Obsession, Paleontology and the Greatest Catastrophe on Earth

In this book excerpt, Peter Ward describes a day of fossil hunting in the Karoo, a desert region in South Africa. The ancient rocks of the Karoo contain fossils dating from the Late Carboniferous to the Early Jurassic, and are a major source of fossils from the Permian extinction. This extinction event 250 million years ago wiped out 90 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species. Follow along with Peter Ward on a day’s hunt for these rare Permian fossils.

Excerpted from "Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe on Earth." Copyright Peter Ward, 2004. Reprinted with permission from the author and Viking Penguin publishers. Some portions have been altered for context.

The start of any day is so easy. The first hour is always a joy; a good breakfast yields fuel to spare; the cool of the morning is a pleasure; there’s always enthusiasm, because you have hope of a spectacular find. That might be the greatest draw – that the next stretch of rock will show a trace of bone, which on closer examination is seen to be linked to another bone; that a slight amount of digging will expose a skull, a complete specimen, perhaps the most complete ever found of this species, or a new species never before found by science. Perhaps it might be a Gorgon.

The clash of the smartest creature on Earth in the Paleozoic era, the cynodont (right), and the apex predator of its time (left), the largest vertebrate top carnivore: the gorgon. Both were reptiles, but the cynodont’s descendents went on through much climatic change to deliver an erect, biped–the human mammals.

Of all the treasures that make up the fossils of the Karoo, the Gorgons hold the greatest value – monetary value, scientific value, and the intangible value recorded deep in some part of the collector’s brain when the identification is made that this is indeed the most sought-after of Karoo fossils.

More often than not, the first hour passes and nothing is found. The second hour comes and goes, and the mind begins to wander, doubts begin to creep in (I won’t find anything today!), and it becomes an effort to keep your eyes on the outcrop. And today came a new sensation that had not been a factor in all our previous collecting: thirst.

The day was keeping its morning promise of heat. At 10:00 A.M. the heat was a novelty for a Seattle boy. It was a heat that held no humidity, that dried the skin and eyes. I began drinking the water I carried.

The first drink was heaven – a long draw, then the surprise of how much water that draw had emptied from the big bottle. And a second, and a third, and I felt better but slightly guilty. I would need water for the whole day. Water came to equal guilt. Too much and you were wasting energy carrying its heavy load. Too little and you might die if you were to fall and break a leg in some remote corner away from the rest of the crew. Choices.

By 11:00 A.M. the heat was like a force or a sound, subliminal perhaps, a low bass rumble that was not invasive but always recognizable there in the background. The slight wind only seemed to increase the odd sensation I felt, difficult to pinpoint at first, until with a start I realized what was happening – that water was being sucked out of my body. In this third hour I was halfway up the canyon wall, moving in and out of shade, working hard on the irregular slope, my boots gripping the scree, climbing up and over sandstone ledges that divided the more promising fossil sites. On other days such work would normally cover me with a sheen of sweat, and I had no illusion as to why that was not now happening. As fast as the sweat would appear on my skin, it was carried away by the heat and the wind; molecules of water changed from liquid to gas, evaporating off me, leaving behind salt. I was taking large drafts of water every fifteen minutes now.

At noon I was dragging, hungry, thirsty, and needing energy. I wanted lunch, which was not an option. Roger, the controller of our lives and clocks, the organizer of schedules, the fearless leader (I obviously was cranky by this point), decreed that breakfast was to be at seven-thirty, lunch at one, dinner at eight. You could set a clock by his schedule. I was starved. An hour to go, and I had not yet found a fossil. And another realization: I had not once had to urinate.

peter_ward Peter Ward, co-author of "Rare Earth," "The Life and Death of Planet Earth", and Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle

Life in the field seems to accentuate everything. Food tastes better, smells are sweeter, and all things physical seem more pronounced. You get a sense that you are a center of consciousness being carried on a physical body and that the two are allied but separate things. And while the brain may not seem any better – quite the opposite if it is hot – the body is in its element. You – the brain, the Command Center in this situation – really take account of how your Mobile Unit is doing. And when said MU is not urinating, you take notice – especially if you’ve drunk a half gallon of water in two hours and haven’t once had to check for the females and find a convenient spot under a tree for a quick pee. Your body has had all that water sucked out of it by the heat. Your kidneys are starting to make stones of their own.

No one in sight, alone in the huge valley as far as I can tell, noon, and I was starved and obsessing about not being able to pee. And the heat kept increasing. The forecast in our area was for heat (of course), and 40 to 45 Celsius. How the hell hot is 40 Celsius? I’m a scientist, I should know these things. So I stashed myself under a tree and did the calculations to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit: 40 x 9 = 360, divided by 5 is 72, add 32 = 104 – or did I screw up somewhere? – 104 Fahrenheit, I could take that. But what about 45 Celsius? Let’s see 113 Fahrenheit. People in Arizona live in that all summer. No sweat – really no sweat, it turned out, for there was now a stronger wind, creating the opposite of wind chill. What should we name this? The "wind-cook factor"? Wind heat? More signs of craziness, I thought.

I climbed the side of the cliff and spotted Paul October in the distance. Lunch must be around there somewhere, so I headed toward Paul and soon spotted Roger, Georgie, and Heidi in the same area. Unlike me, they’d all had success. Roger, of course, had found numerous fossils, and the others a few, all well below the Permian-extinction boundary and all valuable additions to our understanding of the distribution of fossils at the boundary itself. Many of these were relatively close to the boundary. The fossil hunters were pleased with their morning. I had nothing to report. They humored me.

Related Web Pages

The Search for Life in the Universe
Lord of Gondwanaland
Rare Earth Debate Series
Interactive Presentation: The Life and Death of Planet Earth
Tree of Life
Eukaryotic Origins
The Tree of Life Web Project
First Complete Gorgon Fossil Found (ABC-AU)