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Fieldwork Journal: A Day in the Life of a Paleontologist

From the Field posts

Jack Tseng and Camille Grohe, postdoctoral fellows in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, are blogging from the field during an expedition to Inner Mongolia. The post below is from Jack. Read the first post from this expedition here

Abaga Banner

Overview of Abaga Banner, our base camp for the first stop.

© J. Tseng


A typical day in Inner Mongolia begins with a hearty breakfast—unlike elsewhere in China, the proximity of towns and cities to large sheep ranches here guarantees a feast of freshly boiled sheep parts at the crack of dawn, usually accompanied by sheep cheese and milk tea. The guilt of such a high-calorie intake is enough to motivate a lazy hiker to prospect vigorously for fossils later on. Luckily, the vast grasslands and rock exposures offer plenty of space to burn off the fat (yes, literally the sheep fat we just consumed).

Breakfast in Inner Mongolia

Breakfast table with buckets of food to choose from, mostly boiled sheep and fried dough.

© J. Tseng


Whatever food is left over from breakfast is usually divided up among the expedition members to be taken in our individual packs as lunch. This saves time as our unpredictable fossil-hunting schedule does not always allow for reassembly at lunchtime. Before we leave each “base camp” town, we also make sure we have enough water (both potable and non-potable) to drink and to make plaster casings with, in case we find something worth excavating. Then we head out in our four-wheel drives.

Tseng Prospecting

Crewmembers locating promising rock exposures to start off the day.

© J. Tseng


About half of our usual stops in the Inner Mongolian Gobi represent previously known localities either from our own expeditions, or from another era (such as those discovered during the Museum’s Central Asiatic Expeditions). As inquisitive field paleontologists, we are always looking for new places to uncover new fossils, but a seasoned field worker never overlooks the importance of going back to known sites. Why? Even at the most surveyed fossil sites, nature works its wonder through wind, rain, snow, and tectonic activities. Existing rock layers at the surface (where most of previous fossil discoveries are located) are slowly weathered away each year, exposing fresh surfaces that have not been studied before. By a bit of diligence and a whole lot of luck, sometimes we can catch a glimpse of a fossil with just its tip exposed on the surface, indicating the potential to find the rest of it (be it a single bone or parts of a skeleton) just beneath the ground. The less the fossil is exposed through weathering (but exposed enough for us to locate in the first place), the more likely we can find complete bones within the rock.

Teeth

Newly discovered tooth row of an antelope-like animal from Baogeda Ula.

© J. Tseng


We arrive at a fossil site via the help of GPS and geologic and satellite maps. After agreeing upon a time to meet back at the vehicles, we fan out in search of bones. A typical daypack includes water, food, plaster bandages, rock hammer, a GPS unit, field notebook, plastic bags (for sorting fossils from different localities), acrylic consolidant and glue (for stabilizing fragile fossils), brush, dental pick, awl, binoculars (for surveying rock outcrops in the distance, or for bird-watching when no other paleontologists are around!).

Tseng Jacketing

Camille applying a plaster coating, called a jacket, to a rhino leg-bone at a new locality in northeastern Abaga Banner. The jacket will protect the specimen during transport.

© J. Tseng


For the most part, our day is filled with blessed solitude in the Gobi. The loudest sounds we hear are either our footsteps crunching over the hot, pebbly hills, an occasional dust devil (a small area of rapidly spinning wind that contains sand or dust), or a herd of sheep. This is not only a time to find new and exciting fossils, but also to reflect upon our own scientific journey during the rest of the year, when months of indoor research in front of a computer—and in the middle of the urban jungle that is NYC—numb your senses, and distance the fossils you study from their primary context in the ancient rocks of some of the most desolate landscapes that remain on Earth.

Tseng Heading Back

Jack, left, and Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology colleagues Hongjiang Wang and Wenqing Feng head back to the field vehicle with finds of the day.

© J. Tseng


The end of the day is a time of celebration. The expedition members, no matter whether they are a professor or a starry-eyed undergraduate student, gather around in a kindergarten-style show-and-tell. This is often the most emotional time of the expedition: the excitement of seeing new and unknown fossils, the disappointment of not having the best find of the day. But that's okay, it starts over again tomorrow!

This expedition is funded by the American Museum of Natural History and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Additional support for this work was provided by the Franco-American Fulbright Scholar program, the AMNH Frick Fund (Paleontology), and the U.S. National Science Foundation. 

Read the next post from this expedition here.

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