Friday, September 28, 2007

Week 1: Rotting Rhino

Have you ever smelled decomposing rhinoceros? We have, and believe me, it's pretty cool... also pretty smelly. Let's start from the beginning.

Last Friday (Sept. 21st) was the rhino team's first day out to Parc Safari. It was also the first time any students had been out there to start the excavation, so it was pretty exciting. Due to an interesting turn of events, being that Parc Safari have not asked the farmer who owns the land where the elephant is buried which they sold to him a few years back if we can dig up a corner of his field, yet, we were sent to the plot where the two rhino's were buried about 2 years ago. Enter Team Rhino (cue catchy polyphonic theme tune).

Upon our arrival at the supposed "rhino graveyard" we threw down an initial 4 test pits. These were all approximately 50cm x 50cm and reached varying depths (some were more lucky than others in receiving a particularly rocky soil matrix, thus severely impeding their progress). Also the mapping of the site was started.

Test pits 1,2 & 3 showed some interesting mineral content so we took some samples, but we didn't find exactly what we were looking for in those specific holes, that being a rhinoceros carcass. It was test pit 4 which led to the jackpot, a very smelly and decomposed jackpot I might add, but nonetheless, a jackpot.

Test pit 4 was situated in the back of the "graveyard" next to what seemed to be the remnants of a miniature golf course, therefore we can infer that a past society of "mini-putt people" once inhabited the area until relatively recently...interesting, but I'm getting off topic. The area in which test pit 4 was located was a rectangular plot with little vegetation compared to it's surroundings, which means that it was filled relatively recently, leaving not much time for vegetation to regrow. The most noticeable thing about the plot of test pit 4 was that it had a large depression and a matching large, for lack of a better word, bump. Prof. Costopoulos believed that this depression and "bump" could be collapsed ribcage and skull (respectively) of one of the rhinos. cool. The pit was dug in what was believed to be the collapsed ribcage depression. Initially the soil was like that of the other test pits, quite rocky, but between 40cm and 50cm down we noticed that the soil matrix had changed to be a relatively uniform very wet, gray, clay. Enter a not so intoxicating scent we now know to be rotting rhinoceros. This is where we start to notice that this smell is coming from bits of blackish stain in the clay, which Tabitha (a graduate student working on the dig) notes looks like decomposing fat, and she was right. very cool.

At about 55cm we found a white material that was mysteriously both solid and spongy at the same time. I believe it was described in the following way: "When you poke it it pokes!". So at this point the other test pit crews abandoned their pits to come help expand test pit 4 and lay down another test pit where the skull is believed to be. Test pit 4 was expanded on two sides to form an "L" shape and the skull test pit was dug down to about initial
height of test pit 4's start point before having to pack up and head home for the day. So we need to dig the skull test pit down a bit more before we hope find anything skull related.

The bone that was found (which is believed to be the top of a vertebrae) was still quite wet, though the muscle and fat was decomposed there was still some skin, which was very elastic. A sample was taken to be analyzed in the lab. Unfortunately we did not have time to go further so all that was found was the tip of the bone, which is being left in the pit until next time when we can further excavate it.

So how do we deal with this rotting rhino you may ask? Well, there are a few things to consider before we decide. First is that if we have unearthed only the top of the find and it is this wet, that could mean that there is literally a pool of rhino goo near the bottom, which may be something we don't want to deal with. However the Parc Safari representative informed Prof. Costopoulos that when Alice (The name of the rhino we found) was buried she was rolled into the pit and landed sort of on her back/side with her legs more or less facing upwards, this means that if what we have found is in fact a vertebrae than there may not but this ominous pool of rhino goo that we are all dreading. This however seems a bit strange as well because when we expanded test pit 4 we didn't find any other bone, which may mean that we are at the top and the lovely rhino goo IS waiting for us. And if we do continue with the excavation of Alice the rhino we will have to bring in the back-hoe to take off the extremely rocky top layer of soil, as it would be hell to dig through. This would significantly alter our initial plans of observing insect/small animal activity, soil chemistry and taphonomic processes in a relatively large excavation site.

What's the plan? Well we don't know yet, it depends on if the elephant team finds the elephant. If they do then we can move all our efforts to the elephant site and continue with our initial plans rather than actually dealing with Alice the rotting rhino, although this depends on how decomposed Magic the elephant is, he was buried about 7 years ago, but an African Bull elephant is more than double the size of a rhino, which means a lot more meat to decompose. Good luck elephant team!

That's all for now, pictures for week 1 will be posted as soon as I receive them. Until next time.

Cheers, The Rhino Team

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