During the last week of October in 1997, Suzi Zetkus and Luis flew from New York to Buenos Aires to buy the rest of the supplies we needed and to rent a van for transporting the gear and crew into the field. Lowell and the rest of the crew flew down during the first week in November, and we met several students and scientists from universities and museums in Argentina who would also be part of our expedition. After completing the shopping for the last items on our list of supplies, we were ready to begin the seven-hundred-mile drive to Auca Mahuida.
Our expedition left Buenos Aires on the afternoon of November 6. We traveled in two vehicles, an aging pickup truck that belonged to Luis's sister, which carried most of the field gear, and a more luxurious and air-conditioned van, which carried most of the crew members. For hours, we drove through a region of flat plains usually called the Pampas, the agricultural heartland of Argentina. We stopped at about nine o'clock in the evening when we arrived at the small rural town of Pehuajo, about one-third of the way to Auca Mahuida. Marked by a colossal statue of a standing tortoise, borrowed from a famous Argentine song narrating the adventures of the audacious Manuelita, Pehuajo enjoys the laid-back spirit of its reptilian denizen. The vehicles were running well, which is always a relief, and we were pleased to have gotten off to a good start. After checking into a small hotel for the night, we ate dinner at a local restaurant and went to sleep. We would not enjoy the luxury of a bed again for about four weeks.
The next day we spent driving, hoping to make it all the way to Auca Mahuida by nightfall. Despite the long hours in the vehicle, the sights along the way, especially the birds, were entrancing. El Nino had brought an unusual amount of rain to the Pampas, which had formed shallow ponds and lakes along the side of the road that attracted many waterbirds. Identifying the flamingos, spoonbills, coots, ducks, and various raptors kept us entertained as the miles rolled by. As we drove farther west, the land grew drier and more rugged. Near Santa Rosa, about halfway to Auca Mahuida, we drove along enormous ridges that represented ancient sand dunes deposited by huge sandstorms near the end of the last Ice Age, ten thousand to twenty thousand years ago. However, we were on a quest to find older rocks, ones laid down as South America had split apart from Africa more than 70 million years ago, when large dinosaurs ruled the continent.
As we stopped for gas in Santa Rosa, we were reminded of just how small a world we live in. Buying gas at the pump next to ours was Francois Vuilleumier, a curator in the Ornithology Department at the American Museum of Natural History, the same department in which Luis worked. Nattily dressed in duds that would be the envy of any gaucho, he had been collecting data on the birds of the region for his research. In fact, a third member of the Ornithology Department was present. Paul Sweet, who has traveled all over the world to acquire new specimens for the museum's collection of birds, was accompanying our expedition as a scientific assistant. Even more bizarre, Francois had just driven Sara Bertelli, an ornithology graduate student from the University of Tucuman in northwest Argentina, who is also a student of Luis's, to Rodolfo's museum so that she could join our expedition to collect specimens of a primitive bird called the tinamou. Ironically, scientists go to the field to get away from the responsibilities at the museum, but as chance would have it, Luis, Paul, and Francois constituted a quorum for an impromptu departmental meeting at a gas station halfway around the world.
Finally, in the late afternoon, we met Rodolfo Coria and his crew members at a small town in northwestern Patagonia called Barda del Medio. From there, we drove the last seventy miles to our field area as the sun set over the extinct volcano at Auca Mahuida. As darkness descended, we set up our camp at a puesto, a small ranch that serves as the home for rugged livestock ranchers who raise sheep, goats, cattle, and horses. This particular puesto was owned and managed by Dona Dora, a tough but friendly seventy-year-old native of this region, and her partner Don Jose. Along with Dona Dora's grandson Josecito and a handsome young gaucho named Juan, they tended herds numbering several hundred animals. Their generous hospitality and good company would prove essential to the success of our expedition.
Occasionally, we would buy one of their goats or sheep to cook slowly over a bed of coals as part of an Argentine asado. These were special occasions that often turned into raucous parties with Dona Dora and her family. While we ate our dinner that night, stories abounded about other places we had visited to collect fossils and events on their puesto.
Life on the puesto is difficult. Resources are scarce, and each member of the puesto family, including the dogs that help tend the livestock, bears heavy responsibilities. The dogs were clearly not pets, and our crew had to be careful not to become emotionally attached to them. One had an adorable litter of puppies soon after we arrived. Later, when we returned from a day of prospecting for fossils, we discovered that Dona Dora had drowned them. Her motive, as she explained, was simple. There wasn't enough food to feed them. Dangers lurked among the ridges and ravines of the ranch. We were amazed by a story Dona Dora told about clubbing a puma to death in self-defense. Luis encountered his own brush with disaster one day as he was returning to camp. The gauchos had just finished castrating a bull as Luis approached, and not seeing Luis, they turned the bull loose and ran for cover. The bull, noticeably irritated at the treatment he had received, arose to see Luis ambling peacefully toward him. The bull then charged, and Luis's only means of escape was to sprint for a hedge of thornbushes that formed the fence of the corral. He leapt into the wall of thorns as far as he could. With the bull snorting at his heels, it was a narrow and painful escape, but far preferable to the alternative.
Our dinners with Dona Dora's family typically lasted late into the evening, and the evenings were spectacular, with crimson sunsets followed by starlit skies accented by an occasional streaking meteor or passing satellite. There was no Big Dipper with its North Star because they are not visible from the Southern Hemisphere. Instead, the picturesque Southern Cross kept watch over us.
Many of the crew born in the Northern Hemisphere had never seen the southern constellations before and were looking forward to the opportunity. One had brought a star chart to help identify them, but after a few seconds of examination, Lowell realized that it was a chart for the Northern Hemisphere, which was useless here. Lowell concluded that he and his colleagues from the United States didn't actually live in the Northern Hemisphere, but rather in the "moron-osphere." Fortunately, the native Argentines were still willing to serve as our mentors for stargazing.
Most of these starlit nights were cool but not cold —good sleeping weather. Although it doesn't rain very often during the time of the year we were in Patagonia, the wind blows almost constantly. Fifty-mile-an-hour gusts, capable of collapsing a tent or sending it careering across the rocky ridges and ravines, are not uncommon. Occasionally, local inhabitants, such as tarantulas, would pass through if you didn't keep your tent zipped up, not to mention the geese, chickens, baby goats, and dogs that literally owned our backyard camp.
The puesto had no running water, so there were no toilets or showers. The bathroom was behind some distant bush or rocky outcrop, and we washed up in the small stream that flowed in the riverbed below the puesto. Although the stream was only a couple of inches deep, we dug a hole big enough for washing the dust off at the end of the day, but we did not drink the water from it. A recent flood had destroyed Dona Dora's well, and the livestock had contaminated the stream's water. So every few days, a couple of crew members drove back into Neuquen to buy groceries and fill our water containers.
Cities like Neuquen, which with its suburbs has a population of several hundred thousand people, have all the conveniences of a modern city, including gas stations, Laundromats, and a supermarket that covers an entire city block. We took advantage of all these facilities —especially the shower room at one of the local hotels—and although we did not have all these comforts of home at Auca Mahuida, we were quite content and ready to begin our work.
After a good night's sleep, we awoke with great anticipation. At long last, we could begin prospecting for fossils in the ancient layers of rock that formed the gorgeous cliffs behind the puesto. Looking for fossils usually involves a lot more walking than it does digging. There are two basic kinds of fossil collecting, prospecting and quarrying. When one first begins searching for fossils in a new area, as we were, one starts by prospecting. As the name implies, this involves walking over promising-looking ridges, flats, and ravines while looking for small fragments of fossil bone that are weathering out of the rock layers on the surface of the ground. These fragments are clues that a dinosaur skeleton may be buried underneath the weathered surface of the rock. A crucial skill is to be able to distinguish between the ancient rock layers and younger layers or debris exposed on the surface. Although the ancient rocks that entomb dinosaur skeletons are often exposed in bare ridges and ravines, sometimes they are partially covered by much younger soils. So, inexperienced collectors frequently spend hours searching in these younger soils only to find the bones of a cow that died last winter—a very discouraging experience.
The color and mineral content of fossils varies from place to place, depending on the chemical reactions that occurred as the bones and teeth became petrified. When collecting in a new area, a good practice is for the first person who finds a fossil fragment to pass it around so that other collectors can begin to develop an image of what to look for. That's why we assembled the crew to examine the dinosaur eggs immediately after we first discovered them. Finding fossils requires patience and determination, and sites may yield their fossils only after having been examined two or three times.
After finding fragments of fossil bone weathering on the surface, it is critical to look for their source. Sometimes, one can follow a trail of small fragments that have washed down a hillside right up to where an entire dinosaur skeleton is buried beneath the surface. It's like a detective following drops of blood to locate a body, and this approach would lead us to some of our best finds. In other instances, whole days can be spent prospecting for fossils without ever finding one splint of bone, let alone a complete skeleton in the ground. While we prospected this first day, we were serenaded by the screeches and squawks of cliff-dwelling parrots that lived along the rocky ridges around the puesto.
If one is lucky enough to find fragments that lead to a good fossil, it must be excavated and transported to a museum for final cleaning and study. Excavating a fossil is called quarrying and means digging around a bone or skeleton that is buried near the surface of the ground and encasing it in a protective jacket of toilet tissue and plaster bandages. First, tissue is placed over the fossil bones and moistened to form a protective layer between the fossils and the plaster bandages, and then the bandages are applied. Once the bandages dry, the jacket can be lifted out of the ground and transported safely back to a museum without damaging the fossils inside. The time required to quarry out a dinosaur skeleton often depends on the hardness of the surrounding rock and the size of the specimen. During this expedition we would eventually need to both prospect and quarry.
Our first day in the field we uncovered nothing new and exciting. Luis and his crew found scraps of fossil bone: some fragments of turtle shell, small pieces of shell from a dinosaur egg, and armor plates from ancient crocodiles. Rodolfo and his team found the tail section from the skeleton of a small sauropod called a titanosaur, not a bad discovery but not significant enough for a team of collectors to spend a whole week excavating.
By looking at the clues in the rock layers, Lowell noticed a good geologic reason for why we were finding only fragments of bone. The layers of rock around the puesto were composed primarily of cemented sand, gravel, and even small boulders that had been deposited by fast-running rivers or streams on an ancient alluvial fan or wedge of debris that lay fairly close to some small mountains or hills. Alluvial fans are found at the mouth of many mountain canyons today. Lowell knew that swift, turbulent currents are required to carry such large objects and that these would destroy most skeletons of dinosaurs and other animals being carried along in the river. So, these rock layers, although beautiful, were probably not the best place to look for well-preserved fossil skeletons. Nonetheless, these layers of sand and gravel sometimes contain pockets of mudstone and siltstone, deposited by slow eddies in quiet parts of the channel, where more complete fossil skeletons can be preserved. However, from the top of outcrops near the puesto, we could see another extensive set of glowing reddish brown badlands off in the distance, and we thought that they might contain more complete fossil skeletons, if we could find a way to get to them.
On the morning of November 9, we drove off in that direction. As we bounced back toward the main road from Neuquen, we passed a gap in a small ridge, and through the gap, we caught a glimpse of the badlands we were searching for. Fortunately, a small dirt road ran through the gap, so we rumbled a mile or two down into the center of the sunlit layers of ancient rock.
We parked the vehicle by the side of the road and turned the crew loose to prospect the area for an hour or two. Most forays like this are unsuccessful because few, if any, fossils are found, so we had no great expectations. As we walked out onto the flats adjacent to the beautifully banded layers of sandstone and mudstone, we scanned the ground, searching for scraps of fossil bone. Within five minutes of leaving the vehicles, we found ourselves walking across vast fields littered with dinosaur eggs. Acres and acres of reddish brown mudstone were exposed on the flats, and every few steps, a cluster of broken eggs lay perched on the surface. There were eggs everywhere, tens of thousands of them. Although these had crumbled to pieces, the complete eggs were clearly about a half foot in diameter, and the eggshell was about one-tenth of an inch thick.
The first question, of course, was what kind of dinosaur had laid those eggs? Paleontologists had often assumed that large eggs such as these had belonged to the colossal sauropods. But we had worked in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia with a crew that had discovered a meat-eating Oviraptor embryo inside an egg that had previously been thought to belong to a plant-eating Protoceratops. That discovery had changed seventy years of accepted paleontologic wisdom and made us cautious about prematurely identifying the kind of dinosaur that had laid the eggs at our site. We did not want to misidentify the eggs and create the kind of confusion that had surrounded the eggs from the Gobi for so long.
We knew that sauropods had lived in this region of South America near the end of the Mesozoic; we had found parts of their skeletons just the day before in the outcrops of cemented sandstone and gravel near Dona Dora's puesto. For more than a century paleontologists have recognized that sauropod dinosaurs represent the largest land animals ever known. Their names roll off the tongues of children and adults alike, Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus), Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, and so on. Adult remains of these animals have been collected on numerous continents, but no skeletons of embryos inside their eggs had ever been found. In fact, some paleontologists had speculated that these gigantic dinosaurs had given birth to live young rather than having offspring that hatched from eggs. The ultimate clue needed to identify what dinosaur had laid these Patagonian eggs was still missing. We gathered excitedly to assess our initial discovery, and Luis issued his challenge for someone to find an embryo before we once again fanned out across the flats and ridges.
Fossils of embryos rank among the rarest of dinosaur remains because they represent the fragile skeletons of baby dinosaurs that have not yet hatched out of the egg. The skeleton of a growing embryo is only partially made of bone. Much of it is still composed of softer cartilage. This cartilage is rarely fossilized because it often decays along with the skin, muscles, and organs soon after the embryo dies. Consequently, such small, delicate skeletons are hardly ever preserved. They either decay or get destroyed before they become fossilized. Yet, this huge treasure of fossil eggs was also encouraging because we suspected that a few of them could easily have embryonic bones preserved inside.
A half hour later, Carl Mehling approached us excitedly. Carl was one of our designated fossil collectors from the American Museum of Natural History. A passionate collector, his enthusiasm and acute sense of humor were infectious, and he often instigated hilarious dialogues that made him the life of the party, but at this moment his face reflected a measure of ecstatic anticipation. He had found an egg with a small, rocky sheet of bumpy, mineralized material preserved inside, and he thought the texture preserved on the surface resembled dinosaur skin. At first, Luis was skeptical. The patch of textured rock was small and might just have been some unusual mineral crystals. Besides, fossils of dinosaur skin and other types of soft tissue are extremely rare, and no one had ever discovered fossils of embryonic dinosaur skin inside an egg. To make a positive identification, we would have to keep searching for more.
By the end of the day, we were exhausted but elated. We knew we had discovered a remarkable new fossil site, even though we had not found any more patches of possible skin and were not sure exactly what kind of dinosaur eggs we had found. Now, it was time to celebrate.
Next morning when we returned to the site, most of the crew continued looking for more fossils of the potential embryonic skin and some embryonic bones. Luis and a few others tried to estimate how many eggs and nests were exposed on a small portion of the flats by tying colored tape to the branches of some small bushes to mark out a trapezoid and measuring the distances between bushes using the GPS. With this information, they calculated that the two sides were about 1,000 feet long, with the top about 250 feet across and the base about 400 feet. Within that area they counted about 195 clusters of eggs. Later, we would refine the estimates, but the number of egg clusters would still be extraordinary.
The abundance of eggs triggered a lighthearted discussion among our crew members regarding what we should name our new fossil site. After brainstorming over several humorous possibilities, we all agreed on a name — Auca Mahuevo. In part, the name represented a pun on Auca Mahuida, but it also acknowledged the seemingly countless number of eggs preserved at the site. Mahuevo is kind of a Spanish contraction for mas huevos, which means "more eggs."
As part of our prospecting for eggs and embryos, we walked many miles over the flats and adjacent ridges. The layer with eggs seemed to go on forever. Many thousands of nests were spread over several square miles. But all the eggs seemed to be restricted to a single layer of rock.
Noting this relationship, Lowell began studying the rocks that contained the fossils, intent on finding clues that would shed more light on the dinosaurs that had lived at Auca Mahuevo. The beautiful reddish brown mudstones, as well as distinctive greenish sand layers that were mixed in with them, might provide important evidence to help us interpret what kind of environment the dinosaurs were living in, as well as how long ago they had lived.
Lowell's most important geological job was to start at the bottom of the sequence of rock layers and measure the thickness of each layer of sandstone and mudstone. As the measurements were taken, he drew a picture of the different rock layers in his field notebook. That depiction is called a stratigraphic section. These drawings are important for telling time back when the dinosaurs were living at the site. Based on previous work done by other scientists, Lowell knew that the rocks at Auca Mahuevo were deposited sometime during the latter stages of the Cretaceous period, between about 70 million and 90 million years ago. But his challenge was to find evidence that would specify the age more precisely within that long interval.
Meanwhile, our crew of collectors was having more success finding fossils. Two eggs of great importance were discovered, containing fragments of embryonic bones. Our ace collector of these kinds of fossils turned out to be a talented young woman, Natalia Klaiselburd, an undergraduate biology student with an interest in paleontology. She possessed the keen eyes of an eagle and excelled at finding egg fragments that contained microscopic fossils inside them. The fragments of bones found in the two eggs mentioned above were still not large enough to allow us to identify what kind of dinosaur had laid the eggs, but they indicated that if we kept looking, we might find eggs that did. We were already suspecting that the place could go "big time."
The next day was filled with exhausting work. We checked thousands of fossilized egg fragments strewn across the surface of the flats and in adjacent ravines, searching for embryonic bones. Although the vast majority contained no embryonic remains, Luis found one that contained a large patch of mineralized bumps, like the small patch Carl had found during our first day at the site. The surface of this patch was ornamented with scaly-looking bumps crossed bv a triple row of larger and more-rectangular-shaped plates. This egg left no doubt: we had discovered the first fossils of embryonic dinosaur skin ever found. Members of the crew hugged each other, sharing the thrill of exhilarating success in a moment of tremendous excitement and elation, one that Luis would remember his whole life.
We were overjoyed with our good fortune, but it still took a while for the significance of our discovery to sink in. Little is known about dinosaur embryos, and with our discovery, we had found one of the most important missing pieces of the scientific puzzle about these long-extinct animals —what they looked like when they were first born. Furthermore, the skin on the embryos that our crew had found was not preserved as an impression left by the skin in the surrounding mud, as is usually the case. Our fossils represented three-dimensional replicas of the actual skin of the embryo, the only direct evidence we have of what dinosaurs looked like on the outside.
We had been in the field only four days, yet our expedition had already been successful beyond our wildest dreams. As we drove back to camp at the end of the day, we reflected on all the work that lay ahead, especially the need to find more embryonic bones that would help us identify for sure what kind of dinosaur had laid the eggs. But that could serve as the focus for tomorrow's work; tonight we would celebrate our success with some fine Argentine wine, a tasty asado featuring beef and goat, and a lively dance party.
We resumed our search for embryos the next morning, but with a slightly different strategy. Up to this point, we had been concentrating primarily on the eggs exposed on the flats adjacent to the ridges in the badlands, but now we decided to expand our search to the badland ridges and ravines themselves. About a half mile from the flats, a couple of Rodolfo's crew members, Pablo Puerto and Sergio Saldivia, found a hillside, below a ridge, littered with eggshell fragments. Pablo is the chief preparator at the Egidio Feruglio Museum in the province of Chubut. His vivacious personality and quick sense of humor greatly enlivened the atmosphere of our camp, and his skills as a collector proved essential in helping us identify the victims of the ancient catastrophe at Auca Mahuevo. Sergio Saldivia is Rodolfo's chief preparator at the Carmen Funes Museum. Quiet by nature, his talent as an asador brought great satisfaction to our hungry field crew, and his skill as a preparator proved essential in cleaning the eggs and bones of the dinosaurs so that we could study and identify them.
Quarrying in under the surface of the reddish brown mudstone, Pablo and Sergio discovered several complete, well-preserved eggs. When they began to probe into one of the eggs, some small, thin, brown bones appeared. Our quest to find an embryo had finally been successful. The bones, rather large for embryonic bone at about three to four inches long, appeared to fit up against one another, and their shape suggested that they formed the leg of a baby dinosaur. Although we could not unequivocally identify them in the field, we were pretty sure we would be able to say which dinosaur they had come from when we got back to the museum laboratory and prepared them properly.
Lowell began to investigate where the new embryo quarry fit in the sequence of rock layers exposed along the ridges and across the flats. Assisting in this enterprise were Julia Clarke and Javier Guevara. Julia is a graduate student studying under Jacques Gauthier in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale. Jacques is a close friend and colleague whose research has greatly improved our understanding of the evolution of meat-eating dinosaurs and their evolutionary links with birds. Julia actually played a dual role in the activities of the expedition. In addition to collecting fossils, her geo logical background made her a valuable asset in helping us to unravel the environmental mysteries at the site and refine the time period during which the dinosaurs lived. Javier Guevara is an undergraduate geology student. In addition to helping us collect fossils, he also assisted in collecting and documenting the geologic data that would paint a picture of the ancient environment that the dinosaurs lived in.
Lowell's geological team faced a basic question. Was the embryo quarry located in the same rock layer that was producing eggs a half mile away at the flats, or was it contained in a different egg-producing layer? If it was in the same layer, all the eggs would have been laid at about the same time, but if it was in a different layer, the site would contain at least two nesting grounds that had been inhabited at different times. To find the clues to solve this mystery, we had to walk on the egg-producing layer all the way from the quarry back to the flats. We traced the layer that contained the eggs across the rugged ridges and ravines of the badlands back to the area around the flats where Lowell had measured the stratigraphic section. It was easy to follow the layer because of its dark reddish brown color, muddy texture, and the eggshell fragments that had weathered out on its surface. After a half hour of careful hiking, we established that the quarry was in the same layer of mudstone that had produced fossilized eggs on the flats. So it seemed as if Auca Mahuevo represented just one enormous nesting site.
The wind blew mercilessly throughout the night of November 12 and all through the next day. Patagonia was testing our mettle with a blast of nasty weather. Gusts as high as fifty miles per hour stormed across the dusty landscape, sandblasting everything in their path, including our eyes. Many of our tents were blown over or damaged, so we had to spend much of the day tending to camp.
When the weather calmed, we returned to our work. Over the next two weeks, we collected dozens more eggs, including both fragments with patches of fossilized skin from the flats and clusters containing bones of embryos from the quarry in the badlands. In several instances, collecting the clusters of eggs required the preparation of large plaster jackets to protect the eggs during the trip back to the museum. The primary responsibility for this operation fell to Pablo, Sergio, and Marilyn Fox. Marilyn is an excellent fossil preparator at Yale University for Jacques Gauthier. We had known Marilyn for many years because she had worked with us at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. On this expedition, she was our chief fossil excavator, and her immense talents as a preparator would prove critical because later she assumed the responsibility for preparing the delicate fossils preserved inside some of the eggs.
Some of the blocks of mudstone we collected contained more than twenty eggs. Before transporting them, Luis tried to put our minds at ease by assuring us that the blocks were not much larger or heavier than a typical jamon—a Spanish ham. With the protective plaster bandages that enveloped them, however, some actually assumed the proportions of a healthy sow, weighing in at several hundred pounds. As you might imagine, these turned out to be difficult to move, even with a lot of people helping to pull and lift. Furthermore, as is often the case in the field, we could not drive our truck all the way to the place where we had found the eggs. To get the heavy blocks down the hill to the truck, Luis and Rodolfo borrowed a large sheet of scrap metal from Dona Dora. After punching some holes at each corner of the sheet and attaching ropes, they had a makeshift "sled" on which we could put the blocks and slide them down the hill. In deference to Luis's original description of the blocks, this contraption was affectionately dubbed "the ham luge." To move the blocks, some crew members pulled on the ropes in front, while others steadied the block and the sled with the ropes attached to the back. It took almost all our crew members to move the blocks about fifty yards from the quarry down the hill to the trucks. Lifting them into the back of the pickup also proved challenging, but with everyone's help, we managed it.
Following the move, Lowell collected more rock samples in hopes that they might contain fossilized microscopic pollen. The shape of a pollen grain is quite specific for each species of plant, and particular assemblages of fossil pollen are often restricted to narrow intervals of geologic time. If we were fortunate enough to find fossil pollen in the rocks at the site, this would provide clues about the kinds of plants that lived on or near the floodplain where the dinosaurs had laid their eggs, as well as about the age of the eggs. However, such analyses would once again have to wait until we got the samples back to the laboratory.
We spent a few more days looking at exposures of rocks in the region around Auca Mahuida, as well as prospecting for fossils in rock layers around the city of Neuquen. The rocks throughout the area were spectacularly beautiful, although soaring vultures and condors often kept an ominous eye on our activities. During one of these prospecting side trips about twenty miles from camp, our pickup truck broke down, and the circling vultures seemed to bode ill. Fortunately, Rodolfo had come along with us in his truck, so all ten of us crammed in the cab and the back of his pickup for the rough ride back to camp. It took several days to recover the abandoned truck from the rocky ravines and get it back to Plaza Huincul, where it could be fixed, which left us short on vehicles during the final push to finish our work.
Finally, on November 27, with our contingent of vehicles back at full strength, we broke camp and began the two-day drive back to Buenos Aires. The thrill of discovery still filled our thoughts during the drive, although these thoughts were occasionally interrupted by the buzz of large black bees flying around the interior of the van. The bees belonged to Osvaldo Di Iorio. Osvaldo is an accomplished entomologist, currently working for Argentina's National Council of Science. Throughout his passionate life devoted to the study of insects, Osvaldo had amassed an enormous collection of insects from sites all over Argentina. He has accumulated more than 1 million specimens to date —a collection that rivals that of many museums. Osvaldo had exhibited a willing enthusiasm for quarrying and collecting fossils; however, he had joined us primarily to add to his collection of insects from the dry desert landscapes of this remote area of Patagonia. Accordingly, he would often momentarily suspend his work in the quarry to chase down a bug with the cyanide jar that he always carried in his pocket. Near our camp, Osvaldo had found a large log that contained dozens of holes bored by bees for their larvae. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, he had packed the log in the van to get the larvae back home for his collection. But he hadn't realized that they would hatch the next day on our way home, sending us scurrying to open the windows and shoo them out across the Pampas.
When we safely made it back to Buenos Aires, we were exhausted. All the scientific research required to figure out exactly what we had found still lay before us, and we were eager to get all our fossils back to the lab, where we could prepare the eggs and look for clues to determine what kind of dinosaur had laid them.
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