Standing outside in the middle of the night, Jessica Dobler and I, the two undergraduates on our fieldwork expedition, are seeing a night sky completely different from what we've seen before. We observe a world beyond our own, untarnished by light pollution. “It’s easy to see how people could get used to this,” I say to her.
Only yesterday I was toiling away in a quarry, miles away from civilization, looking for plant fossils. Just two and a half weeks ago I was at home in Colorado, anxiously packing and re-packing for my flight to Argentina the next day.
But during this two-week expedition as a student of María Alejandra Gandolfo-Nixon, Plant Biology, I’ve grown accustomed to amazing things. I’ve dined with scientists from the Paleontological Research Institution (Trumansburg, New York), the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (Melbourne, Australia), and the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio (Trelew, Argentina). I’ve enjoyed my morning coffee in the same establishment as icons such as George Gaylord Simpson (the American paleontologist considered to be one of the founders of the modern synthesis of evolution), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Butch Cassidy, and Billy the Kid. I’ve seen the locality that contains the fossils I’ve been studying at Cornell, which is almost 6,000 miles away.
In a previous article, I discussed the technical aspects of our research expedition, but I couldn’t include the breadth of our excursion. Instead, I focused solely on the six days we spent at the Pinturas Formation in southern Argentina—but the adventure didn’t end there.
Payadores, National Parks, Penguins
When we left the Pinturas Formation, we drove to a roadside inn, Las Horquetas, an old gaucho (cowboy) bar that resembled a medieval fort. More than 100 kilometers away in every direction from the nearest town, we listened to a payador strum on his guitar and compose verses about where he’d traveled—an Argentine tradition. We spent the night with ghost stories in our minds, and the next morning, we rose early to drive to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, 90 kilometers away on an unpaved road.
We hiked all day in the national park among wild orchids, parrots, and two species of the iconic Nothofagus, a tree unique to the Southern Hemisphere. We overlooked a glacial lake, mesmerizingly blue. Jessica and I spent the rest of the hike trying to describe its color. All we came up with was that it looked like light blue Gatorade.
After two days in the park learning about the extant flora of Patagonia, we packed into our vehicle, drove the 90 kilometers back out to Ruta 40, and five more hours to the town of Sarmiento, where we stayed the night before driving yet another five hours to return to our base in Trelew.
The next morning held a day trip to see one of the largest colonies of nesting Magellanic penguins in the world. Thousands of penguins and their offspring dotted the hillsides and the coastline. We watched as they crossed the path in front of us or lay in their burrows only an arm's length away. Because most of a penguin’s predators are in the water and not on land, the penguins did not run or hide as we approached—some were bold enough to inspect our phones as we took pictures. Mothers fed their offspring in broad daylight. One penguin was even comfortable sleeping in the middle of the path itself.
Our final destination was an area known as Estancia las Violetas, where it’s as if words jumped off the page and into reality. I’d spent the past two years researching a fossil specimen from this locality. Now, I had the opportunity to see firsthand the landscape I’d spent so long studying from afar. Unlike the site at the Pinturas Formation, which was Miocene in age (approximately 15 million years ago), Estancia las Violetas is from the lower Paleocene (approximately 65 million years ago), the period right after the K-Pg extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.
“Suddenly, everything I’d been doing for the past few years at Cornell had context.”
We prospected several locations, finding fossilized palm fruits as well as petrified wood and stems. The greatest discovery, however, was made by Professor Gandolfo-Nixon as she unearthed a mass of rock and inspected it with her hand lens. She called me over and pointed to a fractured piece of a small, oblong seed with pitting all over the exterior. This seed looked to be the same species I’d been studying; in other words, I was observing another specimen of that species, only I was seeing it in its original setting!
Before this trip, I had interviewed Professor Gandolfo-Nixon about her favorite part of fieldwork. She responded that she never gets tired of seeing someone’s eyes light up when they realize that they’re looking at something no one has ever seen before. As I gaped down at that fossil, I understood what she’d been talking about. Suddenly, everything I’d been doing for the past few years at Cornell had context.
Research at Cornell can be truly life changing. As I stared up at the stars with Jessica that night, I reflected on the past two and a half weeks. I’d spent days digging up rocks in a constant gale. I’d hiked miles and miles in the high desert. I’d seen penguins and flamingos and so many other faunas that previously I’d seen only in zoos. And I’d loved every second of it.
I am thankful for all the time I spent outdoors, thousands of miles from home, on this fieldwork expedition. And I am grateful to Cornell and to Professor Gandolfo-Nixon for allowing me to have this experience. I hope that one day I’ll inspire yet another generation of scientists to go out into the world, learn about it, and above all, enjoy it.