Monday, July 31, 2006

Photos from the 2006 Dinosaur Field School

Beautiful high mountain lakes on the Beartooth Plateau
are the melted remnants of glacial ice. Such glacial lakes
are known as tarns.

The 1934 Fanshaw Lodge at the YBRA camp provides
all the comforts of home in a rustic Montana setting.

The scenic road to the YBRA camp in Red Lodge provides
good views of the overturned Madison Limestone
(Mississippian, below to right) and Bighorn Dolomite
Ordovician, above to left) at the Beartooth Range front.

The canyon of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River dissects
a nearly complete Paleozoic marine section of approximately
300 million years duration above the unstratified Precambrian
basement rocks of the Beartooth thrust block.

Glenn savors his hike to the top of Mother’s Day Ridge.

Happy Dinosaur Field School participants on their way to
the Mother’s Day Site quarry, with gear and in fashion!

July 31, 2006

The best laid plans….gang aft aglay, as Robbie Burns wisely noted. I’m having trouble getting my pictures up as “Dial-up Man.” Well, I will try to evolve today and get into town for a high-speed connection. I think you’ll like the results – a good cross-section (no geological pun intended) of our activities so far.

Another issue that has arisen out here over the past 24 hours that has been a little distracting is the threat of wildfire. While fire danger is always high out here in the summers, with activity restrictions and the like, yesterday was a little more problematic than most days. The west is in the seventh year of drought and the snow melt waters that feed the rivers are low. Rainfall levels are also abnormally low. The mountain pine forests are like tinder, ripe for dry lighting strikes and go up like a torch (lots of resin in the wood and the undergrowth and litter is dry).

Remember those hot days of last week? The weather has broken and a front came through yesterday giving us cool temperatures and highs in the 80’s at the dinosaur quarries. However, that front was associated with very high winds lasting almost 24 hours. A small, 2 acre fire near Livingston (the next valley over) was whipped up to 2000 acres over the course of the day and the billowing plume of smoke blanketed the sky here last night. It was truly a sight to see and we were all prepared for a quick evacuation should the fire jump the ridge. Today things seem a little quieter, but I doubt it’s under control. I’ll keep my eye on the situation – just in time for our new group of Field School recruits who arrive today.

Last weeks folks, Buck, Patty, Joe, Matt, Carol, Barb and A.J. have departed after an adventurous, but I believe extremely satisfying week. At least everyone always tells me how wonderful, though hot and tiring, their visit has been. I was very pleased with the rapport and camaraderie of the group – seven folks thrown together with only the common interest in a high country dinosaur adventure – yet finding new friends and common experiences along the way.

Just to sum up the wildlife tally (if I can get the pictures up you’ll see how the fossil collecting works) has expanded somewhat. The turkeys are back in camp – seemingly oblivious to any threat of an early Thanksgiving – so all have had a chance to see them. We’ve run into a couple of rattlesnakes – with no tragic results (they fear us more than we them as they should), at least one more yellow-jacket (Sara is sad to say), have seen several coyotes up close, squirrels, chipmunks, a wide variety of birds – juncos, more hummingbirds and red-tailed hawks, magpies, etc., and some sort of big furry fellow by the side of the road as we returned from our weeks finale at the Bearcreek pig races. I don’t think he was a bear cub, and have my money on a marmot, porcupine or badger, but as it was late at night, the races take place at a saloon, and our designated driver neglected to slow down, I couldn’t say for certain.

The races are a Montana tradition. Started over 20 years ago as a promotional event to bring custom to Bearcreek’s only business (at that time), tourist (and the occasional local) travel from far and wide to wager on the bacon. The saloon is known to see a geology student or two each summer as well! The races are more like a lottery than paramutuel betting, but they almost died an early death as the Montana Horse Racing Association raised some initial objections, even though all profits support college scholarships for local kids. With grassroots political action brought to bear on the problem a special bill was passed in the state legislature to allow pig racing at Bearcreek Downs and owner and impressario Pits DeArmond has never looked back. They serve a great buffalo steak too, by the way. For our group’s efforts at supporting local color, Sam was rewarded with a $100 win. I’m sure he’ll report it on his taxes if he makes enough to file (unlikely as a paleo wannabe).

That’s all for now. Back to work on those picture files. Wish me luck!

Friday, July 28, 2006

July 28, 2006

Wow! It’s hot out here now. When the thermometer tops 100, it just drains your energy. Finding dinosaur bones, however, sort of re-energizes one. And that’s what we have been doing….. Lot’s of bones of various kinds – all Diplodocus, we believe, but from different parts of the skeleton. Since my last report we have already uncovered phalanges (toe bones), an articulated ulna/radius and associated carpal and metacarpal (lower arm, wrist foot), more vertebrae from the neck and tail, and some chevrons and gastralia (tail spines and stomach ribs). Best of all, Sara has uncovered skull bones! A real Eureka moment (although you’d never here this from Sara who is about the most quietly competent teen around – and I do mean quiet). She beavers away in the quarry, uncomplaining, and has turned up the best things so far. Indeed, some of the best things ever out of this quarry. We have only a few skull elements to date from the Mother’s Day Site, and skulls are some of the most scientifically useful things one can find from a dinosaur.

Because skulls of most reptiles, including most dinosaurs, are made of numerous bones that are relatively poorly attached together, they tend to come apart after death. Sauropod skulls, in particular, are very delicate so finding them intact is very difficult (we’re lucky at Cincinnati to have two complete sauropod skulls and parts of several others).

Well, as you can imagine, finding parts of a skull this year have kept us going. Nevertheless, the field school will take a more leisurely day tomorrow, visiting the Dodson site and then hiking down Petroglyph Canyon south of the Pryors to look at evidence of prehistoric Native American graffiti (Hey, you kids, stop drawing on the rocks!) – actually probably shamanistic effigies, but who really knows. We’ll then look at some more interesting geology, and in particular, stop at exposures of the Sundance Shale for some Middle Jurassic seafood. Everyone will be able to find fossil oysters and squid-like animals (belemnites), and unlike the regulated vertebrate fossils, can be collected and taken home by our guests.

I’m still trying to get some photos up for you and will try that now. Look for them soon.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

July 25, 2006

Glenn, here. After four days in the field I’m back in a spot with internet access (dial-up so bear with me) so the story continues….

After arriving at our traditional field camp by the Mother’s Day Site, I found that the crew had gone into town. Who could blame them as it was late afternoon and the mercury was still well above 100 degrees as it had been for close to a week. I set about organizing my own tent and gear, had a look at the dinosaur quarry, and sat down with a luke-warm beer to await the team’s return. They were back with supplies before I knew it and we caught up on progress to date.

I always have a subconscious fear that we’ll get on-site only to find that a disaster has befallen or that there are no more fossils to be found. Not a chance. In actual fact, we always find new material immediately upon arrival. Indeed, this year the first thing spotted was a very nice mid-series cervical (neck) vertebra of a young animal just coming to the surface and ready to be worked. This, after our best efforts to rebury the quarry with protective plastic, winter jackets and dirt and rock at the end of each season. The gully-washers that come through over the winter and spring nevertheless tend to expose new material each year.

Mason, Don Esker, MacKenzie English and Sara Oser (the latter, three students at the University of Cincinnati) had also uncovered a variety of other elements – a large cervical, an epipodial, and a series of four articulated mid-series caudal (tail) vertebrae, among other things. Plenty to work on and a great deal for the Field School participants to work on when they arrived on Monday.

That afternoon, Dale Gnidovec from the Orton Museum at Ohio State showed up with his volunteer Sam Perry as they do each year. These guys are great help in the field and Dale and I go way back to our early graduate student days in Texas. We all spent the night staring at the phenomenally clear sky, brilliant stars and counting meteor streaks (not strikes, thankfully), while telling stories of the “old days”, lamenting our disaffected youth (just kidding), and listening to the coyotes sing. The wildlife out here is great – I’d already seen an eagle, various rodents and lagomorphs, antelope (and turkeys a couple of days later). (We also saw and felt yellow jackets sadly, which this year were to be found in abundance for some reason. Most of us ended up with a sting or two before bringing in some traps to keep them away from camp and the quarry.) The old west is still there when you're camping out under the “Big Sky”.

For the next few days we split up – Mason, Don and Sara working MDS and Dale, Sam, Mac and I heading about 20 miles south the “Dodson Diplodocus” site. This is another Morrison locality near the Wyoming border found by local rancher Will Tillet (of Tenontosaurus tilleti fame) and worked by Peter Dodson and now us. Peter gave us the big sauropod they had begun to uncover as we’d been looking for a relatively complete animal to mount at Cincinnati. Big is perhaps an exaggeration as it is a young adult gracile diplodocid sauropod only 60 or so feet long, but as it’s largely complete and articulated, it’s a major engineering project to get it out of the ground (Peter, of course, knew that when he passed it on to us!). We’ve been at it four years now and only the body block remains. We hope to get the last of it this year.

So, all of this work continues apace, while I have moved up to the YBRA camp in Red Lodge. This is the Yellowstone-Bighorn Research Association and is a fabulous place to stay – rustic cabins on the mountainside, a grand old lodge with home-cooked meals, showers and real beds. I try not to miss the “old west” camping experience too much. I’ll be up here for the next three weeks with the Field School participants, taking in the scenery and commuting down to Mother’s Day to collect for the Museum. This first week we have a great group – seven people from all ages, walks of life and from as far away as New Jersey. Today, the school’s first full day, we did my grand geology tour of the Beartooths and Bighorn Basin.

We start up on the pass near Hell-Roaring Plateau (I love that name – you can imagine the winter storms up there!) and look at hard, crystalline basement rocks – granites, granitoids, mafic intrusions, various metamorphics, etc. – that underlie the North American continent, and here brought to the surface by major tectonic uplift during the Laramide Orogeny (starting in the latest Cretaceous and Early Tertiary). Some of these rocks are 3.9 billion years (with a B!) old by radiometric dating and are some of Earth’s oldest rocks. From here we move back down the Rock Creek Valley, examining Pleistocene montane glacial geomorphology, down into the Bighorn Basin through the Fort Union Paleocene beds and associated coal fields (now abandoned leaving a somewhat lonely town of Bear Creek standing guard – 100 years old this year – Happy Birthday BC!), and into the Clark’s Fork Canyon. Here is one of the best examples of Precambrian basement uplift, covered unconformably by 300 million years of Paleozoic marine sediments with the most spectacular drag fold and flat-iron palisades at the mountain front that you could ever hope to see (not to mention two great terminal moraines at the valley mouth. Lastly, we cross the basin towards the Pryors moving generally down section from Paleocene to Cretaceous to Jurassic. At Red Dome we get a tremendous view of Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway shales, Cloverly Formation badlands (type locality home of Deinonychus antirrhopus), blood-red Chugwater sands and mudstones (Triassic) and, of course, the famous dinosaur-bearing Morrison.

We do all this to place the fossils in context – the Earth is a dynamic, changing place on which tremendous geologic forces operate over vast time scales. Few places like Montana/Wyoming show this to greater effect. Tomorrow we dig in earnest!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

July 20, 2006

OK, I'm back. I apologize for the lengthy interim, but I've a variety of excuses. Number one, I've been anxiously running about getting my gear together - most significantly a new field vehicle for the Museum - and have not had the time to think much about this blog. Number two, I'm no longer a teen (or pre-teen, for that matter) and have been learning how to "operate" a blog, and number three - for the last three days, I've been driving across country to get to Montana. Tonight I'm in Sheridan, Wyoming and will cross the Bighorn Mountains tomorrow, arriving at our excavation site in early afternoon.

Mason left a few days before me with some volunteer staff from our prep lab and should be on-site already. I have to assume that all is well and we can get right to work preparing for the arrival of our field school participants this weekend. In actual fact, my hope is that Mason and the gang has everything prepared already and that I need merely breeze into camp and provide my seal of approval. I've every confidence in them so, all things considered (like the 100 degree temperates dominating the Bighorn Basin this week), we should be good to go.

I like driving across country (especially in CMC's new truck with AC, automatic transmission, 4WD and grill guard-mounted power winch!) as the landscape evolves (I love that word!) from largely flat cratonic land of eastern deciduous forest and agricultural fields to rolling prairie and then to the continental basement uplifts of the Rockies and the high desert intermontane basins filled with fossiliferous sediment. Even so, the long hours of the drive do wear, and I'm ready to hit the field.

I'll be off-line again for a few days while camping with my crew, but when the Field School begins, and I move up to the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association (YBRA - more about that later!) camp at Red Lodge, I'll let you know how we're getting on. Cheers 'til then!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Photos from the 2005 Dinosaur Field School

The dig site in Montana.

Making a plaster jacket in the field.

Glenn Storrs picks away the stone from
Diplodocus vertebrae and ribs.

Skin impressions left in the rock from Diplodocus.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

July 11, 2006

I'm gearing up to head west for our dinosaur project. Although we have been running Cincinnati Museum Center's Dinosaur Field School for seven years now, this is my first attempt at a blog. Mason Milam, our volunteers and trip participants will try to keep you up-dated on just what paleontological field work is actually like. We hope to provide postings and photos that document our progress as we work to uncover and collect dinosaurs from the Late Jurassic, specimens that are approximately 140 millions years old. This is a real research project, not merely a tourist opportunity, so everyone pitches in and learns by doing. As it's a real project, conditions are real too. That is, the weather, the discoveries, the events are also real and thus unpredictable. We will not have internet access everyday, and we may not have the time or energy to post even when we do - but we will do our best. I hope you enjoy reading of our efforts and, hopefully, successes.

A bit of background. The Mother's Day Site, in south-central Montana, was discovered (on Mothers' Day, natch!) in 1996 by Kurt Padilla, a volunteer for the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. The site was worked for two years for MOR by Kristy Curry-Rogers (now at the Science Museum of Minnesota). With other projects in the Cretaceous taking priority, MOR was unable to continue its excavations at Mother's Day and with their blessing (thanks again, Jack!), staff at the Bureau of Land Management asked me to take on the excavations at the site in order to preserve its fossils for the benefit of the American people and the scientific community in general. As with all vertebrate fossil sites on federal land, we work under permit to the BLM and all collected specimens are reposited at Cincinnati Museum Center where they can be accessed by all.

The site preserves thousands of bones of dozens of, mostly young, sauropod dinosaurs. We believe that a single herd of gracile diplodocids, probably Diplodocus, became trapped at a shrinking water hole during seasonal drought about 140 million years ago. The site is thus a monospecific, catastrophic assemblage that provides insight into Late Jurassic environments and paleoecology, and on the paleobiology of a single species of giant dinosaur. Of course, the seven years of work up to this point have given us a better understanding of the site than when we began our excavations. A master's degree under my supervision at the University of Cincinnati by T. Scott Myers (now at Southern Methodist University) has been completed recently on the taphonomy (environmental and depositional history) of MDS and has answered many of our initial questions. Scott and I are undertaking to publish this work now.

Maybe that's more detail than you wanted, but now that it's out of the way, we can get down to the fun of letting you peek over our shoulders as we embark upon a nother season of excavations at MDS. More to come!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

About the Dinosaur Field School

Cincinnati Museum Center's Dinosaur Field School invites all those with a passion for paleontology to spend a week digging for real dinosaurs! Participants in the weeklong sessions travel to the northwestern flank of the Bighorn Mountains in south-central Montana to learn to extract dinosaur fossils from rock using hand tools, how to gather and document field data and how to “field jacket” the fossils in burlap and plaster for shipment to the museum.