A team of researchers lead by Paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs and Sedimentologist Neil Tabor, both of SMU, returned to northwestern Ethiopia in late December 2007 to collect additional plant fossils and gain a more thorough understanding of their geological context. The team also included Dan Danehy, an SMU Master’s Degree student in the Department of Earth Sciences; Harvey Herr, an undergraduate in the Department of Earth Sciences; John Kappelman with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Ellen Currano, a Ph.D. student from Penn State University; and Alemu Yenehun, a graduate of Mekelle University, Ethiopia.

Ellen Currano: Likes and don’t likes about being in the field in Ethiopia

Today’s blog will take the form of what I like and don’t like about being in the field in Ethiopia:

1) Zippers: Can’t stand them. I’ve been waging war with the zippers on my tent and my day pack. Twenty years of higher education is allowing me to win individual battles, but I think I’m losing the war in that it takes me a long time to actually get the zippers to fasten. It’s all the dust, and a rubbing of water along the treads will work to close it one time. Next year, though, I bring a daypack that ties and clips!

2) Cipro: God’s gift to the field scientist. I am ready to give my testimonial to the makers of Cipro about how it saved my life, and I’m pretty sure Harvey is with me on this one. A couple nights back, I got some kind of nasty stomach parasite a couple days ago and was up all night being miserable, but thanks to Cipro, I only missed one day of field work. However, there is a sacrifice to be paid for taking Cipro, and that means no nightly beer or tella. I’m relatively certain this is why I dreamed last night about trying to make it from my office at the Smithsonian to the room where we have a Friday beer hour and having to navigate not only the exhibits, but also jungle, roaring rapids, and crocodiles, all while wearing a short white dress and heels.

3) Ethiopian coffee: I hate, hate, hate coffee. Don’t like the sight, smell, or taste of the stuff people drink in America, any of it. And I knew that coffee was big here and that I would probably be offered a lot of it, and I would have to drink it to be polite. Well, I actually really enjoy Ethiopian coffee. It’s rich and sweet and not at all bitter. Plus, there’s a whole ritual surrounding it. Today, I got invited to drink coffee with Alemu and the two men who live in the house we are using for our kitchen and base camp. You start out with the green coffee beans and roast them over the fire until they turn brown. Then, you grind them with a mortar and pestle, and pour them right into the kettle. The coffee is then served in tiny cups with a lot of sugar. And while all this is going on, incense is burned. It’s really a lovely experience.

4) The noonday sun: Only mad dogs, Englishmen, and field geologists venture out in it. I don’t think it’s as hot here as summer in the Bighorn Basin, but the sun is so much more intense. If I get to come back here, I am going to bring an umbrella with me, or an umbrella hat. I actually own one cause my mom thought it would be a good idea for field work in Wyoming, not realizing how windy it is there. But here, I think it would do wonders. And I’d love to see the children’s reaction to me wandering around in it!

5) Not having to wash my own laundry: When I lived in Tanzania, I had to handwash my own clothes. And I could not stand doing it. It takes forever, the soap you use is really hard on your hands (although it gets about everything out — I actually brought a bunch back to the states with me), and I never did manage to rinse my clothes properly. I was expecting to have to do that here, and was pleasantly surprised to find that we hire people to do laundry for us.

6) Chairs with backs: We all miss them. You’re either walking around with a backpack, crouching over the quarry, angling yourself toward the light to look at fossils through a hand lens, or sitting on our tripod chairs at camp. After over a week of this, it starts getting a little tough on the back.

7) Achemu’s donuts: I never thought I would be eating donuts in Ethiopia, especially not in the field. I don’t even want to know how early Achemu gets up to roll out and cut the donuts, fry them, and put chocolate frosting on them. And they are delicious! The pancakes rolled up with syrup that we got for dessert last night were also amazing.

And that is my list. If only I could write my thesis in a form like this, rather than having to have complete sentences and flow. But that is what is waiting for me when I return to DC.

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Bonnie Jacobs: It’s good to be back

It’s my sixth trip to Ethiopia — the fifth for field work — and it’s good to be back. But, I do notice that each year I get older, my acclimation time is a bit longer!

It was 1997 when John Kappelman (UT Austin Anthropology) and Tab Rasmussen (Washington U. Anthropology) came to this very place to explore for the bones of human ancestors — BUT that was because a paper had been published back in 1985 stating the rocks here were only 8 million years old, or less. What they found were fossil bones of mammals that had to be much older — and with new dates we now know they are 20 million years older. In addition to finding these old mammal bones, they found many plant fossils. I was then invited to join the Chilga project (Chilga is the name of the “woreda” or administrative district) as its paleobotanist — and it’s been incredibly rewarding for me and my students.

We know from the work of Aaron Pan, who received his PhD in May 2006, that the forests occupying this region of northwest Ethiopia 28 million years ago were similar to those found in Central, West, and East Africa today. The eastern and western forests are currently separated by the East African Rift — which has varied vegetation including savanna, scrub, woodland, and montane forests. Some plant genera found separated today in the east and west, are represented by ancient, now extinct, relatives at Chilga (perhaps these are ancestral). Aaron also found that palms played a more significant role in forests then than they do today ??? Africa is unusually poor in palm species. The climate where the living relatives of the plants Aaron described is as wet or wetter than Chilga today, but has more rainfall during the winter months — Chilga has about 7 months of dry season today.

Juan Garcia Massini, an SMU graduate student, is working on finishing his PhD, in which he is describing the fine-scale physical and plant ecological variation that occurs on a landscape repeatedly disturbed by volcanic ash deposition. He has found that ferns and legume (bean family) play an important role as pioneer plants, and other interesting facts that will emerge as he publishes his work.

This year, Dan Danehy joins us to start a MS project focused on some aspect of paleobotany at Chilga.

I have been collaborating with students and our colleague in the Dept. of Earth Sciences at SMU, Neil Tabor, who is studying the ancient soils and climate of this region. My own work deals with the estimation of past climate from the shape and size of fossil leaves — as well as fossil plant description, which I am becoming more intrigued by as we find more and more fruits and seeds that have not yet been studied.

Bonnie Jacobs

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Dan Danehy: Hiking, digging and searching for fossils

We have been in Ethiopia for about a week now, hiking throughout the country side, examining exposed strata, digging and searching for fossils, and collecting what leaf specimens we find.

The Ethiopian country side is very unique and nothing like I have ever experienced. People still farm by hand, using Oxen instead of tractors, donkeys instead of pick up trucks, and bare hands and raw knuckles to collect their crops. Cattle and goats are herded by very small children (on the order of age from 5-13 years or so), which makes me think that these children are much much more responsible than I was at their age.

The local people are absolutely amazing, wherever we go we are greeted with a smile and a wave, invitations to drink tela and generous acts of warm hospitality. When we are measuring section or quarrying fossil leaves, a troop of inquisitive children forms all around us, eager to see what it is we are doing, willing to help, and trying to teach us local dialect words. I find that whenever I say anything (that is attempt to say anything in Amharic) everyone bursts with bright smiles and laughter, leaving me to assume that both my annunciation and pronunciation are horrid. We were recently given slings as gifts from the workers who help us everyday, and Ellen and I have been trying to sling rocks; most of which deviate from the direction we are aiming and we are again, greeted by laughter from the local children at our slinging skills.

One thing that is extremely different is the sun. The rays are so direct (because we are at such a high elevation and our low latitude position to the equator) it feels as if the sun is targeting me below a magnifying glass (much like adolescents used to do to ants where I grew up), as we hike around, I feel like a wax figure slowly melting in the sun from all the sweat that beads off of me into my dusty and dirty field clothes. The sun takes a lot out of me, it seems that most of my energy is expelled at trying to cool me off. I try to keep myself completely covered at all times (I find that shading myself in white long-sleeves and khakis are the best) but I still complain and moan about the sun every chance I get. I am simply not built to live in this environment, my Irish roots evolved to be in the cloudy shade, protected from the hot sun rays. The local individuals who help us, on the other hand, have no problem what-so-ever with the sun. They hike long distances carrying a lot on their shoulders without ever complaining, stopping, loafing, or even drinking water (I meanwhile must consume nearly 2.5 liters of water within 6 hours). It has really got me thinking about the evolution of man, which has roots in this region (LUCY was discovered in the Afar depression to the north of here) and leaves me with no question in my mind that dark skin allows individuals to live and function in this hot environment, and at this point I am rather jealous at their adaptability to this terrain as I labor through it, completely covered gasping for air and hoping for a strong, cool breeze.

Well, I have been in the shade quite a bit now and have cooled off (and the sun is beginning to set), which leaves me some time before our delicious dinner to practice slinging some rocks at the expense of laughter and smiles.

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Ellen Currano: It’s not just about the fossils

It’s not just about the fossils. That’s why I’m here, obviously, and the leaves are beautiful. Not like anything I’ve collected before in either Wyoming or Argentina. Wyoming is in the temperate zone — thin leaves with teeth that are shed every winter. 28 million years ago, there was a tropical forest here: the leaves are thick and tough, and there’s very little insect feeding on them. I’m interested in looking at some more sites, to see whether the one I’m in is unique or whether the forest canopy was just really well-protected from insects. Either way, there will be an interesting story that comes out of this.

Then there’s the field experience. Getting to be outdoors all the time, hiking, digging holes, and hitting rocks with a hammer (although my Ethiopian field helpers are sometimes overenthusiastic and think I should not be doing manual labor, so I have to fight them to actually let me dig and hammer). I had a crazy month before leaving for Ethiopia and barely spent any time outside, plus it will be cold and snowy (well, I can at least hope there will be snow…) when I return to DC, so I am really relishing my time outdoors in the sun. Unfortunately, the only suntan I’ll have is the back of my hands, neck, and face because the sun is so intense that white people like me really need to keep covered all the time. And, believe it or not, in the hot and blazing sun, it’s way cooler to be in long sleeves and pants than it is to wear shorts and a tank. On the subject of fashion, another thing I really like about being in the field is not having to think about what to wear in the morning. I’ve got my one good pair of field pants, a light-weight long-sleeved shirt, and a couple t-shirts to choose from. My biggest decision is really what pair of socks to wear. Facing my closet when I return home will be a little intimidating, although luckily I work at a museum with dusty fossils and so I never have to dress up.

Last, there’s the cultural experience. Life in Ethiopia is completely different than in America, obviously. If I lived in the countryside, I would have been married for ten years already, and probably have at least 5 kids. Now that’s a scary thought! Although if I was born here and knew nothing else, it would be equally weird to think about my American lifestyle. It’s a funny thing, the luck of where you’re born. How much that determines who you are and what you can do with your life. I’m reminded of just how lucky I am.

I’m trying to learn some Amharic, but it’s difficult for me to pick up — the sounds are so different than English, and I’ll say a word, but then it evaporates right out of my head. The Ethiopian students with us are trying to teach me, and we also talk a lot about our different cultures: holidays, family, weddings, religion, food, sports (I wonder what happened in the NFL playoffs today), music, dancing. Yesterday, one of our field assistants gave me a slingshot, which has become my new hobby. I think I can still throw farther than I can shoot, but my accuracy is improving dramatically. I think my 15+ years of organized sports are finally paying off in a big way. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to practice much in DC. It is tempting to take it out on the mall, though I’d probably be arrested within minutes. So if you hear about a girl arrested for slinging rocks on the mall, then you’ll know I gave in to the temptation. And now maybe I will practice a little more while there’s still some light.

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Dan Danehy: Surrounded by an amazing culture

I awoke this morning, my third night in Chilga, located in Northwestern Ethiopia, with a sore throat reminiscent of strep throat, conjunktiveitus (pink eye) in both eyes, greeted by an infestation of large army ants, this following an infestation of fleas the prior morning, and wearing the same clothes for the past week; and I had the same thought to myself as I had the previous two mornings, “This is AWESOME!” Despite my minor medical problems and run ins with local insects, I feel as if I am in a surreal state, surrounded by such an amazing and mind blowing culture where I have met some of the kindest and most earnest people. And on top of this rich learning experience, I get to spend my sun filled days doing what I love, that is hiking around beautiful countryside, admiring and trying to figure out complex geology problems, but best of all, I get to search for and collect fossils!

Fossils, particularly fossil leaves, are very important because they allow us a glimpse of what the ecosystem of the particular area was at a certain time period in the past. I am interested in studying large scale paleoecosytems and analyzing how they have changed throughout time, and how that change had subsequently affected life. Until we have the technology to develop a Flux Capacitor and connect it with a Delorian, fossil leaves provide us with the only evidence of what vegetation, and biomes, were present in the past.

My trip around the world (I am nearly on the other side of the planet, the time difference between here and Dallas is 9 hours!) was not an easy one and is a story within itself. Beginning with my departure from the Philadelphia airport, I was greeted with either a delayed departure of over two hours or a cancellation of my original flight. The only flight that I did not have a delay, cancellation, or malfunction with the plane was the departure from London, a city of which I was not supposed to go to on my original itinerary. My travels to Ethiopia consisted of departing Philadelphia, to Chicago, to Amsterdam, to London, to Rome, to Addis Ababa, and then to Gondar. My bags, which took an extended vacation in France, did not arrive until this morning, nearly 6 days after I checked them in. The travel was very tiresome, but at least now I can say that I have visited most of Western Europe (albeit just the airports).

Today I went to a doctor’s clinic in town to treat my pink eye(s) and sore throat. I was very apprehensive because my experiences with hospital visits in the past have not been very comforting, but I figured that antibiotics will be the only thing that can help my fragile and damaged immune system. I was treated immediately without waiting in a long line, I had no forms to fill out or discussion of insurance, and the total costs of my 4 perscriptions totaled ~$7 dollars after the currency exchange rate. Which makes me ponder why I get quick, efficient, equivalent, and affordable medical treatment in a developing country but not back home in the United States.

Well, it is getting late here, although it is not even noon back home, and I want to lay out and gaze at the millions of stars glistening in the nights sky, many of which I have never seen at home because of the light pollution. But if someone was to ask me, “Dan, would you every travel so far and to such a remote place again, with equivalent or worse travel and medical problems?”

My immediate response would be “YES!! IN A HEARTBEAT!”

I can not think of any better way to spend my time than hunting for fossils, and being able to travel, meet new people, and experiencing new and different cultures. I feel that I am one of the most lucky and fortunate people to be able to declare that this is my profession and then go off for hours explaining all of my stories and experiences.

To everyone here in Africa goodnight, to everyone back in Dallas enjoy your lunch!

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Ellen Currano: Introduction

It’s January 3, and my third full day in the field here in Chilga, Ethiopia. I’m in the last 6 months of my PhD in paleontology at Penn State and the Smithsonian, and this trip is a vacation from my thesis work and hopefully will set me up for a post-doc with field work in East Africa. I study the fossil record of the interactions between plants and the insects that eat them. I’m interested in how plants and insects co-evolve — it’s an arms race — plants evolve better defenses, insects adapt to those defenses, plants continue to evolve, etc. I’m also interested in how insect feeding on plants changes during environmental perturbations, particularly climate change.

Insect feeding is preserved on fossil leaves. For example, if an insect chewed a hole in the leaf while the leaf was alive and on the tree, the leaf will thicken the tissue around the hole, forming a kind of scab. This thickened tissue is visible as a dark rim on the fossil leaf, and so I can count it as insect damage. To look at how insect damage changes through time, I dig up fossil leaves from rocks of different ages — my goal is to get at least 800 leaves from each age. For every leaf I look at, I record what species it is and what types of damage it has on it. Then I can use statistical analyses to find variations through time.

For my PhD, I’ve been looking at how global warming affected plants and insects 55 million years ago in the Bighorn Basin. My long-term goal is to look at changes in insect damage across East Africa over the last 65 million years, a time interval that includes the opening of the rift valley, a decrease in rainfall, and the expansion of open environments. And also the evolution of hominids. Here in Ethiopia, I will look at leaves that are 27 to 28 million years ago, when there was still rainforest in what is now arid grassland. So far, I’ve counted about 500 leaves — they are thick and tough and do not have a lot of insect feeding on them.

This is my third trip to Africa, but my first to Ethiopia. It is an amazing, new experience. When I do field work in Wyoming, I sit alone with a field assistant on a hill in the middle of the desert. Here, I have several Ethiopian assistants who dig my quarries for me, and bring me fossils to examine. I get to watch children herd goats, cattle, and oxen, and they come and stare at me. First there’s just a couple kids, but then I’ll get wrapped up in my work and I look up and there are a dozen children. They must wonder what this crazy white person is doing in the middle of the countryside looking at rocks. (Actually, people in Wyoming wonder that, as do my friends who are not geologists or paleontologists!) Today one of the children brought us tella, which is the native “beer” — it’s made of fermented tef, the grain they use to make bread here, and every family makes their own. Tella is definitely an acquired taste — there’s a hint of tobacco flavor and it’s not strained, so there are grain particles in it. I almost spit out the first sip I had, but now, after a long, hard day in the field, it tastes awfully good! Tomorrow, I get to stay in camp and work on the fossils I’ve collected already — they’re starting to build up in my tent. I might also attempt to wash my hair using the camp shower. I’m looking forward to seeing the stars again tonight. When we’re not running our generator and camp lights, we’re so far from electricity that the night sky is better than a planetarium. Having grown up in Chicago, where you can see about 20 stars on a clear night, I am always enthralled by a sky full of stars. Bye for now, or, as they say in Amharic, “deuna hunu.”

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Alemu Yenehun: Hiking into the site

I am Alemu Yenehun graduated from Mekelle University, Ethiopia, and now working at the university.

Currently,starting from 31.12.2007 (December 31, 2007). I am in the field at Chilga, Ethiopia, in the project lead by your university professor in paleobotany and paleo-ecology, Bonnie Jacobs.

We have many plant leaf fossils around a river in southeast of the area. Actually, we came across some horizons without any leaf fossil. But the bed with them has many and different varities with of course differing in damage type by insects.

I visited Bonnie’s previous sites of taking leaf fossils and I got a lot of new things from her work. I understood the area was covered with dense forest. The problem is the inaccessibility of the area . We actually walked on foot for about 30-60 minutes carrying many things, including our lunch.

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