Upcoming DIG and Burke Museum events

Are you or someone you know looking for ways to get involved and learn more about paleontology? There are a number of exciting events coming up in the next few months! Read on for more information.

Upcoming talk: Investigating the extinction of dinosaurs and rise of mammals in northeastern Montana
Date: March 13, 2018
Time: 7 PM

DIG Assistant Director Brody Hovatter will be giving a talk on the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event, the DIG Field School, and citizen science at the Marysville Rock & Gem Club on Tuesday, March 13. We hope to see you there!

T. rex LIVE
Date: Now through June 10, 2018
Time: Normal Burke Museum hours

Burke Museum paleontologists are working hard on preparing the Tufts-Love Rex, which was excavated in northeastern Montana over the last two years with the help of DIG Field School participants. This is a truly remarkable specimen and a must-see for anyone event remotely interested in fossils. More of the exquisitely preserved skull is uncovered every day in the T. rex LIVE exhibit. Make sure to visit before it closes on June 10!

Fossil Fridays
Dates: March 23, April 27, May 25, 2018
Time: 12–4 PM

On the fourth Friday of each month (through May) museum visitors can tour the Burke’s Testing, Testing: 123 fossil prep lab, and view specimens like the Tufts-Love rex up close and personal. This is an opportunity you truly do not want to miss. Read more about Fossil Fridays here.

I Dig Dinos
Dates: March 25, April 29, May 27, June 24
Time: 11 AM–2 PM

Do you know an aspiring paleontologist looking to interact with dinosaurs and other fossils? Bring them to one of the Burke’s I Dig Dinos events, which occur on select Sundays and feature real fossils, dig pits, and dino dress-up stations. Read here to learn more about these events.

Members’ Behind-the-Scenes Night
Date: April 4, 2018
Time: 5–8 PM

Burke Museum members have the opportunity to take a up close and personal tour of the Burke’s collections, and learn more about how museum scientists and staff will be transferring millions of specimens to the New Burke. This could be your last chance to view the old museum’s collections space, and your first chance to get a sneak peak of the new building! Read more about the event here.

Photo credits: Burke Museum

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Ethiopia Fieldwork Expedition 2018

In February 2018 DIG Director Dr. Greg Wilson and Wilson Lab graduate student Alex Brannick journeyed to Ethiopia to partake in a geological and paleontological reconnaissance mission. See below for an exciting account of the trip by Alex!

Above: view from a backroad in northeastern Ethiopia

Although 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, Dr. Greg Wilson is also involved in research centered around understanding non-marine ecosystems of the early Mesozoic around the world. Greg has been a part of the Blue Nile Project—a project focused on the geology and vertebrate Mesozoic faunas of Ethiopia—since 2008 in collaboration with Dr. Mark Goodwin (University of California Museum of Paleontology), Dr. Randy Irmis (Natural History Museum of Utah and University of Utah), Dr. Balemwal Atnafu (Addis Ababa University), Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam (Oklahoma State University), and Mr. Tadesse Berhanu (Addis Ababa University and Oklahoma State University).

Above: camels meandering around the field area

The Mesozoic (ca. 252–66 million years ago [Ma]) non-marine vertebrate fossil record of Africa is critical to our understanding of how terrestrial ecosystems responded to the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea. This interval also coincides with the early diversification of many important vertebrate clades, including mammals, dinosaurs, lissamphibians, and squamates. Although the evolution of these clades occurred on a global scale, the fossil record in Africa and in most of what are now the southern continents (Gondwana) is not well known in comparison to the fossil record of what are now known as the northern continents (Laurasia). Questions regarding African endemism of vertebrate clades, dispersal routes, and biotic interchange between Gondwana and Laurasia thus remain open due to the lack of knowledge surrounding the Gondwanan fossil record.

Africa’s Mesozoic fossil record, in particular, is understudied, undersampled, and spotty. Much of our current knowledge of the Mesozoic fossil record of Africa is from the southern part of the continent, including Tanzania, Morocco, and South Africa. The goal of the Blue Nile Project is to broaden that geographic sampling and improve our knowledge of the Mesozoic fossil record in Africa by sampling fossiliferous sediments in Ethiopia.

Above: the crew meeting with local geologists

In mid-February, Greg and I traveled to Ethiopia to meet up with Mark, Randy, and Tadesse and execute paleontological reconnaissance. The team stayed in the city of Mekele (in the northern province of Tigray), and from there we traveled each day out of the city to explore the Jurassic sediments of the Agula Formation. For the first day of fieldwork, we re-visited an area where the other team members had found fossils during a past visit (this was my first time to Ethiopia!). A few fish scales and other small bone fragments were located and noted. Unfortunately, I was sick for the second day of fieldwork and not able to participate, but the other team members traveled to another location with Agula exposures. No fossils were found, but they were able to take stratigraphic sections and study the geology of the area.

Above: Greg and Randy surveying the area with the help of some locals

On the third day, we again traveled to a different area with Agula outcrops and found ourselves near a local village. For most of the day, everyone split up and prospected. Tadesse focused on the geology and was able to get a great idea of what the area was like—he found a sill (igneous rock intrusion) that was ~300 meters thick! Greg discovered a fish jaw and some other fish scales. Randy and Tadesse were also able to take rock samples for future palynology studies.

Towards the end of the day, I was looking for microfossils in one of the gullies and spotted some white rock encased in the stream bed. Upon closer inspection, the white rock seemed to have the shape of what looked like a rib. I noticed more white rock in the area, and thought it could have been bone. There was a large broad piece, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up (being that the team hadn’t found much in the area), and thought it could have just been some weird rock. I took some notes and left the site. In the next gully, I wound up meeting up with the other team members and shared some pictures that I had taken. Greg thought it was worth checking out, so I led him over to the site. He inspected the possible bones and got on his radio—“Hey Mark, Randy, and Tadesse. You all should come over and check this out. They are some bones over here that are clearly dinosaur.” Yes! Dinosaur bones! It was exciting to hear that I didn’t find some weird rock (albeit cool), and that it was actually a fossil. The other team members then came over and checked the site out. A burst of excitement and energy that ran through the team, and we decided to focus our efforts on quarrying, jacketing, and getting this dinosaur out of the rock and back to Addis Ababa.

Above: close-up view of the exposed dinosaur rib

The rest of our time in Mekele was spent quarrying and figuring out the logistics of getting the dinosaur bones out. Many of the kids of the nearby village stayed at the site with us each day and watched us work—they were curious about what we were doing and why we insisted on digging in this one particular spot. It was fun to get to know them! After further excavation, the team thought we had uncovered ribs and possibly elements of the pelvis of a Jurassic sauropod (long-necked dinosaur)! This specimen marks the first in-situ dinosaur bones found in Ethiopia!

Above: Alex poses with her sauropod discovery

Above: Greg, Randy, and Mark discussing how to excavate the site

Unfortunately, we hit some road blocks with the local governing authorities, and had to spend half of our time making sure we went through the proper avenues to obtain the proper permission to quarry the site. Because of this, and because the rock in which the fossil was encased was extremely hard and difficult to quarry without heavy equipment, we were not able to complete our excavation. We were able to put a plaster jacket on the exposed bones and buried the site for protection. Greg, Mark, and Randy plan to apply for further grant support to return to the site and finish the excavation of the sauropod bones.

Overall, it was an amazing trip with even better fossil finds!

Above: the crew celebrates post-fieldwork

Photo credits: Alex Brannick and Greg Wilson


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Citizen science and the DIG Field School

As many of our friends and colleagues know, one of the primary research endeavors of the Wilson Lab is the Hell Creek Project, which is focused on understanding the biotic and abiotic patterns and processes surrounding the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event. An important aspect of this project is that it relies on mass quantities of vertebrate microfossils—mammal teeth, salamander vertebrae, and lizard jaws, just to name a few. These specimens are primarily obtained by sorting through bulk samples of sediment collected from fossil sites in our study area in northeastern Montana. Our lab currently has over 5,500 kg of unsorted sediment, and we collect more every year.

Above: students hunt for Hell Creek Project fossils in class

One of the primary ways we connect with teachers and students is by sending them samples of sediment from our lab. Teachers who have been through the DIG program can request sediment samples at any point in the school year; students then sort out microfossils from these samples and assign preliminary identifications. The student-collected specimens are then mailed back to our research team, where they become bona fide data points in the Hell Creek project. Not only do these students get an authentic, hands-on learning experience, they directly contribute to our understanding of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and rise of mammals.

Above: students point to a collection of fossils they identified

Although it’s barely March, the DIG has experienced a record-breaking year for student-based citizen science. To date, over 50 classrooms from 10 states have sorted through more than 50 kg of sediment and collected over 300 vertebrate microfossils. Stay tuned for updates on these numbers at the end of the year!

Above: students examine sediment for vertebrate microfossils

In addition to involving classrooms in our research, we host monthly fossil sorting parties at the Burke Museum. Click here to read more about these events and get a complete list of the dates!


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2018 DIG Field School Dates and Application

Apply to the 2018 DIG

We’re excited to announce the 2018 DIG Field School dates! This year’s DIG will take place July 19–23 at the Hell Creek State Park near Jordan, Montana.

Interested teachers can fill out an application on our website. The application will remain open until March 30 at 11:59 pm PST.

Please share this post with anyone who may be interested in the program, and be sure to check out our blog, Facebook, and Twitter for additional updates!

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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!

India Trip 2017

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.

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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!


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.




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!


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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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