Rock Lickin' and Dino Diggin'

Photo credit: Hans Larsson

Photo credit: Hans Larsson

A lot of people will ask… “How do you know for sure that it’s a bone?” 

And almost every paleontologist will tell you… “Lick it.”   

The first time I ever heard that, I thought it was the most ridiculous thing. Now, I find myself telling all of my students, friends, family, and sometimes even people on the street, to lick (or bite) rocks. It’s actually incredibly useful. Not sure if it’s a bone? Lick it, and your tongue will stick to it slightly. Siltstone or claystone? Take a little bite, rub it between your molars. If you feel little grains of sediment, it’s more silty. If it feels like you are rubbing a piece of a bar of soap in the back of your mouth, then it’s probably a claystone. These fun-facts are a go-to party trick for any person interested in paleo or geology, and was a particularly popular topic this August with McGill University’s summer field course. 

This August, I spent three weeks with my PI - the leader of my research lab - and fellow graduate students on a McGill summer field course that brought 7 undergraduate students to East End and Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, and Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada. Our field course was pretty much what you would expect if you imagine an Indiana-Jones-or-Alan-Grant-in-Jurassic-Park kind of vibe. 

Photo credits: Dirley Cortés

Photo credits: Dirley Cortés

Picture this: you’re camping near an abandoned trapper’s home, with scattered tents on the banks of a fast-flowing river, Badlands rising up all around you. In your camp, there’s a kitchen tent and a gear tent: these big white canvas installments that stand out against the natural landscape, situated next to a huge water tank that is a constant reminder of your limited fresh water supply. For three weeks, we walked around these Badlands kickin’ dirt, tasting rocks, avoiding rattlers, and sliding down some slippery bentonite (clay) slopes. 

Every morning we would canoe across the river and hike tens of kilometers in dry, desert heat. We would spend days prospecting for new fossil sites - basically hunting for new, potential places to find fossils, collecting and identifying microfossils, mapping and digging quarries, or preparing different fossil specimens for removal from the field. None of this was easy work - it involved hiking in numerous liters of water, bags of burlap and heavy plaster, creating a protective ‘jacket’ around the fossil, letting it dry, repeating that process for the other side, then hiking it back out. 

Photo credits: Holly Ghandhi

Photo credits: Holly Ghandhi

There were no showers (except for dips in the river), no bathrooms, and no electricity. These practices and processes were incredibly alien to these students; most of them had never seen a dinosaur bone before, and some had never even camped. And even so, they thrived (albeit with a little skepticism about the rock-licking thing at the beginning). By the end, we managed to eat some K-PG Boundary paella (see below for recipe)! 


K-PG Boundary paella recipe:

Regular paella, but cooked to include part of the ash layer that marks the end of the Cretaceous period and the extinction of most dinosaurs


For the last few days, our main focus was trying to extract a 1.15 m hadrosaur femur out of ironstone. We spent hours chiseling away fragments of really (and I mean really) tough rock, attempting to shatter it with pickaxes without damaging the bone itself. We used rock hammers and trowels to scrape away the rock debris that we created, and absurd amounts of glue in an attempt to stabilize the femur itself. For hours, rock fragments flew at our faces while we ignored the popped blisters on our hands. Thanks to downloaded Spotify playlists, 1 minute dance parties provided the perfect respite to hours of digging and hammering in the sun. Finally, we were able to strap the mountain of a jacket we made into a plastic sled, drag it down the coulees, into a canoe, up the river, and into our faithful truck. 

Photo credit: Dirley Cortés

Photo credit: Dirley Cortés

The most exciting, unexpected, and most important thing about this trip though, was the fact that most of the students on this trip were young women. For a long time, most women in paleontology have essentially been ignored in the mostly male-dominated (and mostly white) field. The field of paleontology has a roughin’ it, toughin’ it, big-man-with-a-wide-brimmed-hat, perception in most peoples’ minds. This isn’t necessarily always true but, unsurprisingly, the media has always portrayed it this way. I never grew up thinking “I want to be a paleontologist,” because I honestly just never thought it was possible. The career option never occurred to me when most of my exposure to the field were characters like Ross from Friends or Indiana Jones.

Photo credit: Hans Larsson

Photo credit: Hans Larsson

I was lucky enough to have met an incredible woman in paleontology who inspired me and mentored me throughout my undergraduate career. She shaped me as a scientist, and taught me the ins and outs of being a woman in paleontology. She taught me that I have the chance, as well as the means, to become a role model as she was for me. These experiences have shown me that kids who look like me can spend their summers digging for a living and going on incredible adventures. I have had diverse role models, mentors, and colleagues that I can look to for inspiration and support within this field, and I get to follow a path that has been slowly paved over the last two centuries for aspiring women in paleo like me.

This summer has instilled in me a ton of hope and excitement for the future of paleo, as our field crew consisted of multiple students of color and the majority of us were some bad-ass ladies! This field season was in and of itself a reflection of the trail blazing that came before us. With such a diverse field crew, we were able to harness the different perspectives and worldviews we have in order to problem-solve and work towards a better functioning camp. We were a group of faces that did not reflect what paleontology may look like to the general public, and I was so proud of that. For an amazing three weeks, I was surrounded by strong-minded and powerful women that constantly chose to surprise and awe the people around them by working incredibly hard, surviving in unfamiliar environments, and smiling through the dirt. 

It’s a fight against the cliché of Indiana Jones and Alan Grant as paleontologists, but we’re moving away from that every day. 

-Hoai-Nam

Photo credit: Hans Larsson

Photo credit: Hans Larsson


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