Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Encounters with wildlife in the field

There's no doubt that seeing wildlife whilst doing fieldwork is one of the most exciting, entrancing and memorable experiences for a palaeontologist. Fieldwork helps a person feel a strong connection to the landscapes they work in, and seeing the animals and plants that actually live there is a massive thrill.

This set of photographs are records of some of the encounters I've had whilst engaged in fieldwork. I make no apologies for the bias to US species, as these trips had so much wildlife it was quite astonishing, and of course novel to have so many species of large mammals, reptiles and birds of prey to observe as we travel through and work the badlands. You might notice the images from North Dakota and Montana are surprisingly green for late June, this is because of the exceptionally damp year so far. As local garage owner Jim Martin said "You can tell it's been a wet spring when the clover's high on the gumbo banks".

Sea anemone (Sagartia elegans), Isle of Wight. Found in a rock pool whilst looking for dinosaur bones.

Bighorn Sheep, Zion National Park, Utah.
We came across a herd of these whilst on the 2011 SVP field trip.
I'm not sure, but I think this might be the subspecies Ovis canadensis nelsoni, or Desert Bighorn Sheep
which occurs in the Southwestern deserts of the US (wikipedia).

Unidentified invertebrate, Hell Creek Formation, North Dakota.
This intriguing little fellow was spotted by two of the
field crew when we went to check the sites at the start of the 2010 field season. It's head end
(unless it was in permanent reverse) is towards the top and it's around 4mm long. There was some
speculation it might be an aphid of some description, I wondered if it was a caterpillar.

Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus), South Rim, Grand Canyon, Arizona. Our guide Barry called these Kanab Deer, and These might be a subspecies of Mule Deer unique to Mexico and Arizona (wikipedia) known as the Desert Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus eremicus, although I think their range is further south. This handsome fellow was spotted from the trail that heads east from Grand Canyon Village. There were does and fawns around too.

Common Side-Blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana), Potter's Canyon, Arizona.
This attractive lizard was not for hanging about but did pose long enough for a couple of pics.

I have to be honest, I have no idea what this is but it was found by Professor Tom Hollocher
in the badlands of the Hell Creek Formation, North Dakota.

Plains pricklypear (Opuntia polycantha). Hell Creek Formation, North Dakota. 

A young rattlesnake (unsure of the species) warns us in no uncertain terms - stay away. Montana.

Common Raven (Corvax corax), South Rim, Grand Canyon, Arizona.
These magnificent birds frequent the trails around the canyon.

Desert Striped Whipsnake (Masticophis bilineatus lieolatus). Potter's Canyon, Arizona.
This fantastic snake was spotted during an SVP field trip. A shed skin was found nearby,
and it may well have come from this animal.

I think this a Woodhouse's Toad (Bufo woodhousii), Hell Creek Formation, North Dakota. 

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Montana. The first time I ever saw a wild galliforme in the US was
when a pair of these wonderful birds came close to our trucks when we stopped to
chat to the landowner to get the lowdown on conditions in the badlands.

Tarantula (Aphonopelma sp.), Warner Valley, Utah. This is a male possibly out on the hunt for
a female. It was small, a wonderful blue-grey and a real beauty.

Next: Tracks and traces in the desert.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Incidental finds in the field

One of the many joys of fieldwork is the fact you have no idea what each day might bring. Apart from the main focus of your work delivering up constant surprises, the environment you are working in is often as fascinating and throws up seemingly endless delights. If you are digging in a foreign country, then this effect seems magnified and everything around you becomes a vital part of the experience. The very nature of fieldwork means you are getting up close and personal to the land and the flora and fauna you share it with for the duration of the trip. On top of all this, there seems to be a sense of heightened awareness: in the rock you are working, the weather, the lay of the land, the sounds. . . . well, you understand. The context of the physical and mental activity that is fieldwork.

So here is the first of three posts that deal not with the fieldwork itself, but the incidental finds that over the years have attracted my attention. These may seem mundane or irrelevant and of course scientifically they are, but these finds are as much a part of the field experience as the fossils we strive to discover and understand. 

Three articulated vertebra, bleached by the sun.
No idea what they belonged too, but I'm guessing artiodactyl.
Hell Creek Formation, South Dakota, USA.

The wreck of The Carbon. Compton Bay, Isle of Wight, UK.
You need a low tide to get this close too the old metal-hulled boat, which came to grief on the rocks of the Wessex Formation, Wealden. She was a 175-ton steam tug that was under tow in November 1947 when she came loose and ran aground.

Deer leg. We saw Mule deer in the area of our quarry, but this also might be a Whitetail
or Pronghorn, both of which live on the prairie and badlands. Hell Creek Formation, South Dakota, USA.

Upper jaw fragment. Once more, I have no idea what this is from, but I'll go with artiodactyl as a guess.
Potter Canyon, Dinosaur Canyon Member, Moenave Formation, Arizona, USA.

Native American microlith. In the UK, this would come home but there are understandably
very strict laws regarding the removal of Native American artifacts, so it stayed in-situ.
Moccasin Mountain, Navajo Sandstone Formation, Utah, USA.

Petroglyphs, Fort Pierce, Utah, USA. These superb petroglyphs are carved into the desert varnish
on outcrops of Shinarump Member of the Chinle Formation.
We also heard a very loud boom at this point, possible sonic, mine or other blasting.
As for what these petroglyphs actually depict, there is plenty of debate and interpretations vary.
Where possible, I always bring incidental finds home as they act as not only objects of interest in themselves but reminders of a moment in time, which often have very happy memories. Antlers, skulls, sea glass, various sub-fossil bones, teeth, hagstones, feathers, shells minerals and one day a rather fine geological hammer all enter the collection and each has a memory attached. Wonderful.

Next: Critters