Playing the Field

Going to the field and uncovering fossils is often what attracts someone to vertebrate paleontology. I know it was a contributing factor for me! There isn’t anything quite like picking up the remains of an ancient animal and immediately recognizing that it represents something new to science. But there is a reason finding fossils is known as fieldwork rather than fieldplay; it requires a lot effort - particularly in the case of international fieldwork - much of which is far less gratifying than searching for bones and teeth. Having just recently returned from the field, here are a few reflections based on nearly two decades of doing fieldwork outside of the US. Hopefully you will gain some new insights if you’ve never done fieldwork before, and if you have, I hope they resurrect some fond and not-so-fond memories of your own.

Planning a field season begins many months before actually hopping on a plane. Aside from the question of where to go and for how long, team-based science requires coordinating the schedules of many people with varying time constraints. Those constraints, along with other limiting factors such as avoiding bad weather (rain, snow, heat, cold), can result in a surprisingly small window when all stars are aligned. And once the basic schedule is established, the logistics of arranging plane tickets, visas, accommodations, and ground transportation begin - a process much less straightforward than simply booking everything through Expedia.

Blockades like this one in Bolivia can quickly change one's fieldwork itinerary. Photo by D. Croft. Reuse permitted under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Despite all your careful planning, something almost always goes wrong with some aspect of transportation. This requires quickly formulating and executing Plan B. You may miss your connecting flight due to a storm and have to determine which series of buses you can take to get you to your destination, albeit a day late. Or protesters may blockade all the roads into and out of a city, requiring you to enlist the help of local taxi drivers to enter via dry riverbeds in the dead of night. Every field paleontologist has a series of such stories that are entertaining in retrospect but that caused no shortage of angst in the moment.
One challenge with international fieldwork is how much time to set aside to meet with foreign officials and secure the proper permission. This is something that needs to be done in person and often can’t easily be solidified beforehand. You may want to give a presentation on your research to students, faculty, or other interested parties to provide details about what you have done and/or what you propose to do. University officials and politicians can change from one year to the next, requiring that new relationships be established. You may not even know from whom you need to get permission before you arrive. Actually getting to the field requires convincing people not only that your research is important, but also that it has some tangible benefit for the country and its people.

The weather often changes quickly in the mountains, and a thunderstorm (with hail) in the Andes can scuttle a day's fieldwork. Photo by D. Croft. Reuse permitted under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Arriving at the field site usually elicits a collective sigh of relief from the team, but the challenges don’t stop there. Bad weather is a prime consideration; rain and snow usually make fieldwork impossible, meaning that your only option is to sit in your tent (or truck) and wait for conditions to improve. In some cases, a field season may even have to be cut short. Local residents can limit access to sites, particularly in areas that are politically unstable. Such situations can often be resolved, but valuable field time can be lost. Fires, floods, landslides and other natural phenomena can also limit access to field sites, even if they take place months before your field season; in a mountainous region with a single access road, blocking or destroying that road means there is no way for you to get where you need to go. Health issues can arise that prevent team members from working or even require that they leave the field early.

So why do we put up with it?

The thrill of finding a great fossil never gets old.

- Dr. Darin Croft is an Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio
Posted: 5/23/2017 7:26:10 AM by croftdarinadmin | with 0 comments
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