Look Where You Lunch
This is a follow-up to my post of a few weeks back. Please forgive me if I repeat myself sometimes …
I have heard several paleontologists state the maxim that you should always look for fossils in the exact spot you have chosen to have lunch. And there is some truth in this: I recall many years ago relaxing after lunch on top of a Silurian reef on the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula, pulling trilobite after trilobite from the gravel I was resting on. Similarly, last summer I found one of the most complete Ordovician eurypterid specimens at Airport Cove just below my seat on the slope, without having to move at all from where I had consumed my sandwich.
Why should this be? Are we supernaturally drawn to eat at those places that hold the secrets we seek? This seems very unlikely. Rather, it is probably related to the fact that we look with “different eyes” when we are relaxed, yet those eyes still hold the image of what we seek. I was thinking of this as I walked to the bus this afternoon; it was the same old neighbourhood, but add a layer of snow and take a slightly different route, and you will see many things that you have not observed before.
The other critical factor with lunchtime discoveries is that lunch provides an opportunity to look intensely at everything that can be seen in one tiny area. The entire fossil-collecting site may not be all that large, but we are still unlikely to see all the details if we are considering the site as a whole.
It is far too easy for a place to become so familiar that we walk over it daily without ever seeing what is under our feet. I still find it shocking that the Airport Cove soft-tissue biota lurked for years right beside where we parked the truck, as we went to collect fossils such as trilobites and corals farther down the shore. Considering mineral exploration across the huge expanse of northern Ontario, it is also surprising that the immensely rich Hemlo gold deposit was not found in some unknown place far from human activity. Rather, it was in easy sight of where the Trans Canada Highway had been pushed through many years before.
It is for these sorts of reasons that I don’t find it the least bit restrictive to do research at a provincial museum. I might sometimes envy university colleagues as they fly off for fieldwork in India or Australia, but I also think that we are more likely to find unusual things here, because we have the opportunity to contemplate a limited area. Soft-tissue fossils in Konservat-Lagerstätten may be little known and rarely found, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are rare. It may just be that we aren’t all that good at finding them!
By focusing on smaller areas, we may be more likely to locate the really unusual and significant things. I would not be the least bit surprised if we find one or two more unusual fossil sites in the coming years; we just have to make the time to eat lunch on enough outcrops.
© Graham Young, 2011