Dinosaurs in the City

Originally published in Raleigh Magazine. Normal type represents the story as it was published, and italics are for notes + stories that I did not have the space or real reason to include, but think you would enjoy.

When you think of a field trip, it conjures images of bagged lunches, an enthusiastic troupe of children, and a teacher repeating her instructions a dozen times. For the team that works behind the glass walls at the paleontology lab of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, ‘field trip’ gets instantly translated to ‘expedition’. It means long days in long weeks far from home (or civilization, for that matter), sweeping vistas, scanning, chiseling, and discovery.

 Photo courtesy of Lisa Herzog.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Herzog.

Days on expedition started with a protein-heavy breakfast, coffee, and doling out assignments for the day. In the remotest deserts of Utah, there as an enforced present-ness - you work on the task in front of you until the sun goes down, then you return to base camp to cook dinner, play cards, then dive into sleeping bags before doing it all again the next day.

2016, central Utah - as a last push at the end of a hot day, an expedition team led by the museum’s head paleontologist Lindsay Zanno decided to scour one last ridge. Their efforts were rewarded: Paleontologist Terry “Bucky” Gates found pieces of eggshell, which turned out to be a clutch of football-length eggs from a late Cretaceous creature called an oviraptorosaur (imagine a 15 foot chicken-meets-dinosaur, and you’ve got the picture). Although fragmentary oviraptorosaur eggs have been found in the United States, this is the first time a clutch has been uncovered here.

National Geographic described the Oviraptorosaur - a name that took me a very long time to learn how to spell without quaking in my boots - as the “chicken from hell”. It would have lived in temperate regions surrounded by plant life we would recognize, such as magnolia and willow trees, and sassafras.

Preparing the nest for collection required weeks of work, culminating in lifting it off the desert cliffs by helicopter (surrounding sediments, protective plaster jacket and all), then driving it back to the Triangle and the lab that serves as home base. Lab operations manager and paleontology prep veteran Lisa Herzog has participated in the expeditions for years, and says that after weeks in the field the team unloads the fossils, then takes a day off to regroup. It’s a nice break at first, but after twenty-four hours to bask in AC, WiFi and spare time, there is an irresistible itch to get back in the lab to start work on the new specimens.

Unlike many paleontologists, Zanno has little to no interest in promoting or press - she just wants to get down to her actual work. According to Lisa Herzog, the general rule of thumb in working with a paleontologist is that the bigger the tooth they’re digging for, the bigger the ego. The crew at the Museum of Natural Science seems to have deflected any swollen egos, since it is an institution with education and public service at its heart.

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Chief fossil preparator Aaron Giterman cut into the plaster encasing the eggs (on smaller items scissors are sufficient - for this 1400 pound mass, he used a saw). The lab offers as much order as the field did volatility - every drawer is labeled, each tool has its place. After assessing and shoring up the stability of the specimen, the next step for a preparator is to clear the surrounding rock away using either a needle-like tool or a miniature jackhammer. It is a task that requires precision and patience in abundance. 

“People think that working on fossils is going to be really awesome and cool and exciting...and then they do it, and they’re like, ‘This is really boring’. It’s not for everyone,” Herzog said while describing the process. She came to the NCMNS after over a decade of work at the Field Museum in Chicago, bringing with her a range of experience and dedication to the best practices in the realm of paleo prep. In the case of the oviraptorosaur nest, there is a wealth of information to be gathered about a still-mysterious species, making care and consistency paramount.

To people in the business, the word “paleontology” is too much of a mouthful to say on a regular basis - it’s shortened to “paleo”, and absolutely made my morning because I heard the word paleo five thousand times in one morning without it ever once referring to a depravation of carbs.

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“Sometimes what we discover about animals is in the minute details,” she explained. The data is hidden in the sediments surrounding the nest, in the shape and texture of the eggs themselves, in the way the eggs were laid (a neat semicircle) and in the context of the original site. With so much to uncover and study, Herzog estimates that work on the nest will go on for at least the next five years. The work will be conducted in its usual quiet, equally unglamorous and significant way by Giterman, Herzog, Zanno, volunteers, and by other colleagues in their own labs across the world.  

As the work goes on, the eggs are front and center for any curious mind that cares to see. Next time you visit the museum, you can peer through the paleontology lab and get a good look for yourself at this piece of history in the midst of its revelation. Who knows - maybe the field-tripping kid next to you will be the paleontologist who makes the next big discovery.

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The above image contains one of my favorite views in Raleigh. Why not combine ancient past with the city skyline?

Y’all, I got to spend hours with dinosaur bones and someone who works with them. If my nerdy twelve-year-old self knew how I spent that morning, she would be losing her dang mind.