The second week of Paleontology was primarily spent in the field: for four of the six class days this week, we spent the entire day in the field, using what we learned in the previous week to find and identify fossils. Though a majority of the time was spent prospecting, we also learned the methods fossil hunters use to excavate and sieve, and even had the exciting opportunity to practice them!
While in the field, paleontological teams spend the majority of their time prospecting. Prospecting is paramount to a team’s success, and a necessary first step: before one can successfully excavate or sieve, you must find an area or specimen you are interested in! Doing so is not always easy, and prospecting requires great diligence and patience, but precisely for that reason it is that much more rewarding when you are met with a great fossil discovery! When a team prospects, the members spread out in the specified area of interest and spend their time combing the ground with their eyes (and hands!) for fossils. Because fossils come in all shapes and sizes, some can be minuscule, either because they are remnants from small mammals or because they have been broken into smaller pieces. As such, sometimes fossil hunters will sit or even lay on the ground to get a closer and more intensive view of the area they are investigating!
When a team or member has found a fossil specimen they want to collect that is still in situ, they must be very careful when excavating it. Rather than trying to extract the specimen precisely from the surrounding sediment, a portion of the area is extracted with the fossil to ensure it is not damaged during the procedure. Because the process is handled with painstaking care, it can be lengthy, but as our students discovered, there is a pleasure that comes from interacting with these ancient and important fossils with such intimacy! The photos below outline the excavating process which for us included a large hippo mandible and long bones with still intact articulating ends.
Following excavation, the fossils, encased in their sturdy plaster jackets and the surrounding sediment, are brought to the fossil preparation labs, where world-class preparators will clear off the matrix around the fossils (the same process our students had the opportunity to try their hands at!). In fact, after our days in the field, the students loved preparing fossils so much that they returned during some of their spare time to continue clearing matrix!
Stay tuned for the next blog, where we will discuss the students last two days in the field, where they prospected, and after some great finds, sieved the surrounding area to hopefully find some missing pieces!