Saturday, 23 February 2013

Still Searching

A recent field trip saw the group arrive at a secret location early in the morning ready to start the hunt for marine reptiles once again. As we chatted before moving off we were aware that the venue had now become vulnerable to poaching and vandalism and it was with a little trepidation that we started to prospect. As usual, and a shame that we have to do so, we had kept our field activities quiet and left nothing to chance – we had to. Deny everything.
The morning was cool and clear and the sun was breaking through a treat – this would be the first decent day in months. A great swathe of ancient marine sediments lay ahead of us and, no matter how many times you may have looked in these formations, you know that there is, somewhere out there, another great Mesozoic saurian ready to start weathering out of the ancient mud rocks.
Immediately there are fossils to behold. Throughout the rocks there are literally thousands of specimens representing a multitude of species. Some of them are quite stunning, especially the better preserved ammonites and it defies belief that these delicate impressions in the rocks have survived for over 160 million years. It never fails to amaze when trying to comprehend such vast time spans and to imagine what has come and gone during our prehistoric past. Indeed it is always a great leveller to remember how long Homo sapiens has actually existed in comparison to the total duration of life on earth – in so many ways we are pathetically insignificant.
We approach a long gully, pause and then take a quick descent into the base of it – this looks like it could be quite a productive site – if not now then certainly after there has been some more weathering by the elements. That this could be the case was confirmed by the presence of large well preserved belemnites – something that we have not seen in many months of prospecting. We believe, more in hope than anything else, that this site will yield something significant to us rather than be illegally plundered by the poachers.     
 As we prospected along the gully we realised that it was probably just above the more productive level we would have preferred and some of the zonal fossils in situ confirmed this – especially one particular cephalopod which is proving particularly interesting. None the more for that, the sediments were highly fossiliferous and we managed a couple of metriorhynchid teeth and what appears to be a metriorhychid cervical rib – a well preserved piece of bone.
Part of the gully
We spent a lot of time in and around the gully before spreading out and widening the search. The weak winter sun was actually making conditions a lot warmer and, with no wind, I was able to shed some clothing and as a result felt a lot more agile whilst looking. Despite this, wet conditions prevailed and we all had to be wary of where we were putting our feet. I think every single one of us managed to get at least one foot stuck in the mire at some point in the day.
It occurred to me during the day how lucky we were considering. Gone are the days when there would have been many productive sites, both coastal and inland, whereby you could approach a landowner and be allowed to search for fossils on their land with no repercussions whatsoever. Similarly, it was commonplace to be allowed to visit working quarries and prospect – again by simply approaching the owners and applying for access. Today, the vast majority of working quarries are closed and with those that are still operating, access is usually denied.
I guess myself and other members of the group are perhaps the last of the lucky ones. We are perhaps not as fortunate as our colleagues in places such as North America which has vast tracts of wilderness to explore but it is hard to see how many students and amateur UK palaeontologists will get the chance of field opportunities in their own back yard in the future. I know that this causes great consternation with some senior geologists and palaeontologists who have seen the field work section in courses now dropped in favour of “cyber-fieldwork”. We hope, in time, to be able to help address this particular problem in some small way.
Of course, on the other side of the coin, is that some researchers actually prefer to be in the laboratory and seldom venture out into the wild. That is fair enough but you cannot help but feel that they are missing out, not in a research or technical sense, but perhaps in connecting with the very world that they are investigating. This may not appear to be a rational thought but it is often true.
The members of the group all have field experience and most have been involved in excavating dinosaurs and/or marine reptiles in some capacity. This in itself brings a unique camaraderie that only those who have experienced field work will understand. Tales of triumph and woe are legion but they are all equally remembered – it is a fact that field experience does indeed enrich the palaeontologist’s life. Lunch time is the classic period for field chat and it is always great to hear of events past and present and it never fails to amaze me that, no matter how long you spend with your friends and colleagues, so many new stories come out on each and every field visit.
We continued our prospecting, checking out new areas as well as those that had produced in the past. Some of the old areas were completely barren or had eroded so much that they were almost unrecognisable whilst others were under water or buried in a conglomerate of sediment. The more time we spend in these formations the more we realise that getting exactly the right conditions that help you find vertebrate fossils are very few and far between. Indeed, I can think of only two trips during the whole of last year that could be considered ideal.
Eventually we decide to return to the gully and take images and make some notes. We notice that there are some very strange preservational issues that need checking out and are fortunate that some of the larger exposed slabs enable us to make some interesting comparisons. We pay particular attention to the ammonites because they will enable us to precisely identify the exposed bed and a few of the unusually preserved fossils we had found earlier make the task intriguing.
Eventually we had to call it a day and, as usual, we are always sorry that we have to go although our limbs and backs tend to disagree with that statement. Our calves in particular feel the pressure when you are often plunging your feet into a thick mix of mud, clay and water all day – it really does tell on you. With the lengthening of the days and an increase in the temperature we all look forward to more productive days in the field and I find myself yearning for some spring sunshine. Who knows? Perhaps we will have a summer this year.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

All Hail & Farewell

This is somewhat off topic for a blog of this nature but I feel that I have to say something about this. Last week I traded in my Subaru Legacy Outback for a smaller and much more economical diesel estate. I’ve had the Outback since 2005 and was it my dream car at the time. At that point I had always wanted a 4 x 4 but did not want something as large and unnecessary as the so-called “Chelsea tractors” that are favoured by so many parents for the school run.
I have nearly always had an estate so I wanted to keep with this body plan and that narrowed it down to a choice of two. As my budget would not run to an Audi Allroad I went for the Subaru and what an inspired choice that has turned out to be. The SEn spec was extremely well equipped with full leather upholstery, heated seats, satellite navigation and a host of other toys. Added to this it was a two tone green and grey which was the colour I wanted and the real bonus on this car was that it had a manual gear box which is as rare to find as a specimen of Archaeopteryx. This was combined with the renowned Subaru 2.5 litre boxer engine and completed the package – it really was a stunning car.
Since then the car has successfully travelled around the British Isles and I can honestly say that it has never let me down – something that not many car owners can say. Every time that it was needed the four wheel drive system always pulled the car out of muddy situations – indeed it was so good at this that I only ever had to engage the low ratio gears once when the car was more or less buried up to its wheel arches in mud after days of torrential rain. The Subaru extricated itself smoothly and without fuss – not once did I think that I would not get out.
On snow and ice it was equally adept and the car installed you with confidence – not that you should take things for granted. 4 x 4’s are better in these conditions but not infallible which so many 4 x 4 drivers find out to their cost. The car was equally superb eating up the motorway miles, was an extremely comfortable ride and the cruise control was excellent. With the seats down there was room for vast quantities of equipment and there was never an occasion when I could not get everything in.
Naturally the car has visited many quarries and sites all over the country but I only ever took it into the one quarry. This was Star Pit – made famous by the televised excavation of a Leedsichthys problematicus back in 2002/03. It was a strange feeling driving over an ancient sea bed in a modern vehicle and I can remember feeling how surreal it felt. Star Pit has long since vanished and is now completely flooded.
I also have very fond memories of driving along a wild and woolly beach in Wales through the surf during an early Summer evening a few years back. Arriving at an ancient Cambrian outcrop marked as far as I could go and sitting on the edge of the cargo bay looking at the setting sun was simply one of those very special moments.
Despite all of this, in the end, I have had to let my beloved Subaru go for economic reasons. It was expensive to service, expensive to fuel and expensive to tax and, to be honest, it was always my intention to move it on this year. A recent replacement headlight moved the process on a little quicker than I had intended as this was unbelievably expensive – and I do mean expensive. So I traded it in for a smaller estate that is diesel powered and minimally equipped in comparison but I have to say that I am already seeing the benefits of downsizing at the petrol pumps.
So the Subaru will be moved on to a new owner and what a bit of kit they will be getting. It has full Subaru service history and has only been fitted with genuine Subaru parts so as long as they have the cash to fund it, the new owner will be getting a lot of car for their money. Apologies for what would pass for a car review but it is like saying goodbye to an old friend. I hope that the car gets the owner it deserves.

All hail and farewell…….

Monday, 11 February 2013

In Search Of .......

Establishing a palaeontological research and conservation group has been both a rewarding and challenging task. The initial set up is not as easy as some people may think and has taken much time involving prodigious amounts of communications, negotiations and finding the right people to be part of the group. Even then you hope, rather than expect, that these people can see what you are trying to achieve and share your passion and commitment.
In this we have been very lucky and the group consists of nine members of various capabilities and we seem to have got a perfect blend of experience, intelligence and practical ability which I believe is essential for the group to progress and evolve. There is the option for a tenth member but that would be the limit since maintaining this balance is crucial. Establishing the aims of the group, although seemingly a straightforward matter is extremely important to get right and we are continually reassessing our targets to ensure nothing is left to chance.
Although our fieldwork has continued throughout the Winter period, conditions have proven difficult and the extremely wet weather has made finding anything of note near enough impossible. Indeed our last trip was cancelled since it was deemed, quite rightly, that conditions were dangerous – just getting there would have been foolhardy since the roads were treacherous. This does not deter us, however, and we will soon be back prospecting and, with a full year behind us, are hopeful of a long and successful campaign.
Whilst our colleagues abroad work further afield and often in some of the most spectacular vistas around, we make do with smaller, often unknown, exposures and the sometime stark wilderness of exposed quarries.  There is often this notion that finding a dinosaur in the bad lands and bringing it back to a museum is exciting, perhaps even romantic and indeed it is and yet this does not make it any different for us. The challenges may be different but we feel that very same excitement when we expose new material and there is always the chance that whatever we find may possibly be a new species. Therefore, separated we may be by thousands of miles, but we are all brothers and sisters striving toward a common goal and our work equally important.
Part of our aims in the group is to promote and support education at all levels and, as and when important specimens are recovered, that they may perhaps form the basis for both new M.S. and PhD applications whilst, on a more outreach level, they are also available to promote educational programs. With our group having three excellent preparators (four if you include my modest capabilities) we are well placed to hopefully promote such exhibits such as a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation of our specimens. This is all very important to our science and the specimens, ultimately, may go on display in a museum or similar institution. At the very least, they will be safe in the correct repository and will always be available to our fellow researchers.
As you would expect, the Oxford Clay Formation is the primary focus for our field work. This crops out in a number of places of which some exposures are very well known whilst one or two are distinctly off the radar and, as a result, can turn up some decent material. As a reminder the Oxford Clay contains sediments that were deposited in a warm shallow marine sea during the Callovian and Oxfordian stages of the Jurassic Period and is composed of fine grained organic mud stones.
We prospect just like anyone else would do and the vast majority of our fieldwork is spent his way. We take our trowels and picks and scour the various beds trying to discern the tell-tale shapes or glint of enamel that may indicate the presence of bone or teeth. Another very important part of our kit these days is GPS and although modern day smart phones are very capable I prefer a dedicated piece of kit and this can be invaluable – especially at those venues that are subject to change. It would be a disaster to find an important specimen and then not to be able to relocate it for excavation.
Some sites deserve more attention than others and I am a big believer in the “eddy affect”. Many well-known dinosaur sites across the world were the result of flood events where multiple carcasses of sometimes many hundreds of animals are deposited into one area. One of the best known examples of this is probably Dinosaur National Monument where bodies of great Jurassic dinosaurs were washed downstream until they came to rest in the shallows or perhaps against a great sand bar. The carcasses were soon covered by sediments and, although the bones were largely disarticulated, were preserved in vast numbers. Currents made this possible and I believe that this same effect is likely in marine deposits.
This may seem unlikely at first but it should come as no surprise really. Certainly tidal currents can create hot spots where jetsam and flotsam congregate on the ocean floor and whirlpools can also be an instrument of deposition as they draw in all forms of material and life into a specific area. I find areas in the clay that are suggestive of this kind of deposition simply because they are so rich in fossil remains. Quite often they are small areas in a much larger exposed layer and they are sometimes so encrusted in fossils that the surrounding sediment is virtually absent.
Fossiliferous encrustation in a "hot-spot"
These areas are often superb for producing large amounts of teeth and will keep producing. The surrounding area – that is something usually within an area of around 25 metres square – also tend to produce quantities of bones of which some is often associated with one animal. Unfortunately, these hot spots are not that common but when one is found they will produce fossils time and time again.
As alluded to earlier, all the members of the group have their strengths but the one thing we all share is this common goal to seek out new fossils and new specimens and we all seem to become one with our surroundings – we are nurtured by the different strata, we almost become symbiotic with the rock, we assimilate into the past. This energy evolves into what may appear to be single mindedness but it simply reveals us to be driven and to achieve what we have set out to do – our group ethic is strong.
And in front of us lies this wonderful prehistoric world that is full of secrets that, from time to time, will relinquish themselves into our care – for that is what we are and what we aspire to be – the guardians of earth history. We do not imagine ourselves to be anything more than that.  For sure, we all suffer the aches and pains that only working in the field can bring but we don’t even notice it really – only the search for new fossils matters. And then it is always hard to leave knowing that five more minutes may reveal something spectacular. 
So the group looks to have a bright future and we look forward to being able to go public in the not too distant future. Apart from the continuing field work there is the little matter of legal documentation, funding and other issues to deal with and I cannot stress what a long difficult process this is – but we will get there.
Winter fieldwork this year has been challenging to say the least.