Friday, May 31, 2013

Hiking for Fossils

Fallen inukshuk. Shaded blue, just because.
Well, it’s been a pretty interesting week! On Tuesday, we were planning to stay inside due to the rain when an impromptu school dig tour showed up. Luckily, the dig itself was fine and the shale was good and dry for excavation underneath the top layer, but when the kids tried to leave, the bus got stuck! This has happened in previous years, but it was the first time it had occurred on one of my tours. Thankfully, a farmer who lived nearby pulled the bus out with his tractor and the group went on its way home.
Fish fin, with a pocketknife to indicate size.
We went to Pembina Valley Provincial Park on Wednesday for the first time this season. I’ve never been there before and the view at the top of the hills is pretty nice, although you won’t be too impressed if you’ve seen mountains before. Part of the initial trail was all nasty and busted up, so we followed a creek bed in order to join up with another path. It turned out to be a fortuitous obstacle; since although a couple of us slipped and ended up with wet shoes, we were lucky enough to find a whole bunch of fish vertebrae in the shale under the water, including five in an articulated vertebral column (forming a recognizable spine). These particular fossils, being from the Boyne shale, are jet black and very distinctive when compared to the grey surrounding rock, making them easy to spot. The rest of the hike was great; not too hot, few mosquitoes, and an absence of the rain that that we’ve had nearly every day this week.
The articulated vertebral column.
Accordingly, the last two days have been wet and dreary, meaning there’s been no field activity. Tomorrow’s supposed to be nice and sunny, though, which is great because that’s when the Morden Block Party is happening! If you’ve got some free time, head down to Stephen St. and visit our booth; it’ll be open all day. There’s free food, too (or so I’ve heard). Next week, we’ll be at Kidsfest in Winnipeg from Thursday to Sunday, so if you can’t make it to Morden tomorrow, then be sure to see us at the Forks! With any luck, all the rain will be finished by then.
Scattered fish backbones.

Matt Remple

Field Tech

Monday, May 27, 2013

Rain and Mud

With all the rain we had on the long weekend, it’s remained difficult to access most of our sites. One of the sites where we’ve spent a lot of time this year had a partial cave-in (nothing major), which wouldn’t be a big deal if the shale wasn’t from the upper Gammon Ferruginous member of the Pierre Shale (don’t worry about that too much). Upper Gammon is brutal when it’s wet, turning into a mass of sludge that sticks to shoes and shovels with equal tenacity. The cave-in is in a trench, too, making it even harder to get at. Nevertheless, Aaron, Eric (two other Field Techs), and myself spent some time digging part of the trench out last week after the first school dig tour of the year, which came all the way from Vita, MB. It was hard work, but life in the field is a lot better if we don’t have to walk or wheelbarrow through wet Upper Gammon.
Field work isn’t all hard labour, though! A few days ago, I found a tiny, really well preserved mosasaur vertebra (backbone). It’s smaller than any mosasaur backbone our curator has ever seen, smaller than Bruce’s very tiniest vertebra, which means that it’s probably from either a relatively small adult mosasaur or, even better, a baby mosasaur! A baby would be a great find, since they’re pretty rare. I’m really excited; this fossil is likely more significant than any of the few specimens I’ve found before.
Tours are really starting to heat up, so if you’d like to book one, do it quick! The weather’s only going to get better as summer approaches, and we’ll be opening more of our sites up soon. There are  half-day, one-day, two-day, and five-day dig tours available, as well as museum tours; if you’re interested, give us a call at 204-822-3406. See you soon!

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Fossil Excavation

One of the new plaster jackets.
This week, we made our first plaster jackets (also called field jackets) of the season! The fossils we collected, which are currently theorized to be from the stomach area of a mosasaur (or simply from a highly fossiliferous region) were discovered last year and were all ready to be packaged up when we returned to the site last week. The mosasaur skeleton isn’t articulated, but there are a number of vertebrae (backbones) that were deposited in a rough line and are surrounded by mosasaur rib fragments, fish vertebrae, Hesperornis legs (Hesperornis is a kind of marine bird), and even some fossil teeth (which could be from a smaller mosasaur that was eaten by the first one).
The hind limbs of a mosasaur, which are
permanently stuck in plaster.
We make plaster jackets in order to protect fossils when we transport them from the field to the museum, working in much the same way that casts do for broken arms and legs. That way, they stay safe in case the jacket is accidentally dropped or if some other calamity befalls them. Constructing a plaster jacket can take a while; first, we dig little trenches around a big fossil or a collection of smaller ones to separate them from the larger rock layer (it ends up looking like a collection of puzzle pieces carved into the rock). We then put a separating layer on top of the resulting “island”, which can be composed of paper towel, tin foil, or, in this week’s case, simply mud. This serves to keep the plaster from contacting the fossil, since it’s extremely difficult to remove plaster from rock. Thirdly, we dip strips of burlap in plaster and lay them on top of the separating layer, and finally, we cut underneath the island, flip it over, and repeat the plastering process on the bottom side.
Suzy's skull, with the tail of
Bruce, our biggest mosasaur. 
Once the jackets come to the CFDC, we saw them open (carefully, and with a hand saw, not our eyes) and clean the matrix, or surrounding rock, off the fossils. If need be, we glue fossil fragments together if they’re falling apart. Once that’s done, the fossils can accessioned or even put on display! Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, mining operations in our area resulted in a ton of fossils being found and plastered up. There were so many field jackets that we still have many of them waiting to be prepared! Our second-biggest mosasaur, Suzy, was actually lost and re-discovered because a number of years passed between the time when her fossils were jacketed and when the jackets were cut open. If you’d like to see her or any of our brand new plaster casts, come on down to the CFDC! We’re open every day. 
On the left is an old cast with a mosasaur
skull still in it. Next to it is a new
plaster jacket. 

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Field Season Kickoff!

The Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre’s 2013 field season officially began May 1st, and that means that it’s high time to get our “Daily Fossil” blog back in action again! (Especially after a hiatus in 2012) We’ve already visited a number of our dig sites during the past few days, although a bunch of them are still inaccessible due to snowmelt and mud (the Millwood member, one of the shale layers that we find fossils in, turns into a positive quagmire when it’s wet). Yesterday we returned to our most productive 2012 site and spent the better part of the day cleaning it up and getting it ready for further excavation this year. This is the same site where we found a mosasaur flipper that had been chewed up in the mouth of a Xiphactinus fish a few years back; while those specimens have been mostly removed to the CFDC, we’re still in the process of uncovering a second, bigger mosasaur that was discovered just above the first two creatures.
                Nature has been kind to us thus far; the weather’s been wonderful and the Fossil Crew has only found three woodticks during four days in the field. The ticks will become much more common in late May and June before declining during July, but they’re definitely irritating until they disappear. One of the Field Techs did a little research on homemade tick repellent (conventional bug spray doesn’t seem to have any great effect), but all the Internet came up with was spraying field clothes with vinegar or tea tree oil. I figure that would probably repel more than ticks.
                We have some other projects on tap this year, besides the aforementioned site. We’ll be at the Pembina Valley Provincial Park a lot, mapping geological outcrops and, of course, looking for fossils. As well, we’ll be at a number of Manitoba festivals, like the Children’s Festival in Winnipeg, the Morris Stampede (for the first time ever!), and the Corn & Apple Festival, our very own local event in Morden.
The Daily Fossil will have a new blog at least once a week, which will contain details about our latest discoveries, upcoming events, and other goings-on at the CFDC. If quick, up to the minute information is what you’re after, though, then check us out on Twitter (@discoverfossils) and Facebook (Bruce Mosasaur). Of course, the best way to see what’s new is to drop by the museum! See you in the field.

Matt Remple
Field Tech