After walking through sage bushes, eying shadows for snakes, and crawling over iron conglomerates churned out of a mound of mud, I saw my first ever wild stingray. Exploration purists and general sticksinthemud may dispute the validity of my claim that it is a wild stingray. I can hear them now saying hairsplitting nonsense as “it was dead,” “that was just a chunk,” or “it only counts if its from this era”. I know of no statute of limitations on wildlife and refuse to surrender the claim of my first wild stingray to pencil pushing bean counters, a fossil tooth is certainly wild. This particular stingray saw its day come and go over 66 million years ago living its life on the coasts of the Cannonball Seaway that once split the east from the west of North America. This particular little batoid swam alongside crocodiles and champsosaurs, in waters waded by theropod dinosaurs. When this beautiful, and undoubtedly wild, chondrichth swam in the oceans of what would one day be a landlocked state, there was no indication that it was occupying the last chapter of an era, that the mososaurs and ammonites it shared its sea with, the dinosaurs that lumbered on the land, and the pterosaurs that flew above would be ripped from time by a celestial impact that would prove to shape the next 66 million years of this planet. That's probably a wilder stingray than I would have seen fluttering around any of the Bahama islands.
My favorite aspect of fieldwork is the surreal and sometimes unfathomable ability to travel into deep time. Often when I travel I get the feeling that I am just skating along a cross section of Earth only appreciating its freshest face, but when you step over extinction boundaries and 66 million year old ray teeth you can see through the opaque fog of time and connect to our former world. The ultimate reason I am passionate about paleontology is because I want to see the world. When I hold in my hand stingrays from eras lost, the more I learn, and the more I understand them, the more that geologic distance of time seems to dissolve. Without a paleontological perspective one can see of Earth maybe 100 years, but with that perspective that vision is extended by billion of years, and I can say, without a shadow of falsehood, that no experience in my miniscule life has enriched or greater expanded my view and connection with this beautiful planet than the time I spent in the field.