With weather worsening, scientists race to gather more specimens

Scree, or talus, is the accumulation of broken rock on hillsides and at the base of rock exposures. This sandstone scree, encountered on an earlier expedition, is particularly challenging to traverse as we explore for fossils. River crossings are also a hazard, and we won't attempt it if possible. (Photo by Ted Daeschler)

The weather has deteriorated to normal Arctic conditions. Winds are gusty at 15 to 20 mph and it’s cold. I’m wearing a wool hat and gloves. Sleet is hitting my tent. We got pretty spoiled with the milder weather earlier.

The rocks here really augment the rocks we have in Pennsylvania. Between the Pennsylvania research and the research here we are getting a good picture of the different animals that lived in the Late Devonian period. The types of environments they lived in.

This place is full of a lot of small discoveries and only a few big discoveries. We’ve had a lot of big discoveries both in Pennsylvania and the Arctic and have lots of continuing work to do.

This year so far is characterized by discoveries that are helping us answer questions about the variety of life, the biodiversity of life, the environments where life was diversifying and flourishing. The most interesting aspect of what we’re looking at is the transformation from finned to limbed animals. But we want to place that transition into the environmental context. That’s why we are collecting so much data.

We working one rock formation called the Nordstrand Point formation. That is from a slice of time which is more recent than where we found Tiktaalik. It’s not as recent as the work in Pennsylvania. It’s a slice of time we would really like to know what was going on, the stream systems, deltas, swamp habitats. We’re finding plant material, nature of the rocks and fossils, a variety of fish. Some are just like things we’ve seen elsewhere.

The most common fossils we’re finding are placoderms, plural for a group of armored fishes. Every day we see them at every site. We’re also finding other groups of animals, but we won’t know what we have until we get back to Philadelphia and do the fossil prep work in the lab. The library work to identify what we have. The payoff comes months after the actual field work itself.

Exploring this rock formation is difficult. The exposures are far apart. We have to walk a lot in this rugged terrain. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. We’re finding the hard parts of these fishes, most commonly the head plates. Also parts of skulls, armor and body parts, lots of scales, pretty well-preserved jaws, lots of teeth. Some teeth are an inch to an inch-and-a-half long. Some pretty serious carnivorous fish!

The snowy owls are still here. We don’t want to disturb them.

Neil and Mark split off for a while and walked to the coast. They saw walruses.

We have our daily routine: the guys call home every once in a while. We’re enjoying our food -- great to have a pot of something warm to eat every night.

What’s really amazing is that every day we go to somewhere that no one has ever looked at, no one has ever walked where we are walking. Quite an interesting thing to wrap your head around. This is untouched terrain. Not a lot of non-profits or businesses up here. But now there are four scientists here. It’s really an exciting place to work.

We’re supposed to get picked up soon -- earlier than planned because of the weather. So we are inventorying the sites we want to return to. We can never really count on the weather, so we need to do that now. It’s gotten a little worse and we have to think about safety.