I am often asked how one gets into temnospondyls at all, let alone metoposaurids. After all, kids don't beg their parents to take them to the local museum to look at temnos, which are rarely on display anyway (and none were at the LA County Museum that I frequented in my younger days). As with most things in paleontology, there's a story. And it's largely built on serendipity. And in this case, almost on a shutdown. Week 3 of #MetoposauridMay is an origins story of its own kind (i.e. how Bryan became rabidly obsessed with temnospondyls).
In the fall of 2013 (my second year of undergrad), my first paleo mentor, Dr. Luis Chiappe, from the Dinosaur Institute at the LA County Museum of Natural History (LACM), had approached me about leading a short prospecting trip out to Petrified Forest National Park (PEFO) in northeastern Arizona. The plan was to go with one of the preparators (Jose Soler) and to grab a few of my friends. It all sounded really good; we were getting everything together and were getting pretty excited. That is, until the government shut down.
As people who keep up on the news will be aware of, US government shutdowns shut down just about anything that isn't for emergencies or national security, and that includes national parks (sometimes states self-fund to keep the big tourist draws like the Grand Canyon open temporarily). PEFO is uh not as much of a tourist draw, to put it nicely, so it was closed until the government reopened, and that put our trip on hiatus. The shutdown lasted 16 days, the third longest in US history, but the government finally reopened on October 17th, just two days before we were set to leave. Talk about a real nailbiter!
It's a nice drive out to PEFO from LA. Once you get out of the valley, the desert landscape opens up; especially in California, it's dotted with amazing volcanic systems. The forests up near Williams and Flagstaff are amazing. We got in to Holbrook as the sun was setting, which is a pretty sweet view. I've always loved the open landscapes I do fieldwork in, and that was no exception. We got dinner and set up in a hotel for the night. Jose and I got out our computers to do some strategizing. If we're being honest, I didn't know shit about the Triassic back then. My field experience up to that point consisted of 9 weeks in the Jurassic-age Morrison Formation working on sauropod quarries. I had exactly 1 day of prospecting experience, in which (1) I didn't even see a fragment and (2) one of my friends ran out of water halfway through the day and was having a real rough go of it.
We ended up somewhere near Blue Mesa in what's known as the Dying Grounds. Lots of fossil bits scattered on the ground (there always are) but nothing substantial. Reached the GPS point. Definitely no phytosaur skull. We spread out and started prospecting. If you've never been prospecting, you can't just show up and expect to hit pay dirt. Your mind has to develop the pattern recognition to differentiate fossils from rocks. Pretty sure we did not find anything particularly substantial or in situ. We kept walking towards Blue Mesa, inadvertently going up in section into the Sonsela Member of the Chinle. The Sonsela is nice to look at because it's very lithologically heterogenous; lot of different types of rocks and colours. The only problem is that the lower part where we ended up doesn't normally produce many fossils. But that's where we found the the fossil that you could argue (in a non-exaggerating fashion) changed my life. It was just a trickle of black and white bits crumbling down a soft tan hillside at first, but we hacked into the hillside and found exactly what you see below. But...what was it? None of us had a clue. All we knew is that it didn't look like a phytosaur skull.
The next day, the park paleontologist, Bill Parker, came out with us, and we walked him out to the site. Before we actually got there though, the man was just finding stuff left and right. Phytosaur teeth, metoposaurid fragments, you name it, he found it while walking on the exact same path that we'd walked the previous day. It was pretty mind-blowing. We finally got up to our site, and Bill looks our find over real quick and goes, "that's half a metoposaur skull." He didn't seem too stoked about it at the time, although Bill's a fairly mild-mannered guy most of the time. I wasn't particularly stoked about it either. Didn't look too exciting. I wasn't even sure what it was supposed to look like. It didn't help that it was upside down (not that I knew that at the time). I never asked Bill about his first impressions in the two subsequent trips with the LACM (2015, 2016) and the three subsequent summer internships (2016-2018) that I did at PEFO, but I wouldn't blame him if he thought we were totally clueless the whole time we were out there. I was definitely clueless. You could have convinced me that fossil was almost anything other than maybe a jellyfish.
When you recall that the actual fieldwork happened in just two days, the serendipity of finding this half skull and successfully hauling it out of that desert after nearly missing the entire trip because of the government shutdown is pretty remarkable. If destiny's a thing, or alignment of the stars is a thing, this was definitely one of those. When we got back to LA, I started reading about metoposaurids and thought that temnospondyls were some of the coolest things I'd come across (way cooler than sauropods). I went back to PEFO two more times with the LACM and then spent three summers interning for PEFO. And five and a half years on from that first trip, here we are, writing this blog and raving about temnos on social media.
P.S. Years later, I actually did find a phytosaur skull at PEFO. In fact, I found too many in 2016, so they fired me. You can see one of the many with the link below:
About the blog
A blog on all things temnospondyl written by someone who spends too much time thinking about them. Covers all aspects of temnospondyl paleobiology and ongoing research (not just mine).