Bad Days in the Field: Stories about fieldwork frustrations

This week, we bring you two stories about frustrations in the field, whether it's a failure to find dinosaur fossils or a struggle with a painful medical condition.

Part 1: Paleontologist David Evans and his team start to feel defeated after three days of searching fruitlessly for fossils. 

David C. Evans holds the Temerty Chair in Vertebrate Palaeontology and oversees dinosaur research at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). He is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. David is an Ontario-born researcher who is recognized as an authority on the rich dinosaur fossil record of Canada. As a curator, David helped develop the ROM's dinosaur galleries, and was Lead Curator of the major travelling exhibition Ultimate Dinosaurs. He has been featured on numerous television shows, and most recently, David was co-creator of the HISTORY series Dino Hunt Canada. David’s research focuses on the evolution, ecology and diversity of dinosaurs, and their relationship to environmental changes leading up to the end Cretaceous extinction event. Active in the field, he has participated in expeditions all over the world, including the Africa, Mongolia, and Canada, and has helped discover 10 new dinosaur species in the last five years- including the remarkable horned dinosaur Wendiceratops from southern Alberta, and the wickedly armoured Zuul named after the Ghostbusters movie monster.

Part 2: After cave geologist Gabriela Marks Serrato develops fibromyalgia, exploring caves becomes a challenge.

Gabriela Serrato Marks is a PhD student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography, where she works with stalagmites from Mexico. She fell in love with rocks and the ocean while getting her B.A. in Earth and Oceanographic Science from Bowdoin College. Her current research focuses on archives of past rainfall and climate change. Outside of research, she is interested in issues of diversity and inclusion in STEM, hanging out with her cat, and growing tiny squash in her parents’ garden. 


Episode Transcript

Part 1: David Evans

It was day three of our South African expedition and our spirits were remarkably low, but we thought we would give Ruaidri another chance.  Now, three days doesn’t sound very long, but it seemed like I've been over every damn inch of this tiny rocky outcrop at least ten times.  My supervisor, Robert Reisz, a self-proclaimed renaissance paleontologist and the rest of the crew surely felt the same way. 

Now, it’s true.  Our South African colleagues thought we were crazy for mounting an expedition to this tiny road cut in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains.  They said, “We take geology field schools up there all the time and we’ve never found anything, but you're more than welcome to try.  And nothing is going to stop you North Americans from coming down here and showing us how to do things anyways, so go for it.”  And we thought we’d take them up on the challenge. 

We were at the very spot where in 1978 the famous fossil hunter James Kitching made a remarkable discovery in the scree on the other side of the road.  He found a 200-million-year-old clutch of dinosaur eggs each about the size of a goose egg and each containing the perfectly preserved, curled-up skeleton of an embryonic dinosaur.  The oldest such find for 50 million years.  But no one had found anything at that site or really anywhere else in the world since. 

We’re in an extremely beautiful place.  We’re in Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa.  There is a valley across the road with a gorgeous river running through it, and there were citadel-like rock formations all around me that glistened gold and red in the afternoon sun.  These were the rocks of the Clarens and Elliot Formations, sediment that was laid down 200 million years ago during the time of dinosaurs and they were extremely rich in fossils. 

But our site wasn’t so spectacular.  It was a road cut.  This isn’t the noble trudge, endless trudge through the desert that you see in dinosaur documentaries on TV.  We literally drove right to it.  As we were working, cars would whiz by.  Some would honk their horns.  The park staff would get out trying to avoid work, asking us what we’re doing. 

But it was Africa.  It was pretty cool.  There's a group of baboons that would often sit on the slope across the river and watch us do our work.  But Ruaidri, which means “red corner” in the local dialect because of the brilliant red color that the rocks gleam in the afternoon sun.  It is a remarkably small site.  It’s only about 75 meters long by about 25 meters high and it consists of kind of a short low cliff and a scree slope that runs down towards the road. 

I wished it actually would be bigger, but the small size had its advantages.  We could easily cover the entire outcrop searching them for fossils before lunch on the first day, so we thought this was going to be a piece of cake.  We thought we were going to get there, we would scope out the whole thing quickly and make a big discovery. 

We’re pretty excited to get there so, on day one, we fanned out over this little rocky outcrop.  We got down on our hands and knees like paleontologists do.  We had our noses about a foot from the rocks and we started searching for fossils, notably dinosaur eggs and nests.  We did it for three, four, five hours.  Lunch came.  We hadn’t found anything. 

We did it for another five hours.  We covered the same spots that we covered in the morning.  We covered them again and we covered them again and, by the end of the day, all we had to show for it were warm burrows and mud cracks.  There was no sign of a dinosaur. 

So day two, we got back on our horse, we got back out to the outcrop and we did it again.  We got right down on our bellies and we started scrambling over the rocks with literally the rocks within inches of our eyeballs.  Again, another eight hours, another day, no dinosaur eggs. 

You have to understand.  To us, this wasn’t like that classic search-for-a-needle-in-a-haystack.  This was more like searching for your Easter basket in your house on Easter morning.  So if you don’t find it in that first bout of enthusiasm, you systematically go through the house.  You turn over all the couch cushions, you look in the dryer, and you find that basket and you're eating chocolate eggs by noon.  This is like we've been looking for that Easter basket for two days and still hadn’t found it. 

So it was pretty frustrating and we were starting to think that our South African colleagues might be right, that maybe this was just a one-off find or maybe, if there was anything else there, that it was blown off the side of that hill with the road construction thirty years ago. 

By day three, we were really starting to feel the pressure.  The National Geographic Society had funded our expedition and I personally feel like I lobbied my supervisor, Robert, at least a little bit, to come and do this field work.  Now, he's not a dinosaur person and doesn’t typically work on dinosaurs and so I told him when we usually find dinosaur eggs we usually find a whole bunch of them.  You don’t find just one.  They're like the Frito-Lays of dinosaur fossils. 

Another interesting thing about the group that we know lay these dinosaur eggs is that their descendants a hundred million years later nested in giant colonies.  And we would find their nesting sites preserved in the fossil record, eggs and nests over thousands of square meters.  So we wondered if early dinosaurs did that too, and we thought the odds were pretty darn good before we came.  But after a couple of days on the outcrop we weren’t feeling nearly as confident. 

So day three came along and we persevered.  We spent another eight hours going over and over the rocks that we had been over and over the previous couple of days.  We crawled over the scree slopes.  We looked in the scree slope on the one side of the road.  We looked at the scree slope on the near side of the road.  We split a bunch of rocks randomly with our hammers and, at the end of day three with the sun waning in the afternoon, we still had nothing.

David Evans tells his story at Tranzac in Toronto in September 2017. Photo by Ally Chadwick.

David Evans tells his story at Tranzac in Toronto in September 2017. Photo by Ally Chadwick.

So we were feeling pretty defeated and we were feeling pretty exhausted and pretty dejected.  Robert was clearly bored.  Me and a fellow graduate student, Hillary Madden, we just plunked ourselves at that top of the scree slope with the cliff to our backs kind of like a rocky sofa. 

Hill and I were like perennial goofballs and best friends.  In that moment, we started doing what kids do when they're bored.  We started throwing rocks.  We started picking up palm-sized rocks then throwing them across the road and then we started skipping the rocks across the road.  We bounced it off the tarmac and tried to get it into the river valley on the other side, one rock after another, after another.  We laughed. 

We thought this was like completely hilarious.  I don’t think Robert was very impressed but he didn’t really care.  In that moment, I kind of reverted back to my childhood.  As you guys probably guessed, I was a dinosaur kid.  I read every book on dinosaurs at every public library within fifty miles of my house.  I told everyone who would listen that I was going to grow up to be a paleontologist, and I did.  It’s pretty awesome. 

Of course, I dreamed of going to far-off places and searching for dinosaurs.  So that day and that expedition, my first big international expedition to Africa, no less, I was living my dream.  And part of that dream, of course, is finding fossils. 

But when you find a fossil it’s an incredibly special experience.  It’s a remnant of past life that no one before you has ever seen.  It’s an amazing window into the history of life on earth and window into the past.  And even just being on rocks that have fossils in them, like the ones of the Elliot and Clarens Formation where we were, is a pretty special experience for me, just knowing that at every turn, at every chip of the hammer, you could find that something brand new and something exciting.  Just being on the rocks and having that anticipation is, to me, one of the best feelings on earth.  It’s what I live for. 

So back to that hillside, we threw rocks for what seemed like ever.  We just kept throwing rocks across the road, and I ran out of good chucking rocks.  So I reached back into the cliff rather than picking a rock from the scree slope and I just pulled a rock from the cliff.  Before I hocked it, I looked at it.  And it’s a good thing.  I was holding in my hand a perfectly preserved dinosaur egg just like the ones that Kitching had found thirty years earlier. And my jaw dropped. 

Without saying I word, I just turned to Hillary.  She looked at me and she looked at what was in my hand and her jaw just dropped.  I just retraced the arc of my arm from where I had picked up that rock in the cliff face and we turned, and beside it was the outline of another egg, and another egg, and another egg.  Six eggs in a perfect line.  We had found a dinosaur nest. 

So we spent the last part of the expedition chiseling and sawing that nest out of the hillside.  It turned out to be amazing.  Thirty-six eggs all arranged in a tight clutch.  It was a beautiful fossil.  But more importantly, it reprogrammed our search image.  We were looking for whole eggs or eggshell fragments as they would weather out of soft sediment, but what we should have been looking for is the faint outlines of eggshells, eggshells that are thinner than your fingernail, cross sections of eggs in the hard red rock. 

Once we realized that, our luck changed and we were off to the races.  We found another thirteen nests in that tiny little road cut and our expedition was a huge success.  To say the least, our South African colleagues were just like beside themselves.  They were in disbelief, but they were over the moon. 

So we really hit the scientific jackpot.  We discovered the world’s oldest dinosaur nesting site and our discovery showed that even the earliest dinosaurs nested in large colonies or communal nesting and they also returned to the same spot year after year to lay their eggs.  So these are behaviors that we associate with birds today but they actually had their evolutionary roots 200 million years ago, and they demonstrate the deep evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds. 

But I learned something in that expedition that stuck with me my whole career.  Of course, perseverance and luck they play a big role in advancing knowledge but, in this case, those eggs were there right in front of my face the entire time and right in front of so many faces for years but we just didn’t know what we were looking for.  So sometimes I think the biggest breakthroughs in science are like that.  You just have to look at things a little differently.  Thanks. 

Part 2: Gabriela Serrato Marks

I spent my first day as a graduate student in a cave underground in Southern Mexico looking for rocks.  I was with a big group of geologists so I was having a great time.  The cave is just like you’re picturing, probably.  It was muddy and there were bats.  It was cold.  There was water dripping making that creepy drip sound.  And there was sort of a river that we were walking through as well. 

I was actually loving it.  I was like, “I’m cold, but I like it.  The bats are cute; I like it.”  I was having a great time.  I was like, “This is gonna be my career.  This is perfect.” 

We were looking for stalagmites because they are the ones that grow bottom to top and they sort of act as logbooks for past rainfall conditions.  The ones that are older are like older logbooks, so we like those.  We’re looking for the best stalagmites and we sort of come around the corner to a new passageway. 

In that area, the river gets a lot deeper so there are actually scuba divers and they're going cave diving.  I saw that and I was like, “That’s what I wanna do.  I wanna cave dive.” 

I was very excited.  I went up to them.  I was like, “Hi.  I’m a geologist.  I’m looking for stalagmites.”  And they were sort of like, “Okay.  We’re gonna go dive.”  But I was really, really excited. 

They were looking at the stalagmites that were deep down that I could never get to because I can’t scuba dive, so they're way deeper than we could even look at.  So I was like, “Next year, that’s gonna be me.” 

As long as I've been doing those awkward ice-breakers where they ask you for your superpower, I've always said that I would want to breathe underwater.  So the closest thing is scuba diving.  And I've always loved rocks so cave diving was like perfect. 

It’s been about two years now since I first went to a cave since I started grad school.  And I can’t hike right now and I can’t carry a big scuba gear pack and I definitely can’t cave dive because I’m in the process of getting diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which might sound familiar from those commercials they play a lot during football games.  I don't know why but they say like, “Lyrica has helped me with all my fibromyalgia pain.” 

They're like these 60-year-old women and they're in fields and they just want to hang out with their grandkids, but it’s me and I just want to like hang out with my cat and on my couch and everything hurts.  So it’s a chronic pain condition, which means that everything in my body hurts most of the time. 

When I go to the doctors, they ask me to rate my pain on a scale from one to ten.  As a scientist, I totally understand the need to put experiences into numbers and to have data that they can put down into my chart and sort of understand me through those numbers.  But as someone who’s living it, I have a really hard time quantifying the amount of pain that I’m in.  So I don't know what number it is to get out of bed and not be able to pick up my feet and to just shuffle along until I can sort of warm up my body enough to work, or to take two semesters of sign language classes and love it but have my hands hurt too much to sign, or to have all of my plans with my friends have an asterisk of “we’ll see how I feel that night.”

So I haven't figured out what number to tell them.  When I’m really grumpy, I do tell them, “How high would it have to be for you to help me or for you to want to do something for me here?” 

I haven't figured out the answer to how high it would have to be yet, but I have found out about this thing in CrossFit called the pain cave.  Obviously, I’m not doing CrossFit right now, but my friends told me about it.  It’s this concept where when you are exercising, you're doing these CrossFit things -- I don't know what they do, but the CrossFit things -- and you're in so much pain that you like are meditating and you're in this deeper version of yourself because you're in so much pain. 

I’m not familiar with that, but, for me, like a pain cave is literally a cave and I’m in pain and I have to go in it.  So it’s not the best thing yet, but this summer I decided I would like try it.  I was going to try to go caving with all these pain I've been having. 

Gabriela Serrato Marks tells her story at Oberon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 2017. Photo by Kate Flock.

Gabriela Serrato Marks tells her story at Oberon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 2017. Photo by Kate Flock.

I was in Spain for a short course.  It’s like a week-long summer camp for nerds, and it was this cave where they’ve literally found cavemen.  They've found like the first cave people in this cave.  So it was a super exciting opportunity to go and get to cave with cavemen, or the skeletons of them.  It turns out actually that the skeletons weren’t there.  They took them away, but they didn’t tell us that part, so it’s like this is where the skeleton was. 

So I went into this cave and I asked the woman who was guiding us, “How easy is this cave?”  “How hard is it to walk into it?”  The problem here is that there's no one-to-ten scale.  There's no metric for how hard a cave is. 

So she told me, “Yeah, it’s not bad.  It’s pretty easy.  It’s an easy walk in and easy walk down once you're in.” 

I was like, “Yeah, okay.”  It turns out I should have asked for what scale she was using, for some numbers.  It was not an easy cave. 

So after four hours of slipping on bat poop and walking over gravel, picture like a gravel driveway but on a slant, so I was walking down that for four hours holding onto a rope for dear life so every single part of my body hurt.  My hands felt like they were like ten times the size and my ankles felt like they just couldn’t support me any longer. 

I said, “Okay, it’s hour four.  You're doing great.”  I've made it through so far and the only choice I have is to keep going.  I don't actually have the choice to stop because I’m in a cave, so I have to get myself back out.  And I lean my arm just for a second on the side of this rock, and you're not usually supposed to touch stuff in the cave or the stalagmites and the stalactites.  They won’t grow if you touch it and the whole thing, but I was like, “This place, there's been rivers, there's been rocks.  It should be fine.” 

I leaned a little bit and turns out that the guide was right behind me and she said, “Excuse me.  Please move your hand.  This exact spot is where the cavemen walked and you're ruining it.”  So that was bad.

But on top of that, right now, because of my pain or in addition, still figuring that out too, my jaw locks open and closed and I can’t hold a scuba mouthpiece so I can’t get scuba certified.  So right now, I am a cave geologist who can’t cave and I am a scuba diving enthusiast-to-be that can’t scuba dive.  And I definitely can’t go into priceless archeological sites right now either. 

So I’m figuring out what I can do instead, because I do still have to finish my program and figure out what I’m going to do after that too.  I've gotten really good at microstratigraphy, which is basically science-talk, like Rachel said, for drawing lines on a computer.  It’s pretty easy to do it.  I just have to move my hand, so that’s at least a good thing to do. 

I've gotten really good at reading too.  I can read really carefully for a long time and just sit and look at it for hours on end. 

But to be serious, if you had me do one of those ice breakers again where you ask me what my superpower would be, I would still say that it would be to breathe underwater and it would not be to feel no pain.  Because even though I would not choose this pain, and I didn’t choose this pain, I’m going to make it work.  Thank you.