Valentia Island Tetrapod Trackway: one of the earliest traces of vertebrates on land

Linda here –

Due to the global pandemic, much of the field work in almost all geoscience disciplines has come to a halt. While this means we cannot travel to discover new sites, collect new samples or do field experiments, this leaves us lots of time to commemorate all the exciting field experiences we’ve had in recent years. 

Here I would like to introduce you to a small, but very important outcrop I visited a few years ago: the tetrapod trackway on Valentia Island (Co. Kerry, Ireland). 

Valentia Island is a fairly small island in the eastern North Atlantic, just off the western coast of Ireland, it is in fact one of the westernmost points of the entire country. The outcrop itself is located on the northern coast of Valentia Island, and when I say on the coast, I don’t mean near the coast, I mean the literal edge of the island, partially under water.

Panorama view of the coast, the photo was taken while standing on top of the outcrop, looking towards the east, the island in the background is Beginish Island.

 

The outcrop consists of Middle Devonian sandstones and slate called the Valentia Slate Formation. Life in the Devonian was very different from today, the first ammonites had just appeared, trilobites were common. Fish diversity was at an all time high, placoderms roamed the oceans.

Two parallel rows of small, irregular shaped impressions are among the oldest evidence for vertebrates on land that we currently know of, these fossil tracks are estimated to be approximately 385 million years old!

On land, the first plants developed proper roots, leaves and seeds, by the end of the Devonian forests were widespread. And the tetrapods made their first steps on land, too. 

A few of these very early steps have been recorded by the muddy sediments that later became the Valentia Slate Formation. 

Unfortunately these imprints are quite rough, the shapes are irregular and no digits can be identified. Still, researchers have been able to determine that this creature must have been able to support its own weight on its four legs, because no body or tail drag marks are visible, it was clearly walking, not crawling or swimming. It’s approximate body length was 0.5-1m (20-40 inch) and its hands were probably smaller than its feet (Stössel et al. 2016). 

Shoe for scale.

A reconstruction of the tetrapod that has left these tracks for us to find is depicted on a sign on a path leading to this publicly accessible outcrop. 

The outcrop is an Irish National Heritage Area, though it is threatened by erosion. When I visited, the tracks were actually filled with sea water and every once in a while a wave would wash over the outcrop. Fortunately, recently two more sites within the same formation have been discovered that contain very similar tracks and thus will aid us in our understanding of these very early tetrapods.

Reference: 

Stössel, I., Williams, E.A., and Higgs K. (2016) Ichnology and depositional environment of the Middle Devonian Valentia Island tetrapod trackways, south-west Ireland. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol., 462, pp. 16-40

Field Camp: An Introduction & Personal Experiences

In geology, fieldwork includes the direct observation, description, and sampling (or additional analyses) of rock outcrops, rock exposures, other geological features, and landscapes in their natural environment. To prepare geoscientists for field work, undergraduate geoscience students are often required to take field camp. Field camp can be an important component of geological studies, offering opportunities for collecting data and fine – tuning observation and mapping skills that students may be introduced to in the lab. While some argue that field camp is a critical part of an undergraduate geology degree, field camp can be quite exclusionary and should not be a requirement for a degree. That being said, there are numerous advantages and challenges of partaking in field camp or conducting field work. Here, we share our perspectives on field camp and our experiences, as well as share some ideas about how you can win money to attend field camp. 

Basics of Attending Field Camp

Field camp provides an opportunity to get hands-on experiences in sample/specimen collection and develop mapping skills. Essentially, it is a practical application of all of the coursework you have taken as a geoscience student .

Some field programs connect with other institutional programs at a shared ‘base camp’. This promotes networking and relationships to be built outside of your field cohort. For example, Jen was based at the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association and a field camp from Houston was also residing there during the summer. Although work was largely separate, we ate meals together and shared common facilities. Some field camp programs accept external applicants, which promotes meeting new peers and experiencing the field together.  

Field course requirements can vary greatly by program and in some cases, field courses are not a requirement of the program. Some programs require six credit hours in field work which may be held over a six week long field camp. Additionally, some field camps and courses have prerequisites, which could include more specialized courses such as sedimentology, stratigraphy, or structural geology. Another aspect to keep in mind is the cost of field camp. Some field courses are quite expensive and do not provide financial assistance. Some courses require you to get your own transportation to the base camp, which requires additional resources and logistical planning. As field courses are commonly six weeks, attendees must take off work reducing their income and available time. Other costs include any gear you must purchase to safely attend. 

In a lot of cases, universities and colleges may have some source of funding to help their students attend field camp. These funds are, in most cases, provided by alumni donations that help cover a large chunk, but not all, of the students’ field course expenses.

There are also a few scholarships and grants you can apply to to attend field camp. Here a few examples of such awards:

Personal Experiences

Whitney Lapic, attended as an undergraduate with Mount Holyoke College

Field camp was not offered at my undergraduate institution, Mount Holyoke College. My program did offer a class which was based on a trip to Death Valley that was held over spring break every other year, but this was the closest thing we had to a field course. At the time, I did not think that seeking out a field camp would be worthwhile as I was not going into a subdiscipline that was field work intensive. That being said, I still wanted to gain field experience – and I believed that the experience was a requirement for me to get into graduate school. 

My greatest concern for field work was being able to physically keep up with the group and I know that this fear, and the cost of field camp, greatly deterred me from attending. I was however, extremely lucky to have been accepted as an exchange student at the University of Kent in Canterbury, U.K. for a semester and decided to take some time to create my own miniature field excursions while abroad. After plenty of research, I organized a series of trips to the nearby Gault Clay formation in Folkestone, which was a brief and inexpensive bus trip away. Here, I was able to work at my own pace (while trying to beat the tide) and gain experience in collecting, preparing, and identifying fossil specimens from start to finish. While this was by no means a replacement for a field course, it still introduced me to new challenges and allowed me to gain experience on my own time. It certainly helped that I was in a location of my choosing, so it was of significant interest to me. 

Linda Dämmer, attended as an undergraduate with University of Bonn (Germany)

I studied Geosciences at the University of Bonn (Germany). The system there works a bit differently from many US geology programmes: Almost all courses, with just a few exceptions, had a mandatory field work component. These field trips ranged from a few hours used to visit a little stream nearby and practice different methods to estimate the amount of water flowing down the stream per hour, to traveling abroad to spend 10-14 days practising geological mapping or learning about regional geological features. I’ve probably participated in close to 20 field trips during my undergraduate studies, I visited Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and Bulgaria during these excursions as well as many sites in Germany. Except for the far away field trips (Bulgaria and Spain) where we had to pay for our flights, these were generally fairly low cost, since the university covered the majority of the expenses, most of the time the students had to pay about 50€ (approx $60) or less as a contribution. There have been people who were unable to attend the mandatory field trip components of the programme, for a variety of reasons (for example pregnancies or disabilities), and they usually were able to instead do a different activity such as written assignments instead. In addition, for many courses more than one field trip option was offered, because taking an entire class on a field trip at the same time doesn’t work well. So based on interests, schedules and financial situation, everyone could often choose between different field trips, that would all count for the same course. I have learned so much during each field trip. Seeing geological/environmental features ‘in the wild’ has helped me tremendously to deepen my understanding of the processes involved and I’m very grateful for these experiences. But they also – and maybe even more so – helped me understand my physical boundaries and how far I can push myself, they helped me improve my organisational skills and made me a better team player. I think these are probably the real advantages of doing field trips, the actual content can probably also be learned in other ways. But the vast majority of the field trips also turned out to be lots of fun, even when you’re sitting in a tiny tent with two other students while it has been raining for the past 4 days and everything you own is completely wet and muddy, when you’re hiking through the mountains and your mapping partner is about 65% sure they’ve just heard what sounded like a wild boar behind you, or when you’re sweating and getting sunburned while trying to find your way back to the campsite in the spanish desert without any landmarks, there’s always something to laugh about and other people to help you out on when you think something too hard. Like that one time I managed to lose my field notebook at an outcrop and only noticed after a 90 minute hike to the next outcrop. I was already exhausted and really wasn’t looking forward to hiking back and forth again to get my notebook, but thanks to a friend volunteering to go with me, I managed to do it (that’s the day I learned to take a picture of every page of my notebook after every outcrop AND to save the pictures online as soon as possible).

I think it’s absolutely worth it, if you’re able to join field trips, I recommend you do it. 

I’d like to briefly discuss a different aspect about this though. All of the things I said are only true if you go with the right people. While I’ve not experienced too many negative situations during field trips myself, I’m aware that some people have not had a great time during field trips. For example, because the majority of geologists on this planet still consist of cis male people, who might not understand that menstruating or having to pee in the field can be a challenge for AFAB people, it might be difficult or embarrassing having to argue in front of the entire class that someone needs a break. Sometimes you also find out the hard way that the nice professor isn’t actually as nice as you thought when you have to spend 24h per day for an entire month with them instead of just attending their lecture for 2h every Tuesday morning. 

I’m still recommending everyone to join as many field trips as possible, but if you can, make sure there’s at least one person you already know and trust among the other participants. Having friends with you will make it a much better experience, in many ways.

Jen Bauer, attended as a graduate student with Ohio University 

I have an undergraduate degree in biological sciences and an earth science minor. The minor program did have a field component but it was only a week long trip to the Ozark area. This was  a nice precursor because I understood what a much longer version would entail. I completed my field camp during my MS program at Ohio University. It was my first summer and was run through Ohio University, so I didn’t have to apply for other programs. I could simply enroll in the course. At this time the course had two parts: (1) a two-week component that was focused near Athens, Ohio and in the nearby West Virginia mountains (this was meant to help us get accustomed with techniques in the field prior to being ‘released’ into the wild; and (2) a four-week component that was largely based at Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association. I completed this field course that summer and really enjoyed the experience at large. My biggest concern was being comfortable in the field and being able to keep up with my field partners. I trained regularly for a month in advance – cardio and weight training, which was certainly a little over the top. I had no trouble keeping up. I did not have the best field clothes due to not having money to purchase anything too expensive. This did not hinder me in the slightest. Since I went as a graduate student, my experience was a little different from those that attend as undergraduate students. I went in fully expecting full nights of rest and I worked hard so that I wouldn’t have to pull all nighters. I cannot function well on lack of sleep, let alone hike and map an area if I am exhausted. I made very conscious choices to be mindful of this. I still got my maps in on time and did very well in the course. My advice for folks heading to field camp would be to be confident in your abilities and know your weaknesses – you can’t be good at everything and it’s ok to lean on your field partner. Also, don’t forget to enjoy the experience. It’s a practical application of all of your knowledge up until that point. I had a lot of fun seeing structures and trying to infer them while drawing the maps. 

Maggie Limbeck, attended as a graduate student with the University of St. Andrews

My undergraduate institution (Allegheny College) did not require field camp for graduation because we were able to incorporate a lot of field trips/field work into our classes. All of my upper level courses either had weekend field trips around the area (Western Pennsylvania, Catskill Mountains in NY, West Virginia) or had multiple lab weeks that were designed around field work. We were also required to take a seminar course that had a week-long field trip to a further destination (my year went to Sapelo Island, GA), where we could really practice our geology skills as a capstone course. 

When I got to grad school, it was considered a deficiency that I had not been to field camp and I needed to go in order to graduate with my Master’s. I ended up going to Scotland for field camp and even though it was an international field camp it was priced similarly to attending one in the United States (read a previous post on Field Camp in Scotland). Because I was going to be doing field work in a chilly, wet climate I did spend a fair amount when purchasing a raincoat, rain pants, and boots to make certain I would stay dry and warm during long days in the rain. These purchases, while expensive, did keep me happy and dry as it rained for weeks while I was there! Going as a graduate student was an interesting experience because many of the other students bonded by staying up late working on their maps and/or going out to party – I on the other hand was working to make sure I could go to bed at a decent hour and be up early enough for breakfast and to make my lunch for the next day. Having an awareness of how you work best and function best is really beneficial because you are setting yourself up to be successful (and there are probably other students wanting to keep a similar schedule as you that you can work with!), but do make sure you do take advantage of some of these later nights, they are really help bond you to the other students and will make working with different groups of people a little easier. One other piece of advice: don’t be scared to speak to the instructor if you aren’t feeling well, are hurt, or need some adjustments made. We had a specific cooking group for those with dietary restrictions or preferences and those who were not feeling well for a day were given different activities to complete. It might be little things (in our case, my group hated the mustard that was being purchased for lunches!) but it’s important to talk to your instructor so you aren’t stuck in a situation that could potentially be dangerous for you!

Sarah Sheffield, attended as an undergraduate with Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute

I went to UNC Chapel Hill, which does require a field camp for their geosciences B.S., but did not offer one themselves. So I went to field camp at the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute. I had to pay for out of state tuition for two credits (it was a two week program), which was expensive, but I gained a lot from the program. I flew to Montana and met the other participants, many of whom I still talk to a decade (!!!) later.  This field camp was unusual for a geoscience degree, in that there was no mapping or structural component. However, I did learn skills such as: locating potential fossil sites; jacketing vertebrate specimens; and vertebrate fossil identification, among other things. I enjoyed my time and highly recommend it if you have the opportunity! The major downside to field camp was cost: the tuition was difficult to cover, but it wasn’t the only consideration. I did not have access to good field gear, which meant that my time in the field was not as comfortable as it could have been (e.g., my shoes were not really appropriate for strenuous field work; good boots are arguably one of the most important pieces of gear for a field scientist!). See if you can find used, quality gear on sites like eBay, Craigslist, etc.-sometimes you can find gems for really reasonable prices! 

My M.S. institution did not originally count this field camp as a field credit, due to the lack of mapping and structural geology components. However, the department chose to waive the requirement in the end in order to not have a graduate student in their undergraduate field camp. My Ph.D. institution simply required that I do field work during my Ph.D., which I did in Sardinia, Italy during my second year there. I only mention this because my field camp at BBPI may not count at other institutions as a traditional field camp credit, so you’ll want to check with your institution.  

As a paleontologist, I find that I did not need a full field camp to become a successful geologist. My research takes place in both the field and in museums, with more of an emphasis on museums. As I write this, I have been unable to do field work for a few years due to a severe ankle injury, so I am grateful that the geosciences field is becoming more broad, so that more folks who may not be able to do field work for many reasons can do so! 

Kristina Barclay attended as an undergraduate with the University of Alberta

I took my undergraduate degree in Paleontology at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). I was required to take 3 field classes (1st and 2nd year geology, 4th year paleontology), and another one of my classes included a field trip (4th year paleobotany). I also took an invertebrate zoology class at Bodega Marine Lab (UC Davis) as a grad student, but as I was already working/living at the lab, I didn’t have to spend any extra money (other than tuition), but other students had to pay for lodging/meals. The 1st and 2nd year geology field camps I took at the U of A were 2 – 3 weeks tours across Alberta and B.C., mostly consisting of mapping exercises in the Rocky Mountains. Our paleo field schools were within the city, so we could go home every day, which was nice after a day of digging in the snow/mud in April! For the 1st and 2nd year field schools, we stayed in hotels or cabins. At the time, a lot of the costs were funded by oil and gas companies, so there weren’t too many extra expenses incurred by the students (other than tuition). That said, field gear is expensive, and as a 1st year, buying expensive waterproof notebooks, rock hammers, hand lenses, sturdy hiking boots, and field clothes was a little hard on the budget! Although, many years later, I still own and use a lot of those things, so some were very useful investments if you’re going to continue to do field work.

One thing I’d say is that it’s not worth buying the really expensive field clothes or rain gear because one tumble on rocks or rogue branch, and they get shredded. Field gear doesn’t need to be pretty or brand-named – I buy $10 rain pants because I know I’ll destroy them anyway (and I’ve had one of those pairs last me 10 years). The other challenge was that I paired with two men for the trip (we were marked as groups and stayed in the same cabins). They were good friends of mine and I was fortunate enough to trust them, but as a smaller woman, keeping up with them and finding a private spot to “go” outside was a little bit of a challenge! Thankfully, there were usually spots with trees, but I’ve done a lot of fieldwork with men where there was no cover, so trust is key. I tend not to drink coffee when I’m in the field and just stick to water to minimize unnecessary trips to the bathroom. You don’t want to short-change yourself on water in the field, though, so just make sure you are open and honest with your group about your bathroom needs (menstruating folx, especially). Field camps can be tiring, cold, and a pile of work, but they are absolutely awesome experiences and a chance to visit some amazing, remote places. They also gave me the confidence and experience to be able to conduct and lead independent field work in grad school, which might not be necessary for everyone, but is an important part of my research. Make sure to take lots of pictures and notes (good note taking is so important) and enjoy the experience!