Pondering ecological destruction; discovering fossils and what they mean

Hiking back to the truck from my first day at the quarry, I was excited to discuss the day’s big find with anyone in earshot. In the morning Tyler, Erica and I had discovered the fossilized left and right squamosal and a brow horn of a young triceratops just below the K/Pg boundary (see picture below). When I say right below the boundary, I mean right below the boundary, no more than 1m below the contact. It’s one of the last dinosaurs to roam North America, just before the destruction of the extinction event. 

It was the first dinosaur fossil I ever discovered. and I found it just a few hours into my first day in the badlands- I am usually not that lucky. It was a childhood dream come true and I got to touch the horn of one of the last dinosaurs on earth. Seriously incredible. As I was walking back to the truck with some of the crew, our conversation about the impact of the day’s work slowly transitioned to a discussion of the mass extinction that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. That’s what a fossil discovery like this one can do. Almost immediately after touching this find with my own hands I couldn’t help but think, “Dude. Imagine a day in the life of this animal I just uncovered”. 

It is crazy how one single moment in time can have such a large impact on Earth’s history, if not for that asteroid I might no be here writing this. You might not be around to read this post. That’s one of the reasons that this project is particularly important scientifically. It gives us a greater understanding of the mechanisms of mass extinctions, and ecosystem recovery. This information is particularly relevant because the earth is entering the 6th mass extinction that could claim between 30-50% of all the life on earth. I do not know about you, but I think that is terrifying. It is a concept that is difficult to grasp and fills me with a sense of dread. Today’s discovery kind of made it all seem real.  One minute, dinosaurs just like this one I found in the mudstone were living and thriving in the floodplain forest with all the plants, animals, rivers and streams that they had lived beside for their entire lives. In a moment, it was all so different. Everything they knew was turned upside down and wiped from the planet. When I hear people talking about the extinction of life happening around us now it seems a little abstract. Something about touching this fossil brow horn from a dinosaur burried so close to the impact layer made it seem a bit more real.

Even though changes to my daily life are few, the extreme changes occurring in the biosphere, in the atmosphere, the cryosphere, and the hydrosphere are being noticed right now by scientists.  These scientists predict that as the century progresses we will be faced with more extreme challenges that could including drought, increased storm intensity, a redistribution of rain patterns, rising sea levels and a massive reduction in biodiversity. I do not know if civilization, or even the human race can survive these challenges. We have been shown to be extremely adaptable animals, but this is one challenge we may not be able to overcome. I’m sure this Triceratops that I discovered would have felt similarly invincible just before the world changed forever.

Unlike Triceratops though, I can’t just blame some extrensic phenomenon like an asteroid for the change happening to my world. I’m coming to terms with the idea that I myself am a part of this problem. I participate in a lifestyle and culture that often demands consumption. Somewhere along our evolutionary journey it became advantageous for humans to consume but it is now becoming necessary to relinquish that drive to consume.  

I’ve heard colleagues say  that any dinosaurs within a certain radius of the actual asteroid impact could see into space as the asteroid vaporized the atmosphere in its path. I think I would rather die seeing the entire solar system instead of watching the planet die around me. Sitting out here after dinner tonight, looking into the milky way and about a million stars I’ve never seen before, I feel like I can almost relate. After my first week I was reflecting on the truly caring individuals I have met at the Marmarth research station and beyond. Our species evolved with some bad habits, but we also evolved empathy, intellect, and this incredible tool we call science. It definitely gives me faith that we can make changes to preserve this beautiful planet and the life we’ve come to enjoy that covers it. Ive been working with some pretty high-tech tools all day. If we can put a satellite into space that can calculate the position and elevation of a fossil with an error between 5-10 cm, and use fragments of fossil to unravel the complicated story of life on earth,  I bet we can address this problem and do something about it. I hope our research and the research of the rest of earth’s scientists can be used to create a scientifically literate culture capable of keeping us from going the way of my Triceratops.