India Fieldwork Expedition 2017

In September 2017 DIG Director Dr. Greg Wilson and Wilson Lab graduate student Luke Weaver embarked on a trip to India to investigate the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event, which is famous for marking the end of the “Age of Dinosaurs” and the beginning of the “Age of Mammals.” See below for an exciting account of the trip by Luke!

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The primary research focus of the Wilson Lab is to understand how vertebrate, especially mammal, communities were affected by the K-Pg mass extinction event, which wiped out non-avian dinosaurs and set the stage for placental mammal radiation. The cause of this extinction event is often attributed solely to a bolide impact which occurred right at the K-Pg boundary, the evidence of which is seen globally as an iridium-rich impact horizon, and locally as a massive crater near the Yucatan peninsula. However, at least 1 million years before this impact event, volcanoes in western India, called the Deccan Traps, began erupting, emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Research by the Wilson Lab and by DIG Instructor Dr. Tom Tobin, conducted in northeastern Montana, has suggested that this volcanic activity in India may have destabilized Late Cretaceous ecosystems prior to the K-Pg boundary and left them vulnerable to a large environmental perturbation, such as a bolide impact.

In order to further test this hypothesis, Dr. Greg Wilson and colleagues have been exploring the fossil-rich, “Intertrappean beds” of western and central India, which were deposited between Deccan Traps eruptions. These beds span the K-Pg boundary and preserve an assortment of vertebrate microfossils, such as frogs, fish, dinosaurs, and mammals which lived at “ground-zero” for Deccan Traps eruptions. Through collaborations with other paleontologists, geologists, and geochemists, research on the intertrappean beds of India will allow us to compare and contrast environmental and biological change across the K-Pg boundary in India to that of eastern Montana, with the goal of getting a more global picture of the drivers and consequences of the K-Pg mass extinction.

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Greg and I traveled to India in mid-September on a reconnaissance mission. Our goal was to visit the fossil collections at the Geological Survey of India (GSI) – Southern Region, and to conduct fieldwork near the villages of Naskal and Rangapur in central India. Our work at the GSI was a huge success, as we were able to study a diverse array of mammal fossils, including bizarre rodent-like mammals called gondwanatherians, which are now extinct. From there it was on to fieldwork. In total, we visited three sites and collected over 1,000 lbs of sediment, which we will ship back to the U.S. to sieve in screen boxes with water and to pick out the tiny fossils under a microscope. Although this process is long and arduous, it allows us to find very small and rare fossils that we could never detect by simply looking at the surface of a rock outcrop. Although these microfossil assemblages mostly consist of isolated teeth and vertebrae, they allow us to get a more complete picture of the vertebrate ecosystem, compared to what we can learn from just a single, nicely preserved individual skeleton.

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In addition to sediment collection, Greg and I worked with geologist Dr. Dhananjay Mohabey and fossil pollen expert Dr. Bandana Samant, both from Nagpur University, to begin to reconstruct the environments in which these microfossils accumulated. Dhananjay also took a variety of paleomagnetism samples, which will allow us to better constrain our fossil localities in time. In total, it was a whirlwind trip that only lasted about 10 days, but the work we completed has now set the stage for Greg to return in January and pick up where we left off.

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Funny story: While we were working the Naskal site, we heard some commotion from down the path. The noise continued to grow until suddenly, from around the bend, emerged a whole herd of cattle being driven straight through our fossil locality! The cattle driver, apparently ambivalent to our presence, pushed the cattle forward as we scurried out of the way. Some of the locals who were helping us began yelling at the man and telling him to not let the cows trample over our site, where we had all of our gear and bags of sediment sitting. At the last minute, the man jumped into action and forced the cattle up the hillside, avoiding our fossil site, leaving the rest of us to gawk at the stream of cattle that continued to emerge from around the bend.

News and events

It’s a busy time of the year for the paleo community! Last week Seattle hosted the Geological Society of America (GSA) Annual Meeting from October 22–25, and 12 current and former members of the DIG team presented at the meeting: DIG Director Greg Wilson, Assistant Director Brody Hovatter, Stephanie Smith, Luke Weaver, Paige Wilson, Tom Tobin, Isabel Fendley, Meng Chen, Jonathan Calede, Courtney Sprain, Natalie Toews, and Amanda Peng. The GSA is a global professional society for geologists and paleontologists, and the event played host to 7,100 attendees from 54 different countries. Additionally, University of Washington Professor Dr. Caroline Stromberg was awarded the Schuchert Award from the Paleontological Society, which is presented to a person early in his or her career whose work reflects excellence and promise in the science of paleontology. Congratulations Caroline!

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Like the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) annual meeting, the GSA meeting provides a chance for professional and non-professional geoscience enthusiasts to learn about current research in a number of different subdisciplines, meet and network with geoscience researchers and educators, and connect with old friends and colleagues. Additionally, these societies are a great way to help build your content knowledge in a number of different scientific disciplines (especially if you’re a STEM teacher!). Interested in learning more about these societies? Visit GSA’s website here and SVP’s website here.

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In other paleo news, a number of interesting scientific articles have been released lately, including an interesting new take on the factors that led to the extinction of non-avian dinosaursmammalian ecological diversity across the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary (authored by DIG founders Greg Wilson and Lauren DeBey!), and an interesting piece on Dr. Mary Schweitzer’s hunt for ancient dinosaur moleculesClick on the links above to read more about some of the latest research in paleontology.

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Bring the DIG experience to your class

One of the primary goals of the DIG is to connect students and teachers with real scientists. To accomplish that goal, members of our team visit the classrooms of DIG participants in the greater Seattle area, where they teach students about paleontology, lead hands-on fossil activities, and discuss careers in science. We also hold Skype sessions with classrooms that are outside of Washington.

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So far these classroom visitations have been extremely rewarding for us, and feedback from the teachers has been great. Witnessing the excitement of a student touching a real fossil is an experience that’s hard to beat. We hope that this type of experience is something that sticks with them, and helps demonstrate that scientists are not just old curmudgeons in lab coats hiding inside laboratories. Moreover, these visits help increase engagement with and understanding of scientific concepts among both students and teachers, which in turn leads to increased preparedness for tackling the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

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In addition to visiting classrooms, we give behind-the-scene tours of our research lab and the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. During these tours students get to interact with university and museum scientists and with fossils not accessible to the general public. These museum and lab tours have been equally as impactful as the classroom visits, and with the building of the new Burke—as well as some exciting fossil discoveries like the Tufts-Love T. rex—we hope to continue to expand the number of classrooms we interact with.WOLKEN-4898 copy

Teachers who have been through the DIG program can request a classroom visit or tour of the museum by emailing us at admin@digfieldschool.org. Be sure to sign up soon!

 

Join us at the Burke!

We’re continuing our monthly Sunday fossil parties at the Burke, and would love for you to be there! Please see below for the complete list of dates. During these events participants sort through microfossils, help piece together macrofossils, and take part in a number of other paleo activities. We’re excited to announce that we’ll be co-hosting these events with the Northwest Paleontological Association (NPA), which is a Seattle-based organization for professional and amateur paleontologists of all ages. You can read more about the NPA by visiting their website here.

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New for this year: we will have an invited speaker for many (hopefully all) of the events! Stay tuned for a list of the presenters coming soon. These events are a great way to connect with members of the DIG and other fossil enthusiasts, learn more about paleontology, and get your hands dirty! Moreover, these events can help STEM teachers build their scientific knowledge through direct interaction with authentic data and scientists. Please RSPV to admin@digfieldschool.org, or send us an email if you have any questions.

Event Details:
Where: The Burke Room at the Burke Museum in Seattle, WA
When: 11a–2p on select Sundays:

  • November 19th
  • December 3rd
  • January 21st
  • February 11th
  • March 18th
  • May 6th
  • June 3rd

Directions: The Burke Museum is located at the corner of 17th Ave NE and NE 45th St, on the north end of the University of Washington campus. The Burke Room is located on the second floor of the museum, directly to the left as you enter the main entrance.

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