Friday, May 24, 2013

Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan - Koytendag Track Site

[Continued from Grotto of Forty Girls]

After our return from the Grotto and a refreshment break we board the PaintMixer and head to the Koytendag Track Site. The prospector in me could not help but assess the logistics for extended field activities in the region. The valley we drive into is comparatively lush and green, with a readily available water source of a small creek. It is also home to a small village, complete with livestock. Throw in an army tent as a base camp stocked with supplies, the use of a reliable 4WD (or pack animals for a lowered carbon footprint), a local guide and/or interpreter, and add a band of Turkmenistan geology-biology university researchers and students to the palaeontologists and geologists and we would have a fully functioning field expedition. While I appreciate a hot shower and a mattress, give me a tent, a functioning Coleman stove, and a supply of Earl Grey tea and I'll function pretty much anywhere.
A nice vertical surface, just waiting to have dinosaur tracks found on it!
We are greeted by another traditional dance performance. Each performance we've seen has been slightly different. Some focus on interactions between young men and women, some focus on young people learning skills from their elders, and some praise the resources of the region and resulting products: rugs, food, and clothing. 
The young ladies' part of the dance...
...the young men...
...and the married women providing advice.
We are led to the cement stairway constructed for the visit of the country's President to the track site in 2011. After the stairs we hiked a gorgeous trail lined with natural craggy limestone slabs. It reminds me of the Boulder Gardens Hiking Trail in Tumbler Ridge.

Stairway and interpretive signage for the Koytendag Track Site.

The trail up to the Koytendag Track Site. Gorgeous!
The track site is a large exposure: over 25000m2 of a calcareous bedding surface dotted here and there with silty clasts contains long trackways of two ichnogenera of large and medium theropods (Megalosauripus and Therangospodus, respectively.)

Possible tracks of Therangospodus.
Possible track of Megalosauripus.
I tried to find out the names of these three gentlemen, but the language barrier got in the way. They took great effort to show me all the tracks on the surface.
Trackways are always worth getting excited over: trackways are much better than individual footprints because the information needed for describing dinosaur footprint and locomotion features comes from trackways. Individual tracks are only used if that's all you can get.
NOTE: What is an ichnotaxon? Ichnotaxonomy (the study of naming traces) is functionally the same as naming any new fossil. If you find a trackway that looks different than any other tracks described in scientific journals (the journal Ichnos is dedicated to publishing research on traces of anything and everything, from worms to humans), it can be given a unique name. To distinguish a trace name from a physical organism name, the prefix “ichno” is used. So, a new species of dinosaur footprint is not a species but an ichnospecies. New ichnogeneric and ichnospecific names have to be erected following the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Describing a new ichnotaxon from a single footprint is the equivalent of trying to describe a completely new dinosaur from a single bone: it can be done, but you would never stop hoping for the recovery of the rest of the skeleton, and you have to be VERY careful that you’ve examined all other possible explanations for that funky new shape (preservation, age of the animal, ground consistency, non-biologic sources, invertebrate sources, etc.). Back to the journal entry.

The track site was mostly exposed (also for the President's visit), and Federico, the lead researcher on the recent Koytendag palaeontology research, had noticed significant surface erosion even in the short time the new tracks had been exposed. [NOTE: Erosion is the only constant when working with outdoor tracks. You can do a great deal to slow down the rate of erosion of exposed surfaces, but eventually their detail will fade. That’s why detailed documentation of track sites is so important: you can’t save everything.] There is a strip of track site that is still covered with debris, and here is where we find the most pristine of the trackways of Megalosauripus.

Nicely impressed track of ?Megalosauripus from the covered portion of the track surface.
Natural erosion has not been the only enemy of the track site: anthropogenic signs of degradation are scrawled on several areas and even within the margins of a few tracks. No country is immune to this phenomenon. So-and-so loves some person, Buddy was here, and political statements usually make up the bulk of the graffiti: much like erosion, peoples' ignorance will always be a constant on which you can rely. The same degradation defaces track sites in northeast BC, and I’m sure my American and European colleagues can cite similar examples.

A great effort was taken to remove the spray paint from the Koytendag track surface.
Track surface in northeast British Columbia. The message here is quite obvious.
The track site is where interviews start in earnest. The interview style is different from that to which I am familiar. Rather than provide sound bites to a series of questions, I deliver a monologue-style statement on what I feel is the significance of the track site. This is likely due to the need for translation. I am also reminded that I should thank the President and the government for the opportunity to visit the site. I learn through the week this is policy for anyone doing government-related work. I would have done this anyway, as government support for research is something I can get behind.

We spend a few hours at the track site. The site is interesting in of itself, but it also represents the potential for new track site discoveries in the region. Any exposure of this Upper Jurassic deposit should be explored. The rate at which the surface is naturally eroding begs that new sites be found and documented.

All the Expedition members eventually drift down to the reception area at the base of the stairs to the waiting yurt-style tents where lunch was served. This is where my mental capacity begins to drift. I am decidedly not feeling well at this point. I stare at a pear I attempting to eat as though it is the most riveting object on the planet. Don't get me wrong: it was a nice juicy pear, but no piece of fruit should be more interesting than conversations with people who have done international field work. Chris from RSPB is telling a fascinating story about their society’s work in public education on poaching, and he notices my attention wandering to my pear. He jokes about how interesting the local fruits are, and I have to laugh and confess my internal unease. He understands: I’m sure I’m not the first or the last to fall victim to a traveler’s bug.

OK, Dear Readers: this is where you have input on the content of the next post in this series. I promised in my first post that I would keep the TMI content to a bare minimum, and that is a promise I intend to honor. However, the humor potential for the next series of events is high due to shall I say this...embarrassing nature of my developing ailments at this point in the story. Your choice is this:

A) Oh Shaman, we don’t need to know that your insides were struck with the majestic force of a foreign unicellular invader. Just skip that part and go on to describing the cool sites!

B) If you can tell it without graphic clinical details, fire away! Thinly veiled hints are more amusing than spelling it out for us. The best humor is subtle.

Which will it be? Cast your votes in the comments section!

Until next time!
Strange Woman.

UPDATE 24-05-2013: Fixed some formatting issues. Oh, and given that the "Privy Bush" turned out to be one of the most viewed posts (#4 of all time to date), I have to say that knowing readers enjoy this brand of what could be considered off-key humor warms my heart. You're all awesome! I drink a toast of Earl Grey to you!

On a serious science note, Federico Fanti and his colleagues have a paper out in the latest issue of the journal Ichnos entitled "Data on two large dinosaur tracksites from the Upper Jurassic of Eastern Turkmenistan (Central Asia). The citation is below, and follow the link here to the page that has a preview of the article (pay-walled, unfortunately.)

Fanti, Contessi, Nigarov, Esenov, 2013. Data on Two Large Dinosaur Tracksites from the Upper Jurassic of Eastern Turkmenistan (Central Asia). Ichnos 20, 54-71.


  1. I, for one, would love to hear all about the exploits of your protistan guests! It is always amusing to read about the suffering of people who aren't you.

    Love the new blog background!

  2. Thanks! This is a trackway from a Spotted Sandpiper that is now part of my neoichnology collection: she was doing all sorts of funky display moves!

    The next post in this series is "The Privy Bush``. When I updated this post with the reference to Fanti et al. 2013, the website bumped this post out of order. The Privy Bush has everything: GI distress, a large crowd with cameras, and Yours Truly miming her symptoms. Enjoy!