When I was a six year old dinosaur freak, I was convinced that a beautifully-preserved, fully articulated Triceratops skeleton lay buried in my grandparents backyard. I can’t say why I thought this. It was more of a fantasy than anything else, but I believed that if I just dug down deep enough I would make one of the greatest fossil discoveries of all time. The American Museum of Natural History would no doubt be so thrilled with my find that they would put it in their museum and appoint me as curator of their dinosaur hall. All I had to do was dig the thing up.
I spent a number of sunny summer Saturdays hacking away at a little dirt depression near the tool shed. It was nice to have base camp so close to the excavation. When a little, green maple got in my way I quickly grabbed a hatchet from the shed to remove the obstruction – something which immediately sent my parents running into the backyard to stop me from leaving any of my own body parts at the field site.
The Triceratops never materialized. I thought I was close – I could have sworn that a few big, smooth stones were eggs from a nest – but I had no idea that the closest dinosaurs were much further south in a wide swath of Cretaceous deposits underlying the suburban sprawl stretching from Middlesex to Salem counties. (My family lived in Union County, built over Devonian layers laid down a time long before there were any dinosaurs to speak of.) Even if I were in the right place, though, I was soon in danger of making the pit so deep that I could not easily get out. My requests for a ladder to excavate deeper were denied.
I couldn’t help but think of my early fossil forays as I poked around the strata of Utah and Montana for signs of dinosaurs during the past month. Writing about paleontology and the history of fossil discovery is fun, but it really is no substitute for getting out into the field and puzzling over scraps of petrified bone and strange tracks left by creatures long dead.
The outcrops constantly remind you that finding vestiges of lost worlds is equal parts planning and luck. Identifying the right places to look takes time and careful research, but actually finding anything of interest often relies on little quirks of circumstance as subtle as where your gaze falls. The constant worry is that there is something you’re not seeing. At one Hell Creek Formation microsite littered with tiny bones near Ekalaka, Montana, I found part of a small mammal’s upper jaw studded with two teeth. Another field crew member had walked right over the same spot ten minutes before with no clue the delicate fossil was there. I can’t help but wonder how many similar finds I have missed.
Prospecting for fossils can be as intoxicating and addictive as it is frustrating. Days may go by where you find nothing, only to give way to a rush of excitement when you stumble upon some beautiful clue about the prehistoric past. The feeling reminds me of neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s essay “The Pleasure (and Pain) of ‘Maybe’” reprinted in his book Monkeyluv (which I brought along with me during the first leg of my journey). I wouldn’t begin to speculate on the dopamine responses of paleontologists when they find something good, but as I searched for fossils I began to understand what Sapolsky meant when he wrote that “intermittent reinforcements can be … profoundly reinforcing.” Maybe this is idle speculation on my part, though I am amused by the thought of neuroscientists tailing paleontologists in the field to see how us bone hunters respond to finding an intriguing fossil after hours, days, or weeks of bad luck.
But I didn’t spend all of July in the field. Tell me there’s a dinosaur exhibit or goofy roadside monstrosity somewhere nearby and I immediate start moving in that direction. The misshapen roadside creatures of Dinosaur, Colorado; the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana; and Thermopolis, Wyoming’s Dinosaur Center were all stops on my July dinosaur tour. The dinosaurs of the east coast – the titans of the American Museum of Natural History and the Academy of Natural Sciences – were old friends, but I was glad to make some new acquaintances, such as the MOR’s Wankel Rex and the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx. (I actually turned up to see ol’ Archie on the day headlines proclaimed that the “urvogel” should no longer be considered the first bird. I’ll have more on that at Dinosaur Tracking this week, but, if you have a copy handy, check out pages 117 to 125 of Written in Stone.)
This is just a brief “What I did on my summer field trip” report. I’m saving some of the really juicy stuff for A Date With a Dinosaur, but I must admit that actually participating in paleontology is a hell of a lot more fun than simply writing about it from my desk in Salt Lake City. I’m itching to get back out there. In a few weeks I’ll head out to Ghost Ranch, New Mexico – a place chock-full of Triassic dinosaurs that I have been meaning to visit for quite some time – and in September I’ll be off to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. There are bones in them thar hills. And I would be remiss if I did not mention my debts to those who have let me start living out my dreams. Jason Schein at the New Jersey State Museum, Thomas Carr at Carthage College, and Scott Williams at the Burpee Museum of Natural History have all been kind enough to let me join their groups for brief stints, and I am especially grateful to Randall Irmis, Carolyn Levitt, and the rest of the Utah Museum of Natural History field team. The UMNH team has been very kind to me, and, importantly, they helped me renounce my foolhardy ways and finally appreciate beer. Oh Alaskan Amber, where have you been all my life?