Practicing to be Patagonian Paleontologists

We had an amazing opportunity. With good friends from back home.

This is the kind of opportunity people DREAM of.  Imagine a private trip to a remote and very special paleontological site and getting an in depth explanations of the flora and fauna fossils exposed in the exposed prehistoric sediments.  Following scientists around and getting first hand experience of how they gather fossils.  Getting to see what it takes to make discoveries about the ancient world way before humans were around.  I guess you could say Todd and I got lucky.

Enter Dr. Regan Dunn.

She’s a down to earth woman. She’s got an awesome sense of humor and she is incredibly bright, assertive, kind, helpful, and real.  In a nut shell, we love this gal.  We used to live next door to Dr. Dunn, that is, until she moved to Chicago to work for the famous Field Museum in Chicago.

While in Ushuaia we learned that Dr. Dunn would be working with a team of other paleontologist near our route north. What are the chances?!?!?!!! We are all the way on another continent.  Regan and her husband Dr. Rick Madden, are working with a team from a university and museum in La Plata (just outside of Buenos Aires).  They are collecting information about bones, plants, and stratigraphy (for dating). Dr. Dunn is researching silica presence to figure out when and where plants existed. Dr. Madden is doing work surrounding teeth and how teeth evolved based on the changes in environment and plant types.  Patagonia is extremely valuable for research because the strong winds allowed for a lot of movement of nutrients millions of year ago.  The dry weather and fierce wind keep the vegetation to a minimum exposing the rock layers and the fossils along with it. This it makes it very easy to dig down and get to the layer you’re looking for.

So, we got to join the team in the field!!!! We helped search for fossils of bones, teeth, armadillo shells, and toad jaws. So so awesome. Never thought we would learn so much.

Don’t be fooled, Paleontologists have a hard job. They venture to remote places searching for clues about their theories. They are prepared for very dusty, very hot, and quickly changing conditions.

After deciding on where to dig (usually based on historical excavations and geological maps) the fossils are carefully uncovered.  They use shovels, picks, soft brushes, and the strong winds to help find their treasures.  Once a sufficient amount is uncovered and their locations recorded, it is time to decide whether the fossil is worth collecting.  Sometimes they are simply too brittle or they are not what the team is looking for.  If it is an exciting specimen though, the fossil has to be properly secured for transport.  Sometimes this means a good ol’ Ziploc bag, toilet paper and packing tape, or it can be more complicated-involving glue and a cast around the fossil.

After several days of work, the team analyzes all their collected treasures.  Since they are out in the field for a week, they may abandon some early samples because they find better ones later on.  The unneeded  samples are returned back to the area in which they were found.  This is very important.  Science is very respected in Argentina.

Geologically important sites are protected under law and are considered historical sites as well.  It is common to find stones shaped by native Patagonian tribes (for arrows, tool sharpening, or grinding).  In order to dig in these areas, permits from the government must be obtained.  When you happen on these cool human artifacts in nature it is really tempting to take one smaaaaaaall sample with you, but it is SO important to leave it where you found it, so that other people can have the same cool experience looking at it after you leave.

After heading out of the field we stayed the night at a free dorm for students and academics.  This was a really neat concept.  It allows students to travel very cheaply and learn about their country.  Could we do something like this in the States???  We also celebrated coming back to civilization by having a hefty beverages and dinner.  Plata de Elefante.  It literally translated to “foot of elephant” and is the biggest sandwich/burger thing we have ever seen. It was the size of a pizza!

We’ve now gone our separate routes, to further explore the windy and sandy depths of Patagonia. We camped near the entrance to the Petrified Forest National Park. It’s a massive valley surrounded by several pico truncado looking mounts. We’re sure they’re topped with basalt. Dr. Dunn showed us several and these are quite similar.

The sunset was beautiful. It is difficult to see them in Patagonia because of the late time of the sunset. However, we were lucky, we saw another!  I think my favorite thing about sunsets is to watch how they infuse clouds with color. And how it changes. I want to permanently paint such a sunset in my brain, so that I can experience the calmness anytime I want.

Good night and sweet dreams!

We were in the La Flecha paleontological site and hanging out with Dr. Dunn, in the area of Puerto Deseado, Argentina from February 14th to February 17th, 2017.

8 Replies to “Practicing to be Patagonian Paleontologists”

  1. yvonne mancini says: Reply

    Amazing opportunity, thanks for sharing the story and photos. Beautiful dirty work. Not sure about that elephant burger, ha, but after a day in the dirt you earned it!!

    1. Dirt and beauty. It’s astounding to touch something that old and know it was alive. It’s like it was saved just for you to discover. Truly made us appreciate the ancient creatures that came before us, and we weren’t reading about it in a textbook OR on Wikipedia!

  2. Marlen Conrad says: Reply

    What an amazing place and experience! Don’t know about that burger…. 🙂

    1. Hehehe! You’ve got to try it at least once, right???? When in Argentina….

  3. Wow! An unforgettable experience! Lucky?!? I’d say!

    1. We have been so incredibly lucky…Words escape me frequently when we get to experience amazing things here.

  4. Teeth are amazing, especially old ones! I’m partial to shark teeth, but studying the evolution of the tooth and how it developed just to eat large burgers is outstanding!

    1. Yeah they are. Our teeth just seem perfectly suited for that sort of thing don’t? Before this experience I did really put together why they are so concerned with the geology. When soil accumulates in the ocean they have one type of fossil and when it accumulates on land it has another. Also, are important. At this site there was a layer with a lot of marine fossils in it that was actually above this layer.

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