s dog.

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On my first night in Montana we had a fabulous thunderstorm which provided ample opportunities to get frustrated by human/camera reaction times, the above and below pictures being the best results I could get that night!

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Before the storm hit however I was just able to snap this shot of the Redding Field Station’s camp, you can just make out the storm-clouds to the left (south-west) and our flimsy patch of tents to the left of the quansit hut (the grey WWII hangar style building). The practically-bomb-proof ranch house is out of shot on the right.

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The next photograph was taken from behind the afore-mentioned quansit hut, and shows a small section of Kennedy Coulee, the river valley to the north of the Redding Field Station, where all the dinosaurs can be found…Click for Big!

Here’s another panorama showing a small finger of Kennedy Coulee, including the “Rocky” dig site in which I was to spend the last three weeks digging. To give some idea of the scale of the operation, this site has been excavated for only the last 3 years, and at the start of that time, the left of this photograph would have looked pretty much just like the right hand side…

Click for Big!And here’s a view from inside the quarry itself, to give some more perspective on it and also to show you how much of the overburden mentioned in “The Adventure Begins” we had to remove… at the start of the field season, ground level was at the level of the white-grey sandstone layer!

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This photograph zooms in on the area that I and two of my compatriots were working (on the right of the previous picture). I myself was working the middle section with the chisel, brush and oyster-knife. It is a surprisingly slow process because you never know when you will hit another fragment of bone (as Nick, working to my left, was finding out. every piece of tin-foil represents another bone uncovered).

Click for Big!Another panoramic photograph for you now, this one again showing Kennedy Coulee, but also some lovely Virga – that is to say rain that evaporates before it touches the ground – to the north of the site.

Click for BigHere’s another photo of Cracker – affectionately known as the Cracker-the-quarry-dog, enjoying the sun and generally getting in the way!

Click for BigSo moving on to more palaeontological topics, here’s a field jacket… It’s what you do to the finds before they get transported to a museum or prep-lab. The first step is to cover all the bones in a consolidant (Vinac in this case) then a layer of wet tissue (to act as a buffer and a barrier to the next layer. Finally a mixture of plaster of paris is concocted and infused into burlap (hessian for us UK people) sacking. This was the first field jacket of this year’s season to be excavated.

Click for Big!A couple of days after the jacket was made it was dry and ready to flip (in order to remove excess rock and jacket the bottom). Here’s a photo of Dana with the flipped jacket. You can also see where it stood before it was flipped!

Click for Big!The strata in which the bone-bed is found is a mudstone approximately a metre thick, capped by a shelly sandstone layer containing bivalves up to 20cm across and many varieties of gastropod. This cap-rock can be seen below:

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Here’s another panoramic shot, this one taken at lunch time (hence all the sleeping dino-nerds) from above the working face of the quarry on the penultimate day of my short stay at the Redding Field Station.

Click for Big!And finally… The night before I was due to fly out of Great Falls we had a rather close call with a thunderstorm that passed within a couple of miles of camp – all we had was a slight drizzle – but I had the chance to take this gorgeous photograph at about midnight…

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I hope you enjoyed the post.

Ben D. Brooks



Hadrosaur! – Dispatches from Montana 2.

We’ve reached the bone bed! It took over two and a half weeks of digging (one and a half on my part) but we’re finally there. Before reaching the bone bed however I managed to find a few other odds and ends within the overburden, including the following:

Another Hadrosaur tooth,
One small Crocodile tooth,
1 Tyrannosaurid Tooth (possibly Daspletosaurus),
Small fragments of ossified tendons,

After digging away the overburden and flattening out the top of the bone bed, we began to prospect within the quarry for dinosaur remains and very rapidly the first bone was discovered, though accidentally and unfortunately with a jack-hammer… with predictable results. This bone was a humerus of a fairly large individual hadrosaur. Within ten minutes of this find the second bone was discovered – this time by more mild means – and turned out to be a toe-bone, though don’t let that fool you into thinking it small, this one individual phalanx measured in the region of fifteen centimetres in length and a good ten in diameter!

I myself managed to uncover my first bone this afternoon after a slow but steady removal of the bone layer. The technique used by the MOR team is that once the overburden is removed, each digger chooses a section of the quarry wall measuring approximately two feet. The digger then proceeds to remove rock steadily decreasing the height of a flat plane with hand awls, chisel, hammer and brushes. Yes; that’s right, every palaeontologist that points to Jurassic Park and say’s “you can’t use a brush to uncover a fossil” is wrong, dead wrong* – at least in this case!

The only time digging is stopped is when high noon is reached and luncheon begins – consisting mainly of whatever you remember to scrounge from the kitchen supplies in the morning! After the first half an hour or so of lunch most people are fast asleep, taking the opportunity to make up for the early start. I on the other hand take the opportunity to rifle through the ever building spoil heap for small fossil remains that were inevitably missed during the overburden removal. The last two days have been moderately productive in this vein, with several pieces of turtle – including shell, a tyrannosaurid pre-maxillary tooth and a ceratopsian tooth.

The whole experience here at the MOR dig is a very different one to the excavations I’ve been privy to on the landslips and beaches of Dorset and Devon, for one thing everything is more considered and slow owing to the fact that there is no tide to keep a look out for and also that no-one would dare walk onto a museum-run site and remove material that had not been collected. As a result the excavations are both more comprehensive and far more scientific. This is not to cast detriment on my experiences at home as each site must be treated differently, but this approach is far more in keeping with the principles of scientific discovery. Every bone is mapped, numbered, catalogued and carefully consolidated long before there is any thought of removing the bone from its tomb.

Anywho, tomorrow is our town day, the one day off we get each week, so I’m now going to disappear and take some time out. Here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed this post, and as with my last I’ll add pictures upon my return to the UK.

Ben D. Brooks

*This group used to include me.

My MSci Research Project – Macroecological changes in offshore shelf seas

Today has been a good day, in the main because today was the day that I got my research project sorted out for next year… which of course presumes that I pass this year, but I am being positive!

So… what is it? well whilst there is no title as such, the project can be best summed up by the following “title”:

“Macroecological changes in offshore shelf sea ecosystems through the Jurassic to mid-Palaeogene and comparison to modern analogues.”

You’re probably wondering what that all means, and you wouldn’t be the only one, as I am only about 75% sure what i’ll be doing myself but I shall try to explain it to the best of my ability.

The research project is going to centre around the science of Macroecology (Brown, 1995) which is apparantly “relatively” underused in the world of palaeontology – what with palaeo being a very descriptive science. I’m going to be collecting data from the literature to produce a dataset for several different localities (eg: The Lias and the Oxford Clays) of different metrics (metrics being numerical measurements or data) such as body lengths or dentition (tooth morphology). This dataset will then be analysed to see what changes in the macroecology occur over the time interval being studied.

The hope is that this will show what effects the J/K. K/T and PETM extinction events have had on the ecology of these environments and this will be compared with modern analogues such as fishing depletion of the North Sea.

There will of course be various caveats to the research which will have to be explored such as Taphonomy (preservation of various fossil forms) and Life Cycle effects. There was a long list of the caveats during my meeting with Clive (supervisor) today but i’ll be damned if I can remember them all now….

Anywho, how’s that for a brief explanation of what i’ll be spending next year doing? eh? I’ll probably extend this tomorrow when I have time to re-think it. Until then, Ciao.

BROWN, J. H. (1995), Macroecology, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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Hip Hip Huzzah for Science Education…

…well for Biology at any rate.

It has been announced by the powers that be (they being the current Labour Government under the cyclops… Gordon Brown) that from september 2011 it will be a legal requirement for all state-owned primary schools to teach the basics of Darwinian Evolution.

This is,  needless to say; a fantastic advance for science education in the UK, and I must admit to having trouble remembering what if any science I studied at my C of E primary schools… but I still hold some reservations about this great announcement.

Firstly, why are private/public schools exempt from this? Surely science, being the search for fact and mechanisms within the universe, should be taught to everyone at primary and lower secondary, and those who want to study it beyond?  More to the point, why should private/publics be allowed to add a non-scientific bias to their teaching and instill stupification (Religious “schools” I am looking at you) in those most likely to lead our nation in the future?

Secondly, what controls are going to be placed on the curriculum at the state schools? and how are Ofstead going to guard against the “teach the controversy” imbiciles that plague the modern world?

But I shall not dwell on these worrying questions, but shall move on to another great “Huzzah” moment for biology, indeed for medicine – Stem Cell Research is at long last starting to be sanctioned, and hopefully the trend towards pro-science governance will continue long into the future… I dare say if it reverses I will be emigrating as soon as I can!

Also a little bit of Palaeo for the rock-hounds out there that do read this blog, either here on wordpress, or on Facebook or Windoze Live Space… Friday’s copy of The Times ran an article about Paul Sereno’s work on Mesozoic African Crocodilians after his team published some post-expedition papers.

Their expedition found a total of four new species from present day Niger and Morocco, the crocs were found in strata ~100Ma (The Albian Stage of the Early Cretaceous) and include forms varied and wonderful, from “Pancake Croc” (Laganosuchus thaumastos) that was supposedly an ambush piscivore (fish eater), lying open mouthed for hours or days until an unsupecting fish swam into it’s jaws, to “Boar Croc” (Kaprosuchus saharicus); a 20 foot long obligate carnivore whose comparative anatomy suggests it could literally bowl over its prey before dispatching it with its one metre long jaws.

Here’s the link to the Times article: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/biology_evolution/article6923503.ece

and an old, but related National Geographic article: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/09/supercroc/sereno-text/1