The fifth annual DIG Field School is quickly approaching and we are working around the clock to prepare for an exciting week in the field with an excellent group of educators! Before everyone heads out to Montana, we wanted to give our teachers a chance to get to know more of the field instructors that will be guiding them through their DIG experience. Check out our blog on DIG Co-Founders Greg Wilson and Lauren DeBey and keep reading here to meet your awesome DIG Team!
Dave DeMar joins the DIG Field school for his third year as a field instructor. He is a graduate student in Dr. Greg Wilson’s lab at the University of Washington and his research focuses on amphibian, lizard, and snake extinction and recovery across the K/Pg boundary. Dave’s work has described new species of amphibians and lizards from the Late Cretaceous Period based on fossils from the Hell Creek area. The opportunity to step back in time and learn about animals that no longer exist today is one of the many things Dave loves about paleontology. He has been working in the Hell Creek area with Greg since 2007 and has also spent time collecting fossils in Wyoming during his undergraduate degree at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, WY. Dave is a military veteran and served his country in the US ARMY for three years. Fun Fact: Dave has seen nearly every PBS and BBC special on dinosaurs ever made.
Stephanie Smith completed her BA in Biology at Johns Hopkins University in 2012 and is entering her third year of graduate school at the University of Washington in Dr. Greg Wilson’s lab. Stephanie’s research includes examining faunal recovery following the K/Pg extinction using fossils of mammal teeth from the Hell Creek area. Her favorite part about fieldwork is finding microfossils. She says, “the best is when you’ve been staring at the same spot of outcrop for ten minutes and find something you somehow hadn’t seen before.” Stephanie joins the DIG Field School for her third year as a field instructor. Fun Fact: Stephanie owns a stuffed Echidna (spiny anteater) named Humphrey.
Dr. Tom Tobin received his PhD in the Earth and Space Science and Astrobiology Program at the University of Washington last month! His dissertation research focused on reconstruction of paleoenvironments across the K/Pg mass extinction using stable isotope geochemistry. He reconstructed a marine paleoenvironment in Antarctica and a terrestrial paleoenvironment in the Hell Creek. Throughout his undergraduate work at Macalester College and graduate work at UW, Tom has spent two seasons conducting glacier field work in the Canadian Rockies, one season filming, catching, measuring and sampling living Nautilus for population studies in American Samoa, and a combined seven seasons performing fieldwork in Antarctica, Australia and Montana. Tom joins us for his third summer as a DIG field instructor. Fun Fact: When Tom leaves our field camp he will continue his drive from Washington to Wisconsin to join the faculty of Lake Superior State as a Visiting Assistant Professor of geology.
Dr. Regan Dunn completed her PhD at the University of Washington late last year and has since been working as the Geology and Paleontology Collections Manager at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Regan has conducted fieldwork in Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. Her Masters research (University of Wyoming) focused on Paleocene megafloras and pollen from the Hanna Basin, south-central WY. For her PhD work, she studied phytoliths (plant silica) to reconstruct vegetation structure in the context of climate change in the Middle Cenozoic Period of Patagonia. Regan also worked as a Paleobotanist for the National Park Service at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in east-central Oregon, and she joins us this summer for her first DIG Field School experience! Fun Fact: Regan played Division 1 soccer in college and likes to run big rapids in places like the Grand Canyon.
Watch below as Regan describes her work in Costa Rica:
After returning from the field and getting some much needed rest we are eager to share more about what we do in Montana. While the Wilson lab is primarily focused on the ‘microvertebrate‘ animals that lived alongside the dinosaurs (and survived the K/Pg mass extinction), we aren’t only here for the small things – we’re digging for dinosaurs too! This week we’ll share how those dinos you see in a museum got there.
Step 1: Prospecting
To collect a dinosaur, you must first find a dinosaur! We use a combination of maps and old field notes on exposed rock formations to pick where we will ‘prospect,’ or look for specimens, and we are always respectful of land ownership and carry appropriate permits. Ultimately, it’s about eyes on the outcrop and boots on the ground to locate a dinosaur skeleton, and much of our time this summer has been spent hiking the hills.
Finding a dinosaur is always exciting, but not all skeletons are created equal in the eyes of scientists and preparators. We are fortunate to find pieces of dinosaurs all over the badlands, in fact, Triceratops bones are so abundant that they are almost a dime a dozen. These are the “cows of the Mesozoic” and you wouldn’t want to collect every piece of cow you found, would you? So then what makes a fossil worthy of excavation? We are of course looking for really beautiful Triceratops specimens, but we are also focused on a few other species of herbivorous dinosaurs like the duck-billed hadrosaurs and dome-headed pachycephalosaurs, and we’d love to find a skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur (think T. rex!). Nicely preserved specimens get our attention, as do any specimens where it appears there are multiple bones or a skull preserved. It’s a lot of work to excavate a dinosaur, and with so much out there and so little time during the summer, we have to be picky.
In fact, we often walk past dinosaur skeletons without collecting them. Why? Because by the time we find them, they have turned from potentially lovely, museum-quality specimens, into what we affectionately call “Explodo-saurus.” We find many Explodo-saurus skeletons in the field (and DIG teachers will too!), and that makes the excellent specimens all the more valuable to collect.
Step 2: Excavation and Data Collection
Once an excavation-worthy specimen has been located, it’s time to begin! One of the most important things to remember when excavating a dinosaur is that you don’t get a second chance to collect data, so we make a conscious effort to collect data early and often. Depending on how the animal is preserved in the rock, we may be able to infer the environment where it lived and died, how its skeleton ended up there, and maybe even how it died. These pieces of information make skeletons infinitely more valuable to scientists studying their ecology. We make quarry maps that put all the bones on a grid, collect latitude, longitude, and elevation data, describe the rock in which the specimens are found, and take tons of photos. You never know what data could be critical to another scientist in 10+ years.
For the actual excavation, we use different tools based on the ‘matrix,’ or the rocks surrounding the fossil. Some siltstones and claystones will crack away from the bone so easily that you can simply use an awl to uncover the specimen, while some sandstones can be so hard you need a jackhammer – we see specimens like these and everything in between! We generally bring a variety of tools to a quarry: awls, chisels, rock hammers, whisk brooms, soft brushes, foil, paper towel, and vinac (polyvinyl acetate, or plastic beads dissolved in alcohol.) Vinac is used as a consolidant or glue in the field because it’s reversible (adding more alcohol dissolves the plastic again), and can be mixed in different viscosities to meet your gluing needs, spanning from a thin veneer to coat freshly-uncovered bone, to re-attaching broken pieces.
To free up loose rock, we alternate between chisel and awl, then sweep away the debris with brushes. It’s critical to be able to see where you are working and to recognize bone that has just been uncovered (which looks a lot like rock). “A clean quarry is a happy quarry!” When working in a quarry where fossil bone looks just like rock, we gently tap on rocks with our awl, since rock and bone sound slightly different!
Step 3: Protect and Preserve the Fossil
Field excavations are necessary to free fossils from the ground, but the curation and preparation of fossils really happens back in the lab where professional preparators have access to optimal tools and adequate light. In the field, we are trying to determine the size and extent of the elements (bones), and then quickly cover them with protective materials for a safe trip back to the lab.
After exposing the element, and ‘opening up the quarry’ to determine its size and extent, we leave a few inches of rock around each edge and begin to dig down to form a pedestal or platform. Then we cover the surface with strips of burlap dipped in plaster of paris to make a cast for the fossils, similar to what a doctor does for a broken arm or leg. This ‘top jacket’ protects the surface of the bone and rock as we dig deeper and can also be left as a ‘winter jacket’ if we can’t finish the excavation in a single summer.
If we do plan to take the fossil out, we continue to pedestal until we have a tall platform and it would be easy and safe to flip the jacket and fossil inside without losing any material. This step in the process is the most nerve-wracking – you’ve been cautiously excavating a tiny bit of rock at a time up to this point and now you will risk everything you’ve been working on to quickly flip hundreds of pounds of rock upside-down! If you’ve done everything right, the jacket will safely flip and you can plaster the now exposed underside of the fossil cradle.
Step 4: Pack it out!
Before you can celebrate a successful excavation, you have to get the fossil in its jacket to the vehicle. We are diligent about strong jackets to protect the fossil in transit, but it’s important to remember that rocks are heavy, and rocks coated with plaster of paris are even heavier! Sometimes a Triceratops rib that is a few feet long but only a few inches thick will end up being hundreds of pounds to carry in its jacket. It is not until fossils are safely in the museum that an excavator breathes a sigh of relief.
Remember all the steps that go into a fossil you see at a museum, and try to imagine yourself excavating, recording data, jacketing, and packing out fossils. There is a LOT of effort that goes into every single specimen in collections or on display, but beautiful specimens are more than worth the effort.
If you want to learn more about this process, visit the Burke Museum of Natural History website or the Burke Blog to learn about the excavation and preservation of the mammoth tusk found at a residential development site in Seattle this spring!
Things are extremely busy around here as we wrap-up a productive few weeks in the field with some amazing undergraduates and the Hell Creek III Research Team! Since our field update last week, we’ve posted some photos and highlights from our time in Montana on our Facebook page. Once we are back in Seattle we’ll have a full update about our latest activities and finds from the Hell Creek. In the meantime, check out this previous blog post to learn about some of the birds we encounter in Montana.
We are now one week into fieldwork with undergraduates and the Hell Creek III Research Project. Our camp is pretty large, with 24 people total from UW, UC Berkeley, Montana State and the Museum of the Rockies, undergraduate students (from University of Oregon, University of Michigan, Smith College, and Western Washington University), and many volunteers! Meals are hectic, evening campfires are entertaining, and the fossil-finding thus far is very successful – we’ve found a half dozen dinosaur localities and over one dozen mammal teeth.
You might be wondering what we do all day in the field, if so, read on! In this first field update, we’ll talk about the process of collecting microvertebrates in the field.
Step 1: Surface collecting for microvertebrates
Microvertebrates are small! So small, that to find the really tiny elements (like mammal teeth), we wear knee pads and “cheaters” (magnifying lenses attached to a visor). When we find a fossil, we use an awl to free it from the surrounding sediment, and we put it in a film canister for safe keeping.
Step 2: Find the ‘productive layer’ and collect fossiliferous sediment
After we’ve scoured the outcrop for all the surface fossils we can find, we want to identify exactly where the fossils are coming from in the hill. We trace the surface material to its highest point, and at that level we dig into the hillside and crack open rocks until we find a fossil ‘in situ’ or encased in fresh rock. If we find something, we’ve hit on the ‘productive layer’ and it’s time to collect bags of sediment!
To collect sediment we use geopicks and rock hammers to free in situ rock from the deposit, and a shovel and bag to collect the fossiliferous sediment. Then we pack the material out in frame packs, and we return to camp victorious!
Step 3: Describe the lithology
Identifying rock types and inferring depositional environment remains a big part of what we do during our paleontology fieldwork. Each time we find a productive layer, we describe its rock type and contents in our field notes. Now, after decades of fieldwork, we have a sense for the rock layers most likely to produce fossiliferous material. We’re most often looking for sediments that represent the base of stream channels, because it’s here that materials were dropped from the moving water and fossils, mud balls (‘mud rip-up clasts’), rocks, lignite, and organic material (wood, plants) were deposited. This often produces a ‘dirty’ fossiliferous productive layer, and hopefully it’s highly concentrated with fossils! But we won’t know for sure until we get back to camp.
Step 4: Screenwash collected sediment
We return to camp with bags of sediment, and to reduce the total weight we bring back to Seattle, we first screenwash collected material in the lake. Each day we put our collected sediment into wooden boxes with window screen on the bottom and let these soak overnight in the Fort Peck Reservoir. The gentle wave motion of the lake breaks up hard rocks, and the smaller particles of sand, silt, and clay will fall through the window screen, leaving the larger items (including fossils and larger rock particles) in the boxes. We pull boxes from the water each morning and let them dry during the hot Montana days, bag the sediment each night, and repeat the process with the next material collected.
At the end of this microvertebrate collection process we have a diversity of fossils from different animal groups including mammals, dinosaurs, reptiles, amphibians, and fish! These freshly collected fossils help us reconstruct the paleoenvironment pre- and post- K/Pg extinction.
Want more from the field? Check back for next week’s update and follow our Facebook page to see more photos!
So you’ve managed to stumble upon a fossil, either intentionally or unintentionally. As an amateur paleontologist you are thrilled with your discovery, but now what? Do you own all rights to this fossil? Well, the short answer is no.
Fossil ownership primarily depends on whether it was found on private or public land. Let’s use the state of Montana, the site of the DIG Field School as an example. In Montana, every piece of land is owned by someone. This could mean an individual land owner, a nature preserve, the residents of the state of Montana, or even all the people of the United States. For this reason, it is imperative to get permission to search for fossils. During the DIG Field School, we dig on private land at the generosity of the landowners, on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge local nature preserve, on state land run by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. As you can see, there is a diversity of landownership where fossils are collected during the DIG. If you decide to further explore Montana or return later and dig on your own, it is wise to check with local authorities, museums, collectors, and a map to know exactly who owns the land you want to explore.
DIG Field School Executive Director, Greg Wilson, obtains permits and/or permission through the Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle to dig so if you’re out collecting with us, we’ve got you covered. Many of the fossils we find in Montana are collected on either state-owned or federally-owned public lands. Specimens collected in Montana must be stored in Montana’s official state repository, the Museum of the Rockies. The Museum of the Rockies loans many of the fossils we find to the Burke Museum of Natural History so we can continue our research once we return to Seattle. Collecting from state and national parks remains prohibited.
If a fossil is collected on private land, it belongs to the landowner and they reserve the right to keep anything found on their property. Earlier this year, a fossilized mammoth tusk was found underneath a construction site in Seattle. This discovery was made on private land, and suddenly the residential developer who owned the land also owned a mammoth-sized tusk! Luckily, the company donated the tusk to the Burke Museum of Natural History, and skilled paleontologists excavated the material in a quick three days to best preserve the tusk before construction resumed. Based on pollen, soil, and the context of the find, the nearly 9 foot long mammoth tusk is estimate to be between 16,000 and 60,000 years old! Now safe in the Burke Museum, it is currently encased in plaster to facilitate drying and preserve the tusk. In a year, it will be opened again and further studied. Such a find gives paleontologists important information about the paleoenvironment during that time.