Happy National Fossil Day 2021!

National Fossil Day poster for 2021 by the National Park Service.

Today is International Fossil Day! 

International Fossil Day  is an initiative by the International Paleontological Association and the National Park Service (National Fossil Day in the U.S.), the idea is to spread the interest in the life of the past and many different organisations and museums around the world host events or activities today. Of course we, the Time Scavengers team, have to participate in this, there can never be too much paleo-related fun! 

We want to celebrate IFD by showing off our team members’ favourite extinct species or individual fossils, some facts about the species or individual and why we picked them as our favourites.

Click here to visit the National Park Service website to learn more about National Fossil Day, and here to visit the International Palaeontological Association to learn more about International Fossil Day!

Linda

A fossil cave bear skeleton. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Most of my paleontology lectures during my undergrad took place in small rooms somewhere deep in the side wings of the institute building, on the edge of the paleontological collection/museum that is located within the institute. Whenever me and my friends were waiting for our professors to show up, we would stare and marvel at the exhibited specimens. I vividly remember walking into that area for the first time, it is dominated by a huge, mounted skeleton of an adult cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) and I was completely blown away by the sheer power it radiates. I didn’t care too much about the T. rex skull cast around the corner that most others found so fascinating. From that first day of paleo classes, having my own mounted cave bear skeleton has been on the top of my bucket list. U. spelaeus lived during the Pleistocene across both northern Asia and Europe and went extinct during the Last Glacial Maximum about 24,000 years ago. They are closely related to brown bears (Ursus arctos), the two species have a last common ancestor about 1.2 million years ago. Even though they were huge, powerful bears that were reaching 3.5m (11.5ft) when standing upright, with large teeth and fearsome claws, it’s currently thought that the majority of the western populations were eating an almost exclusively vegetarian diet! Recently, two very well preserved frozen cave bear carcasses have been discovered in two separate areas of thawing permafrost in Russia, an adult and a cub, both with almost all soft tissue present and intact. I’m already excited and looking forward to reading all the new research that will be done on these specimens!

Maggie 

Cast of U. anceps skull. Image credit: Wikipedia.

I worked at the Field Museum of Natural History during the summer of 2015 and that experience was what solidified my interest in paleontology. I worked with my supervisor on Eocene mammals from the western United States and had some of my first experiences doing large scientific outreach events during that summer. Because of that summer I will always have a soft spot for Uintatheres!

Uintatheres (U. anceps) lived during the Eocene in North America and were large browsers. These animals looked similar to rhinos but male U. anceps had six knob-shaped protrusions coming off of their skulls. Part of my experience working with these fossils was reorganizing the collections space that housed the skulls, they are incredibly heavy! I mentioned that U. anceps were browsers, but they also had long canine teeth that resemble the canines of saber tooth cats. These teeth may have been used as a defense mechanism but also may have played a role in how they plucked leaves from plants. While I don’t work on Eocene mammals now, Uintatheres will always be special to me for the role they played in getting me excited about paleontology and scientific outreach!

Whitney

Whitney next to Asteroceras stellare.

I cannot pick just one fossil to highlight right now, so here are two of my favorites! In 2016, I was studying in England and visited the Natural History Museum in London where I saw an incredible ammonite, Asteroceras stellare. Asteroceras was a large ammonite that lived during the Early Jurassic and whose shell reached nearly three feet in diameter. Asteroceras was a nektonic carnivore who might have fed on fish, crustaceans, and bivalves.

Whitney in front of an ichthyosaur!

My favorite vertebrate fossil is the Ichthyosaur. I loved visiting the Jurassic Coast in England and got to explore Lyme Regis, both the birthplace of Mary Anning and a town that had references to paleontology everywhere you looked. You can see ichthyosaur fossils in both the Lyme Regis Museum and the Natural History Museum in London and at the NHM, you can see some of the specimens that Mary Anning and her family had collected along the Jurassic Coast. Ichthyosaurs (Greek for “fish lizard”), are marine reptiles that lived during much of the Mesozoic and were thought to be one of the top aquatic predators of their time.

Mike

Mike in front of an American mastodon statue!

I have three favorite extinct species: the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), the dinosaur Parasaurolophus, and the chalicothere Moropus elatus. Mastodons are distant relatives of the elephants, and they seem to be overshadowed by the wooly mammoth. However, both lived in North America until the end of the Pleistocene epoch. I’ve always thought that Parasaurolophus was an elegant duck-billed dinosaur, and I’ve seen them featured in several movies in the Jurassic Park series. I think that chalicotheres are so bizarre! Distant relatives to horses, rhinos, and tapirs, imagine a big draft horse with giant claws instead of hooves! I’ve seen several skeletons of these over the years. Moropus elatus went extinct in the Miocene epoch.

Mike next to a Moropus elatus skeleton!
A statue of Parasaurolophus.

Alex

Like anyone in paleo would tell you I can’t pick one particular fossil organism as my favorite. Currently my favorite fossil organism is the “bear-dog” known as Amphicyon ingens which would have been a formidable predator during the Mid-Miocene. The cenozoic was a time for innovation in mammals and bear-dogs were the best of both worlds. All the stoic grandeur of a bear and all the cute charm of a dog, what more could you want? The picture shown was taken at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Amphicyon

Jonathan Jordan (Paleo Policy Podcast)

For me, the Mesozoic reigns supreme. However, my recent trip to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles gave me a greater appreciation for the Cenozoic era and mammalian evolution in general. While it may not be my favorite fossil ever, I was captivated by Panthera atrox’s look and the idea of an American Serengeti 340,000 to 11,000 years ago. Genetic analysis suggests with high likelihood that Panthera atrox is a close relative of the Eurasian Cave Lion (Panthera spelaea). After the Bering Strait land bridge was submerged by rising sea levels, Panthera atrox was isolated from its Eurasian relatives and became a distinct species that has been found as north as Alaska and as south as Mexico. Neat! Check out an image of Panthera atrox’s skull on the Smithsonian Learning Lab site!

Kristina

I’m fortunate to have worked on many different types of animals during my career, starting with dinosaurs, then moving to Devonian brachiopods and their encrusting organisms, and now working on much younger Pleistocene-aged animals that are still alive today. I mostly study biotic interactions, such as predation, so I thought I would share my favourite trace fossil (ichnotaxon), Caedichnus! Trace fossils are different than a body fossil because they show evidence (or traces) of an organism or its behaviour. In the case of Caedichnus, this trace fossil is created by a crab trying to break into the shell of a snail by peeling away at the shell opening (aperture) until it can reach the snail’s soft body. Imagine having a crab try to peel your shell back like an orange – scary! Caedichnus traces are useful for determining how many crabs were in an area, and identifying patterns of crab predation through space and time. I’m now using them to determine the impacts of climate change and human activity on crab fisheries since pre-human times.

Adriane

Like most of my colleagues above, it is incredibly hard for me to say which fossil is my favorite! So instead, I’ll talk about my favorite fossil group, the foraminifera. Foraminifera are single-celled protists that live in the surface ocean (planktic foraminifera) or in/on ocean sediments (benthic foraminifera). Planktic foraminifera are my favorites; they evolved about 175 million years ago, and still live in the global ocean today! One of the ways which we know about past climate states how the ocean behaved to such warming and cooling events of the geologic past is through analyzing the chemistry of fossil foraminifera shells, or tests! Foraminifera are also incredibly useful in studies of evolution, as they have a robust fossil record. Learn more about Foraminifera here!

Various planktic (surface-dwelling) foraminifera (marine plankton) species. Images are 60-100x.

What’s YOUR favourite extinct species? Let us know in the comments, maybe we will feature them in a future post!

Meet the Museum: Dino Parque Lourinhã

Linda and guest blogger David Kroeck,

During a recent field trip (August 2021), we visited the Dino Parque Lourinhã in western Portugal, approximately 50 km north of Lisbon. Dino Parque Lourinhã is open every day except on holidays and tickets currently cost 9,90 € for children, 13 € for adults, but you can get your tickets at a lower price if you book online [Fig 1].

Fig. 1: Entrance of the Dino Parque Lourinhã with Supersaurus lourinhanensis, a sauropod (long-necked dinosaur) named after the town of Lourinhã.

The park consists of a large outdoor area showcasing life sized dinosaur reconstructions, a small museum as well as an activities hall.

The main part of the park consists of an outdoor space, divided into four zones highlighting the terrestrial fauna of the Paleozoic, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. A fifth area (called sea monsters) displays a range of marine creatures from different periods, from Jurassic ammonites to Eocene manatees [Fig 2]. A large board near the entrance shows a geologic timescale, depicting the main transitional events and examples of typical fauna and flora for each period [Fig 3]. Five paths then wind through a dense pine forest, hiding even the largest dinosaurs surprisingly well until you stand right in front of them – you never know what lurks behind the next group of trees. The natural cover also provides shade on hot sunny days. Arrows give visitors a chance to walk through the zones in chronological order to experience the evolution of the prehistorical fauna.

Fig. 2: Liopleurodon, an ancient marine reptile belonging to a group called pliosaurs
Fig. 3: Panel showing the geological timescale, including typical fauna and flora and major events as well as the paleogeography.

All displays come with explanations in English, Portuguese, French and Spanish, giving a brief overview of each creature, where fossils have been found, when it lived, information about its diet and hunting strategies, and more. These signs also include pictures of the actual fossils that can be compared with the reconstruction.

The vast majority of reconstructions is rather up to date with the scientific literature; a large number of theropods is shown with a variety of feathers for example [Fig 4]. It is clear that such huge displays cannot be re-done with every new paper that is being published on a certain species, but overall, we found the scientific accuracy of the models impressive. This is certainly due to the very recent opening of the park in 2019. We highly recommend a visit to the park to see brand new dinosaur models. While dinosaurs are, of course, the main attraction of this place, you will also find reconstructions of many different prehistoric animals, such as invertebrates, amphibians, marine reptiles and pterosaurs. All reconstructions were made in dynamic poses, and this artistic choice makes them look alive – guaranteeing great photos [Fig 5]. In total there are more than 180 models.

Fig. 4: Velociraptor, a small, feathered theropod found in central Asia, belonging to a group called dromaeosaurids, also commonly known as ‘raptors’.
Fig. 5: Pterosaurs nesting in a tree in front of the Dino Parque.

For all the very young paleontologists the park has much to offer. Several mini-playgrounds are scattered throughout the exhibits and paleontology is presented in a child friendly manner with a diversity of educational activities and shows. There is for example a sand box in which a plesiosaur replica fossil is hidden so that playing children can excavate it themselves. We also noticed that the only stairs in the entire park are used to access a platform near the head of Supersaurus, a very large sauropod. The rest of the park uses slopes and is thus wheelchair accessible and lots of benches and picnic tables are distributed throughout the entire park so the next place to rest is never far away.

The museum focuses on the rich local dinosaur fauna found in the area, such as a nest of Lourinhanosaurus eggs with embryos inside, and Torvosaurus remains. The museum also explains the local geology and how the area looked like during the Jurassic; it was a meandering river/delta system located in the Lusitanian Basin. Both alluvial and marine fossils are abundant in the sedimentary rocks. More on the geological setting of this area will be covered in a separate blog post where we describe our own fossil hunting efforts in Portugal. The museum also provides an insight into paleontological excavation methods and hosts the preparators’ laboratory, so you can watch people work on newly discovered fossils in real time through a large window [Fig 6].

Fig. 6: Ongoing preparation in the live lab of unidentified sauropod vertebrae found in Lourinhã.

We received a little tour behind the scenes of the park and talked to the preparators who showed us their current projects and were excited to explain the implications of their latest finds. Since these were of course still unpublished, we had to promise to keep everything secret and thus can’t talk about it. You’ll have to keep an eye out for publications on fossils from that area, it’s exciting stuff! Taped to the window to the preparators’ lab was a little poster saying the preparators accept (unpaid) interns/volunteers and people who are looking for thesis projects, so if you are curious about the topic, and excited about learning how to prepare dinosaur or other fossil material, you can apply for an internship there [Fig 7]. Our tour behind the scenes also included very interesting conversations with some of the people who worked on the life-sized dinosaur reconstructions. We got to observe their work for a little bit: they were in the process of creating a copy of a Torvosaurus gurneyi skull replica [Fig 8].

Fig. 7: Information poster for people interested in short or long-term training in preparation techniques, including theses and Erasmus+ mobilities.
Fig. 8: Left: Skull of Torvosaurus, the largest theropod of Europe; right: Preparator working on a mold of the Torvosaurus skull to create a copy of it.

Even without the tour behind the scenes the Dino Parque is definitely worth a visit. Here are some additional impressions of our visit:

Fig. 9 Explorer’s tent with, among other things, geological maps of the area, a poster displaying important dinosaurs from Europe and a globe showing, quite accurately, how the Earth looked like in the Upper Jurassic.
Fig. 10: Supersaurus with two small pterosaurs on its neck. With 45 m length, this model is the largest of the Dino Parque.
Fig. 11: Triceratops stealing Linda’s hat.
Fig. 12: Two Deinonychus stalking their prey. Like their Asian relatives Velociraptor, the North American Deinonychus belonged to the dromaeosaurids (‘raptors’).
Fig. 13: David and the large pterosaur Geosternbergia, falsely labeled Pteranodon (to which it was originally assigned)
Fig. 14: Triceratops skull.
Fig. 15: Lourinhasaurus, a sauropod named after the town of Lourinhã. Linda as a scale.
Fig. 16: Allosaurus with its prey, a stegosaurus. Notice the two juvenile Allosaurus in the bottom part.
Fig. 17: A happy Ankylosaur, an armored-skinned dinosaur.
Fig. 18: Tanystropheus, a long necked aquatic reptile from the Triassic in Europe and Asia. In the background you can see the ancient crocodile Sarcosuchus, a Tyrannosaurus rex and an Ankylosaurus.
Fig. 19: Linda and David unimpressed by the Dilophosaurus’ attempt to threaten them.

What do a volcano, a lake and shiny beetles have to do with each other? Nothing? Think again!

Linda and Michaela here – when we were undergraduate students, we had to do a four week internship as part of our degree. Learning a new skill beyond the university’s coursework is more fun when you get to get your hands dirty and spend time outdoors, preferably lots of it.  A perfect way to do so is to do an internship at a paleontological excavation. Luckily, we both got accepted at the same place and thus, spent a month excavating fossils at the eocene Eckfelder Maar in the western German Eifel mountain range (Fig 1). 

Fig 1: Location of the Eckfelder Maar in the Western German EIfel mountain range. Illustration by Michaela Falkenroth.

The Eocene is a geological epoch ranging from 56 to about 33 million years ago. Back then, a greenhouse effect had heated up central Europe and the world. Tapir relatives and tiny horses roamed (sub-)tropical forests, crocodiles stalked marsupials at lakeshores, small primates climbed palm trees. These are not the organisms and ecosystems associated with cold and rainy Germany today! But this is what it looked like, when the Eckfelder Maar came to life with a bang. An event that should change the rainforest and the lives of German paleontologists alike.

A maar is a volcano, although at first glance, it doesn’t look like one – there is no lava, no ash, not even a mountain. It resembles a volcano so little that early descriptions deemed maars the result of ‘cold eruptions’, which is wrong but relatable.

Maars usually present themselves as perfectly circular. The water-filled craters are the result of the sudden and violent evaporation of cold groundwater that came in contact with hot magma. The explosion tears a pointy, steep-sided hole into the landscape and is usually a singular event, at least in that exact location. At first, the crater is belted by a ring of debris that was thrown out by the force of the explosion. This wall, however, becomes eroded by wind and rain and, as the crater slowly fills up with rain and groundwater, no direct sign of the volcanic activity is left (Fig 2). An eruption like this is called a phreatomagmatic eruption.

Fig 2: The formation of a maar lake in 6 simple steps, all you need is groundwater and piping hot, rising magma. Illustration by Michaela Falkenroth.

The Eifel area, where the Eckfelder Maar is located, is the international type locality that coined the term ‘maar’. Over 75 of these round craters are speckled throughout the landscape and often referred to as the “eyes of the Eifel” because of the round shape and blue colour of the lakes. Over time a maar lake is destined to fill completely with sediment and eventually dry up. The Eckfelder Maar is 44.3 Million years old and hence much older than the others in this area, which formed between 500.000 and 11.000 years ago. Even of the younger maars only 9 still host a lake today, the Eckfelder Maar lake has long dried up. Initially, the eruption blasted a 1000 m wide and up to 210 m deep crater into the surrounding rocks. The bottom of the crater was quickly filled with a layer of debris. After the dust had settled and the lake had formed, it became quiet. For 250,000 years layer upon layer of clay, each less than a millimetre thick, accumulated at the lake floor and slowly but surely filled it up.

Fig 3: The excavation location is covered with a plastic tent to protect the interns (but more importantly the fossils!) from the summer heat.

For the majority of its existence the lake was strictly divided into two layers: a lower, mineral-rich and oxygen-depleted part and an oxygen-rich upper part. The density difference between the two water bodies inhibited mixing and thus kept the lake floor a life-hostile environment. What is bad for sediment-dwelling organisms is good for paleontologists – the oxygen poor lake bottom served as a preservation chamber for all kinds of organisms.

Due to the steep crater being located in a (sub-)tropical, species rich forest, many organisms ended up on the bottom of the lake. In addition to (semi-)aquatic creatures such as crocodiles, turtles and fish that spent at least part of their lives in the lake, large amounts of plant fragments fell into the lake and sank to the lake floor. Leaves and leaf fragments are among the most common finds in this lagerstätte, but pollen, pieces of bark, twigs, fruits and the occasional flower have also been discovered. Especially flowers are very valuable finds, since – in cases of exceptional preservation – they can allow the extraction of pollen. In this case the scientists have proof that a certain species of plant produces a certain type of pollen and can thus confidently identify pollen found elsewhere. Plant fragments are found so commonly, that only rare and exceptionally well preserved or otherwise special finds are being collected, such as fruits, flowers, and leaves with damages suspected to be caused by insect herbivory. Other less valuable finds are given to visitors who come by to learn about the excavation. 

Fig 4: During the excavation we usually sat on wooden blocks while splitting slabs of the sediment hoping to find a shiny jewel beetle or a winged ant inside.

In addition to plant material, insect fossils are recovered in large numbers. Honey bees, ants, termites, flies, wasps, grasshoppers, lice, dragonflies and others are found at the Eckfelder Maar. Among these, beetles are the most common find, as their comparatively high weight and drop-shaped bodies sink quickly. Lighter built creatures, like a dragonfly, tend to float on the surface of the lake and decompose or end up as someone’s dinner. Sometimes the attentive student spots a tiny, metallic blue or green shimmer among the sediment. This is the moment when you know you have encountered one of the most spectacular insect finds. The gemstone-like jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) are – even as fossils – colourful and shiny. The jewel beetles’ colouration is not caused by pigments, but by the microstructure of their wings, which can be preserved much easier than pigments, so they still look as fabulous as they did 44 million years ago.

Plant and invertebrate finds are usually very small, so a hand lens is a crucial tool, just as the dull knife we used to split the soft, wet sediment (Fig 4). If a slab of sediment contained a small fossil, we removed as much of the surrounding material as possible without damaging the find, then placed it in a plastic container and submerged the fossil in glycerin to keep it moist (Fig 5). Since the water content of the sediment is very high, a sudden change of conditions such as drying out of the fossil would lead to irreversible damages.

Fig 5: Tray with small finds of a single day. These include beetles, a snail, unidentified unarticulated bones, leaves and a coprolite.

Vertebrate fossils tend to be larger, but are much rarer. Just as today there are fewer vertebrates than ants, flies or beetles around in most ecosystems. Often, you only find a single bone or a fish scale. Every once in a while, the steep crater walls caused sediment to slide into the lake in one big gush, called a turbiditic current, destroying everything in its path on the bottom of the lake. These turbidites often contain fragmented skeletons and single bones, but are also useful features as they can function as marker horizons and thus help with the stratigraphical indexing of fossils. Finds are labelled for example ‘15’ meaning this fossil was collected from a layer 15 cm below marker horizon number 4. This is important because it later on allows to understand the fossil assemblages in the correct sequence. The exact location of all vertebrate finds is also documented using a theodolite, a device that measures the angles between points. If you place the theodolite on a fixed position, then measure the angles from there to reference points and then to a special marker held on top of the fossil (Fig 6), the exact location can be calculated and represented 3-dimensionally later. If you do find a complete skeleton unaffected by turbiditic currents, they are often in pristine condition, as due to the anoxic, inhospitable environment at the bottom of the paleo-lake no bioturbation or scavenging has affected them.

Fig 6: Measuring the location of a vertebrate fossil in 3D. A theodolite measures the angle to the reflector placed on top of the fossil, as seen in the image. Linda adjusts the angle of the reflector so it points directly at the theodolite (not within the frame) while Michaela ensures the reflector remains in the correct position.

The Eckfelder Maar is known for its well preserved horses and horse relatives (family Equidae). Several complete skeletons of different early equid species have been discovered there. The most spectacular specimen discovered there so far was a pregnant mare and both the fetus and parts of the placenta have been preserved and studied extensively. These early horse relatives had more toes than modern horses and were only the size of a dog. 

The largest complete vertebrate fossil found during our internship was a large basal ray-finned fish (family Amiidae). Since it was too large to be handled in the field, it was first coated in glue, covered in plastic foil and plaster, then lifted together with a large chunk of the surrounding rock to be carefully excavated later on in the lab (Fig 7). 

Fig 7: Larger finds such as this complete fish require more elaborate excavation techniques and are thus covered in plaster and lifted with the entire block of sediment to be slowly excavated in the lab by a geological preparator.

One of the smaller, but more exciting finds was a complete skeleton of a young bird (Fig 8). Fossil birds are rare in these kinds of deposits, since birds don’t tend to slip and fall into a lake, like it could happen to a clumsy horse on a slippery lakeshore. The specimen appeared to be a nestling, since the preserved feathers looked very fluffy. We hypothesized that it must have fallen out of its nest directly into the lake. 

Fig 8: Unidentified bird (beak pointing downwards) found during the internship. Even without any additional treatment, details such as the shape of the body, feathers, the eyes and other soft tissues can be identified easily just seconds after being exposed, due to the excellent preservation at this lagerstätte.

It’s fossils like these, preserved under exceptional circumstances, that allow us to reconstruct and understand ecosystems that are long gone. The Eckfelder Maar is a little slice of Eocene, frozen in time, waiting to be uncovered.

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!

Linda Dämmer, Geologist and Paleoclimate Proxy Developer

The great thing about science is that there is always something new to discover, always something new to try, always a new question to answer, always a new challenge. If you’re curious enough, there will always be ways to improve our understanding of how the world works. And as a scientist you’re free to explore all these avenues. Even though every single scientist is only looking at a tiny fraction of everything there is to discover, we still all contribute to the same, big, never ending puzzle. And I find that strangely appealing.

Inspecting a shallow marine site near an active submarine volcanic vent field on the Aeolian island of Panarea, Italy in May of 2017 (Mount Stromboli erupting in the background). Photo by Caitlyn Witkowski (NIOZ/Utrecht University).

By developing and improving methods for paleoclimatologists and paleoceanographers my research helps other scientists understand how the complex system that is our planet’s climate developed and changed over time and reacted to changing parameters in the past. Only if we understand this well enough we will be able to predict reliably how the climate system will be behave in the future.

The main problem we, as geoscientists, have with learning about the climate of the past is that we can’t go back in time to directly measure the temperature or the composition of the atmosphere and oceans (unfortunately our colleagues who are working on time travel are way behind their schedule, but they say it doesn’t matter 😉 ). And unless you’re only interested in the last few centuries, nobody has left us their notes in a neat lab book with all the information we are looking for listed up in a table. Therefore, we have to look at the next best thing: ‘nature’s lab book’, natural records of past environmental conditions. For example we can use ice cores, tree rings, sediment cores, corals and other fossils to learn about the past. But what exactly do we look for in these natural archives? Which particles, organisms, compounds, molecules or minerals have stored valuable information about, for example, temperature, sea water salinity, or composition of the atmosphere? And how do we unlock these data? That is what I’m working on. I’m trying to connect the environmental conditions with the resulting signals in the natural records that we find all over the world.

A benthic foraminifera (Amphistegina lessonii) up close. The scale bar here is 200 microns (1 micron = one millionth of a meter). The bright green, fluorescent part of the shell grew during an experiment that included a fluorescent dye. This way we can tell which areas of the shell are relevant for our measurements.

I do most of my work on living foraminifera (unicellular organisms with a carbonate shell) and the ratio of different elements in their shells. I use benthic (bottom dwelling) foraminifera and keep them under a range of different controlled conditions in the lab to improve our understanding of how environmental signals can be found in their shells.

In addition to this I also do field studies, where I sample foraminifera and collect environmental data from different locations and compare them to the relationships that were previously found in the laboratory settings. This means I get to travel a lot and use a wide range of sampling methods. I get some of my samples from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, more than 3 km (≈1.9 miles) below the surface, by taking sediment cores with a research vessel. I crawl through the mud of the intertidal zones along the Dutch Wadden Sea coast to collect living benthic foraminifera from the mud surface by scraping off the top layers of the sediment. I snorkel through the acidified ocean around the volcanoes of the Aeolian Islands in southern Italy to find species that survive these harsh conditions. I scuba dive in the Caribbean Sea to collect living planktic foraminifera one by one using a glass jar. I take hundreds of cubic meters of sea water during scientific cruises to filter out all the plankton in there and then spend hours and hours staring through a microscope to identify all the tiny species.

I’m currently trying to develop a new proxy that will help us learn more about the ocean pH and the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration of the past. To do so, a graduate student and I are using tropical benthic foraminifera. We keep the foraminifera under several different CO2 levels, which represent today’s as well as pre-industrial conditions and concentrations that are expected for the next century.

In addition to that, I’m now calibrating an already existing proxy (the ratio of magnesium (Mg) to calcium (Ca) in carbonates, which correlates well with temperature) to a species of oysters. This method has not been applied to these oysters yet. Doing this will improve the paleoceanographers’ ‘toolbox’ for climate reconstruction in intertidal (the area at a beach between low and high tides) settings, where the most commonly used proxies can’t be applied, since they are based on planktic foraminifera and most of them live in the open ocean, far away from the coast.

Linda is a PhD student at the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in the Department of Ocean Systems; Utrecht University, Faculty of Geosciences, Department of Stratigraphy & Paleontology. To learn more about Linda and her work, visit the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research New Generation of Foraminiferal Proxies website.