By Carolyn Sheffield, Field Book Project
As part of our Beyond The Field Book Project section of this blog, we are initiating a series of interviews to learn more about who uses field books and for what kinds of research. The other week I had the privilege of interviewing Kay Behrensmeyer, PhD, in the Department of Paleobiology. She is a contributing author to “Field Notes on Science & Nature” and keeps meticulous field notes herself. She shared some great information on the role of field notes in her own research, which focuses on Paleoecology and Taphonomy. Taphonomy is the study of how fossils and organic remains are preserved. According to Dr. Behrensmeyer, “Taphonomy [has to do with] the transition from the biosphere to the lithosphere. The fossil record is a tiny sample of life in the past so a lot of my career has been devoted to figuring out what that little sample means in terms of the original animals, plants, and ecosystems. Field notes link the fossils and the age and the lithology and the ancient environments. And everything kind of comes together around that primary data.”
What role do the notes you take in the field play in figuring that out and how would you use that in a lab or how would you describe that process?
Being in the field is a wonderful experience that I love [but] it is a small percentage of my total research time. I learned that you can get distracted and not remember a lot of what’s going on when you do field work. So I began taking really careful notes.
One example I’m [working] with now are Pila snails, known today as “Apple Snails.” The opercula, or “trap doors” of these snails are mineralized in life and relatively easy to fossilize. We collected many of them as in the ancient strata of Pakistan, even though we never see the whole shell. There are bands on the opercula of Pila that could indicate a seasonal climate, so we need to know exactly where they came from. My field books provide that information.
In your piece in Canfield’s publication, it really stood out how important the visual materials – the photographs and the sketches—were to your work.
I’m very visual as a thinker—so if I can connect back with an image like this one of the bone beds, or the strata or even the people […] then I can really get my head back into that space.
I usually worked with an old style Polaroid camera that took black and white because the black and white survives better, archivally. The colors in Polaroid film just didn’t last very well. We used a color polaroid in Kenya, and if you scan them right away then you can archive them, but in the notebooks the prints fade.
And Pakistan--we can’t go back any more, of course, because of the politics. It’s doubly important there to have the diagrams and the Polaroids.
How would you use that information when you come back from the field?
For drawing the stratigraphic sections, the layers, into diagrams. You need to have all the information you can to reconstruct those layers and the strata when you’re back in the lab, and to filter the information about the fossils as well. It’s a tried and true axiom that you need good field observations to do this type of research.
For example, here’s a date and these are the sample numbers. And the tiny writing to fit in as much information as possible on the page. This is a description of the rock type. Its tuff, which is a volcanic ash. This is very important for recording the name of that particular volcanic layer. There’s a rich fossil deposit here and it’s sandwiched between two very nice radiometric dates. It’s very important to document the age as well as the layers that this bone bed was in. We called this the Kenyapithecus site. This is an important early relative in human lineage. In the publication, there’s a much simplified version.
I do a lot of transferring of information from my primary field notes. And they’re always what I go back to if there’s a question.
Do you ever consult field notes that were done for another expedition, for example a historic expedition?
I also worked in the Jurassic Period early in my career. The bone searchers of that time, Marsh and Cope, were out looking for dinosaurs. We used their early records, especially maps, sketch maps, and books. All of that can be a real treasure trove of important information.
Do you find that those historic field books are generally easy to locate?
If it’s a well-known museum, you just ask them if you can visit and look at the field books. Or some of them are reproduced digitally now, although generally you have to go to the museum where the scientist worked. Field notebooks before the 1960’s are not available unless you go to the archives. It would be wonderful if they were more accessible.
So if these were made available online, how would you want to be able to search for them?
Definitely if there are maps, sketches, diagrams, I would want to see those. The place, latitude / longitude – some kind of GIS referencing system. Those are particularly valuable. I had an intern last summer who went to the field notes of the people who collected with Teddy Roosevelt in Africa, and there are catalogs of all the specimens they collected in 1911. It was a real problem figuring out what a place name, then, was now. And there were two identical names for rivers that were in opposite ends of Kenya.
Also any reference to fossils and, of course, the dates. The people that were involved; the institutions; where the camps were. Maybe weather. In a way, it’s a record of what climate was like then, too. In Wyoming, they got snowed-in in May or October, they were pushing the limit because they were on a treasure hunt and they were trying to get the dinosaurs out, according to some of the books you read about those early expeditions. There may not be heavy snow in May anymore. That’s more on the end of the human side of it. That’s also really valuable.
Is there anything else that you would like to add about the use of field books or the value of field books in your research?
They’re a really important part of our legacy and our research. They’re essential.
Thank you, Dr. Behrensmeyer, for sharing your insights on some of the valuable information that we can find recorded in paleontological field notes. Please join us next month for another installation in our interview series when we talk with Curator Emeritus, Storrs Olson, from the Division of Birds.