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Hunting for Mesozoic vertebrates in Ethiopia: Field notes from Mark Goodwin

By UCMP assistant director Mark Goodwin, January 14–16, 2008

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Since 1993, UCMP assistant director Mark Goodwin has made several trips to Ethiopia looking for vertebrate fossils that will increase our knowledge of the Mesozoic faunas and paleogeography of east Africa. Fossil remains of dinosaurs and early mammals in Ethiopia are scarce — only a few teeth have been found — but Mark and his crew hope to discover new material on this latest trip.

January 14, 2008

Greg, Mark, and Randy outside the National Museum in Addis Ababa
From left, Greg, Mark, and Randy outside the National Museum in Addis Ababa. Click any image on this page to see an enlargement.
It takes three days to fly to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from the San Francisco Bay Area. I left on Tuesday, January 8, and arrived on Thursday, the 10th. Randy Irmis, a fourth-year graduate student in paleontology is joining me as part of my field crew on this trip. Dr. Gregory Wilson, a professor in the biology department at the University of Washington, and a former Ph.D. student at Berkeley, studies Mesozoic mammals — Greg arrived late Thursday evening. We're a small field crew compared to some, but between us, have many years of experience prospecting for fossils. And that's what we plan to do beginning Wednesday when we leave for the field and the Blue Nile Gorge.

Meanwhile, we've been attending a Millennium Conference — an international conference on paleoanthropology, paleontology, and archaeology. It began on Saturday, January 12, with a schedule packed with exciting talks by researchers working on a variety of scientific field studies. The first day's program focused on geology and paleoanthropology. Each talk was like a mini NOVA program on hominid evolution, archaeology, and the prehistory of Ethiopia. We learned a lot and met the scientists studying the fossils. The conference was held in the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) Hall — it had a kind of "United Nations" feel to it, complete with individual microphones and earpieces for translation. We didn't need the microphones except for an "open-mike" discussion session at the end of day one. Superb Ethiopian food was served for lunch by our gracious hosts — delicious!

Badges are required for admission Mark and Greg review the conference program Mark gives a presentation
Left: Badges are required for admission to the conference. Center: Mark and Greg (center) review the conference program. Right: Mark gives a presentation on the work he's been involved with in the Mesozoic of Ethiopia. That work included the discovery of teeth from the first dinosaur and first Mesozoic mammal found in the country.

January 16, 2008

Mark and Greg on the grounds of the National Museum The scaffolding is made up entirely of long, slender, wooden poles
Mark and Greg on the grounds of the National Museum. The colonial style building on the right currently houses offices, laboratories , and collections. The building shrouded with scaffolding on the left will be a new six-story museum — when completed, state-of-the-art collections, lab, and research space will be available for both permanent researchers and staff … and for visitors like Mark, Greg, and Randy. Interestingly, the scaffolding is made up entirely of long, slender, wooden poles, all carved by hand and assembled on-site.
Lost a day and missed the final day of the conference yesterday due to a 24-hour bug that laid me up in bed — hard to say what caused it, but it hit hard. Today we have a lot to do. Before we can begin our field work, we need to obtain official security and permit letters from the Ministry office for the specific regions we'll be working in. Also, because Ethiopia is very protective of its resources, their Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) will be assigning an Antiquities Officer to accompany us in the field.

Once we have the bureaucratic wheels turning, we return to the National Museum to review some of our previous collections from the Upper Jurassic Mugher Mudstone and Late Triassic-Early Jurassic Adigrat Formation. This is the first chance for Randy and Greg to see what the fossils from our field area look like. If you are planning to work in an area where fossils have already been found, familiarizing oneself with the "sight image" of what the bone looks like in the field is an important part of the homework a paleontologist does before going out there. This is the first trip to Ethiopia for both Greg and Randy, and my eighth.

Randy and Greg chat with Chalachew Mesfin, the Antiquities Officer Greg and Randy outside the Ethiopia Hotel A poster outside the ARCCH offices
In the vertebrate collections at the National Museum Greg bargains with a local vendor for the purchase of sacks Everyone wants to help in the bargaining
Top left: Randy and Greg chat with Chalachew Mesfin, the Antiquities Officer assigned to our team. Chalachew is also a graduate student at Addis Ababa University studying vertebrate paleontology and works at the National Museum as a fossil preparator. Top center: Greg and Randy outside the Ethiopia Hotel. Check out the name written in the Amharic alphabet. Mark says, "If you think this is impossible to read, try pronouncing it!" He reports that his vocabulary is improving … slowly. Top right: A poster outside the ARCCH boasts of some of Ethiopia's national treasures. Mark's team hopes to add dinosaurs (and mammals) from the Blue Nile Gorge to this list one day soon. Bottom left: In the vertebrate collections at the National Museum, Greg and Randy review the Mesozoic fossils and show Manga, a staff person at the museum, the first dinosaur teeth discovered in Ethiopia by Michael Tesfaye in 1993. Michael was with a group that included Mark, Chuck Schaff of Harvard University, and C.B. Wood from Providence College. Bottom center: Greg bargains with a local vendor for the purchase of sacks. Greg first inspects the goods for quality — no holes, tight weave. Bottom right: The gentleman holding the sack is the team's cab driver, David, who became their regular driver — he was always just a cell phone call away. The man in the striped shirt helped David park his taxi and joined the team in its search for field supplies.

Randy inspects storage boxes
Addis Ababa's version of Home Depot Top: Randy inspects storage boxes. Bottom: Addis Ababa's version of Home Depot — Greg and Randy select some tools for the field. A shovel with a handmade handle cost 20 birr, or a little over two U.S. dollars; two small sledge hammers were 300 birr, or about 32 U.S. dollars.
Next, it's off to obtain field supplies at the Mercado, the largest open air market in all of Africa. One of the first things we buy are sacks for collecting microvertebrate-rich matrix, i.e., sediment with lots of small bones and teeth. We'll fill these bags with many pounds of fossil-bearing sediment. Back in the lab, these sediment samples are placed in screen boxes and soaked in water. The sand and silt is filtered out, leaving a fossil-rich concentrate to be sorted under a microscope. Besides dinosaur and fish teeth, we hope to find Mesozoic mammal teeth — so far, only one mammal tooth is known from Ethiopia, collected by our team in 1998.

Before long, we have gathered an entourage that escorts us throught the marketplace, helping us locate what we desire. The next item on our shopping list is storage boxes for some of our collections in the museum, as well as for field gear. Heavy duty ones were relatively hard to locate at first, but the Mercado has everything. Hardware, household goods, clothes, jewelry, spices — you name it, you can find it here. It's complete chaos all around — the sights and sounds are amazing. It's loud and there's barely room to navigate the streets and alleys because of the goods passing by on donkeys, trucks, people's backs … and those goods are always piled high and wide.

Returning to the ARCCH at 5:00 pm, we found that our official letters and permits had been prepared and delivered to us. We've already checked out of the hotel and are packed and ready for the field, so tomorrow, after taking care of some last official business in Addis, we'll head for the town of Alem Ketema. That will be our base while we spend the next week exploring the Late Jurassic Mugher Mudstone in the valley of the Jema River. This is where the first dinosaur and Mesozoic mammal from Ethiopia were found so we're all very ready to do some prospecting for fossils!

More information
A good overview of previous work done by Mark and others in Ethiopia prior to 1997 can be found in the article Mesozoic Vertebrates from the Upper Blue Nile Gorge, Ethiopia. A report of another of Mark's trips to Ethiopia can be found in the March 1998 issue of UCMP News (unfortunately, not online). Papers concerning Ethiopian Mesozoic vertebrates that Mark has coauthored include:

Clemens, W.A., M.B. Goodwin, J.H. Hutchison, C.R. Schaff, C.B. Wood, and M.W. Colbert. 2007. First record of a Jurassic mammal (?"Peramura") from Ethiopia. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 52(3):433439.  Read it

Goodwin, M.B., W.A. Clemens, J.H. Hutchison, C.B Wood, M.S. Zavada, A. Kemp, C.J. Duffin, and C.R. Schaff. 1999. Mesozoic continental vertebrates with associated palynostratigraphic dates from the northwestern Ethiopian plateau. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19(4):728-741.

Warren, A., A.M. Yates, R.J. Damiani, M.B. Goodwin, C.B. Wood, and C.R. Schaff. 1998. The first temnospondyl amphibian (Stereospondyli: Capitosauroidea) from Ethiopia. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie Mh, 1998, n. 11:694-704.

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All photos by Mark Goodwin, Randy Irmis, and Greg Wilson.