Back in the lab – trying to make heads or tails of it all.

Posted: November 25, 2011 - 09:09 , by royal

After three days of successful fieldwork on the chilly Grand Rapids Uplands, we return – toting a fresh batch of fossils – to The Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. This is the home turf of my colleague, Graham Young, and almost a second home for me.

Graham’s lab in the Museum’s Geology and Paleontology section is a study in organized chaos. Tables, counters, carts … the floor – just about every horizontal surface is stacked with trays and drawers of meticulously labeled specimens. Reference books, journals, and binders line the shelves. There are conference posters, field photographs, geological maps, and the inevitable Gary Larson cartoons pinned to walls, bulletin boards and cabinets. Tucked into a corner beside the fume hood is a neat stash of field equipment, with just enough spare room to accommodate the gear we are bringing back.

Young lab at The MM

Part of Graham Young’s lab at The Manitoba Museum. Michael Cuggy works diligently away, all but hidden amidst the stacks of specimen trays and drawers.

Specimen trays

A place for everything, and everything in its place. Recently collected fossil specimens neatly arranged with associated field data, and tagged for additional examination or preparation.

Squeezing the two big bins of new fossils into this setting is another matter, akin to working through one of those number square puzzles – the kind in which there is only one empty space and you must slide each individual tile around the others to reach an ordered solution. After some judicious shifting it all fits, and, miraculously, there is even a few square centimetres of open desk top left over. This is where another visiting colleague – Michael Cuggy from the University of Saskatchewan – is plugging away examining specimens collected during our 2010 field season.

Examining fossils in the lab

Michael examines details of one of our confusing eurypterid specimens under a binocular microscope. Careful observation, detailed note-taking, drawing, and photography are combined with endless discussion and head-scratching to try and make sense of these frustrating fossils.

Michael arrived here from Saskatoon earlier in the day, while Graham and I were still on the road south; armed with Ipad, microscope, and digital camera he has already made progress working on one of our most challenging suites of fossils, the eurypterids. These are representatives of a long-extinct clan of aquatic arthropods whose relatives include scorpions, spiders, and horseshoe “crabs”.  Graham was first alerted to the presence of unusual fossils in Upper Ordovician rocks on the Grand Rapids Uplands when the remains of one of these peculiar eurypterids was discovered on the back of a slab that had been used for a modern rock painting!

Pass the fossil

Graham (left) and Michael seem to be enjoying a game of pass-the-fossil. Either that, or Graham has just issued another of his mind-bending puns.

Eurypterids are notoriously rare fossils, mostly because their outer body covering (the exoskeleton) was entirely unmineralized (just like that of their fossil and living horseshoe “crab” cousins). Even though we’ve collected a number of remarkably well-preserved eurypterid specimens on the Grand Rapids Uplands, the fossils are proving to be very hard to interpret. Not surprising, perhaps, given that eurypterids first evolved during the Ordovician and our site is one of just a handful where their earliest members can be found. Still, it’s disconcerting that the heads and tails on our animals look like they come from two distinctly different kinds of younger eurypterid groups, and other structures are unknown in any described forms!


A couple of pages from my notebook on an earlier visit to The Manitoba Museum, when we began to struggle with the apparently unique mix of characteristics shown by eurypterid specimens from the Grand Rapids Uplands. At one time we thought we had up to three different species represented by these fossils – now we’re back down to just one … or is it two?

We have only the balance of the evening and one more full day to move the eurypterid study forward, then Michael and I depart Winnipeg in opposite directions. We’re also wrapping up a paper on another bizarre arthropod from the same location – Graham is finalizing all the illustrations and it will be submitted to a journal by the end of the month. It has taken two years of combined effort to get this one done … hopefully our potentially controversial interpretations will make it through the review process!

By the end of this trip I feel like we’ve made some significant advances, but there is so much more to do. I’ll be back.