Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Doing science in Scotland

Last week I went up to the Borders Region of Scotland to do some more field work connected with Jenny's project, about which I've blogged before.  Eight of us were there, staying in two cottages, and it was a pretty sociable affair.  Tim is Jenny's post-doctoral research associate, Keturah is her new research assistant, Sarah is a conservator from the Sedgwick Museum who used to be Jenny's preparator for many years.  We also had two sedimentologists from Leicster University, a palynologist from Southampton University and a geologist from the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.  For the first couple of days we also had Marcello Ruta, from Lincoln University.  And during the week we were visited for a day by three people from the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh.

This picture is of a small huddle of scientists on the foreshore.  I was way up on the cliff taking views of the bay, and zoomed in as far as I could to get this picture.

Carys Bennett, one of the Leicester people, had already been up there for a couple of weeks, logging the sediments in the bay, but for this week she had help from her colleague from Leicester, Sarah Davis, and the BGS Geologist, Tim Kearsey, who had brought a very expensive GPS unit which was accurate to about 3cm.

Sarah Finney and I had expected to snorkel (in wet suits!) to sample rocks from below the low water  mark, but in the event the tides were sufficiently low that Carys said we didn't need to do that.  As the weather was filthy and the water extremely turbid, that was something of a relief!

I had hired a GPS with a waterproof bag to help me identify precisely where we were sampling, but it turned out to be only accurate to 4 metres, which is useless for what we wanted, so just as well it wasn't needed.  Just as well it wasn't expensive, too!

We collected fossils from a bed we knew was very rich in disarticulated and rather fragmentary bones, but also lots of samples from all over the bay, just for more detailed examination back at the lab.  Perhaps the most exciting in the long term was collecting from the lowermost beds, which were laid down immediately after the end-Devonian extinction event, assuming we've dated the rocks correctly.  (We won't know until Carys has finished her logging and sampling exercise, which won't be for another few weeks yet.)

My pet theory is that once things settle down after an extinction event, the low population levels mean life is relatively easy, so some pretty weird animals can evolve, but once population levels start to rise, the competition for resources means only those beasts actually well adapted survive, and the rest are weeded out, and I reckon that all this happens within 5-10 million years.

We did find a few small scraps of stuff in these oldest rocks, but nothing more.  Next time, I'll spend much more time in that part of the bay, and hopefully will find something useful.

We decided on day one to eat all together, so on the first evening we fed everyone back at our house, then the next evening they fed everyone at theirs, and so on.  This meant there was lots of socialising going on, and in fact, much of the conversation was scientific rather than just gossip.  Usually several conversations going on at the same time, with people chatting about various aspects of the project and learning from each other.  The atmosphere was vibrant, it was very productive scientifically and it was a great bonding event.

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