Bagged lunches, an enthusiastic troupe of children and a teacher repeating her instructions a dozen times. Those are the images most of us conjure up when we think of a field trip. But for the team that works behind the glass walls at the paleontology lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, ‘field trip’ translates to ‘expedition.’ It means long days in long weeks far from home (or civilization, for that matter), sweeping vistas, scanning, chiseling, and discovery.
Central Utah, 2016—as a last push at the end of a hot day, an expedition team led by the museum’s head paleontologist, Lindsay Zanno, decided to scour one last ridge. The team’s efforts were rewarded: paleontologist Terry “Bucky” Gates found pieces of eggshell, which turned out to be a clutch of football-length eggs from a late Cretaceous creature called an oviraptorosaur; imagine a 15-foot tall chicken-meets-dinosaur, and you’ve got the picture. Although fragmentary oviraptorosaur eggs have been found in the United States, this is the first time an intact clutch has been uncovered here.
Preparing the nest of eggs for collection required weeks of work, culminating in lifting it off the desert cliffs by helicopter—surrounding sediments, protective plaster jacket, and all—and then driving it back to the Triangle and the lab that serves as home base. Lab operations manager and paleontology prep veteran Lisa Herzog has participated in the expeditions for years, and says that, after weeks in the field, the team unloads the fossils, then takes a day off to regroup. It’s a nice break at first, but, after 24 hours to bask in AC, WiFi and spare time, Herzog says there’s an irresistible itch to get back in the lab to start work on the new specimens.
Chief fossil preparator Aaron Giterman cut into the plaster encasing the eggs. On smaller items, scissors are sufficient, but for this 1,400 pound mass, he used a saw. The lab offers as much order as the field does volatility; every drawer is labeled, each tool has its place. After assessing and shoring up the stability of the specimen, the next step for a preparator is to clear the surrounding rock away using either a needle-like tool or a miniature jackhammer. It’s a task that requires precision and patience in abundance.
“People think that working on fossils is going to be really awesome and cool and exciting,” Herzog says. “And then they do it, and they’re like, ‘This is really boring’. It’s not for everyone.”
Herzog came to the the natural sciences museum following more than a decade of work at the Field Museum in Chicago, bringing with her a range of experience and dedication to the best practices in the realm of paleo prep. In the case of the oviraptorosaur nest, there is a wealth of information to be gathered about a still mysterious species, making care and consistency of paramount importance.
“Sometimes what we discover about animals is in the minute details,” Herzog explains.
The data is hidden in the sediments surrounding the nest, in the shape and texture of the eggs themselves, in the way the eggs were laid in a neat semicircle and in the context of the original site. With so much to uncover and study, Herzog estimates that work on the nest will continue for the next five years, at least. Gitterman, Herzog, Zanno, and other volunteers and colleagues in their own labs across the world will conduct the work in its usual quiet, equally unglamorous and significant way.
As the work goes on, the eggs are front and center for any curious guest that cares to see. Next time you visit the museum, peer through the paleontology lab windows and get a good look for yourself at this piece of history in the midst of its revelation. Who knows—maybe the field-tripping kid next to you will be the paleontologist who makes the next big discovery. ■