August 14, 2012
[I don't want to leave!]
A tremendous day to end a tremendous field session! Again, I am blown away. By the rocks themselves and our luck to find their fossils, by my incredible new geology friends, by the whole adventure of it all. I could not have imagined a better trip.
We have enough exciting fossils and rocks to publish a new interpretation of this sequence, and to reveal important events following the mass extinction. We went far beyond the fundamental questions I posed in my proposals. And, we have a mind-boggling collection of fun challenges for the future.
We went to the site by the farm today, and the farmer indeed left the gate unlocked for us. Almost no fossils to see there, but plenty of sedimentary structures. When the waves interact with bits of sand and shell on the seafloor, they can leave lasting marks in the rocks. 200,000,000 years later, I’m interpreting these layers of sand and shell and muck to determine the history of the environment where our animals lived.
A key challenge of this expedition is tackling several different field sites. This way, we can see the conditions in different parts of the environment that simultaneously recorded responses to the mass extinction.
The last site of the trip was spectacular, and the highest elevation, in the Sierra Nevada range. I’d been marginally interested after a preliminary scout session on Saturday. Then, yesterday morning Julio brought me cores from Sierra Nevada, and I knew I wanted to see it with my last remaining half day.
WOW. So many fossils, so many peculiar associations. In fact, these rocks looked most like my material from Nevada. I spent three hard years banging my head (well, my rock hammer) against those rocks before finding their secret of sponges. Now, it seems like Mission: Impossible Fossil is my specialty. This afternoon, I was looking at rocks equally frustrating. I’m riveted!
A crucial skill in geology is reconstructing the history of a pile of rocks. Fossils are great, but they can only inform us about mass extinction ecology – specific animals at a specific time – if we can organize the rocks into relation with others. If we can discover the correct stratigraphic order, the correct sequence of the rocks, then we have a guide. Sure, rocks are often stacked on top of each other. But what about when they point straight at the sky? Or when they twirl around and flop over on themselves. Picture a gigantic taco shell made of 40-foot thick rock. That’s what I saw today.
Over lunch – fried trout from tiny family farms – Julio and I talked about jobs and vacations and vocation. He’s an exploration geologist. His life, like mine, is full of daily mysteries, and mysteries that take years to tackle. He’s been looking at this taco shell of rock for six years.
Today we searched for and found fossils. Together we collected notes, photos, observations, and samples for microscopic analysis. Raul is stellar at finding fossils, it turns out, and chiseled out a half dozen for me while I photographed those too tough to remove.
We were at close to 14000 feet of elevation today. Conveniently, the site led to a steep slope with a road at the bottom, so the drivers pulled the trucks around and then met us half way. Easy! Still I got winded – glad I ran all those stairs back in LA.
Dark clouds moved in and the cold sharpened in a persistent wind. Julio and Armando and I agreed it was time to go, and we were only half way down the slope. Wouldn’t you know, we kept sighting more fossils all the way down. We kept agreeing to leave, then finding something too good to pass up – just a photo! Just a photo. Finally, it started snowing. Snowing. OK, OK, now I will get off the rocks.
There was just a bit of snow but it was already five, and Raul would have to drive in the dark on the windy roads down to his valley hometown In the lessening light and sprinkling snow, I gathered all my samples, exchanged contact info, goodbyes and hugs all around. Man I hate to leave these rocks. I hate to leave this countryside and I hate to leave these damn fine geologists. But everybody’s got other fish to fry, and I have a hunch I’ll be back.
August 13, 2012
Today began with the most fantastic surprise. Julio brought me CORES!
Wild rocks are big, and messy, and plants grow on them and sheep make messes on them (especially here!) and they tend to fall apart. So if a company or academic group has money and wants to know more about rocks, they take a core. Picture putting a straw into the rocks, holding your thumb over the top, and pulling it out. It’s exactly like that! Only it costs at least ten thousand dollars and half the time everything in the tube breaks.
I thought Julio said he’d bring me photographs of some kind of holes from one of our field sites. No. He brought me these rock cores from inside the earth, totally perfect clean rocks, of exactly what I’m looking at here in the mountains. We poured water on them to make the fossils clear. Julio had looked through photos to decide which cores from the company collections might interest me most. He chose wisely. They were amazing! They contained diffinitive evidence of some of the phenoms we’re chasing – the mass extinction, the impact on local rock development, the rise of sponges.
The rest of the day was a bit of a struggle. I was again managing a team, with so many language limitations, and so many ambitions. I feel exactly like this on every trip. If I only had one more week, one more day, one more hour.
I was working, balancing time limits, detailed notes, vertical relief. Meanwhile the geologists above me were scaling the cliffs like eagles. That’s when I shot this video. This is how I feel all day every day out here. Outwardly, it’s business business business, but inside, I am shouting this:
[video coming when I can figure out how to upload it]
As a grad student, I have to select a set of problems I can handle now, and accumulate interesting investigations for the future. Dave says, “Those are projects for you future master’s students.” He’s right.
Today I needed to work with finality. Measure, sample, select, choose. Though I’ve got this great team, I can only be in one spot at a time. When should I take the photos I need? Should I take them now with the sun casting shadows or wait for the perfect diffused cloudy light? Should I call one objective a bust and move on to the next?
But as I joked repeatedly to my team today, I’d take the whole mountain if I could, and I never want to leave.
We worked our tails off, ate lunch, worked again. I managed to explain the American adage, “I’ll work when I’m dead”, which we all thought was ridiculous. I told the geologists that since they work so efficiently, they could take the precision attack jobs, and I’d take the careful plodding thoughtful musing jobs.
In the end, we got it all done. Well, whatever we didn’t get is fruit for another trip, another team, geology students from the university in Lima. I finally agreed to leave and go back to the trucks, but then I heard hammering. Sure enough, the guys were trying to sample some more. Again I agreed to leave twenty minutes later, and again, I heard more hammering behind me. Good geologists never want to leave the outcrop.
So it was almost sunset when we left. Everyday we pass through this flock once or twice, with the shepherd and her sheep dog and puppy. But today, on the road, we saw two little lost lambs all alone.
[video as soon as I figure it out]
August 12, 2012
Today we saw VICUNAs!!!!! My ungulate triumvirate is complete! Llamas and alpacas are pack livestock native to Peru and derived from the wild – and still present – vicuna. Our driver Raul said we would see them and we did!
Our field site sandwiches a colonial complex of ore processing and livestock and living areas, all built hundreds of years ago. I’ll be looking for sponges then think, Oh, Damn, this is man-made! And find myself walking on a wall hundreds of years old. I mean, to me, that’s not much time. But my dad will be impressed. See the group photo in the last post.
Our driver is from this little mountain town that has the only hotels and his grandparents still live here. Seriously – he saw them on the road tonight when we arrived in town and he stopped to chat a moment. They live in the Andeanas – the terraced slopes of the high plateau where the Incas developed agriculture. When the Spanish asked about the mountains, and pointed, the locals answered, “Andeanas”. They grow a ton of flowers to send to Lima, but they’re also used for an annual Easter festival here in town. Raul told us all about it. Now that he knows we enjoy cultural information, and that my Spanish is improving so I understand more – he’s been very informative.
Other fun things right near our rocks – cows at pasture across the river, sheep together with their human shepherds and sheep dogs – real sheep dogs! Most dogs are mutts here. And people gathering grains. Raul explained but I understood nothing until he said, “cervesa”. Ahah! Hops!
I am just speechless. This is the craziest, most fortuitous, most amazing field trip. WOW.
Fossils. Tons of fossils. Ammonites, sponges, bivalves – everything a girl could want, if she lived in the earliest Jurassic ocean. WOW.
And my team. My team! Spectatular geologists. Really amazing. Even the drivers, curious, hard working, eager to join in, made important finds. Really amazing.
First I asked the geologists what they wanted to do for the day. They said, of course, to help me. This is amazing because Dave and I thought, look, this mining company is sending “an assistant” with us to keep an eye on us. That’s handy, so we don’t get in trouble with the police or locals or anybody. But instead we got two professional exploration geologists, and their driver who is super helpful but I don’t know his official vocation. I don’t know if the head geologist assigned the second geologist with us or if he asked. Either way, it’s spectacular.
In the morning, I spent the better part of an hour explaining my plan and answering questions. First, I gave them printed explanations of my sequence of rocks in Nevada, then took them on a photo tour of my site’s best sponge fossils on my laptop. After that, I showed them photos of microscope slides – both of my Nevada sponges and from Dra. Rosas’ slides from the rocks on which we sat. then I laid out my plan for how we could all explore the rocks, and what specific priorities to look for. I did this entirely in Spanish, asking for words by description in Spanish and with a couple written down in my notes. It was exhilarating,
More exhilarating was the fact that they TOTALLY understood what the hell I was saying. I don’t mean just the words – and Julio, who speaks some English, helped to explain concepts for me. Even when I speak in Spanish, and I think in Spanish, I have English ways of constructing sentences and thoughts. Anyway, they didn’t understand just the gist or just what to look for. They totally get why I’m here. They get that this mass extinction completely changed the world, and the changes explain these totally frustrating wierdnesses about their valuable rocks. And they totally want to help, to discover for themselves the answers, and to learn how to see and interpret fossils and sediments.
At lunch, we sat by the river. Everyone brought too much food but it was delicious. After lunch we compared notes on our findings. Wow! Three teams, working totally independently, ended up observing almost the exact same package of rocks, and reported very similar findings. A few pseudofossils, but I was able to explain these well enough without letting anybody down too hard.
After lunch I walked through each of their findings. Incredible. I showed them which parts are valuable, and which are not related to life 200,000,000 years ago. There’s a lot in a rock that didn’t happen then. And I think they saw more of how I prioritize and sort fossils and sediments of importance.
When we were done, we decided to explore more, with the last hour of the day. We went to the roadside to look for ammonoids. Again, we split up, and again we found the same stuff. But bringing together these different observations, comparing them, seeing how the rocks connect – I mean PHYSICALLY connect – this is amazing. This is worth a dozen days in the field. More.
It take SO MUCH TIME to go through rocks, to learn what’s important, to decide where to search. Even though I know what we’re looking for, here’s an example. I had a lousy morning. I was on one side of the creek and ruins, and my rocks were ok but a bit busted and too much caked on dirty caliche to see much. If I were alone here, I’d be discouraged after that. I would take another look across the creek, see some of the observations these guys made – but we had six people pouring all over these rocks today. The synthesis makes those six observations WAY more than the sum of their parts. We became a team of people, each with the experience of six people. It sounds silly but knowledge is like this. It’s fractal.
So at the end of the day we found the most unexpected jackpot. I came here looking for sponges. We found those yesterday. Then I wanted a model for how the sponges lived in their environment and the changes in it – we got that during the morning and afternoon. Then, in the very last hour of the day, we got this surprise bonus. Ammonites. Ammonites tell you what was swimming or drifting in the water above the seafloor. They also tell you time. Ammonites come and go. They evolve fast, spread around the world, and go extinct quickly too. With ammonites, we can zero in on where in time our sponges are, our environments are – all of it. Dra. Rosas will be so thrilled. During her dissertation she found maybe two in this particular rock unit. Other visiting scientists she speaks of found one, another a handful. Today, in the last hour, we got a dozen. And of course more fossils between the ammonites to help us learn more. Totally incredible.
Tomorrow: measurements, collections, observations. What an incedible blessing.to find such work. Julio asked me if I was going to see Cuzco, and when I said no, he asked don’t I ever go on vacation. Now, when he and I are walking sheep trails between fossils on these steep mountainsides, I point to the river and views and say, “Vacaciones!” and he laughs.
Note – spotty interwebs and the site was down for maintenence yesterday evening. This is from Saturday night.
Photos coming but maybe after dinner tonight.
As I said earlier, in the sea, little animals make rocks. Limestone is a rock usually made chiefly from the shells of little boneless animals on the seafloor. Clams, snails, corals, and less famous critters like crinoids, bryozoans, and brachiopods. We have many tasks when we approach these in the field.
Paleontologists first typically want to know what kinds (species, if they can be identified that specifically) of animals were living at a certain time. Old-school paleontologists approach this by making a “range chart”; determining how long each given animal group lived. Based on this body of work, over 100 years old, I can say, “Oh, I found Psiloceras tilmani, a coiled ammonite [like a squid] shell. These rocks are from the beginning of the Jurassic.”
My approach is very different, and serves very different purposes. I am an ecologist. I want to know, after this mass extinction, what were conditions like for animals? I want to know about abundance – how many? And when I ask “what type of animal?” what I mean is “did animals burrow? Did animals live on the seabed? Did animals live together or keep their own territories separately?” Usually I go to places where other geologists have already made a list of the species of animals present, but these other important observations are left for me.
Ecology isn’t complete without a sense of the environment in which the animals lived. Was it a fast-moving shallow sea coast, by the beach? Was it a quiet deep setting with little flurries of mud and the occasional storm-generated dump of shells?
In this picture, in the center, is a small white clam – the kind that burrows into the seafloor. It was found by our driver, Raul! Surrounding it is “matrix”; the sand or gunk on the seafloor, and other “clasts”; the big chunks. Oh, and a TON of living lichen, a fungal/algal association that makes it really tricky to see fossils some times. This layer of rock is about 8 inches thick, full of small pieces of busted-up clam and scallop shells, and is a distinctive laterally consistent layer surrounded above and below by finer, muddier material. This information fits a “storm bed”; when there’s a storm, waves in the shallows bust up shells and smear them out into deeper water. It’s a great snapshot of animals that lived nearby, but it has important caveats.
Note – spotty interwebs and the site was down for maintenence yesterday evening. This is from Saturday night.
So many fossils my head is spinning. But I can’t take the whole mountain home, now can I? I have the rest of this very short field work week to decide how to work on what we’ve found. We answered so many questions today that we replaced them with incredible new ones. This is why science is always so much fun, and always a challenge.
It’s honestly difficult to type this up because I’ve been conversing in Spanish so much today that I’m now thinking in Spanish. I’ve got to keep it up because the one person fluent in both English and Spanish just left!
And WOW but these geologists are amazing. I was all wrong earlier when I said mining geologists and I speak different languages. Many of them study sedimentology – seafloor muck layer systems – less than your average oil guy, sure. But these guys are damn fine geologists. With the help of Dra. Rosas, they knew exactly what I wanted to look for, and beat me to finding it every time. “!Sus ojos!” I’d explaim; your eyes! And Julio would answer, “Por los mineralos”; for the minerals. And wouldn’t you know it. The higher-ups needed to go back to work, but they left us with Julio, who has the finest ojos in the group. So my team of nine is becoming a team of five or six. If I can manage to Spanglish my way through my ambitious research plan in the morning, I think my biggest challenge will be thinking fast enough to best use the talents of my host geologists and the spectacular fossils we’ve found.
Now the fossils themselves are either tiny or ugly, such that I don’t have great photos to share. And I don’t want to post photos of the specific rock outcrops or fossil groups – to keep our work private. But for those interested, the next post will be a mini-paleontology lesson.
Our driver grew up here in the countryside on the Alto Plano, the high planes between the western and eastern cordillera; two mountain belt systems that formed through time due to plate collision, with the requisite earth quakes and volcanoes. Dra. Rosas thought we wouldn’t see native lifestock, but sure enough, today we saw alpacas and llamas. !!Ahora, estoy seguro que estoy en Peru!! Now I am sure I’m in Peru!!
Other animal sightings in last 2 days: pigs, goats, sheep, dogs EVERYWHERE, horses, cows, gulls.
Meals: trout, fried trout, mashed yucca, boiled potatoes, local goat cheese, chicken soup. Repeat.
August 10, 2012
Hola! I have tons of pictures and video to post, but we just arrived back at the hotel after a long dinner with the geologists, so I have to go to bed pronto to be up on time in the morning. Until visuals, enjoy these descriptions of the day:
WOW. This road into the mountains is the main – and until recently, only paved – Andean highway. With only one lane each direction, it connects Peru’s Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast of Brazil. Today we rode it through a river-carved canyon, past the crowded foothill towns, into the mining districts, and across the South American continental divide.
The scientific experience I’m receiving completely surpasses any expectations I had, ever. Years ago I thought I would work in Peru at the beginning of my PhD. It is amazing that I am here now instead. As grad students, we celebrate myopic concentration on specific problems. But now that I’m here, I see how my work relates to a completely different world.
I just can’t describe the elation of being here with this amazing team of people. In addition to chairs from the USC Earth Sciences Department and Peru’s PUCP Mining Engineering department, joining us is the chief geologist and several other geologists from the PanAmerican mining company. Wow. Picture all of us, standing around a geologic map, standing on the South American continental ddivide. Little children bundled up in wool coats, swarming to sell us sweets, joined our huddle to stare at the strange map. And Dr. Rosas explained my dissertation work to the collected geologists, and said, “Todo es paleontologia!”; It’s all paleontology. They nodded and added agreements in Spanish. With my mix of spanglish, I’m able to explain my work, and ask questions, and it’s a totally amazing field seminar.
I’m an ecologist. I’m a time traveling ecologist. I want to know how animals recovered from a mass extinction. Studying marine invertebrates is completely different from studying terrestrial vertebrates, like dinosaurs. The animals I study don’t just get caught up in rocks. They create rocks. The animals that are alive in the sea drive the construction of whole worlds of rock, which, millions of years later, determine the location and availability of valuable human resources.
The mines themselves have long plagued society here with ignorant environmental devastation. Now the larger companies, if continually held responsible by the government, are investing uncounted millions into the education, research, infrastructure, engineering, and chemistry to create sustainable mineral resource management. Rocks and metallurgy are at the very heart of Peruvian culture from ancient times. Now the resources that built this computer I’m typing on and the airplane that flew me here have the power to pay for the needed environmental and civil infrastructure the people here need.
As a lifelong treehugger, looking into open pit mines alongside alpine lakes and bleach-white cliffs devastated by irresponsible mining many decades ago, it is strange that I feel a swelling confidence that people can, if they work cleverly, make this right. Dr. Rosas is passionate about the changes sweeping this industry and her university, and her students are learning how to process, isolate, and manage mining wastes from previous generation’s misuse.
Today we looked at cliffs and drove to mountain overlooks to survey the land we’ll be hunting for fossils all week. We would have started hunting today, but the geologists had to explain to a farmer that no, we are not looking for ore, and we are not looking to start any new mines in his area, so he would let us pass by a road he’d blocked near his farm. How to explain how esoteric, academic, and altogether non-lucrative the work that Dave and I do!? But the geologists were in their company outfits; he was necessarily cynical and explained wrongs the defunct 1970s company Cerro de Pasco did to him and his neighbors. Big changes in mining, big changes in geology; we’re just here to learn about the past, so we can better manage the future. After a long talk and showing him all of our university identifications, “de siencias”, he agreed to let us return on Wednesday morning. His son looked on curiously with his herding dogs. The old man shook our hands again, and seemed impressed at least with how far we’ve come to see his “rockas”. He may even come with us, and – crossing my fingers – we can show him his fossilized neighbors.