Ellis Lock—Buluk, Kenya #3: Digging in to the past and the passing of time

The field season keeps chugging along, and everyone has fully settled into the routine of work and camp life. Each morning, the whole crew gathers for breakfast at 6:30 am; there’s always plenty of chai to go around. By 7 o’clock, everyone has headed out for work. Right now the crew is split into two main divisions—the first group surveys for fossil material on the surface while the second group works at the excavation site.

Yours truly, surveying for fossils.

Yours truly, surveying for fossils.

One of the primary goals of this field season is to expose and excavate a bone bed that was discovered at the Dead Elephant Valley locality a few years ago. The bone bed lies beneath a large hill, with many bone fragments eroding out of the hillside and sliding down into the valley below. We hope that by digging into the hillside we can expose this layer and excavate these bones intact before they have been weathered. Given the amount of sediment overlaying this layer, this seems like an ambitious undertaking, especially when you consider that the remoteness of the location precludes bringing in any heavy machinery—all the excavation has to be done by hand! Our work has been complicated by the fact that underneath the surface sand on the slope, the bulk of the hillside is made up of solid rock. But we are chipping away at it, literally, bit by bit. The excavation crew is incredibly hard working and has already exposed enough of the bone bed to keep us busy for the rest of the season.

Crew exposing the bone bed layer at Dead Elephant Valley.

Crew exposing the bone bed layer at Dead Elephant Valley.

While the excavation crew is working on the hill, the survey crew heads out to a new location each day to collect fossils. The majority of the fossils here are exposed on the surface. Since the deposits are formed by river channels that carried the bones, the fossils are mixed in with pebble and sand. It takes a lot of crawling with one’s nose inches from the ground to spot tiny monkey teeth amongst all the pebbles.

There are larger bones on the surface as well. Funny enough, “Buluk” actually means “dinosaur” in the Dassanech language. Our ultimate goal may be to collect primates, but it’s been the enormous fossil bones of extinct elephants and rhinos that have caught the attention of the local population. Some of our crew members who grew up in this region have said that when they were children, their parents told them stories about Buluk and the bones of dinosaurs that lived there. They were only off by about 50 million years!

excavating the complete cranium of a small rhino.

Apollo and Ellen excavating the complete cranium of a small rhino.

Our work lasts until 5 pm, at which point it’s time for more tea and a shower before dinner. This is also the time to look over any standout fossils from the day’s collection.

Five o'clock tea

Five o’clock tea

Having been here for more than a month, everyone has found ways to make camp homier. While this will only be my home until July 17 (when I return to the Turkana Basin Institute at Ileret to identify fossils in the lab), the rest of the crew will remain until the beginning of September. To live for three months in a place as remote as Buluk, without any distracting cell service, you have to find ways to stay busy. Whether it’s identifying fossil mammals, becoming a champion checkers player, or perfecting a recipe for charred goat’s head soup, everyone fills the evenings with their own productivity.

Cheers!

Ellis

 

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Josh Robinson—Argentina #2: Isotope Analysis with a Side of Café con Leche

I arrived in Buenos Aires last Friday morning (June 24) with little trouble and had the whole weekend to explore this exciting city and country. Buenos Aires is truly a major metropolis, with broad avenues, countless curb-side cafes, and many options for evening entertainment in the form of theaters and cinemas.

As soon as I arrived, I went out to Estancia La Cinacina where I was treated to a gaucho show and a true Argentine parilla (similar to a bbq or a South African braai). From my first taste of morcilla (blood sausage), I was hooked. I think I’ve acclimated quite nicely to the gastronomic aspects of Argentine culture—mid-morning coffee with medialunas (basically a glazed croissant) to late night meat-filled dinners washed down with delicious (and cheap!) Argentine wines.

Casa Rosada, the Argentine equivalent to the U.S. White House

Josh in front of Casa Rosada, the Argentine equivalent to the U.S. White House

But, of course, I am here to do research, and that is what you want to hear about. In the world of paleontology, Argentina is well known for their dinosaurs, including some of the largest yet discovered. Mammalian paleontology in Argentina is a decidedly smaller, although not less important, aspect of collection and research. Over the past week, I’ve been working at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales and have reviewed the dental remains of a few hundred astrapotheres (rhinoceros-like South American mammals), litopternas (horse-like South American mammals), primates, rodents, marsupials, and notoungulates (catch-all for most of the rest of the extinct large hoofed mammals of South America) from the Pinturas and Santa Cruz Formations. Astrapotheres, litopternas, and notoungulates do not have any direct living descendants, but some fun reconstructions have been developed. Modern examples of South American primates include spider and howler monkeys, while modern marsupials are almost exclusively opossums.

Dinosaur casts and fossils on display at the Museo Argentina de Ciencias Naturales

Dinosaur casts and fossils on display at the Museo Argentina de Ciencias Naturales

As I wrap up my week of research at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales, I have developed a large database of tooth specimens that can be sampled for stable isotope analysis in the future. Searching through old collections, taking pictures and measurements, and familiarizing yourself with the fossil material available from a site are all important aspects of a pilot study for stable isotope work. I will be traveling this weekend to spend next week at the Centro Nacional Patagonico in Puerto Madryn, where I will be doing a similar review of another paleontology collection assembled by John Fleagle. In Puerto Madryn, some of the teeth have been approved and set aside for me to sample for stable isotope analysis. Together with my database of dental remains, the stable isotope results from a few dozen samples will go a long way towards the further development of this project.

Now it’s time to break for café con leche and medialunas again!

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Ellis Locke–Buluk, Kenya #2: The Old Monkeys, but Not the New

Now I can officially submit my first true “notes from the field!” It’s been a long process, but Ellen Miller and I have finally made it to our camp at Buluk and have settled into after our first few full weeks of work.

Getting here was no minor feat—after several days of problem-solving and hurdle-jumping in Nairobi (lost luggage, broken computer, etc.)—we flew to the Turkana Basin Institute’s gorgeous location at Ileret, on the east side of Lake Turkana. While all fossils collected from Buluk belong to the National Museums of Kenya, the majority of specimens are housed at TBI. After a few days of packing supplies for camp and going through collections from previous years, it was time to embark.

Sunset at Turkana Basin Institute at Ileret.

Sunset at Turkana Basin Institute at Ileret.

Our first stop after leaving TBI was the police post at Buluk, where 60 Kenyan police are currently serving. A rotating crew of four officers will stay with our camp to provide security for the duration of the field season. With our security detail in tow, our motorcade continued on to scout a camp site near the deposits. But no road trip is without its obstacles, and in the course of our drive, the lorry suddenly sunk into a soft, thick mud from an old well. It took a full day’s work to unload all our supplies and water to lighten the lorry enough to drag it out. By the time we set up our tents and called it a night, everyone had put in a full day’s work just traveling from TBI to Buluk—a distance of only 48 km (30 miles) as the crow flies.

Slight delays on the way to Buluk.

Slight delays on the way to Buluk.

Now that camp is fully set up, we’ve all been putting in full days of surveying and collecting. The deposits at Buluk are colorful with black basalt overlaying white ash, which rests on top of a bright red clay. It makes for a picturesque workplace, when we don’t have our eyes on the ground. I’m beginning to familiarize myself with the animals found at Buluk, several of which have no living relatives, like the hippo-like anthracotheres. We’ve had good luck so far, finding plenty of primate fossils representing some of the earliest Old World monkeys. Nearly two more months of the field season lay ahead of me—plenty of time to add even more to the collection!

Deposits at Buluk. A locality known as "Dead Elephant Valley."

Deposits at Buluk. A locality known as “Dead Elephant Valley.”

 

Til next time!

Ellis

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Josh Robinson—Argentina #1: The Old Monkeys and the New

Editor’s Note: Josh Robinson is a postdoctoral researcher working with IHO on the John Templeton Foundation grant projects.  We are excited to hear about his research in Argentina!

When we think of field or museum work, most paleoanthropologists immediately imagine a trip to Africa or perhaps Southeast Asia. Argentina, in contrast, is probably one of the last places one would guess. So why is a paleoenvironmental scientist who has done all of his research up to this point in Africa going to South America?

Well, South America is home to a thriving community of New World monkeys (or platyrrhines) with a long evolutionary history on the continent of about 25 million years. During this time, New World monkeys were isolated from Old World monkeys (found in Africa and Asia). The highly successful and diverse evolutionary radiation of New World monkeys offers a model for studying parallel evolution in anatomy and behavior with Old World monkeys in Africa. More data on the environmental and ecological contexts of the evolutionary history of New World monkeys allows for a fine-tuning of these comparative evolutionary models. This is where I come in.

Josh Robinson

Hi! That’s me working with my drill in the National Museum in Ethiopia in 2015.

While gathering my dissertation data, I had the great pleasure to work with Dr. John Fleagle of Stony Brook University on the environments in the Kibish Formation of Ethiopia. After completing a paper on the Kibish Formation earlier this year, Dr. Fleagle asked if I would be interested in doing similar work in Argentina. As you may imagine, the evolutionary history of New World monkeys was nowhere near being on my radar, but I figured I’d hear him out. I mean, I’ve always heard Argentina has great steak and wine, and what’s a better way to escape the summer heat in Arizona than to head down to a southern hemisphere winter. Dr. Fleagle has been working the Pinturas and Santa Cruz geological formations in Argentina’s Patagonia region for nearly three decades. These formations date to the Early and Middle Miocene (17 to 10 million years old) and have produced a record of a diverse mammalian community. One of the big differences between these two regions is in the number of fossil New World monkey species found in each. The Santa Cruz Formation, which is closer to the coast, has only yielded one fossil monkey species, but five or six fossil monkey species have been found in the Pinturas Formation.

My job will be to work with the fossil teeth of all of the mammals collected by Dr. Fleagle and his team over the years to sample some of the tooth enamel for isotope analysis. What is isotope analysis? When animals eat and drink, the carbon and oxygen isotope signatures get incorporated into their developing tooth enamel. This signal is preserved because tooth enamel does not fossilize like bone. We are able to analyze these values to determine what type of food the animal was feeding on and whether it was a wet or dry environment. If we were to sample your teeth I bet we would get a very strong signal indicating heavy corn consumption! Dr. Fleagle thinks the Pinturas Formation may have been a much wetter environment than the Santa Cruz Formation because of the larger number of fossil monkey species.

South America map

Locations of Buenos Aires and Puerto Madyrn. Ushuaia is the southernmost city on the continent.

I will be traveling to Argentina on June 23 for three weeks. Most of the time I will be in the capital, Buenos Aires, working at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales. Some of the collection, however, is stored at a regional museum in Puerto Madryn, so I will be taking an overnight bus ride there during my trip. We hope that the data we get from this pilot project will help us understand better the diversity of the environments of the early evolutionary history of New World monkeys. It may also provide some insight to differences between South America and Africa/Asia, which could be critical to understanding the different evolutionary trajectories of monkeys on those continents.

I look forward to the adventure to this place to which many of my colleagues and I have not ventured and to sharing my new experiences with you along the way!

Josh

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Ellis Locke—Buluk, Kenya #1: How many socks are enough?

Anyone who does fieldwork knows that the work begins long before the wheels of the plane ever leave the ground. Before getting out there and getting those boots dusty, there’s a whole series of hurdles that must be cleared first: securing the correct permits, triple checking equipment, arranging supplies, confirming travel plans, and figuring out what to pack! (How many socks are enough? Is there such a thing as too many socks?)

I’m on my way to Nairobi, Kenya, to meet with Dr. Ellen Miller of Wake Forest University, one of the leaders or “principal investigators” of the Buluk Paleontological Research Project. We’ve spent the last couple months prepping for this field season, and I’m eager to get out there, see the site for the first time, and get to work. But preparation is key because once we leave Nairobi, we’re headed for Buluk, a remote site in East Turkana, Kenya, where we’ll stay for the next two months. While Buluk has been known as a fossil-bearing site since the 1970s, its location has made access difficult. There won’t be cell service, let alone internet, at our camp, but for the next two months I’ll be doing my best to send dispatches for this blog when I can.

Buluk1

Buluk camp during the 2013 field season

Buluk is approximately 17 million years old (Ma), meaning it dates to the early part of the Miocene epoch. The Early Miocene (23 to 15 Ma) was an exciting time in primate evolution! Apes and Old World monkeys (a group called “Catarrhini”) had recently diverged from their common ancestor, and early members of these groups lived alongside more primitive catarrhines in diverse primate communities. Today, Old World monkeys are much more diverse and widespread than apes. If you try, you can probably name all the living apes without much difficulty, but listing all the living Old World monkeys would be a much more impressive party trick! During the Miocene, the tables were turned, and apes were so diverse that to name them all would be considerably more difficult than it is today. These Miocene apes varied in their size, diet, and locomotor adaptations, and there is plenty of debate today over which species are more closely related to the living apes. (For an interesting read about Miocene ape evolution, check out Dr. David Begun’s book The Real Planet of the Apes.)

By comparison, fossils of Old World monkeys are rare for most of the Miocene, and we know much less about their variation during this epoch. Buluk has already played a role in improving this sparse record for monkeys. In addition to fossils of an early ape and a small primitive catarrhine, Buluk has yielded some of the earliest Old World monkey fossils.

buluk2

Fossil-rich layer at Buluk

We hope that continued fieldwork here will help us understand more about these early apes and monkeys and give us a glimpse into the environments and broader faunal communities in which they lived. The mammals from Buluk tell the story of interchange between Africa and Eurasia. While the African continent had previously been isolated, Late Oligocene (approximately 27 to 24 Ma) contact between the Afro-Arabian and Eurasian plates allowed cross-continental exchange of animals. These new immigrants from Eurasia included the early relatives of many iconic African animals such as lions, rhinos, and antelope. At Buluk, some of these new arrivals existed alongside more archaic African animals like hyraxes, elephants, and an extinct group of carnivores called creodonts.

Fieldwork provides the raw material for improving our understanding of primate evolutionary history. The only way to learn about variation in the adaptations of early monkeys and apes is to find more fossils. Fossils from Buluk have already contributed to our knowledge of both the appearance and distribution of these animals, and we’re hoping this field season will continue to improve the Early Miocene fossil record. But first, I have to pack my socks.

Buluk3

Fossil-bearing hills of Buluk

(All photographs courtesy of Dr. Ellen Miller)

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Andrew Bishop—Paraguay #3: A True Learning Experience

Typically I expect my close friends to be happy when they see me and cry when I leave, but sometimes things work differently in the Southern Hemisphere. Our first few days in the Ache communities of Kuety and Arroyo Bandera were spent visiting Kim’s old friends, and each time he was met with a greeting that would seem unusual by U.S. standards, but which is apparently common among South American indigenous groups. Upon seeing Kim, they would embrace him and weep for several minutes as they recall their dead ancestors. This greeting is surprising considering that the Ache do not have a way to say hello or goodbye in their own language. It also stands in marked contrast to the lack of fanfare at Kim’s departure for the States.

Kim Hill and an Ache friend

Kim Hill and an Ache friend—from a previous visit

With the help of my assistant, Germino, I have made a lot of progress collecting data. We have collected about half of our sample and are beginning to look for more young men and women to participate. Data collection can be challenging, as anyone who has done field work can attest. Not only can it be hard to find participants and physically demanding to collect data while bouncing in the back of a Land Cruiser or balancing a computer in one hand and a stack of pictures in another, but it can also be quite difficult to find time to do the interviews. It seems that about half of the time there is a festival, or nobody wants to do anything because of the rain, or someone needs a ride to the clinic in Curuguaty, or we are out hunting in the forest. There is always some distraction (such as the half dozen children that are always climbing on me), and it requires a great deal of focus to keep at it and get the job done.

Making food for the Mother's Day celebration.

Making food for the Mother’s Day celebration.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome is fatigue. I have given the same interview 17 times now, and the interview mostly consists of asking the same questions over and over again about different combinations of animals.

Andrew interviews some men

Andrew interviews some men while his constant companions look on.

What has helped me the most is the genuine excitement I feel as I learn the answers to my research questions! I really enjoy theory, but there is nothing quite like collecting data for a study that you designed and being surprised by your results!

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Andrew Bishop—Paraguay #2: A Honey of a Hunt

It was still wet and foggy when we set out around 10 am into the Mbaracayu reserve. We were on a hunting trip, but almost immediately we had to stop because a broken down tractor was blocking a narrow spot in the road between steep banks of dirt. Not so easily deterred, the Ache decided to cut another lane into the earth with their machetes! In less than half an hour we had a wide enough gap to squeeze past the tractor.

Broken down tractor

Field leader Kim Hill (right) looks on while the men are cutting a new road around the broken down tractor. 

Pushing the car past the tractor

A little help to push the Land Cruiser past the broken down tractor.

Land Cruiser

Squeezing past the tractor.

In the process of digging, we found a machete buried half a meter below the soil (who new the Ache were archaeologists?). We drove several kilometers into the reserve, stopping briefly to look at fresh jaguar tracks (which the Ache spotted from inside a moving vehicle) and spotting an eyra along the way (a small black weasel-looking creature).

Machete

Archaeological “find” in the forest—a machete

When we got to our destination, we set off hiking through to forest at a quick pace. Before long we followed the tracks of a herd of white lipped peccaries. As we got close to the herd, they detected our presence and started smacking their tusks together to make the clicking sound that they are known for. The Ache quietly slipped through the forest, encircling the herd. They fired several shots with their bows before the herd started to run. One peccary came running past us, bleeding from its hind quarters where Tadeo shot it, while the rest took off in another direction. Tadeo trailed the wounded peccary less than 50 meters before we found it hiding in the brush and another man came to finish it off.

It was a large pregnant female, weighing about 45 kilos (nearly 100 lbs.) They gutted her in the field, taking out most of the internal organs except the lungs, and heart. Building a fire, we cooked and ate the liver on the spot, while the older man trimmed the fat from the intestines, and then packed the stomach cavity full of leaves.

Andrew with the peccary

Andrew with the peccary

We waited a while for the other hunters to return, and when they did not, we started hiking back to the truck. Tadeo carried the peccary while his son in law cleared a trail with his machete. We made it about half way back before we heard the other hunters calling us. We crossed through a grassy plain of ankle deep water and then stashed the peccary in a tree. Leaving our gear we ran to find the others.

We found them sitting next to a honey tree, with a Capuchin and a smaller peccary (14.5 kilos or 32 lbs) that they had killed. They built a fire under the tree and took turns chopping the tree until it fell. Keeping low and using fire to avoid the stinging bees, they managed to extract about 5 kilos of honey from the tree, some of which we ate on the spot, and the rest of which we brought back with us. I was really impressed with the hunting skill of the Ache. They move quickly and quietly through very dense forest, they are amazing trackers, and in just a morning they were about to kill two peccaries, a capuchin, and find more than a gallon of honey!

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