Field Update 1: Things Fall Apart

So, I’ve been here for a week now, pretty much left to my own devices. What have I learned from my first real trip to the field (that’s right, the field in a building)?

Well, the project I was so psyched about before I came will not work out. The sample is just too small, that is, not enough specimens preserve all the traits I need. I contacted Dr. Miriam Zelditch at UM who is a pretty amazing scientist working on integration, among other things. She confirmed my suspicion that even with resampling, such a small empirical sample size will not work out. I still think it’s a neat idea, so I’m contemplating heading over to the Mammals collection to test it out on larger samples of extant primates. So Life Lesson #1 (which I’ve learned elsewhere): often, things don’t work out they way you’d intended.

Everyone at the museum has been lovely so far. Very friendly and very helpful. And the fossils! I’ve only examined things Swartkrans and Kromdraai (I found out that some of the Kromdraai teeth I looked at today might be early Homo instead of Australopithecus robustus). But the real fossil are amazing! I never realized the extent to which the fossils were reconstructed–I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much glue before. In fact, one specimen had a note from the late Dr. Charles Lockwood pointing out that it appears to have been reconstructed (glued together) slightly incorrectly. So it’s not all taphonomy after all…

But then the taphonomy is incredible, too. Taphonomy literally means “burial laws” in Greek, and it’s the study of how fossils come to look the way they do–that is, what happened after the organism died, how long did it take to be buried, what geological processes affected it, etc? The South African cave systems have interesting taphonomy: Many, or most, Swartkrans specimens may have been victims of carnivores like leopards, that subsequently fell into the caves. Once in the caves, they were buried by other debris and bones that fell in the caves. Many of the specimens have been distorted–squished flat or contorted in other weird ways. COB 101, for example, is part of a cranium that has been flattened on itself, such that the forehead is right next to the hard palate (I’m told they call the specimen “Pancake” around here).

So even where there are fairly complete specimens, many have been ‘morphed’ from having spent over 1 million years under the moving earth, further preventing quantitative analyses. Milford likes to note that with fossils, the data don’t speak for themselves. Earlier in the week he asked me if the fossils had talked to me yet. I replied that they seem to be whispering, “try harder.” Really, though, they were yelling at me, “You suck! You’ll never figure us out, you hack.” Milford replied that the fossils, in their condition, are telling me (and other paleontologists) to be innovative. Which I believe is true. So, here’s Life Lesson #2 (I haven’t tasted the fruits of the lesson, but I sincerely believe it): Most research questions are answerable; however, some require more creativity than others.

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