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.


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