Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Death March (a.k.a. The Ring of Hell That Dante Forgot)

Paleontology is not all glamorous, there is a lot of dirt, very hot days, and back-breaking work. However, on July 20th we all got to see a side of paleontology that many of us would like to forget (but none of us ever will).

The Beartooth Butte lies on the Wyoming side of the Beartooth Mountains. Geologically speaking it is a phenomenal location where igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks lie side by side. Paleontologically speaking, it is home to many fossil specimens (primarily fish) which exist in only a few widely spread museum and university collections. On this trip we found out WHY these collections are so rare.

First, imagine a picturesque “Sound of Music” setting where spinning in circles on a mountaintop actually seems like the right thing to do. Melting ice sheets, abundant wildflowers and alpine grasses, the occasional Grizzly Bear track…BEAUTIFUL. The hike across an alpine meadow bisected by a meltwater stream…EXCITING. The majesty of the Butte towering 2000 feet above your head with its talus slopes exposing new fossils every spring…INSPIRING. This is what the first mile, or roughly 45 minutes of hiking, are like.

Now, we hit the tree line where a few million vicious, blood-thirsty mosquitos are waiting for us. Add to that the fact that the fossils slab we had come to find was now covered beneath a few tons of fresh landslide debris and you have the start of an idea of how the rest of the day went. What had been an exhilarating one-and-a-half mile hike to the fossil site became an excruciating three-mile trudge back out using our trusty “dino-wheel” gurney. Time wise, it took 45-minutes to get in and nearly five-hours to get back out.

I asked some of our crew for their quotes to help sum it up:
Mac: “This is Dante’s Eighth Circle.”
Mike: (speaking to the mosquitos as he waves his arm around) “Fly my minions!”
Sara: (quoting a line from The Chronicles of Riddick) “If I owned this place and a place in Hell, I’d rent this one out and live in Hell.”
Ian: “All of this pestilence for some fish?”
Craig: “Uphill bothways just will not cut it anymore.”
Jason: (trying to keep everyone from losing it) “There will be no mutiny on this Bounty!”
Dr. Storrs: (repeated several times, I might add) “From the top of this ridge, it’s all downhill…until it’s uphill again”

BUT, the moral of the story is that we DID find some nice specimens, even if it was extremely difficult to get them out. For those of you eager enough to try hiking the Butte for fossils (with a permit, of course), Dr. Storrs is planning another trip…and at present he has a shortage of willing volunteers.

Week Two...That was fast!

Okay, I know that we have many loyal blog readers out there who have been wondering whether or not the Yellowstone Caldera might have swallowed us up since I haven't posted now in more than a week. We're still here, but a busy two weeks and literally NO days off in more than 4 weeks have been taking there toll...especially on the blog.

Laura, Ruth, Minna, Ian, Kevin and Susan had what I hope was a good week, as well, including some below-average temperatures and a generous quarry. Week Two went exceptionally well, adding 65 new numbered specimens to this year's total. We added several ribs and vertebrae, some exceptional foot elements all found in a single trench, and most notably, some Diplodocus teeth and palate. These were found, of course, by the newbie on the field crew, Craig (he's an archaeology/anthropology student from Ohio University, but we agreed to bring him anyway). He has adapted to the different matrix in which we work pretty well, and has added some levity to camp life.

Dale Gnidovic from Ohio State was with us for a little over a week, but headed back to Columbus after a few days of less than satisfying prospecting and what ended up being a disheartening development with the ranch we were supposed to get onto this year. There are many details I could share, but let's just say that the courts are involved so I'm "not at liberty to discuss" them.

Pat Monaco, who can only be described as a force of nature, also finished up her two-week stay with us on July 19th. We were all sad to see her go, but her sendoff dinner of bison marinara was out of this world. She'll hopefully be visiting us in Cincy in October so that we can show off the fine Cincinnati cuisine of Skyline Chili and Montgomery Inn ribs.

Pictures will be posted from Week Two as soon as I have an extended stay in Billings and can get away from the painfully slow Internet service at the YBRA.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Week Two Starters

Again, still in Billings trying to down my frappucino and get back on the road to the Mother's Day Quarry, but just a quick start to Week Two. We have six anxious diggers joining us this week: Minna, Susan, Kevin, Ian, Laura and Ruth. They all arrived safely on Sunday and were eager to get started digging, so we pretty much went straight to the site on Monday morning and put in a good 6 hours in the 100+ degree temperatures (we measured the ground temperature in the sun at more than 130-degrees).

Today will be their second full day in the field, and Wednesday will be their trip up the mountains to the Beartooth Plateau. In addition to the amazing geology, they will also find that the wildflowers are at their peak and quite beautiful.

Susan, Kevin and Ian have had the best luck thus far, uncovering 2 nearly perfectly preserved metacarpals and an associated ungal (toe) bone. Minna has been busy with some rather curious pieces, while Ruth has been following some pretty fragile fossils down into some very hard rock. Laura has a busy day of clearing some overburden, but found a rib at the end of day one. Mac, Craig, Mike, Lamont and I were busily trying to get some things out of the ground in an attempt to broaden our excavation area. Dale, Pat and Sara were off prospecting in some of the local Cloverly outcroppings, but had a somewhat disappointing day.

More posting as soon as I can.....

Week One Recap

Unfortunately, Internet access at the YBRA is a little less reliable than it was last year, so I had to stop in at a chain coffee house in Billings after making an airport drop-off this morning (mmmmm...frappucino).

The first week was very successful, recovering 40 numbered fossils and related items. There were also several other plant materials recovered which need some further examination. One of the most common pieces recovered (as usual in the Mother's Day Quarry) were the small, smooth stones believed to be gastroliths (i.e. stomach stones) used by the large sauropods to aid in digestion. For modern examples of this process, we can look at common chickens which use small stones to further digest corn and other grains.

Mark, Kevin, Matt, Sandy and Russ had a great time (I hope), and we added a couple more field crew members in Lamont and Mike, and lost Lauren when she had to return to Cincinnati following a two-week leave from her role at the Museum back in Cincinnati. She was excited to leave some of the wildlife behind, in particular the fierce jackalopes which chased her off the hill on more than one occasion.

The week ended with a trip to the pig races in Bearcreek and an early morning visit to the top of the Beartooth Plateau at about 10,900 feet for a top-of-the-world sunrise on Sunday morning. There are some great images at

I'm going to have to leave it here for now, but will post again as soon as possible.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Some Pictures from the First Days in Camp

(click on image for full-size version)

Bison and The Badlands

Hail at Mother's Day

Pat Monaco and her camp kitchen

Friday, July 11, 2008

What a week we're having! We've seen extremes in weather (107-degrees on Thursday and a high of around 75-degrees today, rain on Sunday and a dew point of about 10-degrees today, no wind on Thursday and wind gusts as high as 52 miles per hour today). The crew will be back in the quarry for a half-day tomorrow and will get a little bit of "tourist time" in Red Lodge in the afternoon before he ultimate Montana experience of attending a pig race at the Bearcreek Saloon.

I'll be posting some pictures this evening, and even more tomorrow evening along with a final fossil tally for the week, but I hope that everyone has had a great experience with us.

Russ and Sandy got started right away working on a couple of interesting fossils in the softer matrix (i.e. rock) higher up in the quarry. One particularly interesting item was a coossification (fusing of two bones) by what appeared to be a possible cancerous growth. It was very delicate, but they removed the bones like a pair of pros (this is their second summer with us). Kevin and Mark tackled some of the most difficult pieces of the week, which happened to also be in the hardest rock of the quarry. They have already removed a few ribs and some vertebrae, with a few more interesting pieces coming out hopefully on Saturday. Matt has had his hands full with several cervical vertebrae that have fallen victim to the "Mother's Day Curse" in which no one bone seems to come out without first having to remove several others which have been deposited in close proximity.

Mac, Sara, Lauren and Craig have been doing wonderfully well educating this week's crew about best approaches to removing difficult fossils. Ian has been racking up miles of hiking in his attempts to map the stratigraphy of the Mother's Day Site, a time-consuming and hot job.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hail Storm Video

Here is some video of the hail storm that struck the Mother's Day camp on Saturday, July 5th. There is no audio, but you could imagine what marble-sized hail sounds like on the roof of a 12-passenger van. The tents you see are those of Ian, Craig and Mackenzie. Everything survived.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


Chicken curry, bison marinara, gumbo and beef tips sound like menu items from a fusion restaurant in New York or San Francisco, but they are in fact the menu items from our first few days with Pat Monaco, our field cook for two weeks this season.

Pat has been doing this for a couple of decades, traveling all over the country to serve meals for hungry geologists and paleontologists. In her "free time" she works on oil and gas pipelines doing fossil mitigation...that is looking through the trenches dug by pipeline crews to determine if there are any noteworthy fossils in the path of these major undertakings. It goes without saying, but she is a force of nature and she has won over all of our crew with her sense of humor and her culinary preparations.

No pork-n-beans or SPAM for the next week, thank goodness.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Message from Lauren Scallon

Howdy from Montana! Mom, I’m sorry I didn’t call you sooner. Yes, I am still alive, have bought a knife, shot a gun and discovered a handful of bones! To my dear husband Aaron, I miss you and please keep feeding my cats (and please don’t shave them as you had previously threatened before I left). Big hello to all my volunteers at the Cincinnati Museum Center!! Everyone should put the Dinosaur Field School on their list of must dos. We have had a blast, all the while uncovering dinosaur bones that have not seen the light of day in over 130 Million Years! – Lauren Scallon, Administrative Assistant, Volunteer Services, Cincinnati Museum Center

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Today marks the official beginning to Dinosaur Field School with the arrival of our first group of aspiring paleontologists. Mark and Kevin from Cincinnati arrived at the airport in one piece, while Russ, Sandy and Matt met us at the YBRA Lodge this afternoon. Everyone is settling into their cabins as I type this.

Dr. Storrs, Mac, Sara and Ian are prospecting on the Taylor Ranch near Edgar, MT. This is a prime Cloverly locality with the promise of many good finds to come. Today was their first opportunity to see it in person, and the cooperation of the ranch owner is testament to the quality program that Dr. Storrs and the other scientific staff at Cincinnati Museum Center have put together over the last decade. Craig and Lauren accompanied me into Billings today and our getting spoiled with their second showers at the YBRA in as many days.

We have opened the site, and wouldn't you know it, the fossils are just begging to be unearthed. Several nice limb bones and vertebrae have already shown themselves, onw of which is shwing an interesting pathology...perhaps a cancerous growth...but we won't know more until we get it out.

July 4th was a wonderful day in the Bighorn Basin, capped off by a cookout in Powell, Wyoming at the home of Winston and Beryl Churchill. This cookout traces it's roots to the 1920's, and all geologists and paleontologists in the Basin have an open invitation to attend. Nearly 70 people were in attendance this year, hailing from the Univ. of Florida, Johns Hopkins, the Smithsonian, the Univ. of Washington, the Univ. of Michigan and others. Many thanks the the Churchills for their wonderful hospitality.

July 4th also brought us Pat Monaco. For those of you who have read about our campsite food (beans, spam, spaghetti, etc.), Pat is the answer to our culinary prayers. Her first meal for us on July 5th was chicken curry with brown rice, vegetables and mango chutney. Tonight is supposed to bring with it buffalo marinara. Yummy! Pat is also a great conversation starter in camp. I've never heard any of our crew laugh so hard...

July 5th was a brief work day, followed by lunch at Bogart's in Red Lodge (you have to try the wheat crust pizza), and showers. Throughout dinner we watched a storm come from the northwest. As soon as dishes were washed, the skies opened up with marble-sized hail and about 10 minutes of gully-washing rain and 50-mile-per-hour winds. I'll get some images and perhaps a video posted soon.

Well, the satellite Internet is having issues with the big storm clouds rolling across the Beartooth Plateau, so I'll try to post more this evening.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Greetings from Montana!!!

Well, last year we all became a little spoiled with hotel rooms and wi-fi Internet each night during our trip out to Montana. This year, however, there was no such risk as we camped the whole way out and usually did not even have cell phone reception at night. I will include a synopsis of our journey here, and then every 3-5 days, should be able to add to the blog.

Day 1, June 29: We left Cincinnati, a little later than planned, but had beautiful weather for the entire day. Indiana and Illinois were just as flat as last year, but we were able to see first-hand some of the flood damage across both states, and particularly in Iowa where thousands of people have been forced from their homes and businesses. We ate dinner in Iowa City, home of the U. of Iowa, and the damage was profound. We camped in Rock Creek State Park just north of Kellogg. It was a beautiful park with great camping facilities...I highly recommend it. Remember to ask the rangers about a discount for student groups...

Day 2, June 30: Up and at 'em at 6:00 a.m. and on the road by 7:00. A quick breakfast at McDonald's and on the road again. Another beautiful day for traveling. We bypassed our annual stop at Cabela's and the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota in order to make better distance for the day. We ended up at The Badlands National Park and camped in the middle of bison country. We have some great photos of our encounter from the car, but did not get photos from camp on the morning of Day 3 when the bison were within 200 yards of our tents.

Day 3, July 1: Up at 5:00 a.m. for one of the most gorgeous sunrises imaginable. We were supposed to be up at 6, but some of our phones are having problems deciding whether we're in Mountain Time or Central Time. On the road by 6:30 and a stop for breakfast in the world's largest tourist trap, Wall Drug. The food was great, and Lauren, Ian, Mac and Sara all contributed to the revenue of the local knife seller. We made great time and ended up at the Mother's Day Site in Montana by 5:00 p.m., just in time for our first wind/rain/lightning storm of the season. No injuries to our crew, but two tents did receive some moderate damage (sorry Ian and Craig). Repairs were made quickly and Sara started on making our first field-cooked meal of the season, Chicken Parmigiana. Believe it or not, it is possible to cook frozen chicken in the field. Dr. Storrs examined the quarry for any signs of damage or looting, and everything was just as we had left it last summer. After a typical Montana sunset (i.e., beautiful) we all settled down for our first night in the field.

Day 4, July 2: I'm typing to you from the YBRA right now. Lauren, Ian, Craig and I came over to pick up some of our gear from last year (and catch a quick shower) while Dr. Storrs, Mac and Sara headed off to meet with one of the locals who has arranged for us to do some prospecting on some ranches in the area. After I finish typing this up, it's back to the camp and haul gear up to the dig site. I will probably be able to add my next post on Sunday after picking up our first group from the airport. Until then....