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Re: Fieldwork or bust? (Was: Stenopelix valdensis)

Phillip Bigelow (bigelowp@juno.com)wrote:

<However, today's smaller museums often suffer the added burdeon of storage
problems.  In many cases they have to "cherry pick" fossils based on size
because of practical necessity.  "It's easier to store a mouse than a whale." 
That doesn't mean that the largest fossils are abandoned to crumble to dust in
the ground.  Smaller museums usually invite in larger museums to excavate the
big stuff.>

  And learnign excellent field work is learning when to leave fossils in the
field and collect "better" stuff. Ignore the teeth, and bits, and go for the
special stuff. You cut your teeth on the small stuff, but its in prep for the
big stuff.

  Well, this is true for VERT paleo stuff, or at least "higher" vertebrates.
Mammologists obviously put more stock in teeth than even the non-toothed jaws
that might bear them as storehouses of information. And an avian anatomist can
learn a lot from a fragmentary coracoid. But the people who specialize in
smaller organisms ignore the larger, and in some cases, will not find their
"finds" until they are acid etched out of the rock in the lab, though they are
certain their crinoids and graptolites and conodonts are in there.

  Fact is, there IS a sampling bias in the field, and there is a collecting
bias. Museums may suffer for being the butt end of BOTH of these biases, but
there has been a recent change in all this involving largely the integration of
the small and large fields of paleo, allowing for the microbiology and
macrobiology to gain knowledge from one another.

  So really, it's synthetic. Yes, knowing field work is a good thing. It helps
you understand how and where and why the fossil is. It tells you very little
about the fossil itself, but this is all important -- VITAL! -- information
involving the study of a fossil organism. But primary geologically oriented
perspectives tend to cloud the comparative anatomy and minute anatomy details
of the fossil; or, in other words, one sees the forest, not the tree, and so
loses what makes that one tree _particular_. I've had the woderful opportunity
to examine some excellent geology in Idaho and Oregon, and have never missed
the opportunity to take a gander at a curious outcrop or to see the reason the
bedding planes are the way they are, or wonder why there don't seem to be
bedding planes. This information CAN tell you about the animal, in a way, but
more about how it was, not what it was. That is, its taphonomy or the way it
got where it was, whether it was a benthic swimmer or more pelagic; maybe it
was estuarine, or amphibious. But then, even so, it may have been swept asea in
a storm, and that its found in 50 meters deep of ocean doesn't mean it swam
there, and thus no, Bidar, *Compsognathus* does not have a forefin (or likely
doesn't, anyway), and no, Ebel, it's unlikely *Archaeopteryx* used its
"inefficient" wings to scull itself into flight. These are interesting
theories, but the geology tells us little to nothing, and actually seems to
confuse the researcher. Anatomy, on the other hand, would inform us of the
problems here, contributed by a little taphonomy.

  So I back both Phil and Andy in saying get out there, have some field
experience. Learn how and why. But don't pass up the lab and the museum.


Jaime A. Headden

"Innocent, unbiased observation is a myth." --- P.B. Medawar (1969)

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