International volunteer's ARPP story

By Susan Verberg

Having worked in the Dutch National Museum of Natural History for the previous five years, I looked forward to attending the FLMNH Open House in September, 1998. It afforded me not only a look behind the scenes of their collections, it also showed people what kind of field trips had been going on. That’s how I came to talk with Andy Hemmings from vertebrate paleontology, who was very enthusiastic about ‘his’ Aucilla River Prehistory Project. I saw some documentary a long time ago about digging up mammoth bones in dark river water, and that picture always stayed with me. I wanted some day to do something like that. And here I saw pictures and heard people talking about exactly the same thing! I really wanted to go with them…

Fortunately for me Andy was very optimistic about my chances to participate in this exciting research. He gave me a lot of information and telephone numbers, and persuaded me to call Joe Latvis, even though the application deadline had already expired. Only three weeks before the October field season would start, I had found out about it! After filling in lots of forms I was certified as a non-diver. I was surprised, but happy I was accepted after applying on such short notice.

It was very interesting for me to find out all about Floridia’s natural history with real examples. For Dutch people sinkholes are something from another planet. Only a small part of the south of the Netherlands even has limestone. That part does have some nice caves, especially just over the border in Belgium, but sinkholes seldom appear. Although some fossils occur, they are mostly in the southern part and mostly invertebrate limestone fossils. I have found only sea snails, oysters, echinoderms and lobster or crab limbs. Once I found a print that very well could have been from a dinosaur (that place is famous for it’s rare dinosaur footprints) but I’m still not sure.

For mammal fossils in the Netherlands one has to go offshore to the North Sea. My grandfather lives on one of the small North Sea Islands, Vlieland, and he made a living fishing for small shrimp in the old days. He had a fishing boat with big nets that were towed over the bottom of the sea, and in addition to shrimp, he also caught mammoth bones, WW II bombshells and a giant deer antler (he used for years as a hat rack). In the same mode, the Dutch natural history museum annually rents a dragging boat to search for Ice Age fossils. The Netherlands does have its fossils, but they’re rather hard to get at. They’re not as numerous or as easy to find as here in Florida! A sloth skull in someone’s back yard or on campus…

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to go on field trips with the Dutch museum. When I was there everybody was working hard on building, moving and mounting exhibits for a new collections and exhibition museum, which finished last April 1998. Next summer a big expedition to the Philippines is planned, and I probably would have been a member if I still worked there. So I can’t really compare field trips, but I did hear from the ornithology curator who, after looking at my ARPP pictures described this one as rather luxurious, and not like he was used to. But that’s probably because the Netherlands doesn’t have a lot going on, and most expeditions go abroad. What is more interesting than a nice tropical country such as Indonesia or the Philippines with tremendous wildlife (but poor living conditions)?

For me the ARPP’s October ’98 field season was quite an experience. I haven’t been on a river with so much current before (flat country in the Netherlands doesn’t generate a lot of current), and it was interesting to see all the preparations required to work down there. Sadly I’m not too fond of pitch-black water either, and there was a lot of that at the Aucilla too, as well as big spiders, no-see-um’s and killer-mosquitoes. I am not a diver, and that left me unfamiliar with the procedures, but to me it looked like this: The divers make themselves ready on the dive operations boat, which is exclusively for them, their gear, and the divemaster and safety diver. They always dive in pairs, and they work two sites simultaneously. In a nylon mesh bag pieces of surveyor’s tape with the site numbers, plastic ziploc bags and a clipboard with a pencil were taken down. The divers use surface supplied air, but they do wear SCUBA tanks in case of an emergency. When they are ready, the air hose is connected, and they go into the water to one of the sites. Each site is marked on the surface with a colored styrofoam ball, and the divers use the attached jugline to find the sites more easily in the cola-like water.

When the divers go in, the two screendeckers canoe out to the floating platforms to check both dredge pump motors and fuel them. When the styrofoam ball in the water is pulled down two times by the divers, the dredge belonging to that ball is started up (three pulls on the float means off). Unfortunately this is not always as easy as this reads; the motor can be stubborn, flooded, choked or out of gas, the couplejet can be leaking air, which can cause problems, such as hardly sucking any water, or too much air (then it has to be back flushed, and everybody will be wet). But normally everything goes well, and the screendeckers have two hours of endlessly noisy, boring, searching, scraping, looking for minute fossils and pieces of surveyor’s tape with unit numbers or level changes. Everything that has been found in between two tape change markers has to be stored in a separate ziploc bag, with every bit of known information written on the side.

I am told that underwater the divers are excavating endless heaps of mud, leaves, sticks and stones into the dredge tube in claustrophobic midnight, so that might be hard work also. And when they find something interesting they record its context by taking pictures, making drawings and sometimes video of where, how deep, and what is found. Whenever something rare or fragile is exposed the dive-team will bring it up expeditiously. Everything found on the screendeck either does not require mapping or was missed by the divers. So they get to carry the neat stuff up and show it to everybody, including the sunburned or freezing cold screendeckers...

I knew after a couple of hours on the screendeck why it wasn’t a problem to come on such short notice. The work isn’t very exciting, and after six hours of endless motor noise in the middle of a pitch black river fossils do seem less interesting. And I can imagine not everybody will think that’s such a good way of spending his or her free time. We screendeckers found hundreds of bones, including pieces of giant turtle and mastodon, but also a bone fish hook, two ivory foreshaft pieces, a couple of canine teeth, a camel molar and a rabbit mandible that the divers either didn’t see or sent up anyway. I really liked to see the big bones the divers brought to the “bone boat” during lunchtime. And of course there is the wildlife; all those alligators cruising, big turtles sunning, small lizards running, cute butterflies, big kingfishers, turkey vultures everywhere, white ibises and ugly cormorants. They helped a lot to make the experience absolutely impressive (just like my mosquito bites). My average of one roll of film a day wasn’t really a lot, if I tried to record everything around me that happened!

All in all I liked this fieldwork a lot, and I’ll try to get my divers certificate to participate fully next season (see “Beneath the surface...”). And for anyone who is still interested after all the above, I would strongly recommend that you apply for one week and participate fully! The screendeckers always need an extra pair of hands if available, and you’ll gain an experience for sure. Whether it’s “not too bad, I’ll think about it” or “I’ll definitely come back next season!”, it’s all up to you! Diving in cold cola or being fried on a raft, it might seem a strange way of dealing with free time. But it certainly made my first experience with Florida’s natural history an adventure of a lifetime!