Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Herpetocetus skull #3, part 2 - Excavation Day 1

Unfortunately, when I discovered this fossil in its mutilated state, it was two days before I planned on driving back to MSU at the end of the summer, and my last scheduled day of fieldwork for summer 2009, so it was absolutely out of the question to excavate the fossil then. So, I had to return sometime to excavate it. I didn't have the option of doing so over Thanksgiving, Winter, or Spring Break, so I waited a whole year. As it turned out, not much erosion had occurred locally over since initial discovery; just to make sure, I'd visit the fossil every couple of weeks.

I finally had the time to excavate it in mid August; I had some ambitious plans for my last week of summer in California: Saturday and Sunday up at Lake Tahoe, monday and tuesday excavating the fossil, wednesday at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, Thursday at California Academy of Sciences, Friday at University of California Museum of Paleontology, packing up my car on Saturday, and Sunday thru Tuesday on the road.I found out a couple days before hand I would be able to enable to enlist the help of my longtime friend and avocational paleontologist, Chris Pirrone, a local attorney in the San Jose area. Chris helped me excavate the first Herpetocetus skull (which, if you attended my SVP talk in 2008, was the focal point of that research), and has helped me with a few other excavations in the Santa Cruz area.On Monday I was all by myself removing overburden. Surprisingly, after only about four hours of chopping at the cliff face with a railroad pick, all the overburden was gone. So, I started to carefully remove rock an inch at a time by tapping my clam knife with a rock hammer. Eventually, I found the premaxillae, and was able to determine the angle the rostrum went into the cliff (and, more importantly, the fact that the rostrum did in fact exist). If the rostrum paralleled the cliff face, then it would make for an easier excavation, as I would not need to dig as large a hole. Unfortunately, the rostrum dove in there pretty steeply. Here's what it looked like after the first day of the excavation: admittedly there's not much there - and that's exactly the way I prefer it for an excavation. The more fossil bone you expose during the excavation, the higher the chances of damaging that bone. So it's important to figure out during an excavation what the fossil is, which way it's oriented, and roughly where each feature should be; surprises during excavations are usually made by damaging bone.

I've outlined in red the anterior portion of the rostrum (premaxillae are the skinny medial elements, while the maxillae are the wide lateral elements). I exposed some bits of the premaxillae here and there, but just enough to know 1) the angle of the skull going into the cliff and 2) the tip of the rostrum. Oddly enough, the midline of the rostrum didn't match up with the midline of the skull exposed in the cliff. As it turns out, there was a fracture running obliquely through the rostrum - you can see it, near where the red lines end. It's actually offset by about five or six inches.

To be continued...

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