Posts Tagged ‘Expeditions’
Today, the excursion comes to an end. After pursuing penguins in the quarry, in the museum, and in the oceans (we saw some Little Blues on one return drive), Dr. Brinkman and I will return to North Carolina. However, the work has only just begun. Over the next few months, Dr. Fordyce and I will continue studying the fossils and seeing just how much they can tell us about how ancient penguins lived. Eventually the results will be announced – and you can read about it right here. Thanks to everyone who followed along and posted comments. I’ll pick up the thread again after the holidays – some very exciting New Zealand penguin news is on the horizon.
Back in the lab, we have started preparing the penguin specimen collected from the Kokoamu Greensand. As each grain of matrix is removed, more of the animal springs to life. In the field, we noted that there were several wing bones exposed in the cliff face. Preparation proved two of these bones to be the humerus (the main bone of the flipper) and the coracoid (part of the shoulder girdle). But here was also a surprise. One of the small pieces of bone we exposed in the field turned out to be part of the beak (upper right). After preparing the area more extensively, we are now certain we have a spear-billed penguin.
It will take many more hours to reveal all the bones in the block. Let’s hope there are more surprises in the block!
Here are a few more images from our prospecting and collecting forays into the Oligocene and Miocene. It has been a busy week and we will be wrapping things up soon.
The latest stop on our search for penguins takes us to the Otekaike Limestone. This unit spans the Oligocene-Miocene boundary, with fossils dating to about 25 million years ago. Shells abound in the Otekaike Limestone – it is almost like walking along a never-ending high tide line after a storm.
Today’s trip yielded a few bits of penguin bone, including the base of a flipper and, more importantly from a scientific perspective, a whale skull bone. Each piece brings us closer to understanding what these extinct species were like. Even though the Otekaike Limestone is only a few million years younger than the Kokoamu Greensand, the penguins are much smaller and more modern looking. Comparing fossils from the two Formations is like viewing two frames of a film on penguin evolution, one taken a few moments after the other. Lots of other frames are missing, but the movie is still showing today in New Zealand, Antarctica, and everywhere else living penguins thrive.
Here is the end of the excavation. The cutting in the rock is much larger than the fossil, but we need to keep some leeway in the form of rock around the bone, so none are damaged by removal or transportation. The smaller opening is from another find, some fossil whale bones. Now, packed in burlap and cushioned by foam, the fossils will make the long journey back to the lab.
The Kokoamu Greensand is the final resting place of many archaic penguins and dolphins. Formed about 26 million years ago when much of present day New Zealand was covered by the Pacific Ocean, these deposits are exposed along modern day river valleys. Coarse grains of greenish to orange sand record the layering of sands and the burrowings of invertebrates over millions years. Some of the most common fossils are pectins (scallops) and brachiopods. The later are sometimes known as lampshells because of their vague resemblance to Roman oil lamps, and are very rare today.
Our main target on this trip is a fossil penguin that Dr. Fordyce found exposed along a cliff face. With the bones visible in cross-section a meter up, the only way to get the fossils back to the lab is to cut them out of the rock. Using a chainsaw, air scribes (aided by a gas powered compressor), picks and crowbars, we will slowly extract the fossil intact within the rock. In the montage below, you can see the start of the excavation.
These tree ferns stand outside the hallowed halls of the Otago University Geology Museum. During our trip to the South Island, we will be spending a lot of time working in the lab and museum in this building. Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce, discoverer of many incredible marine fossils ranging from penguins to whales, will be hosting us.
Things are always busy in the Geology Museum, with fossil preparation, geological dating from microfossils, exhibit creation, and even whale dissections occurring in the average month. We are getting into some exciting work preparing, sampling and interpreting new penguin fossils. In the photo below, Dr. Paul Brinkman begins exposing bones from a juvenile fossil penguin skeleton, one of the only examples of its kind. We hope to determine the species and learn how this ancient animal grew over the next few days and weeks. More from the lab, and from the field, soon!
This week, March of the Fossil Penguins is heading to New Zealand. I will be traveling to search for fossil penguins and work on specimens in the Otago Museum with Dr. R. Ewan Fordyce. There will be some live updates over the next three weeks as our team works to shed more light on penguin evolution on the South Island.
Here is a picture from Cape Town’s local penguin colony. South Africa is today home to one species of penguin, Spheniscus demersus (often called the Jackass Penguin for its loud braying call). In the past, several other species lived in South Africa, perhaps as many as four at a time. While these fossils tell a great story, I wanted to post the image of this tough living penguin today. This fellow in the picture has only one leg. Yet, it is marching only slightly slower than normal penguin land speed. It made it up from the water, across the beach and over to a burrow just fine. Most likely, this penguin lost its leg to a shark attack. While this type of encounter may sound like it would be deadly, one legged penguins are not all that rare. Since the penguin can trod along the short distance to its burrow, one leg will do. Based on its healed injury, good plumage and level of fat stores, it seems the one-legged trooper has been making due for at least a few weeks. A one-winged penguin would be completely out of luck though, and would not be able to swim to collect food. So, in the sense that a shark attack can ever be considered “lucky” this penguin was fortunate.