Friday, August 1, 2014

Out West 2014: Family Dino Dig Day 1

As you may know (since I've been going on and on and ON about it for at least a year now, ever since I started planning and budgeting for it), all four of us made our wild, unwieldy road trip out to the west to participate in a family dinosaur dig through the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

The dig takes place a little northeast of Faith, South Dakota, on a private ranch that contains some incredible caches of edmontosaurus bones. Although we're amateurs, this is a real, working dig, with real discoveries to be made, all the finds going to the museum's collection for processing and study. Paleontologists from the museum worked alongside us and assisted us in all aspects of the excavation, teaching us and letting us do ourselves the digging, mapping, field jacketing, trench digging, burlap cutting, and most everything else required to run a dig.

And Faith itself, regardless of all this, is just an exciting place to be digging for dinosaurs:

Have you heard about the discovery of Sue, followed by the even bigger scandal surrounding her? Sue is a big interest of mine, and I'm going to talk more about her later in our trip, but until then, you MUST read this book: Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of Largest, Most Fought Over T. Rex Ever Found. It's fascinating, and then I'll get to discuss it with you! I SUPER want to discuss it with you.

On the first day of our two-day dig, we got to begin with surface collecting. This is a fun way to start, because for the rest of our time here, we'd primarily be digging for the museum, but in surface collecting, we primarily get to find fossils for ourselves! The surface collection site is an exposed hillside with lots of erosion--

--and so there are lots of tiny fossil fragments and hopefully some edmontosaurus teeth that have been exposed; none of these are scientifically significant, so we can have them... IF we can find them:
Here are some of my finds--they look a LOT like surface rocks, don't they?
During this time that's really supposed to be just for fun (and a lesson on how to identify fossils in the rock, useful for our imminent excavating), Will nevertheless managed to make a significant discovery, a complete pachycephalosaurus tooth, including some root structure:

Isn't it beautiful? It's quite different from an edmontosaurus tooth, and is the first one of its kind ever found at this dig site! Just sit back and think about that for a minute--my kid was the first human ever to see that tooth that once upon a time was inside of a pachycephalosaurus' MOUTH.

Mind. Blown.

I did that all day, both days, by the way--spent my dino dig time constantly getting my mind blown. Sometimes I'd dig for an hour and find some small little thing that's a dime a dozen out there--tendon, teensy rib fragment, etc.--and one of the paleontologists would start to commiserate, but I'd be all, "I. Found. A RIB FRAGMENT!!!", and I'd cradle it in my hand, and go show my loved ones, and that paleontologist would dutifully back-pedal and enthusiastically congratulate me and admire my rib fragment for me.

Because this find of Will's WAS scientifically significant, it needed to go into the museum's collection, but first the paleontologist spent tons of time with Will talking about the tooth with her and telling her all about it--

--and then having her assist him in recording the information about it and tagging its location:

Will didn't think that having to give up her tooth sucked at all, on account of how clearly important it was, and how special everyone made her feel for discovering it. She's the one who found the pachy tooth!

Here's what our dig site looks like:
There are tents set up over the major dig areas. That's me in the yellow by the far tent, probably making one of the paleontologists admire yet another teensy rib fragment that I'd found.
The dig site is on private property, part of a local ranch, so much of the drive takes place down these... wheel tracks... across the prairie. There are birds, and horses, and a prairie dog town, and one morning we saw antelope.

Here's the site looking in the other direction:
Our tools are in the foreground, with the tool shed in the back. Off camera to the left is the outhouse. Up that hill in the background is where we did our surface collecting.
Arriving at the site, we'd unpack all the tools and supplies from the tool shed and van, coat our skin with sunscreen and bug repellant, and grab a clam shucker, an x-acto knife, a squeeze bottle of Paleobond, a paintbrush, a broom and dustpan, and a bucket. We'd also collect an assortment of carpet squares and knee pads to pad our area, as we all tended to sit and kneel and lie on and crawl around the hard ground at really weird angles while we were focused on our digging. My knees were red and sore by the end of the second day, because I wasn't real great at remembering to pad my area, and days after the dig was over I still had one sore spot under my collar bone, of all places, which I vaguely remembered probably using as a pivot point when I spent an afternoon digging an edmontosaurus tibia out of a hole in the hill.

See Syd's well-padded dig area?

To start, you just chip away at the hill with your clam shucker:

 If you're in a good spot, the sedimentary layers will just crumble away in bits as you work; if you're in a bad spot, you'll be slogging through muck, but you only stick with a spot like that if you're uncovering a bone that's already been found. 

Syd was supposed to be helping our group leader excavate that fossil, on account of she LOVED our group leader and vastly preferred working with her over working with me (humph!), but instead she started expanding the trench around it--and she made a discovery there!
You must often brush the dirt away from your dig area and sweep all the excess into a dustpan and dump it in your bucket:

This keeps your dig area clear and will help you see when you uncover something.

If your clam shucker hits something, or if the crumbled hillside reveals something that doesn't look like the rock around it--
Another rib fragment!!! That thing used to be inside an edmontosaurus' BODY!!!
That's a tooth!
--then you put the clam shucker away, point in the ground, and take up the x-acto knife to carefully scrape the dirt and rock away until you can see what you've discovered:
See Will with her x-acto there? One of my many favorite things about this group is the way that all the adults were happy to engage with any of the kids; Will is working with another kid's mom here, while that mom's kid helps one of the paleontologists dig a trench to prevent flooding at the site.
And when you think that what you've discovered isn't just a random rock (it sometimes turns out to be a rock anyway) but a fossil, you call over one of the paleontologists, who'll examine it, consult with you about it, and guide you on how to proceed with your dig:

After consultation, Syd proceeds apace excavating her own discovery.

Matt basically had to remove ALL the hillside above this fossil to uncover it.
Sometimes, even though you're SUPER careful and you love fossils SO much, as you excavate them you kinda... break them a little. That's why we get to excavate edmontosaurus, not T-Rex, you know? Even so, every time this happened I pretty much had a little panic attack and insisted that I had just broken Science. Because this, this fragmented edmontosaurus tooth that I just chipped, how will we now know if maybe that chipped piece had something really important in it, like a microfossilized piece of dinosaur tartar?!?

This is why we all carry Paleobond. Paleobond is our friend. Paleobond turns this--
That's me, breaking Science.
--and this--
Yep. Much Science. All broken.
--back into this:
Just so you know, I actually did a really bad job with the Paleobond on that fossil there. The seams clearly don't line up, which is why you're supposed to Paleobond it when it's still in the ground. I got to keep that tendon, however, it not being scientifically significant, so the Paleobond is really just a way for me to keep the pieces together, I claim.
Paleobond is basically superglue--SCIENTIFIC superglue--so it was not a big deal when this inevitably happened:

See the kid. See the fossil:

See the really SHINY fossil. Hey, that's a lot of Paleobond there, Kid! Ummm... Kid, why won't you let go of the fossil?

Debonder to the rescue!!!

So after you've broken your fossil discovery and glued it back together, and after you've glued yourself to it and gotten debonded, and after you've finished excavating it, all but the bottom, one of the paleontologists helps you log it (you get your name on that fossil's record forever if you've discovered it or worked on it)--

--and tag it--

--and map it:

Check out that kid learning how to translate information to a coordinate plane.
Smaller fossils can get wrapped and packed, but the bigger pieces get field jackets, which you also help to do:

The day just flies by, and the ride back to the hotel is miraculously full of quiet, dozy kids instead of energetic, hyper-excited ones.

When we got back, we walked down the block and around the corner to Faith's small grocery store, to see if there was something there that might make better use of our in-room microwave (Can't dig dinosaurs all day and eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner that night!). We did find microwave meals, and yogurts, and some more fruit, but Matt--

Okay, let me tell you this story first: In college, Matt pretty much ate junk food all the time. There was a Pizza Hut in our Student Union, and I swear that Matt ate a pepperoni personal pan pizza for lunch and dinner every single school day for two solid semesters. We went grocery shopping together once for food to take to my apartment, and he bought chicken nuggets IN NOVELTY SHAPES. Seriously, rocket shaped chicken nuggets--why was I not concerned that I was dating a five-year-old?

Anyway, along with all the other crap, Matt always bought Better Cheddars--not Cheez-Its, not Goldfish crackers, but Better Cheddars. Matt's also a fussy eater, and he ONLY liked Better Cheddars. Novelty chicken nuggets with Better Cheddars for dinner, Kern's nectar to wash it down, and Twizzlers for dessert--that was Matt's idea of a fine meal indeed.

After we moved here from Texas, Matt was gutted to discover that he could no longer buy Better Cheddars at the grocery store. Where had they gone?!? We even kept an eye out for them when we traveled--buying some sandwich bread and yogurt in Florida? Let's see if there are Better Cheddars!--but had not ever seen them again since Texas.

So we're in the Dakota Mart, Matt's just somehow convinced me that pizza rolls are acceptable as dinner food (Hmm, I can't for the life of me think of how I managed to gain three pounds on this road trip even after the loads of vigorous exercise that I got... wait until I tell you about the winery visit, and how I may have downed half a bottle of wine every night for a week), and we're walking through the chips aisle on our way to the register, when I spot it. Like a rib fragment sticking out of the hillside, discernible from the rock around it only by its shape and slight color difference, there, surrounded by shelves of boxes of orange cheese crackers of all kinds, are four boxes of Better Cheddars.

Reader, we bought them all.

I've got another whole day at the dino dig to tell you about tomorrow, including my own close shave with the Paleobond and my epic adventure in field jacketing, but please, please, please continue to keep an eye out for my beloved Spots:
A total stranger referred to her today as the cat "with the flyers all over town," so that's something, right?


Tina said...

I really need you to write a book. Something long that will take me days to read. I love how you write.

Anyway, I now want to do a dino dig in the worst way. Might have to see if we can manage it for next summer (no more school for me!) before we leave Montana.

And yes, it is a good thing that people are seeing the flyers. Let's home more people start seeing Spots.

Tina said...

p.s. I just reserved the book about Sue. I know a little about the controversy from my dino class last term, but I'd like to know more.

julie said...

If you find a good family dino dig, tell me all about it! I did some research before I booked ours, and I did find a couple of other options, but I don't think I saw anything in Montana--surely there ARE some, though! It's MONTANA!

Incidentally, you don't have to live near the Children's Museum of Indianapolis to book a dino dig with them...


Related Posts with Thumbnails