Field Work Is Hard Work

Note: I originally had these tweets curated on Storify.

One of the most high-profile parts of paleontology is the field work. I would bet my last bag of Earl Grey Special (note: must order more tea) that when one thinks of paleontology, the word conjures images of rocky badlands terrain and a small group of people wearing big hats and vests and bandannas crouched in a sun-beaten rocky quarry, dusting off bones that haven’t seen the light of day in 74 million years. It’s like a scientifically-endorsed treasure hunt, and people want to be of that story.

With the excitement that fieldwork invokes comes ill-informed opinions. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this “great idea,” the research program could operate for years off of the interest alone.

The perception of the general public on what paleontology fieldwork (or any fieldwork) actually entails is a media illusion, I’m afraid. You aren’t shown the ACTUAL hard work (unless it’s “heroic”) that goes into a field expedition.

Some field sites are actually amenable to paying customers who want to have an experience vacation. There are two key features of these sites: accessibility and emergency coverage (cell phone coverage, within a short driving distance of emergency medical facilities, ability to get vehicles in and out of the site reliably). When I ask the tourism/marketing people who come to me with this Great Idea (TM) whether they are going to pay to have a helicopter on standby for emergency evacuations or to cover the cost of a satellite phone, I get dirty looks and hear the sound of crickets.

crickets

However, the fieldwork that my colleague and I do is NOT amenable to adventure tourism for a variety of logistical, financial, and practical reasons.

How hard? The rock at our Late Cretaceous (Turonian) site is so hard that we actually broke our traditional excavation tools trying to work it. All of the excavating at that site has to be done with pneumatic tools, which bring with them their own safety risks.

Even our “classic” sites, like the B.C. hadrosaur (a.k.a. “duck-billed dinosaur” site, although calling hadrosaurs duck-billed dinosaurs is actually inaccurate!) have their own set of not-visitor-friendly frustrations.

So why does this make our kind of paleontology a bad fit for adventure/experiential tourism?

That’s when we actually have a site to excavate. The bulk of our fieldwork time is spent looking for these sites (a.k.a. paleontology field surveys). Paleontology field surveys are no walk in the park of a pleasant stroll down a groomed forest path.

I have a pair of hiking boots that I specifically use for these types of surveys. They’re called Bog Boots because of the countless beaver-dammed areas we’ve had to slop through. That smell never leaves your boots, BTW.

Oh, we also cannot control the wildlife. We cannot guarantee we will not encounter cranky wildlife. We can’t guarantee that someone will see wildlife. That’s a big difference between an adventure/experiential tourist and a fieldworker: a tourist may want to have a wildlife encounter they can photograph and tell stories about. If we encounter a bear in the field, that means we weren’t loud enough to warn the bear we were coming. [One day I’ll tell you about the person who lives in this region who complained that their visiting family didn’t see wildlife on the highway drive and that something should be done to guarantee highway sightings. Protip: you really don’t want to see moose on the highway.]

Since our field surveys are not pleasure hikes, there isn’t a lot of time for dawdling (a term used by my Granny and great-aunt Molly).

We have done hundreds of hours of field surveying that has not immediately resulted in a fossil find. That’s pretty standard for our kind of mountainous inaccessible terrain.

We don’t get disheartened because we expect to put in this kind of effort for no promise of “reward.” However, there is an expectation from a paying tourist to be rewarded for spending their money.

There are also real dangers associated with fieldwork. This is a danger that myself and my colleague knowingly and willingly accept…for ourselves. You simply cannot convey the risks and hazards of being in the wilderness without the promise of immediate assistance to someone who has not experienced that level of isolation.

An example: lightning in the alpine.

This is all to say that the paleontology fieldwork that people see on TV is HEAVILY edited. It’s the “Good Parts” version of fieldwork. Like reading the “good parts” version of the Princess Bride. All of the day-to-day realities of “dinosaur hunting” are removed to make the story “good.”

Want to know a secret (that is totally not a secret to anyone who does fieldwork)? If you participate in a “pay-to-dig” program, all of the hard parts have been pre-edited for you. It’s a programmed experience. For example, there were summer students, graduate students, and researchers who removed the overburden (the meters of rock that cover a dinosaur skeleton) before the paying participants arrived to find the bones.

Summers of hard physical work will take their toll on your body. I am a walking accumulation of fieldwork-related injuries.

That’s without me taking unnecessary risks. I can’t do the weekend warrior nonsense because I can’t afford to. My physical health is a big part of my livelihood. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many weekend volunteers take risks because, hey, they’re only out there for a few days. They get cranky when I say NO. They don’t understand that their safety in my hands, and if they are injured that is on my head, ethically, morally, and legally. But a paying person is going to want some “adventure.” If we don’t “provide” adventure they try to make their own by taking risks.

This brings us to an important but little-discussed part of managing a fieldwork team: Field Administration.

Think about a new person starting off in your company. While you are training, you are not 100% doing your own primary work. Part of your job becomes doing your work and reviewing the trainee’s work to provide feedback. We have a strict one volunteer per trained staff policy for digs. Overseeing one person means that I can catch whoopsies before they happen. Usually, the Curators end up supervising both volunteers and trainees.

And mistakes WILL happen. That’s part of learning. The most common mistakes for new volunteers/staff are digging too fast or too hard (quarry rock requires a certain level of patience and experience) and not keeping on top of self-care. This is why we screen volunteers for ATTITUDE over previous skills. Skills can be learned, but you can’t untrain a bad ‘tude in one field season. Unfortunately, if you accept paying people you cannot screen for attitude. You are under an obligation to take their personality along with their money.

Here’s a list of bad field-itudes that I’ve encountered over the years:

I’ve seen the above manifest in a few ways, including older people not respecting the expertise of younger supervisors, and gendered-biases of who is “in charge” on a field-based project.

Oh yes: sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in fieldwork.

Other Bad ‘Tude Bears issues we’ve had to face are people who refuse to partake in ANY self-care (even when reminded,) people who are negligent about the safety of others, and what I call the Dashed Expectations Complaining. Yes, this is hard work. No, we can’t do something “more fun” because we only have three weeks to do this dig. Bad attitudes can be more infectious than good attitudes, and someone with a realistic outlook on fieldwork is going to feel more pressure to be hap-hap-HAPPY to counteract a Bad ‘Tude Bear. That can be emotionally draining. Whether you’re in an office or under an excavation tarp, you can’t escape office personnel issues.

Pro-tip: our best field technicians came to us 100% untrained but with a positive can-do, ready to learn attitude. Now they are skilled and still have a great outlook on fieldwork. I will choose attitude over skill every darn time.

When a scientist is out in the field doing fieldwork, they are there to do a very specific job in a specified timeframe. They are not there to act as a tour guide. There are also ecological and cultural aspects to the “turn every dig into a business opportunity” mentality.

A big one is regarding who’s land you are operating on. If you’re in North America, you are doing your research on lands that are indigenous territories. If you want to find out whose lands you are working on, check out this link: https://native-land.ca/ You should consult with the traditional landowners before embarking on your work. If there is the desire to open up an area for tourism reasons, I feel that decision should be made by the traditional landowners.

If you respect the work that field scientists do, you will ask for their honest opinion regarding the different levels of access they feel they can accommodate in terms of experiential tourism. This includes education-based programming: if it’s too risky to bring adults to an area, it is most certainly too dangerous for children to be present. Your local scientist likely has ideas of areas that are amenable to this kind of development but remember: the priority for these sites is the science, and they will not hesitate to tell you no if the sites are too sensitive for this type of activity. These sites still need to be properly surveyed to ensure there won’t be any detrimental impacts to the heritage, natural history, or cultural stewardship of the area.

A site is not important just because you think that you can make money off of it or “promote” an area, region, or town. These sites record our common heritage, the story of what the area was and how we fit into that complex story. If we make a bad call and a site is damaged, we’re never going to get another chance to correct that mistake. That chapter of the story is lost forever. Preserving that story is our foremost priority, and I choose to err on the side of what’s best for the heritage.

Bird Tracks in the Classroom, Prologue

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ll be honest: I’m a little preoccupied with present-day bird tracks. I look for them when I’m on walks. I look for bird tracks when I take my recycling to the depot at the dump (the open pond sewage treatment area is there as well, sometimes attracting shorebirds and always attracting ducks and ravens.) Some opportunities I can anticipate, especially the outside-based ones. Others I stumble across.

The Fledgling Idea

I had the opportunity to visit an elementary school classroom, and saw the most amazing thing. There was a small box with a heat lamp. Inside came the heart-melting peeping of baby chickens. Sure enough, this elementary classroom had received chicken eggs to incubate as part of an experiential learning project of the life cycle of a chicken and birds in general. Once the chicks reach a certain age, they go back to the farm from where the eggs came.

So I started thinking…

If a classroom or an outdoor group has the opportunity to raise chickens (or other farm birds), they have the chance to see these birds grow from floofy baby chicks to adult floofy adult chickens. Baby birds grow quickly: they need to because even the precocial chicks (able to run around soon after hatching) are vulnerable to predators. There have been some studies on how present-day baby birds change size and shape as they age, this kind of study hasn’t been done on their footprints. One of my Ph.D. committee members had the idea of raising chickens to collect this data. Unfortunately, I currently live in an area where the rules on in-town chicken-keeping aren’t clear. But short-term science projects in a school setting are different than residential agriculture.

I asked the teacher “What would you think about adding a footprint-based science activity with these chicks that would be used in a scientific study?” We exchanged information (they thought it was a good idea) but unfortunately I not able to get this test project launched. I never heard back from the teacher (they likely already had a ton on their plate) and the chicks went back to the farm…but it did give me more time to think about the project.

Project Prologue

The Project “Chicken Tracks” is a workbook that will lay out, step-by-step (pun completely intended) how to collect, record, and make replicas of tracks of chickens (or any domesticated farm bird). The workbook will describe the same procedures that I use to collect data for scientific publications. Ichnology (the study of tracks and traces) is, in my experience, extremely accessible. Sure, as a subject in science it comes with its own particular jargon and methods, but the act of collecting the information just takes careful practice and consistency.

Interpreting that information is where ichnology gets complicated. When we look at fossil footprints and trackways, it’s always important to remember that they were made by living, breathing animals. The nice part of looking at the tracks of present-day animals is that we can actually watch the animals make the tracks! Being able to watch animals make tracks connects, us as observers of the natural world, to the animal’s life and behavior. It’s easier to connect to tracks, to make interpretations about the animal that made them when you can see the animals in action.

At this point, the “Chicken Tracks” activity book is in progress. It contains basic introductory information, information sections for instructors, equipment lists, data collection sheets, and of course the how-to sections. There will be (as my artistic abilities allow) diagrams and cute pictures of baby chicks and other birds. Ultimately, the data collected using “Chicken Tracks” will be a citizen science data pool that will be used in studies on bird and dinosaur footprints. Progress on “Chicken Tracks” has been good. At this point, I’m figuring out all of the different steps of the activity that will make the written instructions (already completed).

While I hope that Chicken Tracks will be a useful (and fun!) science project for classrooms, it has been an invaluable exercise for me! There’s nothing like teaching others how to do A Thing to really understand what you know (or don’t know!) about A Thing. It also highlights all of the parts of ichnology and bird that I (over a decade’s worth of experience working in ichnology) might take for granted as being “common knowledge.” These things are common knowledge to me. They are common knowledge to my colleagues. But what about someone who is interested in animal footprints and footprint identification and wants to learn more and wants to be involved in the science of ichnology? That’s who “Chicken Tracks” is for.

I’ll keep you posted on when “Chicken Tracks” will be ready! If you have any questions in the meantime, please let me know in the comments!

Vote in the 2018 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online!

Hello Dear Readers!

Science Borealis and their co-sponsor, the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) are excited to present the nominees for the 2018 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online…AND BIRDS IN MUD WAS NOMINATED!

THANK YOU!

Seriously, thank you! I am honored that people think that what I have to say on studying fossil footprints (a.k.a. ichnology), and life in museums and as a palaeontologist matters. Studying fossils is really all about sharing their stories with the world, and I’m glad you like the fossil stories I’ve shared.

How Does It Work?

Each weekday between the Monday, September 17th launch and the close of voting on Saturday, September 29th Science Borealis and SWCC will feature one blog and one site across their social media channels. Each nominated blog/site will be featured once during the event.

If you’re on social media, follow the #CdnSciFav hashtag! You’ll see the nominated blogs appear there! This is also SciLit Week (Sept 17-21), so also follow the #scilit18 hashtag!

It’s a People’s Choice Award, so voting is open to you, Dear Readers! Vote for your favorite nominated blogs using the link below!

http://blog.scienceborealis.ca/vote-2018-peoples-choice-awards-canadas-favourite-science-online

I’m Totally Voting! What Do You Win?

Bragging rights!

If I win, I get a Winner badge for Birds in Mud, and a write-up based on an interview that gets posted on the Science Borealis and Science Writers and Communicators of Canada websites.

Really, everyone involved in science communication wins! We need science communication and science communicators. It’s tough but fulfilling work.  We need everyone who has that talent and means and opportunity to not only get science out to the people but to connect people to that science. You don’t have to study it to think it’s important or to care about it. Your work matters, Science Communicators! People are listening!

What Have I Written?

This is my new site for the Birds in Mud blog, and I am very proud of the posts I have up here. The bulk of the posts for Birds in Mud are over at my old site on Blogger. Below I have links to my top six favorite posts on the old site:

  1. Some of my science! Here are all of the things I have to consider when I try to tell a large fossil bird footprint from a small non-birdy theropod footprint. Theropod versus Large Bird?: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2015/12/treading-ambiguously-theropod-versus.html
  2. Some more of my science! How we named a new type of Early Cretaceous fossil bird footprint! Introducing Paxavipeshttp://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2015/03/early-bird-tracks-in-british-columbia.html
  3. Why the Commerical Fossil Trade is Elitism in Palaeontology – The Ivory Tower of Buying Fossils: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2018/05/the-ivory-tower-of-buying-fossils.html
  4. What do Tyrannosaurus rex sounds have in common with ghosts? Read Sound Bites: Hearing a Tyrannosaurus rex to find out: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2017/12/sound-bites-hearing-tyrannosaurus-rex.html
  5. Do you think it would be great fun to have a science communication pamphlet to hand to solicitors who ring your bell? I sure do! See my first (and so far only) Science Tracks pamphlet here! http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2017/01/strange-woman-presents-science-tracks.html
  6. Before you write a news article on how “absurd” a country’s/province’s fossil protection laws are, you might want to consider what’s best for the fossils. Responsible Fossil Stewardship: You Might Not Get To Do Exactly What You Want With Fossils: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2016/09/responsible-fossil-stewardship-you.html

Enjoy the voting! Let’s spread that science communication joy!

Funding Neglect Kills Museums: #MuseuNacional Fire Was A Preventable Tragedy

I am at a loss for words today. Late Sunday night (in my time zone) I started seeing tweets on the devastating fire at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro. This is Brazil’s oldest scientific institution, founded in 1818, and is the largest scientific repository for historical, biological, geological, and palaeontological specimens in the country. The fire reportedly happened after hours, and no one was killed or injured (at least no injuries have been reported). Firefighters were reportedly dispatched at 7:30 pm. What we did see on Twitter were images of people trying to get as many specimens out of the inferno as safely possible: they are not my images to post, but I will link to the tweet where I saw them here:

The collections that were impacted by the fire were the palaeontology specimens – including South America’s oldest human fossil, Luzia, the invertebrate specimens (insects and relatives), historical royal documents, and the country’s largest Egyptology collection. The herbarium, library, and fish and reptile collections may have been spared as they are housed separately. Indigenous knowledge is likely now lost, as the collection held audio records of languages that are not now spoken.

We are unsure at this time how many of the metal cabinets were able to withstand the intense heat of a fire this size: there is a slim chance that some specimens that could not be hand-carried by soul-sick museum staff, volunteers, firefighters, and soldiers may still be intact. We will know more when they sift through the torched remains of scientific and historical memory.

How Did This Happen?

The tl;dr version is lack of secure, stable operational funding. The Deputy Director of Museu Nacional, Luis Fernando Dias Duarte, describes in an interview with media how they Museu Nacional fought to receive adequate funding for the internationally important work of this institution. From a BBC news article:

“We fought years ago, in different governments, to obtain resources to adequately preserve everything that was destroyed today.”

There is now a public outcry regarding the neglect of government bodies towards the Museu Nacional and the operational funding, but it’s too late once the specimens and the building have been lost to a preventable event. The museum staff and scientists have been trying to raise awareness of the lack of funding for the Museu Nacional for years. Also quoted from the Deputy Director in The Guardian:

“For many years we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” he said. “My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger.”

What amounts of money are we talking about anyway? It is a frustratingly small amount. The Museu Nacional is supposed to receive $128,000 annually for its operations, but since 2014 it has not received the full amount. National Geographic reports that in 2018 the Museu Nacional received a grand total of…wait for it…$13,000, and had to temporarily close its doors.

That is just for the operational costs. Operations refer to day-to-day activities of a museum: paying staff, heating, lights, and general maintenance and cleaning. Operational expenses do not cover the capital upgrades and renovations that a historic building (it was once the royal court in 1808) such as the Museu Nacional needs to keep staff and specimens safe. Capital projects refer to large targeted projects and major equipment. Major renovation projects that needed to be crowdfunded (that should have been paid for by the state and national government) include damage done by termites to the museum’s major dinosaur exhibit. There was a modernization plan in place that would have addressed the fire prevention system as well as other necessities, but that plan was not to take place until after October elections. The firefighters could only work with what they had available, and that was water from a nearby lake. They did all they could. Politics delayed a plan that would have prevented this tragedy.

But now it is too late. How much will it now cost to just repair the structure? How much will it cost to replace the archival equipment? We can’t ask “How much will it cost to replace the lost specimens” because WE CANNOT REPLACE THE LOST SPECIMENS. Many of those specimens include type specimens: that means they are the first and best example of an organism. They are the specimen that contains all of the information we need to study these organisms. Once you lose those, you lose the source of that knowledge. How do you replace that? How do you replace the years, decades, centuries of work that went into investigating those specimens? How do you replace the careers that are built on those specimens?

These specimens represent 200 years of Brazil’s history. Two hundred years of dedicated work by Brazil’s scientists, students, museum professionals, and volunteers. Two hundred years of accumulated knowledge that helped us better understand our place as humans in this great complex world. We can’t replace that.

A Wake-Up Call To The Funders of the World’s Museums

Brazilain President Michel Tremer has directed the museum be rebuilt using public and private funds. As Dias Duarte is quoted in The Telegraph: “Everybody wants to be supportive now. We never had adequate support.”

Where was this government-level concern when the tragedy could have been prevented by ensuring the Museu Nacional received enough funding to have their systems upgraded early on? Note: $128,000 is a paltry amount of money for a museum operating budget. A museum of this stature should have an annual operating budget of millions, not thousands, for its staff to properly care for priceless heritage.

Where was the government-level concern when the museum only received $13,000 this year and had to close its doors? That alone should have been a wake-up call for funders that the Museu Nacional was struggling, but it wasn’t enough.

Where was the government-level concern when the Museu Nacional had to crowdfund the repairs for the palaeontology exhibit?

Where was the government-level concern when, for years, the personnel of the Museu Nacional tried to secure government funds?

The main reason the government (which consistently neglected the Museu Nacional) made such a statement of rebuilding using public and private funds is that this a highly visible tragedy. A government can easily ignore a group of museum professionals and scientists when they ask for needed funds. Those asks are often done quietly, through “the proper channels,” as it were. These asks are done with the idea in mind that the scientists and museum professionals will be painted as trying to manipulate the government into giving them money if they make the ask publicly-known. Publicly revealing requests to government is framed by the recipients as blackmail and unwarranted pressure. So museums ask politely. Museums wait patiently. Museums continue to publicly thank the government for whatever inadequate funding they receive. Sometimes government officials suggest going after private donations instead of asking the government to help care for its heritage: private or industrial funding isn’t common, and it puts the responsibility on museums already stretched to their limits. Museums continue to limp along on shoestring budgets, expected to deliver programs while being simultaneously starved.

This is not the only museum, not the only home of irreplaceable and invaluable history and heritage, that has been gutted by short-sighted neglect and the consequential preventable tragedy.  The Natural History Museum in New Delhi lost its entire collection to a fire in 2016. The fire suppression system was out of order, and the museum was already known to be inadequately maintained (which requires money.) The Butantan Institute (Sao Paulo) collections, which housed snake, scorpion, and spider specimens used for vaccines and medical research, were gutted by a fire in 2010. The archive was not equipped with a fire suppression system (which requires money).

If you read the news articles regarding these great losses, you’ll see official government quotes that express sadness for the loss of irreplaceable heritage and what a loss it is to the country and the world, etcetera, etcetera. Those sentiments tend to ring hollow in the ears of those who fought for years to maintain bare minimum funding from these same governments, only to be rebuked or ignored.

Government and private funders of museums need to learn these valuable lessons from the Museu Nacional tragedy:

  1. Many museum specimens cannot be replaced once they are destroyed. If the destruction was preventable, funders bear the responsibility of that loss to the world. That is bad optics. Even if funders do not care a sniff over the heritage lost, they should care about how the public and the world perceives the inaction that leads to these tragedies.
  2. It is less expensive to properly fund a museum in the long-term than it is to repair and rebuild after a preventable tragedy. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.
  3. A properly funded museum is a public relations asset that can either work in a government’s favor. A poorly funded museum will display the government’s inadequacies. VIPs touring the museum will look with a critical eye at the water-stained ceiling tiles, the old computers in offices, and the outdated lighting fixtures. They will see the strain in the eyes of museum personnel who have stretched themselves to the limit to keep that museum running on fumes.

I completely trust the professionals at the Museu Nacional when they say they have fought for years for adequate support. I trust them because they are the professionals at that museum, and fought for years for it to succeed in spite of (not thanks to) the funding they received. I trust the professionals at the Museu Nacional because I too am a museum professional. I have been involved with running a natural history museum on inadequate funding for fourteen years, and I am familiar with the stress and the strain, the blood, sweat, and tears one pours into a museum to keep it running. To think that museum professionals don’t know – and I mean intimately know – exactly what it takes to maintain and upgrade that institution is ridiculous. Their dedication, time, love, and devotion to caring for those now-lost specimens as best as they could was disrespected beyond measure each time they were ignored, dismissed, or delayed. Museum professionals are not trying to scam money for expensive personal vacations: they are worried sick about the specimens.

An organization, government or otherwise, cannot claim to care for or respect their heritage if they are not doing the utmost to properly care for that heritage. Doing the utmost requires providing stable, adequate, long-term operational funding. It requires acting quickly to help a museum upgrade old systems (wiring, fire suppression, etc.) It requires respecting the museum professionals enough to recognize that they are tasked with an internationally important responsibility of being stewards of irreplaceable heritage.

The Museu Nacional will continue, and hopefully now with the funding that it needed all along. We need to ensure that other museums that are currently struggling to keep the lights on and care for their heritage receive the support they deserve…before tragedy strikes.