Saturday, June 27, 2009

Schwäbisch-Fränkischen Alb: Little teeth and my European Ancestors

Since Germany was underwater for most of the Age of Dinosaurs (The Mesozoic Era), there is plenty of limestone underneath the country (limestone forms exclusively in aquatic settings where there are lots of little organisms generating calcite for their skeletons). When limestone is taken above the water line, it’s quickly dissolved (geologically quickly, I guess) by slightly acidic groundwater. These dissolved cavities are then called caves, as in stalactite bearing, blind fish holding caves. With all that limestone and all those cavities, much of Southern Germany is prime cave country. When caves open up, animals and sediment tend to fill the void. Our expedition moved into the Schwäbisch-Fränkischen Alb, a mountain range composed entirely of Mesozoic limestone to visit some of these cave sites where younger fossils have piled up as caves opened in the rock and local critters fell in, creating a tangled geological history for the region.

These cave fills are often the best source of fossils for terrestrial ecosystems since the caves create sink holes in the middle of the forest and animals who wouldn’t normally get deposited in a lake (rodents, monkeys, lizards etc.) get swept into the cave. One cave-fill contained rocks that were almost entirely composted of bones and teeth that were cemented together by the calcite that had seeped out of the cave walls (the same calcite that grows into beautiful cave forations):

Another cave was a chimney-like shaft where we sifted through sand for Oligocene teeth and bones. It’s always gratifying to collect where you actually find vertebrate bone (assuming you’re a vertebrate paleontologist). That site was especially exciting because it required some careful scrambling through briars and over outcropped rock. A cliff face and rock ledge will always make a geological expedition more fun.

We also examined a cave that hasn’t been filled in yet. It formed underground like a rocky bubble and lay unexposed for millennia until the surrounding rock finally winnowed away leaving a chamber just big enough for a family and the kids. And that’s exactly what it was used for. Cro-Magnon people (early modern humans) rolled into the area and liked the view overlooking the entire basin. It was probably a good spot to watch for mammoths, and even better for watching the sunset.

We ate lunch on the crest of a hill near the Cro-Magnon cave. Boulders protruded from the field of lush grass and wildflowers creating a gorgeous landscape in want of a henge or barrow. I dangled my feet over the edge of a boulder.

To my left was another hill and another outcrop where excavators had found a butchered wooly rhino skeleton from the Paleolithic (50,000 years ago), and a small encampment from the Neolithic (10,000 years ago). Mesozoic rocks, Oligocene fossils, human artifacts…this is Germany. This is why I came here.

We also stopped by a 15 million year old impact crater. When large rocks smack into the earth, the bedrock ripples like the surface of a pond, mixing up the layers and leaving an uplifted central platform; the earth’s frozen rebound to the power of the asteroid. The crater quickly filled with water and became a popular place to stop for a drink when horses were still sporting three toes.
A museum reconstruciton of Steinheim 15 million years ago.

The town of Steinheimer is nestled into the bowel now, sitting on top of a thick sequence of lake sediment. An observant Steinheimer scientist named Hilgendorf started to pay attention to the snail shells that were preserved under his feet. As he burrowed deeper, he noticed the shells were more standardized, more basic. By collecting shells from the beginning of the lake to the end, he demonstrated how one colonizing species gave rise to new species of snails through intermediary steps. He published his work in 1862 and is credited as being the first scientist to demonstrate Mr. Darwin’s crazy new theory of change through time and the emergence of speices. I collected some of those snails out of historical respect more than out of a need to add more mollusks to my luggage.
The classic branching of speciees outlined by Hilgendorf a few years after Mr. Darwin published his bright idea.

The sediment that holds the snails. All those little white dots are tiny freshwater snail shells.

That night we stayed in Sigmaringen, a Baverian town near the source of the Elbe River which eventually runs through Dresden, Prague, and Vienna. We walked to dinner, dodging past the massive slugs and even more massive snails that come out with the rain. (The snails are large enough to double as speed bumps for the absent-minded cyclist.) We crossed a modern bridge that looped over the road, rounded a bend and, as is want to happen in Europe, we were confronted with a castle. The massive Renaissance structure was built by a German lord in the 16th century. Of course, I didn’t have my camera on me so you’ll have to make due with these images borrowed from Sigmaringen’s tourism website.

This image of the castle is just too epic to let sit on only one website.

At a traditional inn next to the castle, we toasted the final night of the expedition with delicious Heles beer and happily stumbled home.
On the distant horizon you can see the Swiss Alps rearing their beautiful heads. I'm standing on a crater rim by the by.

Our final field stop was to another crater lake that was formed in an ancient volcanic crater. The animals were mostly early, mid-sized horses, but a few rhinos, and the odd beardog, the ancient relative of both carnivores, spiced up the fauna a bit. The site was introduced to us by a professor of geology at the university in the region. He struck me as a down-to-Earth (pun intended) hippie who just loves fossils, man. His beard was growing wild, his hair fell lower than his shoulders, and he seemed to prefer going barefoot. His lead excavator was the polar opposite. He was a good ol’ boy with a thick regional accent and a need to carefully explain every detail in a methodical drawl. His galoshes hiked up to his knees, and his upper lip hiked up to a large, well-groomed mustache. The two men have been working together for at least a decade, but I imagine most of their conversations come straight out of “The Odd Couple.”
A toe quiz. I rocked this one. Do you know which critters are on display here? Hint, they have hooves and are distantly related to each other by having odd numbers of toes.

And north we rode. I discussed American and German movies with my increasingly friendly seatmate and actually delicately touched on German between 1930 and 1945 with some frankness. And thus the Fulbright mission goes on.

After returning from the field I diligently worked on my fossils, attended a lecture on Creationism given by an angry Australian Geologist (more on that next week after I give my own talk on the history of American Creationism), and went to visit Marco for Japan Tag (Japan Day), a celebration of Düsseldorf’s Japanese population with heaps of street sushi, noodles, and Kirin Beer. The streets were packed with Germans demonstrating karate and dressed as their favorite Anime character in a mini-skirt. The night was rounded off with the largest fireworks display in Düsseldorf, which was vaguely disappointing after years spent at Riverfest and the Blue Ash Fireworks displays. Germany may have cavemen, but it doesn’t make things explode into brilliant colors quite like we do at home.

I hope you had a fantastic weekend and are mentally prepared for the coming week. I’m just getting back into town after a tour of Switzerland, the Rhineland, the Low Countries, and England with friends from Ohio State. Stay tuned for adventures such as cycling in Amsterdam, climbing in the Alps, and theater gooning in the West End!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Solnhofen: Archaeopteryx and coprolites

Last November I made a pilgrimage to see one of the most important relics in Germany. At the Berlin Natural History Museum I genuflected to get a better look at the Berlin Archaeopteryx. The animal is neither dinosaur nor bird, caught somewhere in-between. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of this animal and its significance in our understanding of evolutionary processes. Wrapped up with the image of a feathered dinosaur is the world “Solnhofen.” Since I was six I’ve known it was the name of a place in Germany, and was home to all the Archaeopteryx fossils that have ever been chipped out and described.

As the rain started to fleck the university van’s windshield, we parked in a small gravel parking lot. Behind the lot was a small quarry filled with slabs of tan rock and piles of limestone. This was the fine-grained, lithographic, Solnhofen limestone. The rock was used for decades as the source of lithographic stone. It’s grain is so fine that it perfectly took ink from minutely detailed images and faithfully trasfered them to paper. As I’ve said before, printing is in my blood, but fossils are close to my heart. It was time to find an early bird (or more importantly a mammal. No fuzzy critters have ever been found in the Solnhofen quarries, despite several fossils of small, terrestrial dinosaurs).

The finely bedded rock breaks along irregular bedding plane after a few hammer strikes. Ideally a chisel is used to pry the planes apart, but I only had my hammer and a cheap aluminum knife I swiped from the youth hostel (I’m an Outlaw in Wiesbaden as a result). But that was enough to discover a few ancient creatures.

Solnhofen isn’t packed with fossils, but I was able to collect more ammonite fossils (spiraled squid shells), a belemite, and I helped excavate a fish vertebral column:

It had been drizzling the whole time we were in the quarry, and the heavens finally opened wide and we all retreated to a shelter that was held up by towers of piled limestone. After eating our soggy lunch, we piled into the bus to see some of the treasures of the quarry in the Jura Museum in Eichstätt.

Paleontology requires an active imagination. The material paleontologists study is the empty hull of a once active organism. It’s hard to stay interested in a lifeless fossil. If the paleontologist’s imagination can conjure the animal from the few clues left behind, it becomes instantly more interesting. Then the paleontologist must use a few key clues to imagine the habitat that lead to this creature. I’m not suggesting paleontologists imagine or fabricate their research. Just that in order to pursue interesting questions, paleontologists have to maintain a picture of a long-vanished world, testing that picture empirically, ultimately revealing the story of life’s struggle to survive. It’s hard to conjure much of anything in the imaginaiton when you’re squatting in a wet quarry looking at squid shells. This is the beauty of a museum.

The Jura Mueusm is actually housed in a castle that was besieged by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War. Someday I'll lay siege to Union Terminal to give it that kind of historical distinction.

This is the fossil of a small fish who sunk to the bottom of the lagoon. His head was lodged in the sediment, but his tail was free to flop around, creating the gashes in the sediment you see surrounding the body. These are the stories that come from the Solnhofen.

The museum holds all the evidence of the extinct ecosystem with rare and unusual speciments that add a new level of complexity to the world of the Late Jurassic. The fossils of dragonflies, perfectly preserved with their multi-faceted eyes and delicate wings were on display:

Small lizards and early sea turtles demonstrate the coast wasn’t far away, a fact also revealed by the Stars of the Solnhofen: The Fliers.

Small pterosaurs recovered from the limestone were prize collectors items in the 19th century. The first Archaeopteryx was thought to be a pterosaur by the quarryman who smuggled it our of the pits and sold it to a local collector who recognized its real significance. The flying reptiles are often preserved with impressions of their leathery wings rippling the stone around the delicate finger bones that supported the wing. Most of the reptiles are small - about the size of a pigeon or seagull - showing they probably didn’t venture very far out to sea, and the coast offered a nearby roost.

The Jura Museum also houses its own Archaeopteryx fossil. This bird is smaller than the pterosaurs and its friend in Berlin. The animal is maybe the size of a robin, but is preserved in all it’s missing-link glory with a toothy bill and delicate feather impressions. I stopped and studied the fossil for several minutes, trying to remember every physical detail of this beautiful little bird.

Eventually I had to wrench myself away to hop back on the bus, but first I tried to take myself back 140 million years to a shallow lagoon rimmed with massive reefs that was a little too salty for most life to function happily. On the surface the waves crashed against the German coast, but below, the quiet, calcitic sediments were an undisturbed tomb for all animals washed into the protected lagoon. Tracks in the sediment reveal the activities of busy horseshoe crabs who took a wrong turn on the way out of the hypersalinated water. Their lazy path terminates with their carapace, preserved for posterity at the end of the trail. Coral and sponges formed the barrier reefs, while jellyfish and squids (some preserved with their ink-sacs intact) drifted through the water, evading marlin-like, ray-finned fish. Overhead pterosaurs rise on the coastal thermals and dive after dragonflies the size of my hand. A small dinosaur, Juravenator, darts through the tropical foliage after a small shrew-like animal who’s too quick to ever become a fossil…who needs a time machine when you have fossils like this?

A view from the battlements of the Jura Museum. Yeah, battlements. Now the castle and museum are owned by the Catholic Church. That's cool right?


Holzmaden: Marine Reptiles and lots of squids

When I was in first and second grade, my favorite video series from the library was called “Dinosaurs!” The series was narrated by Walter Cronkite and took you through the history of paleontology from the naming of the “terrible lizards” through the 20th century where I was introduced to many of my paleontological heroes. The historic sections used Ken Burns-style pans over old paintings and photographs spliced with historical reenactments.
A display in the Holzmaden Museum that showed the fossils found at each successive layer. They forgot to include a mannequin of a shocked German miner.

Once scene showed a German miner diligently chipping away at a slab of slate. His lantern light catches a strangely colored rock embedded in the slate. He takes his chisel to the rock and reveals the body of a dolphin-like reptile. It caused a sensation. This was an antediluvian sea-monster! I remembered that excavation and fossil, but didn’t remember where exactly that scene took place. I walked into the Holzmaden Museum, and there it was: The dolphin-lizard. I had a weird feeling of déjà vu.
A massive Ichthyosaurus trying his derndest to be a whale.

160 million years ago, South-western Germany was part of a huge inland sea, something like the seas of the Caribbean or Southeast Asia. The tranquil water was filled with squid, both the modern fleshy kind that get turned into calamari and shelled squids called ammonites that formed the base of the Mesozoic Marine ecosystem. All this tentacled protein brought in the sea monsters. Ichthyosaurs were fully committed marine reptiles. That look almost exactly like modern dolphins and are a classic example of convergent evolution. They mastered the art of live-birth (as revealed by fossils that preserve juveniles stuck in the birth cannal!) and were able to transform their limbs into fins and tails into flukes. Their enormous eyes indicate animals that relied on keen eyesight to track down their prey.
The glare is terrible, but if it wasn't you would be able to see a neophyte marine reptile a little south of her stomach.

Also splashing around Germany were the plesiosaurs, long-necked, four-flippered animals that are usually brought into discussions of the Loch Ness Monster. Presumably these ungainly animals had to haul themselves onto the beach to lay their eggs, making it impossible for them to become as perfectly adapted to the marine environment as the Ichthyosaurs. No one is really knows how they used that long neck to snap up food, but it must have worked out for them since they thrived throughout the Mesozoic.
A plesiosaurs missing his squishy parts. There's no scale, but this guy is about the size of a dolphin.
A plesiosaurs put back together going after a small squid. No one is quite sure how lashing your neck around like that affects your hydrodynamic abilities.

He smiled for the camera.

The seas also supported marine crocodiles with diminutive forelimbs and powerful, finned hind limbs. Sharks were on the scene, but they didn’t achieve their mega-carnivore status until the reptiles left some open niches 65 million years ago. In the Jurassic they looked more fish-like with stubby noses and wide, multi-finned bodies. One of the fossils in the museum’s collection shows a primitive shark with dozens of squid shells piled up in his stomach. Modern squids their shells inside their bodies. This is a dense piece of calcite that resembles a 22-caliber bullet. The shells that killed the shark are piled up in his gut, a fossil telling the story of some pretty awful indigestion.
Sharks have carilage skeletons, so they usually don't fossilize very well. You're looking at it's stomach (ventral view). The mouth of this guy is to the right, the gill slits V towards the top and bottom and the shells that killed him are piled up in his stomach to the left.

The most spectacular fossil in the museum is a log roughly 30 yards long. Anchored to the Jurassic driftwood are over one hundred crinoids (Sea lilies). Crinoids are like starfish on sticks. They anchor themselves to the substrate and collect food as it passes through their fans. These crinoids decided to go for a ride, latching onto every available spot on the log that eventually ran aground burying everyone on board (It’s unclear if the captain went down with the ship). The fossil takes up an entire wall and took 15 years to prepare (always remember every pretty fossil you see took hours of delicate work from a preparation specialist who carefully removed the obfuscating rock).
A mess of crinoids. A crinoid salad if you will. All log of boyant freedom run aground.

When we went to the shale quarry we were once again set loose on an uninspiring landscape where spoil piles of chipped shale were heaped on the edge of the industrial pit. As I walked towards the chipping group I saw the yellow gleam of a shell. I had found an ammonite squid and I hadn’t even swung my hammer! After an hour of chipping I discovered the shells were ubiquitous and you would need good luck not to find one. I also found bullet like squid shells, but no vertebrate pieces. The shells sit in my room, waiting to be added to the collection in my parent’s garage.

We had taken this excursion during a school holiday and the pit was filled with children and their parents smacking away at the rocks. The sight of four year olds wielding hammers might have been cute if I didn’t fear for my digits every time they drifted near my small excavation area.
A six-year old doing some serious fossil hunting. My money says he finds a squid.

With new insight into the Jurassic high seas where sea monsters apparently risked constant headaches thanks to millions of drifting, shelled mollusks, it was back to the road. Soon we would be examining a very different Jurassic ecosystem…

The business end of a Mesozoic squid roughly the size of a semi-truck tire.

Messel: Tiny Horses and World Heritage

47 million years ago, the world was pretty toasty. The planet was blanketed in lush jungles and forests as far north as Greenland. Think about that for a second. Jungles in the Arctic, complete with tapirs and crocodiles. Germany was just as balmy. It was also tectonically unstable. One awful day, a magma chamber that had been simmering under Paleozoic bedrock had finally pressurized subterranean water beyond it’s comfort level, sending an explosive cloud of rock and steam over the European jungle. A vast crater was left in the middle of the forest. This crater started to behave itself and water flooded the site, leaving a large standing lake, a rarity in many Jungle ecosystems. Animals flocked and herded to the site and everyone proceeded to get nice Eocene suntans.
One of the earliest bats ever found. What's especially crazy is there were multiple species with different wing spans and ecological niches. Well I think that's crazy anyway...

The first couple meters of water were fresh and a happy home for fish and crocodiles, but near the bottom of the lake the water was stagnant. Organic material was swept in and settled in the noxious environment that few organisms could penetrate. The combination of limited biological turbation and slow sedimentation formed perfectly smooth oil shales as the organic material imbued the rock with precious carbon energy that engineers would later unearth to fuel VW Bugs. Every now and then the same tectonic forces that caused the crater to form would shake the contents of the lake, releasing the noxious fumes trapped in the sediment. Birds flying over the lake and terrier-sized horses at the water’s edge would suffocate and contribute to the next round of organic chemistry experiments.
A little early horse (Propalaeotherium) giving his little hooves a work out. This reconstruction is the size of my dog, a terrier mutt.

The Messel Pit was discovered in the 1870s, but wasn’t mined in earnest until the mid 20th century when the Germans figured out how to use the oil shale. People had been finding incredible fossils in the pit for decades, but formal scientific excavations of the site didn’t begin until the ‘70s. After most of the valuable oil shales were exhausted, city planners moved to turn the pit into a landfill. German paleontologists stepped in and had the place declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, formally protecting the remaining rocks for future studies and opening the pit to the public.
Dr. Martin explains the mysteries of Messel (all scientific errors in this post are my faulty German's fault, not his explaination's).

There are a lot of World Heritage Sites that may not be literally vital to a Global Heritage. Arguably Angkor Wat, or the Roman Limes reflect someone’s heritage, but not everyone’s. But Messel concerns everyone. It is a time capsule of the world in transition. The stories its rocks tell are the basis for the modern ecosystem.
The unassuming entry to the Messel Pit.

Ancient, strange organisms, holdovers from the time of the dinosaurs like bony-scaled fish and primitive, hopping relatives of hedgehogs and shrews mingled with the first horses, rhinos, bats, and primates (the lemur-like Darwinia massellae recently caused a publicity stir). There is also a weird mixture of continents in the rocks of Messel. Animals from South America like the pangolin were crawling around in Europe and Asian birds snuck in without explaining how they got to Germany.
A pangolin, relative of armadillos and sloths, who really doesn't belong in Messel, but wound up in Germany anyway. What can I say, he's a free spirit.
An early primate that would have behaved a lot like a lemur. In other words, it would have been a lot of fun to watch.

Basically everything was swept into the lake, and paleontologists have been able to piece together entire food webs based on preserved stomach contents and geochemical sampling of the bones and soft tissue preserved in the rocks. Bat wings are darkly outlined and fuzzy tails are preserved forever. Or, were preserved until we started digging them up. The shale is 50% water and as soon as you start to chip away at it, it starts to dry and curl like the pages of a drying book. This desiccation causes the delicate fossils to fracture or disintegrate, so all unprepared rocks need to be preserved in oil or water. To study the fossils, a layer of resin is poured over the fossil and all the shale is chipped away. Then resin is poured over the newly exposed side. Now all the bones are cemented together and can be studied without getting your hands wet. The resin imbues every display with an amber-like glow.
A small fish fossil that soaks in oil and comes out to show visitors what your most likely to find in Messel.

An early relative of deer, cows, and antelope. Only it's roughly the size of a chinchilla.

At the site we had a UNESCO guide along with us to explain the significance of the pit which, honestly, doesn’t look like much. It’s a big hole with shrubs and weeds struggling to make a living. She showed us to a secluded spot, away from the eyes of school groups, and let us get out our rock hammers. The hammers weren’t completely necessary. A spackling knife is the favorite tool of the Messel excavator. You lop off a few layers of material then lift off the layers with the knife. The layers tend to split where anomalies – read fossils – are located. I managed to find a few leaves and little spirals of sediment that I was told were fish droppings. My luck continues to hold.
The uninspiring view over the excavation site.
Oil Shale slowly drying in the baking sun. The slant to the beds is due to the bowl-like shape of the crater the rocks were deposited in.

After visiting the displays in Frankfurt and the fossil site in Messel I could check a destination off my list of things I have to see before I die. I wouldn’t mind coming back to look a little harder for bones, or to study the exquisite animals that have already been collected, but I “Split the Shale” and can rest easily.
A fountain in the middle of the pit that was drilled when a geological research team cored under the pit to put together the explosive history of the locality.

That night we stayed in Tübingen, one of the oldest college towns on the planet. Dr. Martin did his graduate work there and gave a tour of the ancient castle that looms over the Necker River and explained the fencing culture of old German fraternities (you would spar with rival fraternities, packing your sliced cheeks with butter to make the scar more noticeable). After a few drinks along the peaceful river and some rousing discussion about Mesozoic rocks in Siberia, it was time to go home. The next day we would be spending some time below the waves…
A beautiful view of the Necker River from our hostel in Tübingen.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why I came to Germany

So, I’m a paleontologist. This means I am given to looking at road kill from yesterday and road kill from hundreds of millions of yesterdays past. While this blog might reveal a person who is interested in human history and art, I’ve chosen to make everything that came before that the focus of my professional curiosity. In fact, you may not actually believe it, but the fossils are the reason I chose to spend this year in Germany.

It’s impossible to fathom how little we would know about life in the past if we didn’t have Germany. German paleontologists have been moving and shaking the field since the mid 19th century, but the contributions of these studious Germans are overshadowed by the rocks under their feet. I would make the claim (reckless, I know) that Germany has the single greatest concentration of spectacular fossil localities per capita in the world. You name the time period and Germany will produce fantastic fossils. Name the “first” whatever. Germany has the first land plants, the first birds, and the first cave man and so on.

I hope you can imagine my excitement when I found out there would be a field excursion led by Dr. Martin to some of the most important localities in Germany, and by extension, the world. Messel. Holzmaden. Solnhofen. The places evoke ancient ecosystems and creatures that fundamentally affected the evolution of life on Earth. And I was going to take a look at their final resting place.

I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive about my trip to the rocks. None of the graduate students I’ve gotten to know over the last few months were going. Neither was Vincent, my lab mate. I would only know Dr. Martin, Dr. Ruf, and Pavel, a Russian post-doc who had just arrived on a Humboldt Fellowship. Then there were the German students. When I visited the Mainz Basin I didn’t have much luck cracking the German social circle, but I would have six days to try this time around. I rehearsed my small talk and prepared to depart by packing my rock hammer (thank you Grandma and Grandpa) and my rain-gear (a necessary piece of Geology equipment).

Our journey began in Enspel, a small town 90 km to the east of Bonn. For decades the basalt pit was mined for road construction. Then the miners reached the end of the volcanic material and found a baked group of sedimentary rocks with fossils from 25 million years ago. The most important discovery was a kind of carbonized smudge that represents the first gliding rodent (oohs and aahs are encouraged). We poked around in the sediment, splitting shale with knives and hammers. I found some leaves and seeds. Pavel found a fish. Sometimes I wonder if my crummy luck will prohibit my professional development in paleontology.

This was a roll-and-talk field trip, a standard feature of any Geological education. You pile into a van or bus, stop at a locality, hop out and listen to the professor explain the significance of the site. Germans tend to avoid interactive education. They also tend to be a very thorough people. I would listen and try to piece together the significance of the locality while getting anxious. I just wanted to drum up some ancient animals and get my hands dirty. At the end of each talk, Dr. Martin would ask, “Pavel, Matthew (I’m never Matt in these parts) did you understand everything?” We would dutifully nod our heads then try to piece it together afterward with some help from Dr. Martin and Dr. Ruf. Pavel is actually learning German as we speak, so I had the distinct pleasure of lending a slightly more informed hand as we muddled through the explanations.

Dr. Martin’s question had a way of driving the German students away from us. Throughout the week I would try to initiate a conversation in German at the breakfast table or on the outcrop. Usually the person I was speaking with would look horrified and answer in English, or not answer at all. One couple in particular seemed to avoid me like a leper. I thought it was because they were intimidated by a potential language barrier. Then I was in a seminar this week and heard the female student ask a question in perfect, British accented English. Hmmm. Maybe my towering physique is just too intimidating for the average German undergraduate to handle.

Our paleo-caravan rolled on from the flying squirrel site to a Devonian slate mine where they’ve been splitting stone for shingles since the Romans marched into town. In fact, nearly every locality we visited that famous for its fossils was also is industrially important. The place was an ocean 260 million years ago that was home to a lot of trilobites. Now they'll show you fun new ways to use those smooshed marine bugs to cover your roof:

Road cuts and State Parks are the bread and butter of the American geologist on a field trip. Germans get rusty elevators and track hoes. The advantage of the German system is there is always a town nearby and a machine to help with the heavy lifting. Field trips in the U.S. involve camping along the route, with everyone lugging tents and sleeping bags. For this excursion we just needed to tote a change of clothes or two as we would be crashing in youth hostels across the central and southern half of the country.

The best part of being in towns for most of the trip was ready access to regional restaurants and bars. I ate maultasche (German Ravioli), sauerbraten, and wurst. One of the great pleasure of travel is drumming up local food. Of course, I also had to sample each region’s special brew. Dr. Martin was very encouraging of this aspect of my education. He’s excited to share any aspect of German history or culture, from fossils to castles. Naturally the beer is a key cultural feature.

Each day we would grab breakfast at the hostel, roll to a grocery store to pick up supplies for lunch then go to a series of fossil sites or museums, then arrive in a new town, get dinner (usually Pavel and I were cool kids and got invited to eat with the professors) then drop into an exhausted sleep. Over the next couple of days you’ll learn about some of the most important places we checked out. Or you can choose not to. Travel logging will return in a week if you’d just like to tune back in then. Now to the rocks…