blob, blob, blob, …
After vacation time enjoying the good life, there’s nothing like a little bit of manual labour to get the body and soul back on track.
Last week, on a stopover while returning from Europe, I spent a couple of days doing paleontological field collecting in south-central Ontario. As some of you know, I have been working for quite some time to understand fossil jellyfish that occur in various places, most notably in central Manitoba. Dave Rudkin of the Royal Ontario Museum had told me about some structures in Silurian rocks of Ontario that bear at least a passing resemblance to the Manitoba jellies, and a year ago he sent a few specimens to whet my appetite. Although the fossils he sent look not dissimilar to amorphous inorganic blobs, they had enough jellyfish character to make a visit to the site essential. There are no definite jellyfish fossils known so far from the Silurian (444 to 416 million years ago), so these could fill in a significant gap in the jellyfish record.
So last Thursday lunchtime, there I was in the hot Ontario sun, jetlagged and shifting rock. The site is one of several currently being studied by Peter von Bitter (of the ROM) and his colleagues, and Peter had kindly agreed to let me look at the fossils in conjunction with him, Dave, and Henry Choong (also from the ROM). The rock there is a finely laminated carbonate, and over the years Peter and his associates have mined out an almost infinite number of thin platey slabs, stacking them on pallets so that they can weather for further evaluation.
In addition to the “amorphous blobs”, the rock holds a great variety of fossils both commonplace (brachiopods, trilobites) and unique (very unusual arthropods and possible conodont animals). The latter are, of course, the reason Peter has been studying this place. The blobs have been of minor interest to previous workers, other than for the fact that some of them contain what seems to be a great variety of different minerals: sulfides, calcite, and possibly fluorite.
The procedure for examining these slabs can be described thus:
1. Lift heavy slab from layer low on pallet to a level where it can be considered;
2. Mash fingers with slab while attempting to stabilize it on top of stack of rock;
3. Curse, then blow dust from surface of slab, managing to get most of the dust into eyes and nose;
4.Wipe eyes, smearing sunscreen from forehead into eyeballs;
5. Repeat cursing;
6. Rotate slab surface carefully in the blinding light, trying to determine if it holds any interesting fossils;
7. Put nose close to rock to observe amorphous blob through hand lens, inhaling a whiff of sulfur from the bituminous material in the carbonate;
8. Turn slab over to examine other side;
9. Repeat steps 2 to 7;
10. Place slab on stack of examined slabs, mashing fingers once again;
11. Re-repeat cursing;
12. Repeat steps 1 to 11.
Now, imagine doing this for two days solid (or more, if you like). If you, like some people, consider paleontological fieldwork to be “exciting” or “exotic” or “romantic,” just remember: the above description is really quite accurate. Except that we were in a relatively civilized location and had the luxury of not dealing with snow, or torrential rain, or high temperatures, or hail, or sleet, or mosquitoes, or bears. Add in any or all of those exciting variables if you want to get a feel for the true romance of fieldwork.
The first 10 or 15 minutes of a field collecting project can be quite exciting. The next 10 or 15 hours … less so. But if the work produces results, it is worth whatever effort is required.
By the end of the second day, I had examined many dozens of amorphous blobs. Most of them are just that: amorphous blobs. I suspect that they were originally jellyfish, but any recognizable features were long ago lost to the (evil) forces of taphonomy and diagenesis. Nevertheless, I was able to find 20 or 30 blobs that are at least somewhat morphous, and I have hopes that, when examined in exhaustive detail, they will reveal their true jellyfish nature. Stay tuned …
© Graham Young, 2010
Addendum (July 22) provided by Dave Rudkin:
“There’s a 12th stage that Henry documented quite nicely: Sit outside motel room – drink beer, ponder blobs while watching torrential rain.”