Fossil hunters are studs


Like any day, and I think any person, I was happy to wake up and look outside to see blue skies. Not just happy… happy is temporary. It affected me; I had a bit of spring in my step that I’m pretty certain was due solely to that blue hue we know so well, universal to all and indicative of good times. (I will admit, here, tha

t I am from Northern California, and blue skies may not mean the same thing to all people, but more on that later.) The agenda for today was to be provided an “overview of Panama Canal Geology and Paleontology” with Jorge Velez, visiting three fossil collecting sites along the Pacific side of the Canal. But like many agendas before this one, modifications needed to be made.

This program good, and as such the University of Florida is including it in a bi-annual publication about all the great things they are doing in the world of science research. To that end, three University of Florida employees have joined us – Joe, Jeff and Peter. Joe is the editor, Jeff the photographer, and Peter the videographer. Great guys all-around. And, since they were here, and the weather was cooperating, our day became a little more intense, but with good reason. They have just a few days to get their shots, and to document the whole program in just a few days is unlikely, but the skies have now made it plausible. The more we shoot today, the less we worry about good weather tomorrow. The mid-day break (between the Canal and a visit to Punta Culebra to see kids in an after-school program doing science with STRI interns and grad students) would have to go. We’re working through. We would be on the Canal until at least 2pm.

Humidity is a dampness that you just can’t escape. Humidity with sun is debilitating. (We’re adding sweat to this? Seriously?) But onward in the name of science, right?

Jorge led us to the three locations, and each produced fossils. This alone was impressive, but what struck me was who was finding the fossils. Jorge brought two of his interns, Christina and Sylvia, both of whom seemed to be totally dialed in to the dying places of ancient organisms. Sylvia was at the Centenario site for less than five minutes before finding a turtle shell fragment and a tooth of what was presumed to be a sheep relative of 19 million years ago. Christina wandered off at the Cucaracha formation and then explained what she had found – fish vertebra, turtle shell, and …. The rest of us were searching hard – staring at the ground, picking up specks or chunks, looking at them with concerned interest (just like the interns did), seeing nothing, and moving on. It became clear over time that we really had no clue what to look for. Some of the specks and chunks may have indeed been fossils, but how does the Summer-trip field scientist discern the specks from fossil frog leg bones? Apparently, we don’t know. But, this is not an embarrassment. We have other special talents that come out in classrooms in front of a critical audience of skeptical (pre)teens. We (and, yes, I’m lumping all of my fellow travelers with me here – hope they don’t mind…) just haven’t spent enough time in the sweltering heat and juicy humidity searching with our heads down for that special speck or chunk, discerning the differences between fossil gold and the most common rocks on the planet. To do so requires such passion, commitment, and perseverance that few of us have been afforded the opportunity to develop this expertise. Those who have are studs, taking on the heat and sweat and hunched-over searching like an over-matched boxer taking jabs on the chin without consequence. They endure and remain upright. They fight back, and take the small victories when they surface, out of optimism their next find will be the one.

It only takes one, and it is clear that this fact is not lost on those who spend their days/months/semesters/lives searching. As a surfer caught up in the search for perfect waves, I have to say I completely understand. #madrespect



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