Digging for Dinosaurs.

It’s July, in Hell Creek, Montana. The daytime temperature hovers around 45ºC (113ºF). Your lips crack, and the water you guzzle seems to evaporate before you get a chance to swallow it.

The barren landscape is speckled with low buttes, rounded striated mounds that rise abruptly from the otherwise flat landscape. Tufts of serrated grass struggle to grow in the grey popcorn-like clay that breaks easily under the pick.

Weather-beaten bone fragments are abundant under your feet and ignored by the experts. The real treasure is still underground. The dark brown, almost purple bones that have been encased for millions of years are not hard to find. Isolated fragments of skeletons are common. It’s the whole skeleton, intact and in one place – now that’s the mother lode.

To find these, the researchers concentrate on landforms they call washes. The remnants of watercourses; these are places where bones congregate in a tangle to form bone beds. Here the dead beasts became stuck and then covered in mud and silt in a Triassic flood. They have lain here undisturbed, the bones becoming fossilised as the living tissue is replaced by minerals. Hard and locked in time.

Fifteen long hours of bright sunshine makes sleep a problem. The extended twilight, a photographer’s delight. The six hours of darkness that finally comes is not enough to recover from the day’s hard labour, yet you press on. The heavy pick is replaced by a small hand pick and then a soft brush and dental pick. Your tiny little pick hits something that “tinks” when the metal hits it. You’ve found it! You’ve found the rib of a triceratops. More digging, slowly, slowly with painstaking tedium you brush away more dirt. Wait! Stop! Is that the vertebrae? YES! The joy punctures the eerie mood. You are the only human who has ever seen this bone.

No-one.

Ever.

The feeling of time stretched out behind you becomes unnerving. What catastrophic event lead to these massive creatures being nothing but a pile of bones? Will it happen again?

a women in a straw hat is kissing a dinosaur bone
Bec kisses the recovered rib bone

Dinosaur dig vacations

A dinosaur dig is not your typical vacation destination. It’s not glamorous. You actually have to do some digging!  It’s hot and dusty. Most “holiday” digs are part of research programs, and you become the cheap labour and pay for the privilege.  My dig was with a group called Paleoworld Research Foundation who operated during the summers from a ranch about 50 km out of the town of Jordan. The two women (Hannah and Jess) who ran the operation where both Masters students who were collecting specimens for their studies. We slept in an old caravan and ate simple meals with the family who owned the ranch.

A grren grassy hill in the forwground and a red hill with teh moon rising in the the left hand side.
The full moon rises over the Lervick Ranch at the end of another hard day.

I travelled to America with Bec, a friend I had met at a Science Teachers’ workshop a few years before. Our trip was 100% science-based. After the dig, we drove down through the Yellowstone National Park (geology) and onto the Grand Canyon (more geology)  and Los Vegas. From Los Vegas, we flew to Alabama to join an Educators’ Space Camp at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center. (Maths and physics!) (Ok…. so Los Vegas wasn’t very scientific!)

Paleoworld Research Foundation are no longer operating. Some internet research shows that Judy Lervick, the ranch owner, sadly died in July 2017. There are other groups who offer a similar experience, although I cannot in any way vouch for them.

 

Critters in Bellingen, NSW.

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Goanna

My mum lives on a 2.8 hectare (7 acre) rural-residential property near Bellingen on the Mid-north coast of NSW, Australia. Perched on a hill, her home for last 31 years, is surrounded by beef and dairy farms and lots of hobby farmers growing “herbs” of various kinds. Mum’s property is not much use as a farm as it is essentially just a big hill but it makes a damn fine place to visit for lazy holidays and to live a relatively peaceful life in the country.

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It is certainly not a “pristine” environment as the area has been farmed for well over a hundred years after being cleared of cedar back in the 1840’s. Despite this, I am always amazed at the amount of wildlife that turns up in her “backyard”. Mum has allowed the bush to grow back over the years and the critters love it. These photos show some of the wildlife you can see from her verandahs.

Not seen here are the eagles and hawks which soar overhead, black cockatoos signaling the coming of rain and kookaburras sharing their jokes with the warbling magpies.

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Regent Bowerbird

Frogs live in the toilet, lurking under the rim of the bowl. Snakes hibernate in the roof space. Spiders take over the smoke detector rousing the whole house with false alarms. And cicadas send us deaf in the summer time.