July 28, 2009

Nothing to lose, everything to find

Professor of Paleoanthropology at Lehman College and Research Associate in Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History

RUSINGA ISLAND, Kenya |Today’s guest blog comes from Julia Zichello, a doctoral student at Hunter College:

I’m a second-year PhD student in biological anthropology, focusing on primate genetics. Quite frankly, I don’t get out of the lab much, and this is my first field-work experience. This summer I am very fortunate to be a part of a team of 20 scientists hunting for fossils here on Rusinga Island in Kenya.

Now that a few days have passed I can hardly remember what my expectations were. Their uninformed distortions have faded with the experience. On our first day out to the site we headed to a locality called Waregi, in a region known affectionately as R1. As part of the fossil finding team I was given a few nails in a bag, some bright orange tape and steady encouragement. We began by crouching down at the bottom of a dusty hill where Miocene rodent fossils had been found previously. Five scientists were spaced one meter apart and we combed the hill for tiny fossil fragments on our hands and knees. As we progressed up the hill, we left orange flags in our wake to mark where the fossils were located. One of the most pleasant parts about this particular set-up was that we were close enough to talk and joke frequently. In fact, the jokes outnumbered the fossils. I found one small fragment of bone during that time scouring the hill. It was probably nothing, but at least it was something.

One thing that is crucial to understanding the fossil record, human or otherwise, is sampling bias. Fossils preserve in non-uniform ways over various environments. Also, certain parts of a skeleton are more likely to preserve than others. For example, teeth and the ends of long bones are often abundant in the fossil record. However, one new avenue of bias has just occurred to me. We only find what we keep our eyes open to find. I just keep wondering about all the fossils that are out there, that we may be standing on or walking past. After a couple of days on Rusinga and a few tiny teaser fossil fragments later, I can see why looking for fossils can be addictive. It’s a lot like gambling. There is so much chance involved, 17 million years of possibilities from it to you. But unlike gambling, there is nothing to lose.