Crocodiles, carcases, data and decay – a day in the life of a palaeontology PhD

I’m Caitlin Syme, a palaeontology PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences. I spend my days looking at dinosaur, crocodile and fish fossils, and studying their taphonomy: how those particular animals died, decayed, and were eventually buried and turned into fossils.

Wearing correct protective gear in taphonomy is important.

 

Like many palaeontologists, I’ve been obsessed with fossils (specifically dinosaurs) from a very early age and didn’t outgrow the obsession like other children did! This led me to study zoology and geology at university – as there were no specific palaeontology undergraduate degrees in Australia – before enrolling in my current PhD degree.

 

What does my typical PhD candidate workday look like?

 

10 am: Make a daily checklist of tasks, as I really dislike dauntingly long monthly to-do lists. Include three items titled ‘I must…’, ‘I should…’, and as a reward, ‘I want…’. The ‘I want’ for today is a hot mocha – perfect for freezing cold air conditioning.

10:10 am: Decide that I need to examine some crocodile fossils for bone fracture patterns. They are the subjects of my latest piece of research – the taphonomy of 102-million-year-old Isisfordia duncani fossils.

10:15 am: Ponder over the data I’ve collected: I’m counting the number of fossil crocodile bones found at my study site and wondering why there are so many separate chunks of fossil skeleton – lone sections of tail vertebrae, necks without heads, etc… These mysteries are my favourite part of taphonomic research! Add my interpretations to my draft research paper.

10:55am: Feel glad that I’ve done all my data collection and can now just sit and ponder what I’ve found. Then remember that there is one more fossil I wanted to take a look at to verify some bone fracture shapes. Feel glad that I’ve NEARLY done all my data collection.

 

via GIPHY

11am: Walk down the corridor to the lab and unlock the fossil storage cabinet. Pull out the fossil I need to examine (an articulated right leg), and note that it has a fracture running perpendicular to the bone shaft of the tibia (bone of the lower leg).

12 pm: Back at my desk, study photos taken of the crocodile fossil during its preparation: notice that the tip of a right toe is dislocated. Did this happen after death or in life? Add these observations to my research paper.

12:30 pm: Stop for lunch and trawl through Twitter, noticing that my supervisor doing fieldwork in Antarctica has tweeted about some potential dinosaur fossils (here’s hoping!). See a mention of an interesting paper about a Dilophosaurus (dinosaur) fossil with broken arms, and bookmark it for later.

 

 

1:30 pm: Search for papers about crocodile taphonomy. I use software called Mendeley that allows me to do database-wide or folder specific searches for key words in papers. Think about how much harder it must have been to keep track of papers and key words 50-odd years ago (hello catalogue cards and highlighters). Add relevant information or new ideas to my latest manuscript.

2:30 pm: Take a break to read the paper I saw on Twitter about a Dilophosaurus that broke its arms. The authors describe patches of thickened bone around the breaks, indicating that the bone was healing and the animal lived through this trauma. My arms start sympathetically aching. Although the paper doesn’t directly relate to my research, I remind myself that I should keep abreast of other palaeontological research – you never know when you’ll find something to spark a new idea, or read a well-crafted piece of writing.

3:00 pm: Keep reading papers and writing my manuscript.

4:30 pm: Check over my daily task list at the end of the day, note anything that I didn’t get done to be added to tomorrow’s list.

How about the non-typical days? I’ve been on a couple of field expeditions to remote parts of central-western Queensland. We have to think about the best weather to conduct fieldwork, then arrange access to the fossil sites (whether it be through local indigenous groups, land owners or shire councils), pack up camping gear as well as fossil excavating equipment (including rock picks, shovels, sample bags, labels, handheld GPS, cameras, scale bars, note books, and so on), and book 4WD cars and accommodation along the way.

There was no getting through to Isisford this time.

But even the best-laid plans can go awry. One year we drove 1000km in two days to get to a town called Isisford to go fossil hunting. We waited for the torrential rain to stop so we could drive over rough, clay-filled soils that turn to glue when wet and bog any vehicle brave enough to go off-road. The rain didn’t stop. After three days of waiting, we had to turn around and drive all the way back to Brisbane without any fossils to soothe our pain.

Another part of my PhD work is conducting taphonomic/forensic experiments with decaying animal carcasses. My work is non-intrusive: I simply place animal carcasses in glass aquaria (some with water, some without), and monitor the patterns of decay over time by writing down observations and taking time-lapse photographs. All the carcases have ethics approval for use in experiments. I have used juvenile salt-water crocodile carcasses for one decay experiment, and am currently monitoring the decay of some bird carcasses. Once each experiment is complete, I look over my notes and time-lapse photographs and compare the patterns I see to the fossils I study. Do they look the same, or totally different? Could this ancient crocodile have decayed in a similar way to a modern crocodile, and if so, can I work backwards to determine its cause of death?

Being a PhD student means that you need to be very good at self-discipline and staving off procrastination. I’m not perfect at this – no one is – but we can always aim to improve!

Last updated:
18 April 2016