When most people think of a palaeontologist, they probably picture a person in hiking boots with a rock hammer in hand, tromping through the badlands in search of fossils. In fact, that’s what I had planned to do this summer… then COVID-19 hit.

Fieldwork is temporarily cancelled and, like every other researcher at the museum, I’m stuck working from home. Despite some obvious setbacks, it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve enjoyed spending extra time with my kids and more frequent visits to the family cottage on weekends.

Photograph of a man walking in the Alberta Badlands.
This is where I would be if I wasn’t stuck at home: the Alberta Badlands. The sediments exposed along the South Saskatchewan River often preserve microsites that document the organisms and environments dating to the end of the Cretaceous Period, between 75 and 80 million years ago. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

This unexpected stint at home has also given me time to focus on backburner projects that I otherwise would have little time in the office to complete. One such project is sorting through microsite material my crew and I collected during previous summers.

Microsites are often dense accumulations of small fossils (<5 cm across), usually consisting of some mix of tiny teeth, vertebrae, and shell fragments. They might also include fragments of larger animal skeletons. These various boney bits typically washed together from nearby surroundings, accumulating on the banks of some ancient river. Originating in different environments, microsite material preserves a record of multiple organisms that lived at the same time but often in different habitats. As nice as they are to find, it’s not possible to get that kind of ecological information from individual skeletons.

It takes time to sort through microsite material, and so I need to thank museum volunteers Christiane Copper and Dale Crichton for doing the early work of separating the boney material from the sediment we sampled in the field. Now that I’m at home, I’ve been spending large chunks of time in my basement office, working under the microscope to identify what we found.

Photograph of desk with computer and microscope.
My new basement lab setup, complete with Dino-Lite microscope and camera. It’s not quite as convenient as what I have at work, but at least there is some relief from other tasks that often occupy my time at the office. An added bonus to working in my basement: no one complains about my music playlist. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

So far, it’s a fairly typical smorgasbord of fish vertebrae, bits of crocodile armour, and horned dinosaur tooth fragments. There are occasional surprises, however, like the small theropod toe bone I just found. It’s not quite the same excitement I get out of making new discoveries in the field, but it’s a close second. Sitting in my loafers while sipping tea and listening to coffeehouse jazz probably help keep me grounded.

Photograph of small fossils.
A smattering of microfossils. Upper left: fish vertebra; upper right: crocodile armour; lower left: horned dinosaur tooth; lower right: theropod toe bone. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature

Hopefully the pandemic will end soon and this time next year I’ll be under the hot sun, filling my nostrils with the smell of sagebrush and getting my hands dirty. Until then, I guess this isn’t so bad…