Sunday, October 16, 2011

Week 5 - Paleontology


My head next to an elephant mandible
This week we began the third module of our time here: paleontology. We started off this week by familiarizing ourselves with the various components of the mammalian skeletons. Having no prior experience in bones, I couldn't tell a femur from a fibula, but one tends to learn quickly when you study all day.

On Tuesday we went out into the field to look for fossils. The area surrounding our compound is literally covered with fossils just sitting on the surface. But, not knowing what to look for, I had never noticed any of them. When we began our search, everything looked like rocks to me. Rocks and rocks and rocks. But as soon as you find your first fossil, they magically appear all around you as your eye keys in to the characteristic shape and texture. I ended up finding about thirty pieces of bone! (almost all of them were fish)
Can you find the fossil?
Here it is!
It's a piece of fish!

We also learned about taxonomy and evolutionary trees. Did you know that horses are more closely related to rhinos then to camels? I didn't.

Later in the week, we learned how to clean the sediment off of bones. you use an air powered drill and look at the bone through a magnified glass or a telescope to make sure you don't scratch the surface. We practiced on real dinosaur bone (dinosaur bones!!). It's amazing holding something that is so old in your hand. One feels a strange connection for the distant past and a woozy feeling in your stomach from trying to imagine millions of years. It's also cool seeing a fragment of a leg bone that's as big as your head!

Fellow blogger Hui with a fossil she found
At the beginning of this week, I didn't even know where a humerus is on your body. Now I can tell the difference between the proximal and distal ends of long bones, tell which side it goes on, and give a reasonable guess at the animal. I also find fossils even when I'm not looking. Just yesterday I spotted a fossilized fish bone next to the dorm. They're everywhere!

 At one site we found a lot of crocodile. To the left is my classmate Kate holding a crocodile pelvis she excavated. And Hui actually found a species of giraffe that was never found in the area before. Also, I learned that iPads are replacing notebooks in the field. On Thursday, I found a pig tooth that our professor wanted to collect. Meave Leakey walked me through the process of recording all of the necessary data before bagging the specimen. She pulled up an excel spreadsheet on her iPad and had me type it all in!

Another great week in the field
Until next week!

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