A Typical Day in the Chihuahuan Desert: A Window into the Life of a Fossil Surveyor at Big Bend

This week I wanted to give insight into a normal day for me are here in Big Bend National Park. These images are collected from a couple of days, but I wanted to gather them all together and give some of idea of what I do while working here.

On a typical day here, when I have to be in the field, my day starts at around first light, as depicted in the photo above. Usually this is around 6:30-7 a.m. This is because in the early morning up to about mid-afternoon is when it is the coolest, and the safest time to visit these sites. It’s a short walk to the Science and Resource Management office, where I gather water in my pack, and gather my materials such as an issued tablet and GPS receiver. On my tablet the spatial information is stored and, after a brief moment of pairing, I’m ready to go to my first site. Going to fossil sites is not so much of a chore at times, however sometimes I have to drive on undeveloped roads, which can be a hassle. Once I reach a close enough location to the sites from the road, I park the car and head out. Even with reliable GPS software and technology, probably the best thing you need for finding fossils is a keen eye, and luck at times. Here are some fossils from sites I found last week.

Above we have an example of typical fossil site that I might find, where I would find a bunch of different types of fossils and different types of fossils that are all collected together in close proximity. It is very rare to find a whole intact fossil; mainly what you find is fragments and maybe larger parts, such as what is shown here. The larger one is probably part of the spine of a hadrosaur. The smaller one is a tooth of the large crocodile named Deinosusuchus, and many of those are close to these sites where there are small fragments of bones. These are a LOT easier to find than many other fossils.

Another type of fossil prominent here at Big Bend is fossilized wood. There are many fossil wood sites in Big Bend. The largest one that I’ve found is pictured on top, where the log was almost 20 feet long and over 2 feet wide. Alongside I have pictured a new paleontology site that I have found, which is a similar fossil wood stump. It was truly exciting when I found these sites and many others.

The day in the field usually ends around 11 a.m., when the temperature starts to increase to reach close to 100 degrees or more at times. Safety is an important issue that one must be aware of when being out by yourself and, along with the risk of heat stroke and exhaustion, I have to be aware of the various dangerous wildlife as well.

Luckily this guy was the only one I’ve found out in the field, but it helps to keep reminding yourself that you are entering their territory, and you have to respect that. However, sometimes nature gives you a treat. Among the many plants found at Big Bend, there is a special type of cactus that produces a sweet fruit that is very tasty. It’s called the strawberry hedgehog cactus, or pitaya. It is closely related to dragonfruit and tastes quite the same.

After my day in the field, I head to the office and work until maybe 5 or 6, and then I head back to my apartment here. I usually make dinner, but if I’m in the mood for something different, I can make a short dive to Terlingua and visit a neat bar/ restaurant, La Kiva. Terlingua is the closest town from Big Bend, followed by Marathon and Alpine to the north. Here we can gather provisions and mingle with the locals. It’s a fun little ghost town that is nice to visit at times. If you are looking for more culture, you can always visit Boquillas, Mexico, when the border is open on Friday and the weekends. I’ve visited Boquillas once before on business, but upon revisiting it I had a great time with the local Mexicans who live a very simple life and offer very good trinkets and souvenirs to remember your visit by, along with tremendously good Mexican food, and drinks of course.

After some shenanigans at Terlingua, Boquilas, or just at the apartment, a good way to wind down from the day is a good game of pickle ball. Pickle ball is like tennis in some ways, but played with a wooden paddle, and a wiffle ball, and is a ton of fun. It helps keep me fit at times and introduced me to a bunch of cool people who work in the park in other divisions, who I wouldn’t have met in my office. After a game or three, it’s time for a short walk back to my apartment, stopping at times to look at the awesome night sky and get ready to start the whole process over again the next day. In the end, it’s all worth it to keep the idea of preserving the wild nature of Big Bend National Park.

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