Authors: Neil Shubin
It is hard to imagine better conditions to find fossils, except that central Pennsylvania is covered in towns, forests, and fields. As for the exposures, they are mostly where the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has decided to put big roads. When PennDOT builds a highway, it blasts. When it blasts, it exposes rock. It’s not always the best exposure, but we take what we can get. With cheap science, you get what you pay for.
And then there is also serendipity of a different order: in 1993, Ted Daeschler arrived to study paleontology under my supervision. This partnership was to change both our lives. Our different temperaments are perfectly matched: I have ants in my pants and am always thinking of the next place to look; Ted is patient and knows when to sit on a site to mine it for its riches. Ted and I began a survey of the Devonian rocks of Pennsylvania in hopes of finding new evidence on the origin of limbs. We began by driving to virtually every large roadcut in the eastern part of the state. To our great surprise, shortly after we began the survey, Ted found a marvelous shoulder bone. We named its owner
a name that translates from Greek as “little creeping animal from Hyner.” Hyner, Pennsylvania, is the nearest town.
had a very robust shoulder, which indicates a creature that likely had very powerful appendages. Unfortunately, we were never able to find the whole skeleton of the animal. The exposures were too limited. By? You guessed it: vegetation, houses, and shopping malls.
Along the roads in Pennsylvania, we were looking at an ancient river delta, much like the Amazon today. The state of Pennsylvania (bottom) with the Devonian topography mapped above it.
After the discovery of
and other fossils from these rocks, Ted and I were champing at the bit for better-exposed rock. If our entire scientific enterprise was going to be based on recovering bits and pieces, then we could address only very limited questions. So we took a “textbook” approach, looking for well-exposed rocks of the right age and the right type in desert regions, meaning that we wouldn’t have made the biggest discovery of our careers if not for an introductory geology textbook.
Originally we were looking at Alaska and the Yukon as potential venues for a new expedition, largely because of relevant discoveries made by other teams. We ended up getting into a bit of an argument/debate about some geological esoterica, and in the heat of the moment, one of us pulled the lucky geology textbook from a desk. While riffling through the pages to find out which one of us was right, we found a diagram. The diagram took our breath away; it showed everything we were looking for.
The argument stopped, and planning for a new field expedition began.
On the basis of previous discoveries made in slightly younger rocks, we believed that ancient freshwater streams were the best environment in which to begin our hunt. This diagram showed three areas with Devonian freshwater rocks, each with a river delta system. First, there is the east coast of Greenland. This is home to Jenny Clack’s fossil, a very early creature with limbs and one of the earliest known tetrapods. Then there is eastern North America, where we had already worked, home to
And there is a third area, large and running east–west across the Canadian Arctic. There are no trees, dirt, or cities in the Arctic. The chances were good that rocks of the right age and type would be extremely well exposed.
The Canadian Arctic exposures were well known, particularly to the Canadian geologists and paleobotanists who had already mapped them. In fact, Ashton Embry, the leader of the teams that did much of this work, had described the geology of the Devonian Canadian rocks as identical in many ways to the geology of Pennsylvania’s. Ted and I were ready to pack our bags the minute we read this phrase. The lessons we had learned on the highways of Pennsylvania could help us in the High Arctic of Canada.
Remarkably, the Arctic rocks are even older than the fossil beds of Greenland and Pennsylvania. So the area perfectly fit all three of our criteria: age, type, and exposure. Even better, it was unknown to vertebrate paleontologists, and therefore un-prospected for fossils.
The map that started it all. This map of North America captures what we look for in a nutshell. The different kinds of shading reflect where Devonian age rocks, whether marine or freshwater, are exposed. Three areas that were once river deltas are labeled. Modified from figure 13.1, R. H. Dott and R. L. Batten,
Evolution of the Earth
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988). Reproduced with the permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Our new challenges were totally different from those we faced in Pennsylvania. Along the highways in Pennsylvania, we risked being hit by the trucks that whizzed by as we looked for fossils. In the Arctic we risked being eaten by polar bears, running out of food, or being marooned by bad weather. No longer could we pack sandwiches in the car and drive to the fossil beds. We now had to spend at least eight days planning for every single day spent in the field, because the rocks were accessible only by air and the nearest supply base was 250 miles away. We could fly in only enough food and supplies for our crew, plus a slender safety margin. And, most important, the plane’s strict weight limits meant that we could take out only a small fraction of the fossils that we found. Couple those limitations with the short window of time during which we can actually work in the Arctic every year, and you can see that the frustrations we faced were completely new and daunting.
Enter my graduate adviser, Dr. Farish A. Jenkins, Jr., from Harvard. Farish had led expeditions to Greenland for years and had the experience necessary to pull this venture off. The team was set. Three academic generations: Ted, my former student; Farish, my graduate adviser; and I were going to march up to the Arctic to try to discover evidence of the shift from fish to land-living animal.
There is no field manual for Arctic paleontology. We received gear recommendations from friends and colleagues, and we read books—only to realize that nothing could prepare us for the experience itself. At no time is this more sharply felt than when the helicopter drops one off for the first time in some godforsaken part of the Arctic totally alone. The first thought is of polar bears. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scanned the landscape looking for white specks that move. This anxiety can make you see things. In our first week in the Arctic, one of the crew saw a moving white speck. It looked like a polar bear about a quarter mile away. We scrambled like Keystone Kops for our guns, flares, and whistles until we discovered that our bear was a white Arctic hare two hundred feet away. With no trees or houses by which to judge distance, you lose perspective in the Arctic.
The Arctic is a big, empty place. The rocks we were interested in are exposed over an area about 1,500 kilometers wide. The creatures we were looking for were about four feet long. Somehow, we needed to home in on a small patch of rock that had preserved our fossils. Reviewers of grant proposals can be a ferocious lot; they light on this kind of difficulty all the time. A reviewer for one of Farish’s early Arctic grant proposals put it best. As this referee wrote in his review of the proposal (not cordially, I might add), the odds of finding new fossils in the Arctic were “worse than finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.”
It took us four expeditions to Ellesmere Island over six years to find our needle. So much for serendipity.
We found what we were looking for by trying, failing, and learning from our failures. Our first sites, in the 1999 field season, were way out in the western part of the Arctic, on Melville Island. We did not know it, but we had been dropped off on the edge of an ancient ocean. The rocks were loaded with fossils, and we found many different kinds of fish. The problem was that they all seemed to be deep-water creatures, not the kind we would expect to find in the shallow streams or lakes that gave rise to land-living animals. Using Ashton Embry’s geological analysis, in 2000 we decided to move the expedition east to Ellesmere Island, because there the rocks would contain ancient streambeds. It did not take long for us to begin finding pieces of fish bones about the size of a quarter preserved as fossils.
Our camp (top) looks tiny in the vastness of the landscape. My summer home (bottom) is a small tent, usually surrounded by piles of rocks to protect it from fifty-mile-per-hour winds. Photographs by the author.
The real breakthrough came toward the end of the field season in 2000. It was just before dinner, about a week before our scheduled pickup to return home. The crew had come back to camp, and we were involved in our early-evening activities: organizing the day’s collections, preparing field notes, and beginning to assemble dinner. Jason Downs, then a college undergraduate eager to learn paleontology, hadn’t returned to camp on time. This is a cause for worry, as we typically go out in teams; or if we separate, we give each other a definite schedule of when we will make contact again. With polar bears in the area and fierce storms that can roll in unexpectedly, we do not take any chances. I remember sitting in the main tent with the crew, the worry about Jason building with each passing moment. As we began to concoct a search plan, I heard the zipper on the tent open. At first all I saw was Jason’s head. He had a wild-eyed expression on his face and was out of breath. As Jason entered the tent, we knew we were not dealing with a polar bear emergency; his shotgun was still shouldered. The cause of his delay became clear as his still shaking hand pulled out handful after handful of fossil bones that had been stuffed into every pocket: his coat, pants, inner shirt, and daypack. I imagine he would have stuffed his socks and shoes if he could have walked home that way. All of these little fossil bones were on the surface of a small site, no bigger than a parking spot for a compact car, about a mile away from camp. Dinner could wait.
With twenty-four hours of daylight in the Arctic summer, we did not have to worry about the setting sun, so we grabbed chocolate bars and set off for Jason’s site. It was on the side of a hill between two beautiful river valleys and, as Jason had discovered, was covered in a carpet of fossil fish bones. We spent a few hours picking up the fragments, taking photos, and making plans. This site had all the makings of precisely what we were looking for. We returned the next day with a new goal: to find the exact layer of rock that contained the bones.
The trick was to identify the source of Jason’s mess of bone fragments—our only hope of finding intact skeletons. The problem was the Arctic environment. Each winter, the temperature sinks to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer, when the sun never sets, the temperature rises to nearly 50 degrees. The resulting freeze-thaw cycle crumbles the surface rocks and fossils. Each winter they cool and shrink; each summer they heat and expand. As they shrink and swell with each season over thousands of years at the surface, the bones fall apart. Confronted by a jumbled mass of bone spread across the hill, we could not identify any obvious rock layer as their source. We spent several days following the fragment trails, digging test pits, practically using our geological hammers as divining rods to see where in the cliff the bones were emerging. After four days, we exposed the layer and eventually found skeleton upon skeleton of fossil fish, often lying one on top of another. We spent parts of two summers exposing these fish.