The days are getting longer and the temperature is rising. That means it's fossil time. Starting in May, I'll join paleontologists from multiple museums and universities to search for new stories in stone - from the secrets of an Allosaurus graveyard to a pile of Ice Age mammals that became buried deep in a cave. And I want to take you with me.
As I travel from the deserts of Nevada to the badlands of South Dakota, I'll be sharing the thrill of discovery and emerging details of creatures that have been preserved in stone for millions upon millions of years. You'll be able to follow the discoveries as they happen through Twitter, blog posts for National Geographic, and videocasts showing science in action. But my major drive behind this summer's spate of expeditions is to write a fieldwork memoir in the tradition of classics like The Snow Leopard and The Log From the Sea of Cortez. Stories about paleontology are often focused on the results of science rather than the process. I want to change that by recounting the difficulties and joys of what it's really like to wander out in the sun-baked desert in search of lost worlds. (See below for more details.)
But getting out to many of these field sites can be tricky. The word "road" often means two ruts in the sand or a boulder-strewn path that has claimed many tires and axles over the years. I need a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle to get me from site to site in safety, and that's where you come in.
What I Need:
Your contributions will let me purchase an adequate car to roll from one patch of desert to the next. I don't need a fancy ride. I'm going to use this funding to buy a sturdy truck or SUV that will get me out to where the fossils are. Based on what's available near me, the requested money is enough to afford and tune up a used car good enough for the journey. There's no substitute for getting out in the quiet of the desert and uncovering the past.
What You'll See Online:You'll be able to follow me as I go on my fossiliferous adventure. Here's what you'll see between May and October:
Weekly videos - I'll be uploading interviews with paleontologists and short segments about fieldwork at least once a week to my YouTube channel. More polished pieces will go up on the Dinologue channel through the fall.
Regular blog posts: I'll be writing about life in the field on my National Geographic blog Laelaps, from the history of the places I'm exploring to news on what's coming out of the ground. For an example, check out my post "Dinosaurs on Mars" from 2013.
Livetweeting the field: I often have at least a little cellphone service in the field - or at least know the nearby hill to climb on top of to get it - and I love sharing updates and photos of my paleo journeys. I'll be tweeting as I go, showing off new finds, roadside dinosaurs, and museums as I run around the west.
About the Book Project:
This is going to shock you, I know, but digging up fossils isn't like what you've seen in Jurassic Park. Uncovering the past is difficult, dirty work that can reward you with stunning remnants of past life or slowly drive you mad when the rock withholds its secrets. This part of paleontology is eternal - the way scientists search for and excavate bones is little different from what pioneering naturalists did over a century ago. There are smartphones and rocksaws now, sure, but, at its core, fieldwork still relies on patience, luck, and a strong back to carry enough water to fight off lingering hangovers.
At its heart, the new book will be an adventure yarn. There will be science in it, most certainly, but its more about the people and the process than about the ultimate results. Phylogenetic trees change, old results are challenged, and species are renamed. These things shift all the time. The drive to wander among the rocks to find something no one has ever seen before - that's constant. That's the drive that generations of fossil hunters honor when they trade stories in camp over beers each night. And it's that part of paleontology - the passion for life, extinct and not - that I'm going to document in the book.
The book will be written for adults and run upwards of 80,000 words. It will take me between nine months to a year to compose the story, and from there I'll turn the manuscript over to my agent to take to traditional publishers. If that doesn't work out, I'll hire an independent editor to have a look at the draft and self-publish. This isn't a book I want to write. It's one I need to write.
Where I'm headed:
Tule Springs National Monument, Nevada - Ice Age mammals abound here
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah - Dinosaurs from America's "lost continent"
Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry, Utah - A logjam of young sauropod dinosaurs
Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, Utah - A mysterious bonebed chock full of Allosaurus
Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, Idaho - A dense accumulation of horses and other fossil mammals
Bridger Basin, Wyoming - A patch of desert that has yielded wonderful, strange 50 million year old mammals
Natural Trap Cave, Wyoming - A cave full of Ice Age mammals that fell to their doom
Bighorn Basin, Wyoming - A Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops are ready to come out of the ground
Ghost Ranch, New Mexico - A rich Triassic site is offering a new look at the "dawn of the dinosaurs"
El Golfo, Mexico - Who could say no to tapir fossils south of the border?
What if I exceed my funding goal?:
If this project exceeds its funding goal, some of that money will be used to buy a vehicle that needs less initial maintenance before hitting the road and to save a little gas money. After that, I will donate anything left over to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to support ongoing research and training.
Risks and challenges
Acquiring a field vehicle is my major challenge. Once I'm out in the field, I'll be able to easily create videos, blog posts, and social media updates as I have during previous summers. The tweets, posts, and videos will appear throughout the summer as fieldwork continues.
The main challenge when I return from the desert will be in composing the fieldwork memoir. That will take at least nine months, after which I will give the book to my agent to find a publisher. If the book is not sold to a traditional publisher, I will self-publish the account as an ebook.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
Support this project
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