'We Have to Go NOW': Scientists Share Their Wildest Experiences in the Field

By Jeanne Timmons on at

Put aside any notions that research is a dull cycle of routine. For scientists who do field work, collecting data means taking risks, exploring remote areas, sleeping outside, and encountering wild animals and extreme weather.

Below, palaeontologists, geologists, and other researchers share their most intense field experiences, including being chased by bulls, discovering a crime scene in a national park, accidentally weeing on a dinosaur, and more.

Hesham Sallam, associate professor of vertebrate palaeontology at Mansoura University and founder and director of Mansoura University Vertebrate Palaeontology, Egypt

We had one anxious situation [in Egypt] that really shook me to my core. We were digging in the middle of nowhere, camping next to the dinosaur, when all of a sudden, we were approached by really tough-looking people. They told me that they had been watching us for over a week with binoculars and demanded to know what we had found. At that time, I was in charge of the camp, and I had four young students with me. This was a big responsibility. So they looked at the hole we had dug, and they said, “What is this?” I said, “Nothing. These are just rocks. We are geologists taking samples.” I remember that one of them actually went to the hole and picked up the most important piece of that dinosaur (the lower mandible). He looked at it, said, “Yes. It’s a rock,” and he threw it away. I almost went flying to get it before it hit the ground! And then I stopped myself, because I didn’t want to reveal how important it truly was. Fortunately, the mandible landed without breaking, and they left us in peace.

Amy Atwater, palaeontology collections manager-registrar at the Museum of the Rockies, Montana State University

I was working in Denali National Park, first as a GeoCorps palaeontology intern but then hired at the end of my internship for a short-term position helping the park’s geologist, Denny Capps.

We had gotten this report that there had been a landslide… As the park geologists, we got up one morning to investigate. We were still in the part that was open to the general public, when Capps looks at this turnout in the road where all this garbage is collected. And he goes, “Ok. It’s our civic duty. We gotta go pull over and clean this garbage up because there’s no one around.”

Very soon it became apparent that we had no idea what we were dealing with. There were Petco boxes strewn about. And there was this rubble in the middle, charcoal of a fire that someone had had on the asphalt. Charcoalled remains of wood and then an animal. A charcoalled little rodent-looking thing with a big chunk missing from the middle, like someone had taken a real big bite out of it. There were bloody gloves. And we found just the skin of a mouse. Nothing but the skin. And then we found just the head of a snake, of a little python or a little constrictor thing. Just the head. And that made us realise that the charcoal chunk in the fire was probably a hedgehog or a guinea pig. And that that had been eaten, too.

And then there was one box that was still closed. And we’re like, oh god, what’s going to be in the box?

And when we opened it, it was a turtle! At first, we were like, “Oh my god. This poor reptile is dead.” Because it’s Alaska, and it was below freezing by far. We thought it was dead, but we warmed it up and it woke back up! It was totally fine, and it was adopted by a local family.

So that was the only silver lining on that. We called the law enforcement rangers right away. They came out. They were just so confused. We were all just trying to understand who would come into a National Park and make themselves a fire along the side of the road and cook and eat a bunch of animals that they’d just bought at Petco. They never caught the guy as far as I’m aware.

Róchelle Lawrence, paleontologist at Queensland Museum, Australia

We had a one-off opportunity to visit a property in outback Queensland where they had discovered some dinosaur footprints. One specimen required replication in which we began the layering process. However, the temperature was increasing into the 40 degree Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) range. It was so hot that after every layer, we had to jump back into the air conditioning of the car to cool down and even resorted to swimming in the nearby dam. With heat comes flies, lots of them, and not just the ordinary fly. We had blood-thirsty biting march flies! They have ferocious bites that even penetrate through clothing. By the end of the day, we had hundreds of sore red bites all over us.

Jason Schein, palaeontologist and founding executive director of Bighorn Basin Palaeontological Institute

Three of us were camping in this little group of trees next to a big pasture in Alabama near Selma. It was afternoon; we were tired and hot coming back from the end of the field day. Prescott Atkinson sees this little bit of an outcrop way off in the distance of this pasture, so he’s just going to check it out while Ed Hooks and I are setting up camp for the evening.

A little while later, this big bull appears in the pasture, standing there and bellowing. He’s clearly not very happy about something. He wasn’t threatening us, so we just didn’t worry about it. Prescott was gone for quite a while. And there were a couple times when I thought I could just barely, faintly, hear something weird from far away. I asked Ed, but he couldn’t hear anything, so I thought, “Well, all right. It’s nothing.”

Finally, maybe an hour or two later, Prescott finally comes wandering back into camp, filthy, sweaty, clearly dishevelled and a little bit annoyed. And he was like, “Didn’t you guys hear me yelling? Why didn’t you come help me?” Apparently, the bull saw him off in the distance, did NOT like him being there, and charged him. Prescott barely escaped by climbing up a tree. The bull had basically tree’d him for well over an hour. And he was yelling for us to come help him. We had no idea!

One year, working out in Montana, one of the guys went off to find a bush to go to the bathroom. While he’s standing there weeing, he actually realised he was weeing on a new fossil. It turned out to be a great skeleton of Allosaurus, but they nicknamed it “Urinator.”

Brianne Palmer, PhD candidate of ecology, San Diego State University and University of California, Davis

I was charged by a few buffalo while collecting their dung in Colorado. We were safe in the back of the Jeep, but it was still exhilarating.

I was also charged by an angry bull because I was walking my transect and interrupted him mating. Luckily, I parked the 4x4 nearby, and the bull can’t move very fast through dense sagebrush. I never finished that transect.

Yinan Wang, independent geologist and author of 50 State Fossils

One lesson many geologists learn as undergrads is: Don’t go into dry gullies and riverbeds when there are storms on the horizon. This is a lesson I ignored until one particular incident in Texas. I was down in a riverbed looking at rocks, of course. It was a dry riverbed with rather steep sides. There were pockets of leftover water filled with fish, which was interesting. I had seen some storms on the horizon but ignored them. Suddenly, a storm popped up over the side of the riverbed. I was drenched in a deluge and water started rising quickly around me. All the fish were freed. I couldn’t climb the sides because they were too steep, and there was now a lot of lightning. I ended up clinging to a pylon under a bridge while waiting out the storm. Afterwards, I had to wade a mile upstream in 2 to 3 feet of deep water until I could get out. My cell phone was destroyed.

Melissa Macias, palaeontologist at Psomas

I’ve been doing field work at Vandenberg Air Force Base for years; I have a sloth site that I’ve been working on. I’ve found two types of extinct sloths, plus horse, camel, mastodon, and turtle fossils. From the moment you get through the front gate of the base, it takes about 45 minutes to get to the site. There’s absolutely nobody around. This is just pristine, beautiful land, out in the middle of nowhere.

But it is an active military base, and there are unexploded ordinances in the hills. Because we work on the coastline and not in those hills, we didn’t have to do any training regarding unexploded ordinances. We get stopped by the [military] police all the time: What are you doing? Why are you digging here?

The other big thing I have to worry about is the SpaceX launches. It’s the perfect spot for them to launch, because if it fails, it goes right into the water. Passes [to access the area] are not good 24 hours before and up through the launch. We’re literally waiting in the next town over each launch, texting people to see if they’ve seen the [rocket] go up to determine when we can go back to digging!

Dick Mol, mammoth expert and research associate at the Natural History Museum Rotterdam, The Netherlands

In 1997, a woolly mammoth carcass was discovered in the permafrost of the tundra in the Taymyr Peninsula, in the far north of Arctic Siberia. I was asked to set up an international team of experts to study the carcass two years later. The goal of the 1999 expedition was to introduce something new: to excavate a mammoth in winter time when the entire ground is frozen, thereby preserving the mammoth and the surrounding sediments in which the carcass had been preserved for over 20,000 years. There is significant data in those sediments, but it had yet, at that time, to be collected.

We excavated a huge 23-tonne block comprised of ice, surrounding sediments, and the mammoth. After three weeks of hard work in the field under extreme conditions, the block was entirely free, ready for airlift by an Mi-26, the biggest transportation helicopter in the world. Our work was documented by the Discovery Channel. The weather, however, changed dramatically to snow and fog. With such bad visibility, we had to wait in our tents with heaters for three days before the helicopter could arrive. There was nothing to do. Outside it was -33 degrees Celsius!

The film crew came up with the following idea to kill the time: “Dick, would it be possible to start defrosting a little part of the mammoth, here in the field?” We set up a very small tent on the frozen block. Long mammoth hairs and wool were already visible on the surface. With the electricity of the generator, I could use five hairdryers at a time.

I was lying in the little tent on my stomach for hours and hours, moving the hairdryers and blowing hot air on the visible parts of the mammoth. The sediments started to defrost, and suddenly, the smell of the mammoth arose! The little tent completely filled with the smell of mammoth. When I came out of the tent to tell the film crew that part of the mammoth was exposed and it had released a smell, they wanted to shoot it. Just opening the little tent for the cameraman was enough; the mammoth odour was apparent to everyone. Some didn’t like it, but for me it was sensational. After working on mammoths for more than three decades, seeing so many skeletons, carcasses, depictions in caves, etc, I now knew the smell of a woolly mammoth! The scent corresponded to the scent of elephants as I know from zoos and their stables.

Sarah Boessenecker, master of science student of museum studies at the University of Leicester, collections manager at Mace Brown Museum of Natural History, and outreach coordinator at the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, College of Charleston

In the summer of 2008, our group of about 12 to 15 undergrad palaeontology students were hiking around the Willow Tank Formation in the Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada. This is a Cretaceous site, and we were on the hunt for dinosaurs. We came upon the Willow Tank itself – a large and deep “tank” in the rock, carved out by the wind that had filled with rainwater. We all stopped to assess how best to get down this sheer drop incline and safely onto the rock around it to continue on our way.

Being a young 20-something, I was rather cocky and got sick of the hemming and hawing about how to do this. I marched on ahead, decided it wasn’t *that* steep (it was) and proceeded to climb down, butt facing the water, and hands and front facing the group. Everyone simply watched. It started off well, and I laughed at how silly everyone else was for not being gutsy enough to just climb on down as I was.

Remember how I said it was a sheer drop? Well, I get my boots braced, hands grabbing the top of the outcrop, and proceed to try to work them down. Turns out, it doesn’t matter how great your boots are: When there are no footholds, you’re going to have a bad time. I began to fall, and thought it would be a good idea to try to slow my fall. I ended up leaving my mark (blood) along the Willow Tank Formation and plummeted into the water, which saved real damage aside from tweaking an old knee injury.

The water smelled AWFUL, as it was muddy, stagnant, and covered in tons of mosquitoes. I’m not a swimmer, and my feet didn’t touch bottom. I popped up and was caught between laughing at how ridiculous it looked, terror of not being able to swim much more than a dog paddle, trying to hold my camera and field book above water (they were wet but salvageable), and the sheer look of “oh my god I let a student die” on our professor’s face. Oops. My buddy Lee Hall hopped down and wrangled me out of the water. We went about on our hike, with me slightly soggier than I had been in the morning and walking a bit slower due to the knee.

Don Esker, palaeontology professor at Marietta College

We were in the Bridger Basin in Montana to excavate the Mothers’ Day Site, a mass assemblage of small-bodied diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs. The site was beyond a rather steep hill, so we camped roughly a half-mile away in a valley sheltered by a pair of low ridges. The campsite was lovely, except for one thing: the cow dung. The dry air desiccates the patties in a matter of hours, after which they were perfectly inoffensive.

Our work was interrupted by a teammate shouting, “Oh shit, shit! We have to go NOW!” We looked up. There, halfway between us and the Beartooths Mountains, was a featureless black wall. It grew in height perceptibly as it drew closer, second by second. We started to cover up the site, but our teammate kept hurrying us on. In just a few minutes we were running back to camp. Blotting out the western sky from horizon to zenith was that black wall. Up close it wasn’t featureless. It was a dark, roiling mass of dust and debris hundreds of feet high, like a colour negative of an avalanche.

I don’t remember if I fell down, but I do remember that I ended up on the ground at some point, because I crawled underneath the locked department van. Most of the others went for the tents instead. Just as I was getting situated under the van, the rain started to fall. The dust had cleared but the wind hadn’t relented at all, and the rain was pelting the ground at a 30° angle in torrential sheets. Glenn Storss got to the van, unlocked it, and let me in, along with two or three other excavators who had opted for the vehicles over the tents. We made the right decision; the tents were having a bad time of it. None had blown away entirely; the tent pegs were hammered right in to rocks. But the less professional and more recreational tents, like my trio of tents, couldn’t cope with the wind. One after another, the tent poles snapped in each.

After a bit, we started to hear hard *pings* as objects ricocheted off the van, and we realised we were getting hail, steadily increasing in abundance and size. The vehicles rocked ominously and the hail fell, and the wind blew and blew and blew and we were silent. Gradually, the storm abated.

We went out to check on Mason Jane Milam, who had remained in her tent. As we approached, she emerged, smiling ruefully, streaked with green and brown. Her tent was filled with 15 to 20 centimetres of sludge of the same colours. Cow patties had been sent aloft when the storm first hit, blowing them into Mason’s door-less tent despite all her efforts. When the rain came next, it had rehydrated the excrement and turned her tent into a bathtub of bovine sewage.

Alton Dooley, executive director of the Western Science Center

We were excavating on this river beach on the Potomac River, and there’d been a storm earlier so there was all kinds of debris and dead fish washed up on the shoreline from the week before, including some REALLY ripe fish. This beautiful Chesapeake Bay retriever from a nearby house ran up to us all happy. We fed him and then went back to digging.

Suddenly we were like, “What in the hell is that smell??” Just horrible! We were looking around forever before we noticed the dog had found one of these bloated dead bass washed up on the bay. I mean, these things were ready to pop, they were so rotten. And he starts poking around and looking at it. And we’re like, “Oh my god.” Now, he’s 20 feet away from us and we’re smelling this. And then he bites the fish in half, and BOOM! It explodes. The smell wave hits us. From 20 feet away, it was just stomach-turning. I’ve been to dissections and all kinds of stuff, and this was one of the worst things I’ve ever smelled. He wolfs down half of this completely rotten fish. It was so rotten that even a dog couldn’t handle it, because he stands there with this goofy dog grin on his face for like 10 seconds, and he puked it all back up.

Eric Scott, palaeontologist with Cogstone Resource Management

The Institute of Human Origins in Arizona has been working at a site called Ledi-Geraru in the Afar Desert of Ethiopia for several years, looking for hominin remains. I don’t have much to do with hominins, but there are also some horse remains (a genus named Eurygnathohippus) being found along with the hominins.

I’m a southern California boy, and I’m used to southern California deserts. So I feel like I know what I’m dealing with. But this is Africa. This is the Afar Triangle. It’s the desert. You’re seeing gazelles. You’re camping out in tents. It’s remote. And this is all new to me!

So last year, I’m in my tent one night, and I hear growling outside my tent. You know how sometimes in the movies, somebody breaks into a house and there’s a guard dog there, and it’s always this giant black and brown dog, and it’s snarling and drool is coming out of its jaws? That sort of growling is what I heard coming from the river bed right next to my tent. This low, throaty growl. So, I’m just lying there and being very, very still. And this noise keeps getting closer and closer and closer to my tent. I’m increasingly nervous. And then it’s RIGHT outside my tent.

To maybe chase the whatever-it-was away, I decided to shine my flashlight through the tent. The whole outside of my tent just exploded with noise as soon as I did that. Whatever it was, I scared it away with my flashlight.

The next morning, I went to breakfast in camp, where Lars Werdelin, a world renowned mammalian carnivore specialist, was already eating. I asked him, ‘What are the local carnivores that would make a noise like this?”

He gave me a look, and said, “None of them. We don’t have any carnivores in this area that would make that noise.”

I said, “There was sure something outside my tent.”

Still with the look, he responded, “What you heard was a camel. That growl was actually a normal happy camel rumble as it was eating.”

There I am thinking death is at my door, and it was just a contented camel eating outside my tent.


Jeanne Timmons (@mostlymammoths) is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire who blogs about palaeontology and archaeology at mostlymammoths.wordpress.com.

Featured image: Illustration: Angelica Alzona/Gizmodo