Sunday, November 8, 2015

How To Work Like A Real Paleontological Researcher!

My day job as a paleontological researcher for the National Park Service often involves writing paleontological resource inventory reports for inventory and monitoring networks. Each report consists of chapters on the paleontology of each park in a given network. For example, I am currently working on the Mojave Desert I&M Network. This network includes Death Valley National Park, Great Basin National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Manzanar National Historic Site, Mojave National Preserve, and Parashant National Monument; we'll also throw in Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, because it's geographically within the network, and if it had existed at the time the networks were created, it would certainly have have been included. In the past week, I just finished writing a draft for Mojave National Preserve. When I work on these reports, in essence I have to become passably conversant with the geology and paleontology of an area I probably know little to nothing about within a few weeks. Having done this kind of work since 2008, I have worked up a system that so far has worked pretty well for me.


It may sound contradictory, but the best way for me to research a new topic is to know something about it in the first place. I need search terms to run through databases and search engines. When preparing to work on a given park, I have a list of things to account for, including: physical geography, such as the names of mountain ranges, peaks, rivers, and nearby towns, which I can often get from park maps; artificial or political geography, such as counties and topographic quadrangles; specific localities as identified by sites like Neomap, Neotoma, NOAA's paleoclimatology database, Pleistocene Vertebrates of Southwestern USA and Northwestern Mexico, and the USGS-NOAA packrat midden database; and the names of sedimentary formations and deposits found within parks. For my purposes, I don't dwell on metamorphic and intrusive igneous rocks. The NPS Geologic Resources Division maintains a growing collection of geologic maps and documents on parks, so sometimes I have the bedrock geology already done for me going in. For Mojave National Preserve, there is a park geologic map, but the sedimentary units are not covered in great detail, so I supplemented with other sources. Sometimes, if a GRD map has not been completed, I can find detailed geologic maps of an area at the USGS National Geologic Map Database. In other cases, the area has not been mapped in detail. If all else fails, I can usually use this set of nteractive maps to figure out what formations are present. The history of formation names also needs to be checked, because many formations have had name changes. This usually is not too much of a problem for recent publications, but as you go back in time, the nomenclature diverges more and more. I use Geolex to check formations that are unfamiliar to me.

Once I have a pile of terms, I hunker down with GeoRef and check them one by one. My aim is to build up a portfolio of publications to check that will hopefully provide not only a thorough survey of paleontological work within and adjacent to that park, but also a broad understanding of the local geology. I've been wrestling GeoRef to a draw since 2008, and I'm pretty comfortable with its quirks. For example, older publications are not as easy to find as more recent publications, because the oldest generations of publications do not have as much information in their entries. Obviously, databases can only return information that has been entered into them in the first place. Entries for modern publications can include abstracts and lengthy collections of keywords, but early publications are often limited to title, author, and source, with maybe a handful of keywords. Publications with vague titles and few keywords are the worst. Publications like "Tertiary Floras of Alaska" (Hollick 1936, USGS PP182) or "Late Jurassic Ammonites of Alaska" (Imlay 1981, USGS PP1190) have important information for certain parks, but you'd have a hard time finding them using any kind of search focused more tightly than "paleontology" and "Alaska". I'm pretty obsessive about searching, but I don't have the time or the mental stamina to go through thousands of results. Instead, publications like these have to be found through other methods. I often run a smaller subset of search terms through search engines, particularly specific localities, which pull out some of these vaguely titled publications. Search engines have gotten better, and they don't have to rely on people specifically creating records, but they still can only search what they can "see", and the "false positive" noise is greater. If worst comes to worst, I have to pillage the bibliographies of other papers.

(Something you may not realize: not all publications are created equal. In the marketplace of publications, conference abstracts and dissertations/theses get the short end of the stick. These two groups often crowd GeoRef results, and if you make a habit of using it you can count on having the experience of finding a publication title that appears perfect, only to realize that it is an abstract, dissertation, or thesis. Abstracts require caution because they are essentially blurbs, usually unsourced and often with minimal review. They can include important information, but there is often no way to vet them. It is always worth checking to see if an interesting abstract has been followed with an expanded publication. Dissertations and theses are also viewed with caution because the "quality control" may not be up to snuff, but another, more practical issue is accessibility. It's often difficult to get access to a dissertation or thesis in a timely fashion.)

The next steps are pretty boring. I get my results and make them conform more closely to the house style (I have a pretty good method of creating bibliographies, but that may be the dullest secret of all time), then I sort them so I can find them at the University of Minnesota libraries or elsewhere. If I don't have access at the U of M, I can get some things with interlibrary loan. Many papers are available online via state survey collections, personal pages,, Biodiversity Heritage Library, Google Books, Internet Archive, ResearchGate, The Digital Archaeological Record, the USGS Publications Warehouse, and other sources. If it's old enough to be public domain, somebody's got it for free online, but figures may be absent or of poor quality, so it helps to check multiple sources. In cases where I need something and the author's alive, I ask the author for a copy. (Never underestimate this. Authors are people, too, and they love to know that other people are interested in their work. Plus, you may wind up making a connection for later.)


The bulk of my research is done at the University of Minnesota libraries. It's a bit of a drive for me, so I try to get the biggest bang for my buck. Lately, this means lots and lots of pdf downloads for home consumption, so I can focus on the publications that aren't available for download. Research is basically taking lots of notes and chasing down leads. It's like being a detective, except no one is trying to give me a concussion and I never have to turn down seedy cases. I am stringent when it comes to confirming occurrences of fossils within parks. Google Earth became quite helpful for this once I found overlays that add park boundaries and topographic maps. (Many localities are given in section-township-range coordinates, which I convert to latitude-longitude.) Once I've finished going through the stack of publications, I am left with a text file of pages and pages of notes that will somehow magically become a readable, coherent draft.

There's a certain amount of art to both this and the previous stage, to being able to efficiently determine the most useful publications and then suss out the most important information. Like other forms of art, you start out terrible and improve through constant repetition.


I had to work hard to become a decent researcher, but fortunately the last chunk of the exercise comes more easily to me. I've been a compulsive writer since I was about twelve, and writing from pages of notes is uncannily like constructing with building blocks. I'm writing to be understood, so trying to be literary would just be distracting and unprofessional, and the majority of my audience is not trained geologists and paleontologists, so I have to watch my jargon. The basic structure of each chapter is set; all I have to do is build from the framework. To keep editors happy, I pay close attention to the official formatting instructions (it never hurts to keep editors happy). Once finished, it goes off to review, first to my supervisor, then to park staff, and finally to outside geoscientists. This last part can take some creativity. Sure, reviewing a small park with little to nothing for paleo doesn't take much. Finding someone to review a park that has, say, significant Proterozoic, Cambrian, upper Paleozoic, Cretaceous, Eocene, and Quaternary fossils is more difficult. Few people are that kind of generalist. Sometimes it makes more sense to ask someone to review sections dealing with certain important blocks of strata across several parks instead. After I get all of the reviews and assemble the final document, it goes off for an official polish and I get ready for the next set of parks.

No comments:

Post a Comment