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Field Notes
Morell
Photograph by Saadia Iqbal
Virginia Morell

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

At one of the fossil sites in China, researchers discovered an almost complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur, one of the largest of the ancient marine reptiles. The scientists told me that these animals gave birth to live young, which makes sense for whale-size creatures. But I was still stunned to see the smaller skeleton of a baby ichthyosaur lying beneath the rib cage of its mother. She had died before giving birth, and her baby had died with her. There was something poignantly beautiful about the two skeletons lying together on this Chinese hillside. We so often think that only mammals give birth this way or have special connections with their offspring. But those same feelings may have existed 200 million years ago when reptiles ruled the seas.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

While traveling with the Chinese scientists, we discussed how the popularity of dinosaur and marine reptile fossils has led to a huge market. We heard numerous stories about fossils—in some cases entire skeletons and new species not yet described by scientists—that had been sold illegally. The researchers were doing their best to educate government officials in Guizhou Province about the need to crack down on this kind of commercialization. But when we saw the poverty of the farmers, who are the ones who most often find and excavate the fossils, we realized just how difficult this problem is. The sale of a fossil could very well mean money for a year for a farmer's family. How do you balance the needs of science against those of these farmers? There's no easy answer.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

Near the shores of Loch Ness, I visited an exhibit that explained the various things that people actually see when they think they're seeing a plesiosaur surface in the loch. I'd already seen photographs that effectively debunked one of the most famous images of Nessie, simply a trick photo of a small periscope attached to a float. The exhibit opened with a film that seemed to show something exactly like this—something periscope-like—rising above the surface of the loch for a few brief seconds. We viewers were then instructed to identify what we'd seen: a plesiosaur, a fence post, a forked stick, or a periscope. Feeling very smart, I said it was certainly the periscope. In fact, it was a fence post, a perfect demonstration, as it turned out, of the exhibit's key point: Your mind is programmed to see what you want to see. That holds true, too, for most eyewitness accounts of many other things.