Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Ghost Ranch

Saturday afternoon, we began our drive to Ghost Ranch. We stopped in Gallup to pick up some mosquito nets at Wal-Mart, because we'd been told the gnats were particularly bad up there. The Gallup Wal-Mart turned out to be the Most Crowded Wal-Mart Ever, and this was one of the delays that contributed to it taking something like 8 hours to get to northern New Mexico. Another delay was the Best Mexican Food Ever in Cuba, NM.
We arrived in Ghost Ranch long after dark and were introduced to the world-famous paleontologists that we'd be working with for the weekend. I'll stick to my custom of not mentioning names here, but I will say that despite recently being featured in a movie about dinosaurs, the two movie stars were extremely nice and friendly and down-to-earth. That night we camped under the stars in the New Mexico mountains, and I saw two shooting stars before I fell asleep.
The next morning we went to work in one of the Ghost Ranch quarries. The density of bones is so great in these bone beds that we worked through the sediment systematically, choosing an area and taking half an inch at a time off the top, brushing away the loose dirt and taking care of any bones that appeared. These were mostly fragments, bits of somebody's long-lost rib or toe bone, but occasionally we would find whole bones, which would be carefully drizzled with consolidant before being lifted out with their surrounding sediment. Here is a metatarsal (long foot bone) of a dinosaur or one of its relatives, next to an unidentified bone:
Despite finding bone every few minutes, I found the process slightly frustrating. The bones were mostly very small (I found one complete vertebra no larger than the nail on my pinky finger) and I got tired of having to stop digging all the time to painstakingly piece something together and lift it out without breaking it more. Too many bones!
It was a beautiful place to work, though, with a blue resevoir filling a dammed river valley and high sandstone cliffs in the distance. Here's a picture of the men working in another section of the bone bed:
And the women, who all happened to be working in the upper section:
Here is our quarry from the distance:
And a picture of me, for people who want to see that sort of thing:
It was very gnatty. Long stretches would go by during which the sun beat down extremely hot, and I was wearing two shirts so the gnats couldn't bite me, but they would swarm noisily around my head and walk across my face, tickling me. Then every once in a while a breeze would come up and it would be blissfully cool and gnat-free for a few moments.
Here is a picture of us at work. I think this is a good depiction of what paleontologists actually do:
Lots of hunching over meticulously scraping at rock in the blazing sun.
At the end of the day, I checked out my gnat bites… they were mostly concentrated right where my socks ended.
There was a huge discrepancy in who was getting bitten and how it affected them. I might have had 20 or 30 bites and they didn't itch. Katie counted 215 bites on her (no, I am not kidding) and they've been driving her crazy with itchiness. The gnats bit her through her clothing everywhere. Right now she is covered in calamine lotion. Ironically, the major ingredient in the lotion is bentonite, which is the clay that forms the mudstone hills in the badlands we've been exploring. Perhaps we should have had her simply roll in the mud.
That evening we prepared the fossils we'd found, scraping the matrix (material they were imbedded in) off and gluing any broken bits together. Here are the fossils I found (note that the only significant part of this picture is the fossils themselves, just the fossils):
Then we played Mario Kart and Guitar Hero. But the last people to bed were a couple of our team who stayed up into the wee hours discussing the minutiae of an aetosaur specimen that the museum had in their collection there. Scientists!
The next morning we worked in the quarry a bit more. I finally found some larger bones, a humerus and some more metatarsals. See if you can spot all four bones in this picture:
And we had a quiet drive back to Arizona. I'm still trying to catch up on my sleep.HHH


Weary Hag said...

"Perhaps we should have had her simply roll in the mud" ... it's early in the morning so the visual of this didn't hit me till I nearly finished reading the whole thing. You're just such a corker.

As sensitive as my skin is, you could have left me out there at Ghost Ranch for about a week and returned to dig up MY bones. This gnat story has truly made me itch - from afar! - in a big way!

The photo-game you provided ... the one where we could find the four bones ourselves? I think I spotted a awlooksdasameatarsis in there. Swear.

Lovin the picture of my pal. You really look like you're in your element, Jo.

Oh yes. By the way, I spent a night in Gallup too. With a migraine. Staying in an awful fleabag motel. Wait. Nevermind, that was Santa Rosa - where the entire town wreaked of curry.

You be careful out there. There's evidence that people and things have DIED out there. No, really.

Miss ya.

Mom said...

I certainly want to see that sort of thing. You look wonderful to me!

Things have settled down here and I've finally had a chance to read your whole blog.

Your writing is excellent, I can even understand most of the technical "stuff," and your insight makes me laugh.

I love and miss you (is this too embarassing to be sharing on a blog?). Mom

J said...

Hi Mom!

While we were out there working there was a work crew who came to clear away some of the "overburden," or fossil-less rock above the bone bed. This was while I was clearing away the sediment from the humerus I found. One of the paleontologists said, "This is our second work crew," then, "The first one never made it out alive. Hey, did you guys take human anatomy yet?" We said no. "Well, then, that's a phytosaur humerus you've got there. Keep digging!"

Weary Hag said...

I love trying to keep up with u on fb! Stay safe...stay wrll,friend.