Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Help Brian Switek Tell the Stories of Fossil Hunters in the Field its core, fieldwork still relies on patience, luck, and a strong back to carry enough water to fight off lingering hangovers. - Brian Switek, from his "Have Allosaurus, Will Travel" Kickstarter campaign page.

Brian Switek prepares to enter Natural Trap Cave. Photo by Eric Scott.

Brian Switek is on a mission to tell a story. For years, he has carved out a niche as a journalist of life's history, and has written about every major palaeontology story in recent memory. More importantly, he's shed light on many that don't hit the front pages. He's told these stories via the various incarnations of his Laelaps blog, as a freelance reporter, and as the author of the popular Written in Stone and My Beloved Brontosaurus (as well as his new Prehistoric Predators, featuring the art of Julius Csotonyi, which I reviewed last week).

Next, he intends to tell the stories of the men and women who work for months in conditions most people wouldn't tolerate for a day to make the shiny museum exhibits and cavorting CGI saurians possible. He describes it as a need more than a want. To make this possible, he's raising funds via Kickstarter to allow him to spend the summer traveling between 10 important dig sites across western North America, spanning the last 250 millions years of Earth's history.

I love this idea. Pop-palaeontology often jettisons the uncertainty and debate that surround discoveries. Look no further than the NatGeo Spinosaurus blitz of last year, in which the publication of new fossil material was accompanied by a documentary, magazine cover story, and museum exhibition. These publicity efforts sell the public a story, one that tends to elide the "more research is needed" that is almost always part of a research paper's conclusions.

Brian is on the road now, but took a few minutes to do a brief interview about the project.

What do you think are the major misconceptions people have about the way field work and other research is undertaken?

Have a look at paleontology news items. Most of them are about the results of science - the naming of a new species, or a discovery about the way a particular animal lived. The passion of paleontology - the thing that keeps people trudging through deserts and spending countless hours in the lab - is often missing. That's symptomatic of science storytelling in general. The result is the focus rather than the process. And even though the first Jurassic Park film came out over 20 years ago, it partly fills that void. I regularly get asked whether paleontologists use ground-penetrating radar to find fossils (nope) and there's often an assumption that dinosaurs come out of the ground as lovely, articulated skeletons (that's rare).

The truth is that fieldwork roughly resembles how it was done a century ago. Making an important discovery starts with being dirty, sweaty, tired, and possibly hungover on long desert hikes where you feel like your brain is going to boil out of your ears. And when you find a fossil of note, it's often the beginning of commitment that involves years of digging, chipping, studying, and puzzling. It takes a special kind of madness to enjoy this kind of work, but it's that human story that I want to tell.

What media - writing or otherwise - do you think has done a good job of telling the story of palaeontology?

Some of the best works on the process of paleontology are books that look at the history of the discipline. Some that immediately come to mind are Paul Brinkman's The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, David Rains Wallace's The Bonehunters' Revenge, and the harder-to-find biography of O.C. Marsh by Charles Schuchert and Clara MaeLeVene. Maybe it's because we're more distant from these researchers - and their dinosaur-sized personalities - so we feel more comfortable talking about their successes as well as their faults. Whatever the reason, these books are at the intersection of science and the personalities that drove it.

Do you have a favorite field site you've visited?

I don't know if I can choose! I've been lucky enough to work at a variety of sites around the west over the past four summers, and each has its own flavor. Quarries brimming with bone, such as Ghost Ranch, are nice, but there's nothing quite like the thrill of going prospecting to find a new site. So even though I can't pick a favorite, I'll say that I'm the most excited about the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry. It's a rich Jurassic boneyard full of Allosaurus, and last summer I found a new dinosaur site outside the main quarry. I don't know what dinosaur it is or how much is in the rock, but in a few weeks I'll be going back to find out.

Best of luck to Brian in his efforts - I know firsthand how difficult crowdfunding can be. At the time of this posting, he has a week to raise about half of his funds, so please do consider pitching in and spreading the word on social media. Let's help him in this effort to sing the praises of palaeontology's usually unsung heroes.

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