Paleontology

Glancing Backward Near Lance Creek: An Experiential Essay

February 24, 2014 No Comments

Who we are today is attributable, at least in part, to the more distant past and more recently, the influences of yesterday. Most people, including myself, would view this statement as just simple, common sense thinking. But it is something about which I often ponder.

Take passionate interests or hobbies for one thing. As a youth growing up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota, I remained an only child until my brother came along some years later. And there weren’t that many close-by kids to play with in this rural neighborhood! Whether it was because of innate curiosity or due to exposure at school or related to watching certain television programs, I seemed to develop a keen interest in nature. Gravel pits were common in the area as were graveled roads. It didn’t take much for an early grade school kid’s eyes to zero in on rocks, hands reaching downward, collecting pretty stones and occasional rocks with shell imprints. My personal collection grew.

My one sibling, Danny, set foot on Earth about eight years after I did. A full biologically related brother, he followed in my footsteps not only literally as a tike but figuratively as well, taking rock-hounding and fossil collecting to a level far beyond me. This included Danny even becoming a fossil preparation worker while completing graduate school geology courses, although not entering this field professionally. Aside from having taken two introductory geology classes and several physical geography courses at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, my interest in Earth science had percolated along as well. In addition to local rock and fossil hunting near home, I avidly read books on life forms of the geologic past and locations where I could find fossil remains. It was no wonder that we would eventually be casting brotherly eyes toward the fossil fields of the western United States with eager anticipation a bit later in our lives. Somehow, amateur paleontology had become ingrained in the brains and muscle fibers of both of us, early on, during our more formative years!

One memorable excursion to search for fossils “out West” with my brother took place one early summer when we both desperately needed breaks from our regular jobs. We packed up the old Ford Bronco starting at 6:00 A.M. on an already hot and humid day in late June. Crammed into this small car was our clothing, boxes of non-perishable food, countless gallons of drinkable water, tent, sleeping bags, rock picks, shovel, collecting containers, hygiene items, first aid kit, and personal belongings. Upon closing the car door, I recall having said something like this to Danny: “Maybe we should take along my 11×80 astronomy binoculars and tripod. Skies most likely will be clear and there’s really no light pollution at night out there on the cattle range. And they’d be handy when looking far away for outcrops of rock where fossils might be.” My early morning taciturn brother simply replied, “Good, let’s not forget the geologic maps. They’re here in my car.” Having loaded these items onto the dash which was our last bit of open cargo space in our already-filled-to-the-gills vehicle, we headed out from western Minnesota to eastern Wyoming. We would be searching for ancient life specimens from about 66 to 67.5 million years ago that had been entombed in beds of sedimentary rock that were part of the Lance Formation — a thick and extensive chunk of Earth’s crust laid down by streams on a coastal plain near the edge of an ancient seaway. These very old life forms could presently be evidenced by finding hardened animal parts like bones, teeth, and armor plates that had weathered out of the relatively soft rock layers.

The venture west included a long haul down Interstate 90 and at the Kadoka, South Dakota exit, we turned south, just east of the Badlands. No longer short on words, my brother engaged in animated chatter about the Oligocene epoch of about 34 to 23 million years ago and the grazing land animals — with unusual names such as oreodonts and titanotheres — indigenous to the Badlands many years prior to their sculpted erosion. We reminded ourselves that our in quarry, this time, northwest of Lusk, Wyoming would be former inhabitants of the land and water during the late Cretaceous period of history when dinosaurs still reigned supreme. Arriving in Lusk, population about 1400, we gassed up and headed out to the cattle-predominant range land of this ranching culture where the human population was quite sparse.

Some 30 or so miles out of Lusk, we left the asphalt highway and headed north on winding clay-dirt roads that seemed like only wide paths but extending on and on through the hilly ranchlands. These were the connecting arterioles linking rancher to rancher, rancher to cattle, and ranching family to the pleasure of getting into town. But the ranch homesteads were miles apart. We would drive, let’s say, two to three miles, and only see one set of ranch buildings off in the distance somewhere. Talk about sparsely populated! Cattle certainly out-numbered people by a factor of hundreds, maybe thousands, to one. Herded together groupings of beef cattle would be seen here and there across the undulating landscape, usually where the natural grasses grew best and near a source of water like a natural pond or a stock tank where water was pumped from a well. Occasionally, we would point out the brownish and grayish sandstone and shale outcroppings — rock beds where fossils potentially were — that corresponded to our geological maps as we continued our bumpy way toward the ranch owned by a man named Charlie. We knew him from past years. He was a friendly and gracious man and he allowed fossil hunting on his land!

Charlie and his wife, Ruth, were home as we drove up to their ranch house in order to say “Hello.” After an exchange of cordials, we headed down a long, rutted, tire-track path out to “The Blowout” where cattle roamed freely. The blowout was a well-defined and sharp outcropping of the sandstone we had come for and this locale was rich in small fossil remains, likely the shoreline of a large Cretaceous body of water. All we had to do is look on top of a fairly large, flat pile of sand which was the result of sandstone weathering. If you slid your shoe sideways through this sand, the “plowing” done an inch or two deep yielded more tiny pieces rising to the surface. It was like coming back to a Valhalla of sorts, this being just about like it was when we left it some years before. Danny said, “It’s always good to start here.” I replied, “It whets your appetite to explore other places out here.”

With tent pitched and our “camp” established, we endured the rigors of life outdoors during the early summer in eastern Wyoming. Fossil hunting went on for about a whole week. A shower consisted of a small pail of sun-warmed water poured over your head while dressed in swimming trunks late in the day. The nights got quite cool at times but the sleeping bags helped ward off the nightly shivers. Propane burners heated water to pour over food which we called “Instant This” and “Instant That.” We survived. But the big reward that kept us going was the various fossil pieces we collected. They often averaged the size of a person’s finger nail or smaller but the larger fossils could be finger-sized, some even a bit larger.

We found small to tiny limb bones, small jaw fragments, various small individual teeth (including several meat-eating raptor dinosaur teeth and a handful of Triceratops dinosaur teeth), numerous garfish scales, several claws no bigger than your end finger joint, boney armor plates, shell pieces, numerous vertebrae less than fingernail size, and so forth! Animals we thus encountered from 60-some million years ago probably included creatures like fish, lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, frogs, salamanders, birds, small shrew-like mammals and, of course dinosaurs. The latter specimens were particularly interesting and valuable to our collection. In addition to finding several serrated raptor teeth no bigger than your pinky finger and a literal handful of worn-down and sloughed off Triceratops teeth of about finger nail size, we found a prized black-enameled edge piece, about two inches long, that had broken off a Tyrannosaurus stabbing tooth. This faunal assemblage of animals had lived in a sub-tropical environment — so the text books said — but it would not have been a setting conducive to our style of tent camping if some of these critters were out and about!

We had to take some breaks occasionally from this harsh outdoors lifestyle. The Sun rays alone caused me to put on so much sunscreen lotion that I felt half-ways embalmed! Twice, we went into Lusk for breakfast and spent a little bit of extra time feeling the county library’s air conditioning as we flipped through some magazines. We always tried to save at least an hour each clear night for looking through my 11×80 astronomy binoculars, seeing our galaxy and the galaxies beyond ours with increased clarity, depth, and wonder. The views of constellations, star clusters, gas clouds and distant worlds bordered on descriptions such as “exquisite” and “excellent.”

On one of these evenings, a profound realization overcame me which I shared with Danny. The large binoculars were capable of delivering some nice views of the larger and brighter galaxies. Some of these were in the range of 65 to 70 million light years away from Earth. If light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, the light of these galaxies traversed an incredibly immense distance over the course of 65 to 70 million years. This light began to radiate outward from some of these galaxies at a time when our fossil specimens were actually living. And this light was just now reaching our eyes! In our minds, time became the obverse of distance and vice versa. In a singular moment, time, space, and distance all became blended, and here we sat in the “wilds” of raw nature contemplating this. It took quite awhile to get to sleep that night.

The remaining days of our fossil hunt had several adventures awaiting us — an unpredictable thunder and lightning storm as well as an encounter with a nest of rattle snakes. But we and our ancestors had survived biological evolution over the span of the geologic time scale from eons down through various epochs and ages. We survived these challenging mini-adventures on our fossil vacation, also.

When it came time to head back home to Minnesota, we had no qualms, regrets, or ill feelings. We got what we came for. Fossil specimens, yes. But we also had received something emotionally good from the experience. It was great to re-bond with my brother. Realizing that we were both products of an evolution commencing millions and billions of years ago, we reflected also on who we were now based on our childhood to adulthood pasts and the influence of yesterday’s “fossil experience” in cementing our relationship even closer. Having taken the time to journey both physically and mentally backward, we now geared ourselves toward stepping further into our futures.

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Randall Wehler is a recently “retired” psychologist who has been interested in fossils most of his life. He is also an amateur astronomer, having had essays and articles published in Sky and Telescope magazine. In late 2012, he published a work-related suspense novel entitled Whispers At Willowbrook. His fossil collecting experience includes primarily Late Cretaceous and Oligocene life forms.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.

PRI_

Published On: February 24, 2014

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