Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Petrified Forest National Park

Took a ten-day field trip to Arizona in late March. We went all over the place, from the Grand Canyon (in the northern part of the state) to Chiricahua National Monument (in the southeast), but there were a few localities in particular that may be of interest to the readership here.

After camping for two nights in the Grand Canyon, we headed down to Petrified Forest National Park, famous for its Triassic fossils. Not only did we visit the site, we were also given a behind-the-scenes tour of the lab and collections by curator and preparator Matt Smith.

A phytosaur snout in the lab.

It's difficult to tell, but these are remains of Revueltosaurus. Without spilling too much, they have discovered some really interesting things about this animal here. Stay tuned!

Look at this aetosaur skull. Look at it! Amazing specimen.

Being a National Park, Petrified Forest is not only about fossils. Here are specimens of some local wildlife, wood warblers and a spotted skunk, from the collections.

A phytosaur skeletal mount, probably one of the few (if any) depicted in a swimming position. Of note are the bite marks at the end of the snout. Smith emphasized how characteristics like these really drove home the point that fossils are not just lithified bones, not just dusty specimens to slap taxonomic labels on, but the remains of once-living individuals, each with its own life story.

Especially memorable was Smith's description of a fossil weasel skull that he had once prepared. He discussed how, as he worked on the specimen, he gradually uncovered many surprising characteristics that it possessed.

Heavily worn teeth. No cranial sutures at all. Plenty of arthritis.

This weasel may have been small enough to hold in one hand, but it evidently lived to a ripe old age.

Not just a specimen. An individual.

I confess, as fascinating as I found the tour, I had had some concerns that it would not resonate as well with my peers. Smith had used a number of technical terms in parts of the tour that were likely unfamiliar to most of them and potentially daunting. (Not all of us on the trip were geology students, let alone paleo-savvy.) Overhearing several conversations afterward, however, I discovered that my reservations were naive and moot. Not only had many of my fellow students learned a lot about paleontological work, some of them considered the tour to be the highlight of our field trip up to this point. I was glad.

After the tour, we continued on towards the southern end of the park. Along the way, we stopped to have a look at the Chinle Formation and its paleosols.

We had hoped to visit the Rainbow Forest Museum at the other end of the park, but, alas, it was closed by the time we got there. We were still able to take a short walk just outside it, giving us good looks of the petrified trees that gave the park its name (and its National Park status).

A cholla cactus. Had we gone to Saguaro National Park during our trip (as had been planned, but ended up being cancelled at the last minute), we would have seen a lot more of these. As things stood though, we were able to observe this one at a safe distance.

1 comment:

  1. I'm still stuck on the fact that Matt Smith was their preparator.