Day 7: Noteworthy

Camp has divided into two tracks: paleontology and geological mapping. Guess which one I took.

 The paleo group taking a lunch break under the shade of a juniper tree. Photo courtesy of Win McLaughlin.

The paleo group taking a lunch break under the shade of a juniper tree. Photo courtesy of Win McLaughlin.

It is a good day that starts out with John Williams' "Jurassic Park" theme. Yes: I've kept that one in my back pocket for just such an occasion as heading out for paleontological field work. (Literally: the music is stored on every mobile device I own.)

Two items stick out on the first day of what is essentially a mini expedition. The first is how field notes are standardized. The second is the importance of preparatory surveying.

Paleontology is an historical science and historical sciences notoriously have a repeatability problem. (The problem is notorious in philosophical circles, at least.) The paleontologist's field notebook seems to be designed specifically to counter that problem by allowing future researchers to retrace the steps taken during an expedition, even if the outcomes--i.e., fossil discovery and collection--can't be replicated. Field notes include two elements: specimen entries and narratives.

Specimen entries give information about what we've found. This information includes:

  • Specimen number
  • Taxon
  • Skeletal elements
  • GPS coordinates
  • Stratigraphy
  • Lithology
  • Location description

Most of the information included (coordinates, stratigraphy, lithology, location description) seems designed to help future researchers find precisely where the paleontologist pulled a given fossil out of the ground. That reading is supported by our maintenance of a detailed narrative of each day's activities. I never thought anyone would care where or when I shoved a sandwich into my face, but here we are.

On the one hand, I know that this is meant to help me more than anyone else: when I come back tomorrow to collect material I couldn't collect today, I won't have to rely on my admittedly spotty memory. On the other hand, I'm reminded of Mark Norrell's attempt to retrace Roy Chapman Andrews' expedition to Mongolia for the American Museum of Natural History--maybe we should all just hope that a future paleontologist will return to do a better job of our work than we're doing ourselves.

Not that we aren't trying to do the best job we can right now. Unfortunately, the "best job" requires a lot of preparatory scouting and stratigraphic description and relatively little upfront fossil collecting. Yes, it's important: without the context of stratigraphy, we can't do things like biostratigraphic dating. But I can't help but feel like I'm being tested every time I see a fossil that I don't yet have enough information to collect.

And there are plenty of fossils, too. Logan Butte is literally covered with them. I had to make a conscious decision to stop looking after only a couple of hours. But that prohibition goes out the window after we get the rest of our stratigraphic column sorted out tomorrow morning.