The Roar of the Bay

The Roar of the Bay
The Roar of the Bay

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tree Extraction at the Joggins Fossil Site (Joggins, Nova Scotia)

I was invited by my friend Matt to partake in some field work at the Joggins fossil site. He had put in a few weeks ago an application for a Heritage Permit to extract a fossilized tree from the cliffs, still 'in situ'. From the information he gave me, it might be a tree that could be bearing fossilized remains of tiny animals within it. The tree, most likely a lycopsid such as a lepidodendron, would also have some sort of indication that it had been altered by fire.

Forest fire during the Carboniferous Period (Myers)

Tree is probably a member of the lycopsid
family, such as this 'Lepidodendron'

I accepted his invitation and prepared for this little endeavour. Matt had warned me about the cold, so I was prepared to wear triple tuque if need be.

I drove down to Joggins, Nova Scotia and arrived a little after sun up. Matt had told me that we'd be joined by colleagues of his and that they'd be setting up scaffoldings on site. On exiting the car I had the pleasure to bump in to Steve (with a v, not ph, hehehe) Hinds, a fellow New Brunswicker from Fredericton and Matt's current boss. This gentleman was happy to also take part of this excavation and was merrily on his way to fetch some warm liquid to warm the guys already down by the beach.

Brian Hebert (left) and Matt Stimson (right)

By the time I made my way to the site, the boys had already setup the scaffoldings. The tree exposed in the cliff rested on a slight angle, about 2 to 3 meters from the ground.

The tree specimen lies through multiple layers of strata such as mudstone and sandstone, with the occasional sandstone nodule. The tree also shows its transformation and layered composition, presenting some clues of the type of environment it dwelled in. The dark residue present on the surface and within the tree contains soot, the traces left behind from a fire during the Carboniferous approximately some 315 Ma (million years ago). Many trees found at Joggins showed signs of carbonization.

The most interesting and exciting fact about this specimen is that it could contain tiny animal bones. Discoveries have been made in the past, like the discovery of the oldest reptile ever found, Hylonomus Lyelli. This tree and the bones it could contain can help in giving us a better understanding on animal behavior during a change in their present environment, living conditions, and their state of death.

Animal remains, such as Hylonomus Lyelli, have been
found in trees located at the Joggins fossil cliffs (Tamura)

What intrigues me personally is how the animal would seek shelter from extreme conditions, such as approaching flames from a ravaging forest fire. I can imagine animals hiding in hollowed out trees, exposed to the harsh and toxic elements. Some animals would die due to this type of exposure. Others would survive but might be eaten by other animals within the tree. There is also the possibility of animals having survived the fire, but were unable to get out.

The fire could be simply a snapshot of a single distinct layer within the confine of the tree. At a later stage in the tree's life, sediment could have infiltrated and animals would get in, succumbing due to various circumstances.

The trees of the Carboniferous Period were mostly present in thick swamp-like environments, living especially close to water. A river for example could often overflow its banks and deposit sediments, often killing surrounding vegetation. This would bury some trees where an animal could later fall in and unable to make its way back out. This could be one of several scenarios played over millions of years. The toughest part is to figure it out.

Out intended target.. DUH Duh duh.....

It was cold. REALLY freakin cold. The cliffs were full of icicles and the Sun was hiding on the other side, leaving us in the shade. One good thing about the temperature is that it kept the rock hard and solid. This was preferable as it gave us a better chance to try to pull the tree quasi-intact, if at all possible. The warmth of the Sun could have impeded the operation by making the sediment loose and making the cliffs unsafe to work at.

Steve and Brian sipping on warm drinks, pondering

After the scaffolding was installed, we took the time to inspect the state of the tree and a way to take it out safely. The expectation they had set was that they would have probably had to extract the tree in pieces, but that they would at first try to see if they could preserve it in its entirety, if at all possible. The major problem would be to figure out how to do so.

Brian, Steve, and Matt came to the consensus that they could do it by shoving woodem boards directly under the tree, wedging it and creating some sort of support for when it was ready to be dislodged from the cliff. The planks would be sitting across the top boards of the scaffolding, with additonal rocks to create as much of a stable base as possible. When the time would come to pop that baby out, Steve and I would hold the opposite end of the boards and HOPE that it would stay on it or roll to a stop on top of the rigging. Worse comes to worse, we had set black plastic bags on the ground to catch any loose rubble that was part of the tree, ready to collect for in case they had to put the puzzle back together.

As the tree was been worked on, our friend Don Reid showed up to lend his support and to make sure we young pups did a good job. Don is a great and important person, especially in these parts. Don is known as the keeper of these cliffs, and his shed behind his home housed many fossil specimens from around the area. It was a pleasure to make his acquaintance.

The guys took a moment of rest so that they could plan what to do next. I went with Don to his place to fetch his wheelbarrow for transport.

Fossilized tree and negative (print)

Matt (left), Brian (center), and Don Reid (right)

View from the stairs

Freezing icy cold water!

Exposed mine shaft between coal horizons
(exposed coal seam, left of shaft)

Getting ready for the task at hand

The tree at this point was almost ready to go. It wouldn't take much to dislodge it from the cliff. At the same time we got some extra help with a visit from professor Andrew MacRae.

Anytime now!

Getting in position

Andrew cautiously watches the event unfold


Done! The scaffoldings rocked for a bit when the tree rolled onto the boards and then on the side, but the close to 400 pounds of hard rocky awesomeness stayed put, mostly in one piece! We were able to collect any loose sediments that had dislodged and could be important for future study. We stored any loose ends in sample boxes and proceeded in figuring out how the heck to bring this monster down to ground level!

The guys came to the conclusion that, with all the material available, we could somehow lower the tree by bringing it down step by step using the scaffolding metal bars at different heights. This would mean bracing the tree sample somehow on one side while we lowered the boards on the other side to the desired height.

How? Wrap the tree in a tarp, sling a rope around it, and hope Brian can brace it and hold it in place while we whack at the boards on the other side to bring it down on the other boards positioned lower.

Step 1: Wrap that sucker up

Step 2: Place boards in position

Step 3: Proceed with generous whacking

The first step was to try to see if this feat of engineering would work.


After repositioning the boards, the boys
proceeded to the final stage.

The boards held till the end and the scaffoldings were able to bear the weight.  Brian was able to hold the weight of the fossilized tree in place while Steve, Matt, and Andrew moved to get the wheelbarrow in position for transport.

With this feat done, would it be possible to carry this as it is in one piece? The tree weighed a lot, easily between 300 to 400 lbs. The question we all had in mind is: will the tire blow on the wheelbarrow?

Don is probably wondering the same thing
(if the tire blows, Matt has it covered hehe)

"Look at that, still in one piece!"

Another successful feat! Some of us still had doubt that we could carry it still in one piece as the trek up the stairs would be really difficult. Having done incredibly well thus far, we came to the conclusion that we had to try to carry it and bring it up the stairs.

Step by step, we lifted the wheelbarrow up. Matt and myself lifted the wheelbarrow from the bottow as Brian and Steve took the top.

Almost done!

All the way to the top! The crew was on the beach for about 7 hours. Matt didn't think it could have gone this way, but with lots of positive thinking and smarts, we managed to retrieve in one piece (well mostly). Reg, the fella that lended the scaffolding equipment, graciously helped us bringing the tree to a safe location until they could find a way to get it delivered to Halifax, where it will be studied at St. Mary's University. CT Scan and other methods will be used to collect as much data as they can.

Before we parted ways, we ended up at a local joint for supper and to warm up. The lemon meringue pie they served up was worth the whole experience! As I made new friends and told Matt that I would do this all over again, I'm waiting for the chance to go at it soon. I would do this anytime. Love it!

Till next time. Cheers!

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