USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

July 30, 2014

Moving forward by retreating

Filed under: Life in Lima,Preparing for the expedition — Kathleen Ritterbush @ 11:10 pm

Hola folks at home,

It’s been a packed couple of days in Lima.

Lima is amazingly similar to Los Angeles. Outside, too many cars on too few streets. Inside, great food and great people. It’s the winter here, so mid to low 60s, also just like Los Angeles.


We each have different ambitions and hopes for the field work. We need to balance these ambitions and decide a specific set of goals for the field work. Some of us are new at this kind of collaboration and new to the language, habits, and motivations of other kinds of scientists.

It takes years to know the rocks properly. I came in 2012 wondering if there were any sponge fossils. I returned to LA with dubious results from the field, unsure of what I’d seen. In the microscope that year I slowly learned, YES! there were sponges. So I came back in 2013 to determine when the sponges arose in time, how widespread they were, and how specifically they impacted the surrounding environment.


Yesterday geochemist Josh asked me, “Here on the schematic you indicate there are 60 m of mudrocks that are useful for geochemical analyses. Why did you only sample them every 10 meters?” The answer was that I had no idea they would be any good for geochemical analyses last year, or even certainty that they were mud rocks. Now that we know that, we can sample again.

It’s surprisingly valuable to be in Lima because we are all separated from our usual distractions. We spend the entire day talking about science. Some of these are conversations we’ve been musing over all year, but haven’t had time, focus, or clarity to resolve. The result is sort of spectacular to watch, as we are all very gradually adjusting our expectations and ambitions, and getting to know each other a little better. We’re here for logistics an preparations for the field, but it’s also becoming a “retreat” for the research group to regain our focus and ambition.

We’re assertive about our expectations and requirements for the work, about our desires to see more rocks that fit each of our needs. But we know we need a synthesis, and I’ve been so pleased that everyone has been patient and thoughtful as hours of discussions turn into days. Juxtaposing our different foci gets goofy. At a restaurant tonight after Frank’s talk:

Paleontologist Kathleen: Dave, do you want some of this squid?

Paleontologist Dave: Mmmmm, cephalopods! Kathleen is our enthusiast for ammonites.

Geochemist Josh: Wait, are cephalopods mollusks!?

Paleontologist Joyce: [long incredulous stare]

Geochemist Josh: What’s the molecular weight of Tungsten!??

Running with such a diverse crowd means we can’t declare things to be “obvious.” It’s fun to be reminded of this and to remember to keep a broad perspective. The paleontologists expect everyone to understand references to the taxonomy of long-dead critters, and the geochemist points out that this is like expecting us to have currently memorized the periodic table.

Today Silvia took us to lunch at an archeology museum near the college where a few of us paid to see the exhibits of pre-Inca pottery and metal work. It was spectacular. I took a few photos for my dad, who’s a pre-Columbian art enthusiast. And it was his birthday today! After 45 minutes we needed to head to Frank’s lecture for the Peruvian Geological Society.


It was fascinating for me to watch Frank’s talk. Two years ago I gave a talk to the same society, the day after my field work. I hardly scraped together photos of my immediate field results, and I was still in the dark about the microscopic sponge evidence. I didn’t present a strong discussion to make sense of why I was here. Tonight Frank gave a thorough and compelling overview of the mass extinction, climate and chemical environmental change, and the significance of the siliceous sponge expansion. The talk had many overlapping parts with faculty audition job talks I’ve delivered lately, as Frank helps critique my presentations and he was presenting results from my last two years of work, in the context of our overall project. Over the years my relationship to the rocks, to the science, and to the intellectual camaraderie evolves, and that is a wonderful process.

A fun day, but now we’ve got another big day tomorrow. Negotiations, contemplation. We’ll go to a local ruin, I think of a pre-Incan coastal society. It’s so interesting to get a chance while we’re here and debating our science, to see these ancient structures and stretch a different part of our intellect. We have days-long conversations broken up by stretches of looking at the wonder and mystery of a far more human past.

Sleep now, more meetings and adventures and negotiations tomorrow. Adios Los Angeles, Thousand Oaks, Fairbanks, and Chicago!

Preparing the Expedition: Chicago to Lima

Filed under: Getting to Peru,Preparing for the expedition — Kathleen Ritterbush @ 3:44 pm

O’hare Airport, Chicago Illinois, 7:05 am

“…Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Sholders…”



"Cloud Gate" aka "the bean" in Chicago's Milenium Park

“Cloud Gate” aka “the bean” in Chicago’s Milenium Park

I spent the last few days hustling around Hyde Park and downtown Chicago getting ready for Peru. The last six month’s I’ve lived here as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago. I experienced my first winter, first fireflies, and at Friday’s geology department softball game against the chemists, my first mulberries!


On this expedition I’m planning to show off the work I’ve done the last few years to a gaggle of ambitious professors and collaborators bent on new research directions. As a paleontologist I look for signs of animal life, and indications of how those animals interacted with each other and with their ocean home. Two of our collaborators are chemists who study how erosion on land feeds crucial minerals to the seas, and how this changes the ocean through time.  We’re interested in how Pangea volcanically splitting apart influenced ocean chemistry, how the chemistry influenced the animals, and how the animals influenced their coastline homes.


Two hundred million years ago Pangea was splitting and an astronomical number of animals went extinct on land and in the oceans. Afterwards, dinosaurs got a good boost on land by expanding into new ecological opportunities. I spent the last few years looking at what happened in the oceans, and in addition to the usual new clams and new snails, there was a radical reorganization of which animals ruled the roost on the coasts.


Sea sponges spread out over vast areas previously occupied molluscs and crinoids, turning something that might have looked like the Florida coast into something more like the sponge meadows of the Antarctic shelf. I spent the last three years searching for their fossilized parts in the American west and Peru. When I found their tiny needles in microscope slides of rocks, I knew they were close. When I found their bodies preserved as three-dimensional blobs and sacks and vases strewn over fossilized seafloor rock layers, I couldn’t even believe my eyes. With a lot of help from professors and other grad students, I spent a few years analyzing the fossils in the lab and under the microscope, and returning to the field to look for more.


That search led to Peru, and to a remarkable professor who did her dissertation on a pack of rocks that happen to contain one of the best marine records of the Triassic/Jurassic history ever found. Several professors at University of Southern California decided to push for more funding, and now we’re on our way. It’s my job to show the chemists the rocks with the sponge fossils. It’s our job together to decide how to get more out of these rocks, how to take samples that might, after careful work in the lab, reveal what happened in the ocean 200,000,000 years ago.
In some ways I’ve been preparing for this trip since last May, when we learned our grant proposal was funded. I transformed a solo month of Peruvian field work into a scramble for materials the chemists could try out in the lab. A series of taste tests, if you will.  Now we go back together, armed with preliminary results.


We’re going to present our research at an international symposium in Lima, then head to the high Andes for two weeks. I prepared field guides for the crew, and I’m still preparing more detailed field notes for myself. Over the past year I’ve been scrutinizing almost 200 microscope slides I had made from the Peruvian samples from six different Andean mines and mountainsides. I’ve drafted schematics to represent the rocks, the fossils, and the microscopic contents. Together we’ve submitted two academic articles on the results, and I used these figures to prepare field guides for the crew.


There’s never enough time. I always want one more hour on the microscope, one more hour with my computer drafting station, one more hour to read over accounts of previous expeditions from the 1980s and 1990s. Then I export myself into the field and have only what’s in my head. This year I’m making a technological leap and using an iPad mini – my first tablet – to keep the photographs and microscope results and chemical test results at my fingertips in the field. I’m hoping the new graduate student on our team – Joyce Yeager – can show me some clever ways to use it.


I didn’t brush up on my Spanish enough, and what’s more I’ll be surrounded by the team members speaking English, which challenges my emersion. I didn’t write blog posts over the past month like I planned, and I still need to submit my research symposium abstracts for the big international meeting in October. I figure I have time for that in Houston before our Lima flight.


One last minute priority that paid off was getting physically and mentally into better shape. The cruel “polar vortex” winter, a cross country move, and time away from rocks took a toll on my motivation. After long consideration I took the plunge and joined a Dutch style Muay Thai kickboxing club. Learning to casually kick an opponent in the thigh is actually a combination of about eight sophisticated tricks of balance and rotation. Turns out it’s physically impossible to fret about job applications or impending research deadlines when someone’s about to punch me in the face. Three weeks later I’m feeling more human, and hoping my lungs do a bit better in the Andes. Academia can bring subtle isolation and stress that we each need to navigate cleverly to survive. I’ve been sparing and boxing; I’ve been getting my own big Chicago shoulders.


Cycling around Chicago's brief wonderful summer, at Buckingham Fountain

Cycling around Chicago’s brief wonderful summer, at Buckingham Fountain

I’ve been worried about the upcoming trip, and discouraged, and unsure how it will go. I know it’s going to be cold, I know I’m going to wish I’d looked at my slides differently, and I know I’m going to wish I had another week on the rocks. Every time I revisit a field site I see it with new eyes, and bringing a pack of wily senior scientists along is sure to revolutionize my perspective. I find field work so captivating because it is completely transformative. Sure I like the llamas and the food and the people and the travels, but the way a week’s passing brings a whole new outlook on science and deep time is just unbeatable. I don’t know what I’ll find, but I’m expecting the good kind of trouble.


We’re keeping a team blog too:

July 9, 2013

Back in Lima

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathleen Ritterbush @ 10:28 am

What a whirlwind! Six hours but a world away, I’m back in Lima. The floor of my office at the university is covered in bags of samples, mostly of potential fossil sponges, also of rocks and fossils of ammonites and other molluscs. I have a LOT of work to do.


I didn’t post in the last week mostly due to the roads limiting my hotel time to under an hour of waking life, but also because I don’t like writing in English so much when I’m trying to think and learn in spanish. Anyway, many stories and photos to follow in the next fourty hours as I head back to LA and catch some time here in my office and on the plane to reflect and review.


Hasta luego!


July 4, 2013

Rocks and Llamas

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathleen Ritterbush @ 3:59 am

No time to write but this sums up yesterday:

A day of wild landscapes, confusing rocks and promising fossils, patiently observed by a flock (?) of llamas. Extra credit in the comments if you know the term of venery for llamas.

A day of wild landscapes, confusing rocks and promising fossils, patiently observed by a flock (?) of llamas. Extra credit in the comments if you know the term of venery for llamas.

July 2, 2013

Things get LOCO

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathleen Ritterbush @ 7:52 pm

It’s past my bedtime so I have to keep it brief. At last I have internet!


After leaving the jungle we went to a mine at the top of the world. It was freezing cold, something like -10 C at night. Hours of medical checks, confusion about our housing, and a geologist very skeptical about our chances of promising rocks soured my mood. I figured if we found nothing in the morning, just as well: we’d continue to the three sites I know well from last year.

In fact at about 16000 feet we saw some of the finest fossil sponges I’ve ever seen. They really tie the room together. Everything I’ve seen in Nevada and everything here in Peru makes way more sense in light of this outcrop, in the center of a stark mining district, at an almost impossible elevation.


Now we’ve switched sites again. I thought I was adjusting to the elevation but was wrong. The headaches got so bad I was literally useless on the outcrop my last day, after working four days at 16000 feet and sleeping at about 14000. Now we’re sleeping in a new town, at about 10,000 feet, and I feel way better.


Each day we need to commute to the field sites, which takes about two hours and more guts than I’ve ever seen in a driver. Saens (pronounced, “Science”!!!) has more measured daring per kg than anyone I’ve met. All three roads between the altiplano and western cordillera are under construction at once, limiting travel of people and goods to nighttime races. Today a jam of eighteenwheelers in the narrow cliffside alleyways between adobe villages was resolved by a half dozen brave guys who, after directing all the vehicles into a tetris of functionality, vanished back into their trucks and vans and disappeared into the night.  The week before our arrival there was a terrible accident where 30 people died in a bus that went over a cliff. But compared to anywhere else I’ve seen such traffic I’m in awe of how well people handle these impossible situations. I’ve yet to see so much as a single dead dog. And there are a LOT of dogs.


More images and hopefully video from the adventures and fossils to follow, but I really only get to the hotel in time to go to sleep and get back up to leave at 6 sharp so we don’t get stranded. It’s a wild time. It’s cold, but the rocks are amazing.

word of the day: arcoiris, rainbow. Not sure how to spell it. Also morecielago, bat. Not sure how to spell that either.  Now that it’s just me and local scientists and Science himself, I need to pick up my spanish.

June 25, 2013

Hot chocolate at the top of the world

Filed under: Andean Fossil Hunt — admin @ 8:50 pm

Tuesday 6/25/13
10:40 pm


It doesn't count if boards aren't missing

It doesn’t count if boards aren’t missing

obligatory rushing river in a canyon deep below

obligatory rushing river in a canyon deep below

Silvia en la Selva

Silvia en la Selva

a wire and wood plank bridge across a river in the jungle near the mine

a wire and wood plank bridge across a river in the jungle near the mine

This is a plunging anticline. The rocks should be in flat layers, but the layers are folded up like a burrito. Truck for scale.

This is a plunging anticline. The rocks should be in flat layers, but the layers are folded up like a burrito. Truck for scale.

Not a bad place to wait two hours for the road to open.

Not a bad place to wait two hours for the road to open.

a mile long line of cars waits for the road to reopen after a surprise that it will be underconstruction, along with the only other two exits from this region, for the next 6 months.

a mile long line of cars waits for the road to reopen after a surprise that it will be underconstruction, along with the only other two exits from this region, for the next 6 months.

Silvia said it's not a vicuna, because the ears are too long. Who are you mystery 4th ungulate!?

Silvia said it’s not a vicuna, because the ears are too long. Who are you mystery 4th ungulate!?

The truck to pick us up from the mountaintop field site was late, and it was getting cold. Etewhaldo suggested we hide from the cold inside one of the miner’s quarters. I thought they were all abandoned. There’s a cluster of maybe four or five buildings the size of mobile homes, each devided into little offices or dormatories, here on the top of the mountain. We’re about 2500 meters up, I checked the schematic of the mine. Yesterday, inside the mine, we were at about 1700 meters. My ears have been busy with popping. A clearing near the top of the mountain contains a big earthmover, the abandoned offices, and a lonely guard tower where a very official and fairly whistful young guy is in charge of checking the names of everyone who comes and goes, appearing suddenly in big 4×4 trucks and disappearing just as suddenly. He doesn’t have a computer, even though that’s where the best internet is (AHAH!) due to a huge aentena. And he doesn’t even appear to be allowed a book or magazine. As Silvia and Etewhaldo and I wait for our truck, now 10 minutes late, I tell them in Spanish about firewatch towers. As an adolescent I felt a whistful romance for firewatch towers in the wildernesses of the west, where a person might spend 4 months alone, watching the forrest, with only a radio and books and an imagination. I was convinced I’d be a famous writer if I could just get a summer job in a firewatch tower. Ed Abbey, Jack Keruac I think… good writers needed to have such experiences. As I explained this to the other two, I noticed the quiet guard peering through the window listening intently to my broken Spanglish, with his bare desk and clean reflective vest, and a sad expression. Etewhaldo found some cookies and candies in his pack for us, and I joked with Silvia that this was dinner. Getting cold, he led us to one of the abandoned buildings to shelter from the wind, as our car apparently wasn’t even on route yet.

The day was a bit of a bust scientifically but not bad all and all. Sort of like a rain day. In the morning Etewhaldo wasn’t at the mine offices to meet us. In fact the whole geology department was closed and locked. Apparently the two preppy guys my age I noticed at the cafeteria last night, sitting apart in colored polo shirts and looking nothing like locals or miners – are the grandsons of the owning family. They popped in for a surprise visit, and this took the geologists away from their other work. So for the morning Silvia and I had an office day. It was good luck, as it took a long time to correctly package all the samples from yesterday’s mining adventure. It was so loud, and so hard to communicate, that the numbing on the samples and the symbols on the mine schematic didn’t match. I figured it out, made notes, wrapped the mudstones in paper and plastic, labeling the samples inside and out, trying to protect against breakage in the bouncy truck. We’ll see how well I did.

I was almost done when the guy from the core warehouse came up asking if we had photos that might reference some markers in the core series. Long story, but the entire sequence was destroyed after we left. It boggles the mind. At least I got descent photos. I spent the next hour making him a massive photomerge in photoshop. Such a shame.

After lunch Etewhaldo came back and took us again above the clouds. He’d had a crew clear off part of a road cut so we could better see the rocks. We asked for about 4 meters. When we arrived, in unusually hot sunny weather, carrying all my junk (bastante equipaje) the roadcut was cleared by about 40 meters! Machete-d leaves and branches all around, and there the rocks we came to see. We looked and sampled and discussed. I felt bad about the plants, but the jungle grows really fast. Its very strange becoming a geologist after being a biologist. Particularly, as a paleontologist, I think in VERY long timescales. I brought screens for the light for photography. I’ve been lugging them around (they’re lightweight but awkwardly shaped and bulky) for days and people keep asking why I have them. Today they worked great; they can mellow the shadows of a bright sunny day into the even light of a late cloudy afternoon. The only problem was refolding the large screens into small circles, which had the three of us laughing and trying again and again. It was a good toy for three grown scientists to feel silly.

After the first road cut we went around the back of the peak, along a road that’s been out of service for some years after a small rockslide. The jungle was so thick you wouldn’t imagine cars once drove there. And the rocks above, with a fabulous overhang, and vines and water dripping down on us… sadly, the wrong rocks. These were the same we contemplated from above on Sunday, and now that we were seeing our destination, it was not quite the horizon we wanted.

And so, with evening coming on, we returned to the guard tower to await our truck. We tried to get into one of the little rooms. Rather than abandoned, inside there were several sleeping mats, a hotplate with pots, and small stores of peppers and food about. Just as soon as we pulled the string on the lock and it broke, the three miners came out of the jungle in their orange jumpsuits. Amusing awkwardness ensued as we explained we busted their lock on accident, but also Etewhaldo harangued them about their machete job above. So these were the guys who cleared the roadcut for us! And now after a long day they wanted to get out of the cold and we had to figure out how to break into the last not-so-abandoned room on the mountaintop.

We kept thinking our truck was arriving, but it was other trucks bringing other workers. They come and go in day and night shifts; the mine never sleeps. Eventually Etewhaldo and Silvia and I set up in an abandoned office to wait out the cold as the workers got into their house and started some cooking. They offered to have us over for dinner but we couldn’t eat into their stores when there was cafeteria food waiting for us below. Inside the office, two large desks, and a bookshelf were covered with dust. On one shelf were the largest moths I’ve ever seen in the wild, and a stack of forgotten accident prevention forms. The miners came by with some hot water and mugs and powders for coffee and hot cocoa. We thanked them and made hot drinks and continued telling stories. In the jungle Etewhaldo told us of his friend who got lost for an hour after taking a five minute pee break on the river bank during a boat trip. The jungle can be dangerous. I told about a winter evening when the metro rail was delayed an hour, so Amir and I huddled in a glass elevator at the elevated station. We spent an hour making friends in the elevator, going up and down, up and down, each time greeting the new member of the society of people waiting for a train that wouldn’t come. A drunk guy drove onto the tracks, and the city needed to cut the power. I was able to tell it mostly in Spanish. It really bothers me when I am lagging in following funny conversations.

The sun set was amazing, in billows of dark clouds marching from over the series of peaks separating us from Lima. Home for Silvia, who misses her husband and teenage son, though she really loves getting into the field. I took some photos. The miners teased the guard to pose for my photos, so he struck one like the construction worker in YMCA.

It was dark by the time we made it down to the main offices, and busses were arriving with nightshift workers. Busses and busses. It’s been really interesting getting so see what life is like here, and getting to know the geologsits. After dinner, Etewhaldo came to our casita to see some slides, and we must have shown him an hour of geology presentations. The poor guy watched half of my dissertation defense. In a sense we’ve done this visit in reverse, explaining why we’re here at the end. But he’s even more interested now, and we’re gradually widening our sphere of people with information to share about our investigation. I was really pleased that he knows Julio, from the mining company that hosted us last year, and who we will see again next week. I showed him thin sections of the microscopic view of a sponge that Julio found.

On our drive we saw two armadillos, and on the basketball court there were bats chasing bugs in the evening. It will be strange to leave the jungle, and head to the snowy peaks tomorrow. But it will be reallllllly nice, hopefully, to see some darned fossils. I don’t know, the next site is also a mine. We’ll see. Either way…

Winter is coming.

June 24, 2013

Deep in a mine, deep back in time

Filed under: Andean Fossil Hunt — admin @ 7:55 pm

Monday June 24
9:30 pm
Another wild day of adventure in the jungle.


Sampling rocks from the walls of the mine

Sampling rocks from the walls of the mine


I spent the morning deep underground, and deep back in time. I’ve got a schematic of the mine that shows how deep down we were, and how far from an exit, but I haven’t read the specifics yet. In particular, I avoided reading this while actually in the mine.


These dark mudstones record the slow accumulation of marine sediments

These dark mudstones record the slow accumulation of marine sediments


At the moment I’m interested in a series of black shales between fifty and two hundred meters thick, laid down some time in the Early Jurassic sea. Shales weather into mud, so in the jungle, farm, high plains, or mountains, they’re not well enough exposed to examine the conditions of the sedimentary environment. But underground, in a freshly cut tunnel through the mines, the rocks are as fresh, complete, and well exposed as one could dream about. We got a quick look yesterday, and made arrangements to spend the this morning taking samples.

The idea was that I would measure the section and mark the sampling sites with red paint, then the team would follow behind and make the samples. Taking samples requires time and caution. The rock needs to be selected from the correct level, with a piece likely to show sedimentary or fossil features. The piece needs to be labeled with a number, a location, a date, etc.

It was dark, and LOUD. We sloshed through water up to our boots, and searched for signs both geological and man-made on the walls of the tunnel. We could have been in the middle of the world. It was actually a huge relief that every 20 minutes or so a truck or huge earthmover would drive through. We’d stand along the walls or in an alcove to let it pass. Very strange to me was when individual miners would pass by on foot. A point of light in the distance would materialize into a person who, after brief greetings, would continue down the impossibly dark long tunnel in the other direction.

Every time miners came by they approached us, shook hands, exchanged greetings and questions. In general people here are very big on introductions. People will stop what their doing in an office, walk across the room, shake my hand, exchange greetings, then go back to work. Its awkward for me that the standard greeting with women is a little cheek touch, without actually kissing, but making kind of a kissing sound. I’m just too uptight and American to do this with total strangers. Guys seem to recognize this, but they don’t want to be rude either. Ever experience that encounter where one person moves in for a hug and the other for a handshake? Same thing, only more awkward. Anyway, in the mine there’s no kissing, haha, but certainly lots of handshaking. I think maybe spending one’s day in the dark and noisey and challenging depths makes human contact all the more vital and welcome.

It was an adventurous experience and a scientifically challenging one. We used all of our heads to compare the schematics with what we saw in the rocks and with our expectations. In the abstract we conceive of sediments deposited over time slowly in a marine environment. This turns into rock and we can, 200 million years later, sample those same sediments for chemical signs of life and environmental conditions. But a lot went on in those two hundred million years. Building the Andes, for example. And these rocks are smack in the middle of it. This introduces breaks and faults in the rocks, fluids that burn through and bring new minerals, ore deposits, and destructive forces that change the chemistry completely.


Those aren't fossils! Carbonate sediments in this rock core are scrambled with minerals added by hydrothermal fluids. Sometimes this adds ore, which is why there's a mine here.

Those aren’t fossils! Carbonate sediments (dark grey) in this rock core are scrambled with minerals added by hydrothermal fluids. Sometimes this adds ore, which is why there’s a mine here.


The sampling was altogether a success, followed by a lunch on patio overhanging the jungle. Pear juice, empenadas, and as always soup, rice, potatoes, and meat.

The warehouse for cores of rock sampled from the mountains and mines.

The warehouse for cores of rock sampled from the mountains and mines.


After lunch I got another treat: the core warehouse. This is where they store all the cylindrical tubes of rock taken with a large drill. From the surface down, or from the mine up, a huge machine can drill out a tube of rock tens of meters long. This can expose the transitions between bodies of rock. The miners keep a huge stock of these to look for valuable ore. For me, they laid out several meters of core that form an example of the contact between two important units. One is terrifically altered, making it promising for mining. The other, my black shale, is fairly intact. An afternoon of photographing and observing, followed by the bouncy ride back to the housing units.



Home sweet home in the jungle mining enclave

Home sweet home in the jungle mining enclave

They’re putting us up in this lovely house on a property like an old resort. I went for a walk around sunset to look at the jungle. Along the drive from the mine there’s a rope and wood plank swinging bridge high across a rushing river. More than anything I want to walk across it, and indulge my millionth Indiana Jones experience. But, like examining bats caught in my corridor or identifying the butterflies, crossing rope bridges is not what I came here to do. All in due time.

At dinner we sat with some miners and talked about sports and politics. It was good practice for my Spanish which is still very inadequate to hold a conversation. There are just too many holes in my vocabulary. But already I’m doing better than last year, and I’ve only been in the mountains two days. Let’s see how I’m doing in two more weeks.

Thanks all for following! Tomorrow night we move to a different mine, and I may or may not have internet. Hasta luego!

June 23, 2013

Jurassic in the Jungle

Filed under: Andean Fossil Hunt — admin @ 5:06 pm

Sunday, 6/22, 6:30 pm
A white knuckle day of adventure, some of which I’m not even at liberty to share. Spent the day shouting expletives in my brain, but saying little. In the morning we drove up the steepest cliffs at the top of the jungle peaks, into the clouds, and hiked around to look for the rocks we seek. No sponges here; I’m searching for the rocks deposited at the same time as the sponges, but in places the sponges were not dominating. This way I hope to compare and contrast, and to construct an interpretation of how widespread the sponge phenomenon was.

The drivers here are CAVALIER. Holy #$%^. Sheer cliffs, thousands of feet down, barreling up mountains sides, but slowing, perfectly, expertly, each time we encounter a tiny bit of water, or an oncoming vehicle. Yesterday on the drive up into the Andes and down the rainy side (was that only yesterday!?) the whole transit requires passing massive transport trucks going 5 mph. But, oh, 1/8 attempts, we’d have to duck back behind the truck because there’s another vehicle oncoming. Every driver just takes this in stride. Almost the only honking I encounter in the highlands is the friendly greeting or safety honk when taking hairpin blind turns. Holy crap there were so many hairpin blind turns today. And the gigantic trucks coming out of mines and tunnels unexpectedly on one-car-width roads…

A mine abandoned after a landslide shows fresh rock exposed at the tops of the jungle peaks on the eastern and rainy side of the Andes in Central Peru.

A mine abandoned after a landslide shows fresh rock exposed at the tops of the jungle peaks on the eastern and rainy side of the Andes in Central Peru.



Walking was tough for the first 10 minutes. Up a hill, following acclimated Peruvians, with my weak lungs and brand-new-out-of-the-box steel toed boots that don’t quite fit. I purchased them the last day in LA, east of downtown, between two doctors appointments, on late notice they were required. Can’t complain. If some rocks go sliding I don’t want broken toes.

Tiny yellow orchids. Vibrant purple flowers. Butterflies I didn’t have time to watch closely enough to see all their damned colors. Rocks. Bastante rockas. Rocks in the trail, rocks hidden by thick jungle vines and a foot of moss and soil. Rocks exposed in giant patches of bare vertical cliffs on the mountain tops, or Better, or worse, depending on when you’re there, gigantic patches of fresh rock exposed by massive landslides. Walking down the first mountain peak, through narrow passages in thick jungle, suddenly there was a little shrine set in the vine-choked cliff-face. A shrine with the long bones and skull of two humans. Very old, found here when the mine was first explored. Now they are set in this little shrine, with candles and what not, and the site is named after them. The first ones. The mine site is named the first.
It’s been such an amazing day. Decked out in miner’s attire; they lent us clothes. Steel toed rubber boots, thick pants and overshirt, hard hat. After an hour or so of security clearance, we went outside for a Sunday event of flag saluting. Two men operated a PA and microphone, and we stood in rank with about 25 miners to take turns listening to announcements, saluting the flag, and singing the national anthem. I wished I’d known so I could practice. As it was I got enough looks for being a female – curious looks. I didn’t want to be rude by laughing out loud when two miners in hard hats approached to present the flags – goose stepping the whole way. It was just so goofy and serious and corporate and spirited, all together in the gathering mists of this mountain top jungle, that I had to bite my lip hard to keep from laughing. Three miners were given the honor of hoisting the flags, and one made a speech. Tomorrow is a day to honor workers of the countryside, and from what I could tell he made a moving declaration about his family, the value of the land, and the labor we must not take for granted. Finally it was all abruptly over, and Silvia and I were introduced to the head honcho of the site. He had an expression that he didn’t find our work interesting, but he didn’t seem to doubt that his geologists did. And they do. That’s been the best part.


Mists and rocks along the narrow paths at the edge of the mountain peaks

Mists and rocks along the narrow paths at the edge of the mountain peaks

I’ve been treated like a total expert and professional. The geology team hosting us spent a half hour laying out maps and schematics of the mines, geology, and region. They gave their analysis and opinions, then listed to our questions. Together we decided what sites to visit today. It was completely crazy. From the top of the mountain to its Moria-esque forbidden inner roots; on this trip we get to see everything from the rocks at the surface to cores from the lowest reaches. By the end of the day I was up to my rubber boot tops in water, following two men I could barely understand, past the blaring sound of a ventilation system, into the terrifying but spectacular unknown. This is exactly what I came for, and so much more!

Now a shower, and dinner, and organization of the day’s photos. Thanks for following!

Up the Andes, but still in the central time zone and Cenozoic.

Filed under: Andean Fossil Hunt — admin @ 5:06 pm

Saturday, 6/21
A long day. We packed the truck in Lima about 8am, and arrived at our first major destination about 5pm. Now it’s about 9:15, and once again almost time for bed.


I really love Peru. I feel very comfortable here. Largely Silvia is responsible for that. She’s made expert arrangements with geologists and companies, with the truck rental, etc. I get odd looks from many people, I guess because my blonde hair is fairly out of the ordinary, and I’m not generally on a tourists’ corridor nor am I traveling like one. That’s just as well; I’m not a tourist. After a second glance at me people just go about their business. A lot of workers seem surprised to see me in a mining truck, but they’ve all behaved very politely and respectfully. Silvia says, though it’s changing, that there are still pervasive issues of machismo and dismissal of women in mining and geology fields which are mostly populated by male workers. Around Lima I saw plenty of women in blue color positions; collecting garbage, unloading trucks. Riding from the airport the first night, I saw a female traffic cop who stood in front of a speeding bus, and when it finally halted right in front of her, she banged on the window and gave the driver hell for disobeying her directions. Geology and mining is interesting because it’s parts manual labor and parts intellectual. Silvia is very highly respected by all the senior mining personnel. She told me tonight that when she first came to this mine, as an 18 year old college student, her group drove all night to reach it, only to be told at the entrance that women were not permitted within the mine. A fellow female student told the mining employee, “That’s your rule, so it’s your problem, not mine!” As a compromise, the company finally allowed them inside, but only dressed in baggy men’s clothes, so as not to distract the miners. She said afterwards the miners laughed with them that it was still apparent what was happening. It’s good to see how far things have come. Already tonight our presence has raised some eyebrows, but everyone’s been very polite.


This is a motorcycle with a flimsy cover and rear wheels, like a disel rickshaw. In the back you'd see the Andean foothills if you could see anything but smog.

This is a motorcycle with a flimsy cover and rear wheels, like a disel rickshaw. In the back you’d see the Andean foothills if you could see anything but smog.

The road was long. Up the mountain. Up, up, up, up. I would have slept but the geology is too exciting, and the motion of the truck to bouncy. Up up up the mountain. People live all along the roadside, in small rooms built of hollow bricks, disastrous conditions in even a moderate earthquake. We passed the family trout farms, that use the water flowing along the deep valley by the road, in little carved out ponds on the steep cliffsides. By the time we made it up and over the highest peaks, I was so hungry I ate almost a whole grilled trout.

Homes and businesses and towns spring up alongside the main road into the Andes from Lima

Homes and businesses and towns spring up alongside the main road into the Andes from Lima


Snow on the peaks at the top  of the Andes here, near one of the sponge destinations. This time we drove on, headed for the far and rainy side.

Snow on the peaks at the top of the Andes here, near one of the sponge destinations. This time we drove on, headed for the far and rainy side.

After lunch we were disappointed to find that a main road was closed, so we needed to go around by an unpaved way, adding an hour to our already fairly delayed trip. But what a drive! Winding winding winding down the mountain, across the high planes, down into the jungle on the rainy side of things. Today I saw the biggest chickens I’ve ever seen, a few hundred lanky cruising dogs, hundreds of sheep, one llama, and also one of the nation’s signature birds: the freaking enormous hummingbird. I’ll have to check with Dave or the internet. This thing was the size of a parrot, but with a wide red tail and hovering in the damned air like a helicopter. I’m used to it out of their thimble sized friends, but this thing was huge.


The church and courtyard of a mining village on the high plains.

The church and courtyard of a mining village on the high plains.

People live on the sides of the road up the mountain, and in the high planes there are mining villages, each with a large church and courtyard at the center of dormitory style housing and sprawls of brick shacks. Down lower on the wetter side the fertile valleys were filled with terraced gardens with livestock and adobe houses. We passed two villages large enough to host active soccer games. Then down, along a rushing series of rivers, with constant water falls crossing the road and a big rainbow in the cloud-adorned sky, into the jungle. We were barreling down these unpaved roads, and now and then would stop to ask directions to our destination. Finally, in what seemed like the fifth tiny cluster of buildings in the middle of the lowering and narrowing jungle, at 5 pm Silvia announced, “We’re here!”


Mixed brick and adobe houses of villages on the high plains, as we made our circuitous way to the jungle.

Mixed brick and adobe houses of villages on the high plains, as we made our circuitous way to the jungle.

It was anticlimactic. An hour and a half of paperwork, medical checks, hard hat issue, showing our documents. We wanted to give a presentation to the geologists about what I’m looking for, but it will have to wait til morning. Finally we headed up a hill to the little cluster of smurf village accomodations, which are really quite nice. For dinner at 7:30 we had Chifa in the cafeteria – that’s a cafeteria’s version of Peru’s version of Chinese food. It was actually pretty good. Sweet tamerind sauce on meat and veggies with rice. The climactic scenes of Con Air was on in the dining hall, and I enjoyed explaining the plot to Silvia. After dinner we spoke a while – or rather she did – with a geologist colleague. I can follow conversations and generally understand 50-90% of what’s said, depending on who’s talking. Siliva and I have been taking turns speaking English and Spanish, and mostly she’s speaking English. I don’t know if its more for my benefit or for her to practice. She’s terrifically fluent but doesn’t get to use it as often as German. Its hard brain work, searching for words. So now I’m ready for bed. We thought we’d see some rocks this afternoon, but so it goes. I’d rather see them in the right context. One of the geologists we bumped into during dinner is fairly confident we can see the contacts I want, so I’m excited about the morning.


La Selva. The Jungle.

La Selva. The Jungle.

We don’t have internet until they configure our laptops somehow at the main office. Silvia let me borrow her phone and I sent text messages to my husband and sister, asking them both to update my parents, who would win the gold if worrying were an Olympic sport.

We’ll see what rocks I get in the morning. Can’t wait.

Last day in Lima

Filed under: Life in Lima — admin @ 5:03 pm

Friday, 6/20
11:35 pm, Lima
In the morning we go to the Andes. Like last year Silvia arranged for me to rent a truck and a professional driver. This time for about three weeks. The first site will be a new one for me, and we’ll look at outcrops around an active mine. I might actually go in one of the mines in the next few days – just to have a look at the geological features, which Silvia says are quite spectacular.

These days in Lima have been quiet, and I’ve had plenty of time to focus. Not that I HAVE focused. Instead each hour has been a bit of an urgent frenzy down one scientific rabbit hole or another, as I try to get ready for this trip, and ready for the coming year. Which ammonites will indicate the time frame I’m looking for? Or rather, what time frame should I be looking for? Maybe I should expand it, think more broadly, think about the way these deposits all around the world differ and test what they might have in common. Then there are all these cool side-tracking papers I find, like investigations of healed scars on ammonoid shells; the ammonite survived the attack, but an attack by what?? Another ammonite!?!? Bum-ba-ba-buuuuuuuum crimeshowtheme!!

I finished my dissertation this spring, but an unusual circumstance eliminated the job I’d had arranged to start in the fall. So at graduation time I wore the costume, half-heartedly, wondering what the coming year would bring. My husband, meanwhile, earned two postdoctoral positions, back to back, one of them very far away. I’ve been happy for him but it’s been bittersweet compared to my own publication rejections, position dissolutions, and general insecurity about the future.

Things have been looking up since I came to Lima. Simple things, like positive correspondences with international collaborators or experts offering opinions. Plus Silvia arranged for me to use an available office, so I’ve made the most of that! Skype and phone calls from various professors in the states, who were duly impressed that I was in an office at a university in a different hemisphere. It’s funny what prestige a door can give!

I gave a seminar talk on Thursday, which went very well. Like most seminars, most of my audience was politely but marginally interested in the content, so I tried to keep it upbeat and showed lots of interesting pictures. A handful of students and professors were professionally curious, and I wanted to represent my university well. PUCP is developing key connections to high level universities in Europe and the states, so I’m really proud that USC is able to connect here as well.

Bed time, bed time. I repacked my bags, so I’ll leave behind the airport wheely with some city attire, and bring along tools and packs and a duffle of rougher clothing. I also sat on the bed and measured the strike and dip of a chair with my brunton compass. Thank goodness this time I got it right the first time! I guess it’s like riding a bicycle, if I was usually drunk every time I got on a bicycle after several months. But now it appears I’ve got the correct muscle memory, and I won’t fumble about in the field.

OK, tomorrow: Up the Andes, Back in Time!

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