Entry Three: Scientific Debate

 

Scientific Debate

The early stages of collecting raised much debate, and for once I am happy to say I honestly mean “debate” and not “argument”. This is an important point as it shows how well the team got along! I remember our month in Greenland as one of the shortest I have ever passed. Still, as I said the early stages of collecting raised much debate! This expedition had several scientific aims, and those governing the paleobotanical collecting had been clearly set down by Dr. Jenny McElwain (skipping this years Greenland trip due to the birth of her daughter Ella some three days before our departure). Our instructions were: to spend 12 hours collecting at each plant horizon and to collectevery plant fossil. This sampling strategy was intended to follow modern botanical sampling techniques, and was implemented to avoid sampling only the best fossils and to ensure that each collector put equal collecting effort. Our first debate was a short one on a very simple question “What is a fossil plant horizon”? Fossil plants were frequently found in zones measuring more than 6 feet in thickness, though they were invariably concentrated into more or less discrete layers within this zone. Further, these plant-rich layers often extended through minor and major changes in the rock type. Therefore, “What is a fossil plant horizon”? Answering this simple question was going to influence our whole collecting strategy and would determine the length of time we spent at Kap Stewart and South Tancrediakløft before flying to Primula Elv. It would even have financial implications for the amount of rock we collected and the number of flights we needed. Practicality won out! Due to the thickness of the plant-bearing sequence in the Kap Stewart area (~425 feet in total) and the number of plant layers we had already identified, we agreed that we should sample each of the thicker zones for 12 hours and not spend 12 hours on each of the much finer sub-divisions. This decision would ultimately result in a substantial saving in time and money. The next debate was again over a very simple question and was also quickly settled “What is meant by every plant fossil”? There was no problem when only one or two identifiable plant fossils were found in a piece of rock. However, when every piece of rock we found was formed almost exclusively of plant fossils and none of these were conclusively identifiable should we collect them all? Differences in plant fossils can be subtle and, without either a large enough fragment or in some cases detailed enough features, it can be impossible to distinguish between two species in the field. If we collected every plant fossil we would have tons of material (literally) that could not be identified and that had little scientific value. Therefore, we agreed thatevery fossil meant every identifiable fossil, even if that identification could only be made later in the laboratory with a microscope.