One field day in a paleontologist’s career

By ōu zhì jí

A typical day on Digermulen starts with a cheerful breakfast in our kitchen tent — bacon, fried eggs, porridge and müsli, usually accompanied by tea, coffee or hot chocolate depending on what we feel like. Such high-calorie food guarantees enough energy for a sturdy hike in the morning and a long workday. After breakfast, researchers will discuss the day’s destinations; bad weather can have a large impact on planned work. We then grab something for our individual packs as lunch — including bread, dry tech, cup noodles, fruits, norwegian sausages, hot water and any leftovers from breakfast. We do this because the field localities are not always near our campsite, we do not want to spend lots of time hiking back for lunch.

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Figure 1. Organisms living on Digermulen besides visiting paleontologists. A: a stranded comb jelly awaiting photography. B: a lonely reindeer await his true love. C: a vivid sea urchin. D: edible mushrooms picked by Wendy.

Besides the basic necessaries for surviving a day in the field, we also need to pack our ‘working tools’. A geologist’s hammer is the most important tool, which is used in several ways, such as obtaining a fresh surface of a rock to determine its composition or reveal fossils inside, splitting fine-grained clastic rocks to search for macrofossils, breaking rocks to make them smaller for transport back to campsite, they can also be used as a scale for photography. Chisels, crowbars and sledgehammers are useful aids to the hammer. We use a high-resolution geological map, topographic maps and GPS when we get confused about the layers of rock, when we try to find an easy path to our destination, or simply record where we are in the notebook. Any interesting observations or ideas during fieldwork is written down in the notebook and we go through our notes every evening in camp. A good camera is a powerful tool to rescue paleontologists from field sketching as they did 50 years ago, especially for those who are not good at drawing. Photographing is faster and record more details than the old fashion, however, the simple sketches in your notebook are invaluable. Sampling bags and newspapers are used for packing samples. Sometimes we bring the equipment needed for casting as well — not all of the valuable specimens are possible to collect, and some are simply best left in place.

Then we head out on foot rather than four-wheelers — the only roads are reindeer trails. However, we travel by boat occasionally when the sections are all along the seashore. In the field, we observe rocks, write down what interests us scientifically and collect, or make casts of what we cannot bring back. There is a short break at noon for lunch. Moreover, we can have numerous breaks for watching whales, seals, reindeer, birds or just scenery — as long as there are no other paleontologists around!

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Figure 2. Splendid scenery on the Digermulen Peninsula. A: a quartzite castle of the Great Digermulen Empire. B: a reindeer trail leads you to heaven. C: multicolored beach made by colorful sandstones. D: a sunny day for fossil hunting. E: view over to the Varanger side. F: trilobite hunting ground.

The end of the day is to share a long dinner in the kitchen tent together. Different from the lunch, the dinner is always cooked in pots and pans (many thanks to the chefs). But, refilling empty stomachs is not the only theme: researchers take out exciting fossils collected on that day and have heated discussions. After that, a summary of the day gone by and a simple plan for the next day are discussed.

Around 10-11pm, everyone goes into his or her own tent to recover from the day’s hard work and look forward to the next expedition on the coming day. Nevertheless, I think the best way of relaxing is to loose myself in the most beautiful scenery ever to exist on our lovely planet.

1000 thanks to the organizer and everyone in the field this summer!

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