Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Pain of the Search

Dr. [Michael P.] Taylor has never participated in an excavation, instead choosing to study the scores of unnamed fossils that are collecting dust in the basements of museums.  He takes pictures from many angles and makes detailed measurements that he studies.
“Given the limited time I have available for paleo, conferences and museum visits are more important,” he said.
~ Dinosaur-Hunting Hobbyist Makes Fresh Tracks for Paleontology, The New York Times, February 28, 2011.

I welcomed March by hunting for fossils along the Calvert Cliffs.  With a biting wind from the north and temperatures in the low 40s, the day brought no promise of Spring despite a shockingly blue sky.  I had hoped that the rainstorm of the day before would have shaken loose treasure from the cliffside, but, for the most part, that wish went unfulfilled.

The day was remarkable, not for the fossils found, but for the pain it inflicted.  Nothing serious, just the usual price paid for this high privilege.  The picture above was one of a few I took as the day began (the view is toward the north by the way, showing mostly Calvert Formation, and fossils from here would be some 20 to 14 million years old).  But, by day’s end, when I thought to burrow into my winter jacket to pull my camera from a shirt pocket for another shot, I realized I couldn’t unbutton the flap that protected that pocket because I couldn’t feel the button with my fingers, much less maneuver it through the buttonhole.  My gloves had failed early in the day and now my hands were wet, red, raw, unresponsive, and thoroughly, thoroughly brutalized by the cold wind and water of the Chesapeake Bay.  They ached, not with some low-level ache, but with a sharp, vicious hurt.  The decision to surrender the day and turn for home came when I could no longer pick up fossils.  Oh, certainly, I could have forced my fingers to close on that mythical five inch megalodon shark tooth, but on nothing less.  It had become an out of body experience to watch my hand attempt to pull a tissue from a coat pocket to staunch my runny nose.  Back at my car, I discovered that the pains in my hands had masked the fact that one of my hip boots had sprung a leak and my left foot had been bathed in icy bay water for most of the day.

I lied about the fossils found not being remarkable – yes, as fossils, they were not remarkable, but as trophies, rewards for a day of hard, painful work, they were memorable.

The physical pain that may accompany the search and discovery of fossils is important, I think.  It means that you have seen the landscape that births a fossil, you know the place, its sights, smells, noises, earth, rocks, wind, heat, cold, sun, plants – you know something intrinsic to the fossil itself, something important.  Though it might not advance the science, what you’ve learned by doing the physical labor becomes part of the value of the fossil, if only to you personally.

I recently read Mark Jaffe’s The Gilded Dinosaur:  The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science (2000), an account worthy of the epic battle in the latter half of the 19th century that pitted two of the nation’s most prominent paleontologists against each other.  Edward Drinker Cope (1840 – 1897), associated at one time with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and Yale professor Othniel Charles Marsh (1831 – 1899) competed bitterly to uncover fossils and identify new species, particularly dinosaur species.  The American Experience TV series recently ran a nice overview of the Cope-Marsh conflict titled The Dinosaur Wars.

These members of the paleontology community waged their blood feud across a broad swath of the country, from quarries in New Jersey to the badlands of the West.  Other scientists found themselves forced to take sides.  One of my paleontological heroes, Joseph Leidy, abandoned paleontology altogether to escape the reach of the combatants (and, suggests Jaffe, also because the science was evolving beyond him).  A picture of Cope appears below, followed by one of Marsh.

Some have posited that their battle royal was detrimental to the science, but, I think Jaffe believes otherwise.  The sheer productivity of the two, particularly Cope’s, was undoubtedly fueled by their hatred for each other.  Certainly some of the scientific analysis was a bit slipshod in the rush to get into print, and Cope suffered because he had access to fewer specimens.  But, they pushed back the frontier of paleontology and opened up new areas of the West to paleontological exploration, bringing a scientific approach to the field work.

Well, it must be acknowledged that Marsh reportedly destroyed fossils to keep them out of Cope’s hands, and went so far as to seed a site with teeth from one animal and a skull from another.  He then stood back, allowing Cope to find them and describe a new species, an error that took two decades to undo.

Though agents in the field shipped both men copious amounts of fossils (Marsh, with his greater fortune, benefited more than Cope in this), both men spent substantial periods in the field, doing the hard work.

Here’s a description of Marsh at work at one site with winter coming on.
When the Marsh party reached the edge of the badlands, they set up camp in an area screened by ravines and started collecting.  The fossils were scattered over a ten-mile circuit, and the weather was so intensely cold that everyone worked hard just to keep warm.  Icicles formed on Marsh’s beard, and he had to chip them off so he could eat dinner.  Each morning, he had to thaw out his boots before he could get his feet into them.  The group quickly built a large pile of fossils.  (Jaffe, p. 122)
Also in the badlands, but at another time and another season, Cope and two companions found the going as tough.
The work was hard, the days hot, and the three were constantly plagued by swarms of gnats that got under their hats and shirt sleeves and gave them sores that ran pus and produced thick scabs.  The gnats also got under the saddles, causing the horses great irritation.  The men tried to combat the bugs by covering their faces and arms with bacon grease and rubbing the stuff under the collars and saddles of their horses.  Despite the pests, they worked the badlands tenaciously.  (Jaffe, p. 178)
I began this posting with a quotation from a recent New York Times profile of Mike Taylor.  The article described him as a “British computer programmer” with a deep interest in dinosaurs who has published extensively on dinosaurs, and named two without, apparently, ever going into the field.

A man of seemingly unlimited chutzpah (check out his web page), Taylor entered the paleontology ranks a decade ago when, after reading a paleontological paper, he concluded
[B]limey, I could do better than that. . . .  And then I decided, why shouldn’t I?  What’s stopping me?”
So, he found the niche which Yale paleontologist Nicholas Longrich, as quoted in the Times piece, described this way.
You just need a decent camera, a little time and money to travel to museums, some experience, a good eye. . . . It’s still hard – not just anybody can do it – but the barrier to entry is a lot lower than for other fields.
The species Taylor has named are based on his careful and meticulous study of unidentified dinosaur fossils residing in museum collections, fossils that others originally found, one as recently as 1995 and the other in the 1890s.

Toward the end of the decade in which he has pursued this side interest in dinosaurs, Taylor earned a PhD in paleontology from the University of Portsmouth (UK), writing a dissertation titled Aspects of the History, Anatomy, Taxonomy and Palaeobiology of Sauropod Dinosaurs.

All in all, an impressive vita, replete with contributions to the science, still, I find it hard to get beyond the perspective that “conferences and museum visits are more important” than going into the field.

Sure, someone needs to work through the material found in the field, and it need not be the individuals who made the discoveries.  The Cope-Marsh conflict, for instance, produced more than enough material for many assistants and students to work on for years, with the prospect of identifying new species without ever traveling to the sites where the specimens were found.  (Marsh, it should be noted, was notorious for keeping his assistants from receiving credit for the work they did, so it doesn’t always work out for those “lesser beings.”)

Still, I hope that, at some time, even if only as a child, Taylor actually dirtied his hands rooting in the ground or burnished them plunging them into icy salt water in pursuit of fossils.  There is something to be gained by the pain of the search, if only a greater appreciation of the prize.

Novelist Penelope Lively captured the essence of the fossil quest in the opening pages of her novel Moon Tiger.  Actually, I was reminded of Cope and Marsh when I reread those pages.

The novel opens with Claudia Hampton, in her late 70s, lying on her deathbed, reliving a moment from her childhood.  (A nurse, having earlier heard fragments of thoughts and conversations that escape Claudia’s lips, asks the doctor, “Was she someone?”  A particularly frightening and thoughtless question.  But, recast as “who was she,” it lies at the core of the novel.)
She climbs a little higher, on to another sliding shelving plateau of the cliff, and squats searching furiously the blue grey fragments of rock around her, hunting for those enticing curls and ribbed whorls, pouncing once with a hiss of triumph – an ammonite, almost whole.  The beach, now is quite far below; its shrill cries, its barkings, its calls are clear and loud but from another world, of no account.
At this moment in her dying reverie, Claudia is a ten-year old, locked in a fierce competition, a vicious no holds barred struggle, with her older brother Gordon to find and lay claim to fossils.
For the sake of beating Gordon to a choice-looking seam of Jurassic mud I was prepared to bash a hundred and fifty million years to pieces with my shiny new hammer and if necessary break my own arm or leg falling off a vertical section of Blue Lias on Charmouth beach in 1920.
Indeed, she and Gordon tussle over “his bit” of the cliffside, and she plummets to the beach below.


The picture of O.C. Marsh is from the Smithsonian and was taken during the 1860s.  It is negative number 78-15940.

The picture of E.D. Cope is cropped from the frontispiece of Syllabus of Lectures on the Vertebrata, Volume 2, 1898 by Cope, with an introduction by Henry Fairfield Osborn.


  1. I suspect Taylor would acknowledge the importance of all those people that placed those specimens in the museums he visits.

    For my part, I prefer being in the field to most other aspects of paleontology. It's not like it was in Cope's and Marsh's day (thank goodness), but the trials are still there (I once lost a camera to a large wave while walking those same Calvert Cliffs). And yet I'm eagerly awaiting this Monday, when I start my first excavation of 2011.

  2. I trust that you're right about Taylor.

    As for your first excavation of 2011, that's great news. I hope that, once again, we'll be able to vicariously participate as you describe your field work on your blog -- Updates from the Vertebrate Paleontology Lab.


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