DinoByte Wednesday: Update from the Field Part II – Dinosaurs!

After returning from the field and getting some much needed rest we are eager to share more about what we do in Montana. While the Wilson lab is primarily focused on the ‘microvertebrate‘ animals that lived alongside the dinosaurs (and survived the K/Pg mass extinction), we aren’t only here for the small things – we’re digging for dinosaurs too! This week we’ll share how those dinos you see in a museum got there.

Step 1: Prospecting

To collect a dinosaur, you must first find a dinosaur! We use a combination of maps and old field notes on exposed rock formations to pick where we will ‘prospect,’ or look for specimens, and we are always respectful of land ownership and carry appropriate permits. Ultimately, it’s about eyes on the outcrop and boots on the ground to locate a dinosaur skeleton, and much of our time this summer has been spent hiking the hills.

Finding a dinosaur is always exciting, but not all skeletons are created equal in the eyes of scientists and preparators. We are fortunate to find pieces of dinosaurs all over the badlands, in fact, Triceratops bones are so abundant that they are almost a dime a dozen. These are the “cows of the Mesozoic” and you wouldn’t want to collect every piece of cow you found, would you? So then what makes a fossil worthy of excavation? We are of course looking for really beautiful Triceratops specimens, but we are also focused on a few other species of herbivorous dinosaurs like the duck-billed hadrosaurs and dome-headed pachycephalosaurs, and we’d love to find a skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur (think T. rex!). Nicely preserved specimens get our attention, as do any specimens where it appears there are multiple bones or a skull preserved. It’s a lot of work to excavate a dinosaur, and with so much out there and so little time during the summer, we have to be picky.

In fact, we often walk past dinosaur skeletons without collecting them. Why? Because by the time we find them, they have turned from potentially lovely, museum-quality specimens, into what we affectionately call “Explodo-saurus.” We find many Explodo-saurus skeletons in the field (and DIG teachers will too!), and that makes the excellent specimens all the more valuable to collect.

Undergraduate student and Hell Creek III Project volunteer, Corinna (top), poses next to a classic “Explodo-saurus”. The water bottle shows the scale of some pieces of the scattered and fragmented fossil (bottom). Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
Undergraduate student and Hell Creek III Project volunteer, Corinna (left), poses next to a classic “Explodo-saurus”. The water bottle shows the scale of some pieces of the scattered and fragmented fossil (right). Photo credits: Lauren DeBey.

Step 2: Excavation and Data Collection

Once an excavation-worthy specimen has been located, it’s time to begin! One of the most important things to remember when excavating a dinosaur is that you don’t get a second chance to collect data, so we make a conscious effort to collect data early and often. Depending on how the animal is preserved in the rock, we may be able to infer the environment where it lived and died, how its skeleton ended up there, and maybe even how it died. These pieces of information make skeletons infinitely more valuable to scientists studying their ecology. We make quarry maps that put all the bones on a grid, collect latitude, longitude, and elevation data, describe the rock in which the specimens are found, and take tons of photos. You never know what data could be critical to another scientist in 10+ years.

For the actual excavation, we use different tools based on the ‘matrix,’ or the rocks surrounding the fossil. Some siltstones and claystones will crack away from the bone so easily that you can simply use an awl to uncover the specimen, while some sandstones can be so hard you need a jackhammer – we see specimens like these and everything in between! We generally bring a variety of tools to a quarry: awls, chisels, rock hammers, whisk brooms, soft brushes, foil, paper towel, and vinac (polyvinyl acetate, or plastic beads dissolved in alcohol.) Vinac is used as a consolidant or glue in the field because it’s reversible (adding more alcohol dissolves the plastic again), and can be mixed in different viscosities to meet your gluing needs, spanning from a thin veneer to coat freshly-uncovered bone, to re-attaching broken pieces.

To free up loose rock, we alternate between chisel and awl, then sweep away the debris with brushes. It’s critical to be able to see where you are working and to recognize bone that has just been uncovered (which looks a lot like rock). “A clean quarry is a happy quarry!” When working in a quarry where fossil bone looks just like rock, we gently tap on rocks with our awl, since rock and bone sound slightly different!

Graduate student, Dave DeMar (top) collects high-precision GPS data on a freshly excavated dinosaur rib bone (red/orange curved item at the right). Bones marked for quarry mapping with green flagging tape (bottom), with a grid of string that helps make mapping on paper easier and more accurate. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
Graduate student, Dave DeMar (left) collects high-precision GPS data on a freshly excavated dinosaur rib bone (red/orange curved item at the right). Bones marked for quarry mapping with green flagging tape (right), with a grid of string that helps make mapping on paper easier and more accurate. Photo credits: Lauren DeBey (left) and Dave DeMar (right).

Step 3: Protect and Preserve the Fossil

Field excavations are necessary to free fossils from the ground, but the curation and preparation of fossils really happens back in the lab where professional preparators have access to optimal tools and adequate light. In the field, we are trying to determine the size and extent of the elements (bones), and then quickly cover them with protective materials for a safe trip back to the lab.

After exposing the element, and ‘opening up the quarry’ to determine its size and extent, we leave a few inches of rock around each edge and begin to dig down to form a pedestal or platform. Then we cover the surface with strips of burlap dipped in plaster of paris to make a cast for the fossils, similar to what a doctor does for a broken arm or leg. This ‘top jacket’ protects the surface of the bone and rock as we dig deeper and can also be left as a ‘winter jacket’ if we can’t finish the excavation in a single summer.

 DIG Assistant Director Lauren DeBey teaches undergraduate students to “top jacket” a fossil using plaster coated burlap strips.
DIG Assistant Director Lauren DeBey teaches undergraduate students to “top jacket” a fossil using plaster coated burlap strips. Photo credit: Scott Johnston.

If we do plan to take the fossil out, we continue to pedestal until we have a tall platform and it would be easy and safe to flip the jacket and fossil inside without losing any material. This step in the process is the most nerve-wracking – you’ve been cautiously excavating a tiny bit of rock at a time up to this point and now you will risk everything you’ve been working on to quickly flip hundreds of pounds of rock upside-down! If you’ve done everything right, the jacket will safely flip and you can plaster the now exposed underside of the fossil cradle.

Once the fossil is properly top jacketed and pedestaled (middle left), it is ready to be flipped (middle right) and the underside of the fossil is exposed for bottom jacketing. After fossils are fully jacketed (bottom) they can be transported back to a museum where optimal tools and light make preparation easier and safer for the fossil. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
Once the fossil is properly top jacketed and pedestaled (top left), it is ready to be flipped (top right) and the underside of the fossil is exposed for bottom jacketing. After fossils are fully jacketed (bottom) they can be transported back to a museum where optimal tools and light make preparation easier and safer for the fossil. Photo credits: Tammy Vander Lugt and Jody Hickey (top left and right), and Dave DeMar (bottom).

Step 4: Pack it out!

Before you can celebrate a successful excavation, you have to get the fossil in its jacket to the vehicle. We are diligent about strong jackets to protect the fossil in transit, but it’s important to remember that rocks are heavy, and rocks coated with plaster of paris are even heavier! Sometimes a Triceratops rib that is a few feet long but only a few inches thick will end up being hundreds of pounds to carry in its jacket. It is not until fossils are safely in the museum that an excavator breathes a sigh of relief.

DIG 2013 participant, Jody Hickey, happily carries a jacketed dinosaur fossil on her back (left). Some fossils are much too heavy to be carried by one person once they have been jacketed, like this Triceratops femur excavated by 2012-2013 DIG participants (right). This specimen required a herculean effort to carry back to the car last summer! Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
DIG 2013 participant, Jody Hickey, happily carries a jacketed dinosaur fossil on her back (left). Some fossils are much too heavy to be carried by one person once they have been jacketed, like this Triceratops femur excavated by 2012-2013 DIG participants (right). This specimen required a herculean effort to carry back to the car last summer! Photo credits: Tammy Vander Lugt.

Remember all the steps that go into a fossil you see at a museum, and try to imagine yourself excavating, recording data, jacketing, and packing out fossils. There is a LOT of effort that goes into every single specimen in collections or on display, but beautiful specimens are more than worth the effort.

If you want to learn more about this process, visit the Burke Museum of Natural History website or the Burke Blog to learn about the excavation and preservation of the mammoth tusk found at a residential development site in Seattle this spring!

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DinoByte Wednesday: Busy Times and Exciting Finds

Things are extremely busy around here as we wrap-up a productive few weeks in the field with some amazing undergraduates and the Hell Creek III Research Team! Since our field update last week, we’ve posted some photos and highlights from our time in Montana on our Facebook page. Once we are back in Seattle we’ll have a full update about our latest activities and finds from the Hell Creek. In the meantime, check out this previous blog post to learn about some of the birds we encounter in Montana.

Undergraduates take a quick nap break after a long day of hard work in the field. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
Undergraduates take a quick nap break after a long day of hard work in the field. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
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DinoByte Wednesday: Field Update Part I – Collecting Microvertebrate Fossils

We are now one week into fieldwork with undergraduates and the Hell Creek III Research Project. Our camp is pretty large, with 24 people total from UW, UC Berkeley, Montana State and the Museum of the Rockies, undergraduate students (from University of Oregon, University of Michigan, Smith College, and Western Washington University), and many volunteers! Meals are hectic, evening campfires are entertaining, and the fossil-finding thus far is very successful – we’ve found a half dozen dinosaur localities and over one dozen mammal teeth.

You might be wondering what we do all day in the field, if so, read on! In this first field update, we’ll talk about the process of collecting microvertebrates in the field.

Collecting Microvertebrates

Step 1: Surface collecting for microvertebrates

Microvertebrates are small! So small, that to find the really tiny elements (like mammal teeth), we wear knee pads and “cheaters” (magnifying lenses attached to a visor). When we find a fossil, we use an awl to free it from the surrounding sediment, and we put it in a film canister for safe keeping.

Tools used to collect surface microfossils include ‘cheaters’ (magnifying lenses), awls, film canisters, and knee pads (left). Students are crawling on their hands and knees (good thing they have knee pads!) wearing their magnifying ‘cheaters’ to find fossils they can free with their awl and place in a film cannister for safe keeping (right). Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
Tools used to collect surface microfossils include ‘cheaters’ (magnifying lenses), awls, film canisters, and knee pads (left). Students are crawling on their hands and knees (good thing they have knee pads!) wearing their magnifying ‘cheaters’ to find fossils they can free with their awl and place in a film canister for safe keeping (right). Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

Step 2: Find the ‘productive layer’ and collect fossiliferous sediment

After we’ve scoured the outcrop for all the surface fossils we can find, we want to identify exactly where the fossils are coming from in the hill. We trace the surface material to its highest point, and at that level we dig into the hillside and crack open rocks until we find a fossil ‘in situ’ or encased in fresh rock. If we find something, we’ve hit on the ‘productive layer’ and it’s time to collect bags of sediment!

To collect sediment we use geopicks and rock hammers to free in situ rock from the deposit, and a shovel and bag to collect the fossiliferous sediment. Then we pack the material out in frame packs, and we return to camp victorious!

Geopicks, rock hammers, frame packs, and notebooks (left) are important tools for collecting fossiliferous sediment. DIG Assistant Director, Lauren DeBey, excavates rock from the productive layer using a geopick (center). Students sit on the outcrop and break apart rocks from the productive layer searching for encased in situ fossils (right). Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
Geopicks, rock hammers, frame packs, and notebooks (left) are important tools for collecting fossiliferous sediment. DIG Assistant Director, Lauren DeBey, excavates rock from the productive layer using a geopick (center). Students sit on the outcrop and break apart rocks from the productive layer searching for encased in situ fossils (right). Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

Step 3: Describe the lithology

Identifying rock types and inferring depositional environment remains a big part of what we do during our paleontology fieldwork. Each time we find a productive layer, we describe its rock type and contents in our field notes. Now, after decades of fieldwork, we have a sense for the rock layers most likely to produce fossiliferous material. We’re most often looking for sediments that represent the base of stream channels, because it’s here that materials were dropped from the moving water and fossils, mud balls (‘mud rip-up clasts’), rocks, lignite, and organic material (wood, plants) were deposited. This often produces a ‘dirty’ fossiliferous productive layer, and hopefully it’s highly concentrated with fossils! But we won’t know for sure until we get back to camp.

The geopick marks a rock unit we hope is the productive layer of sediment producing fossils (top). This ‘junky’ layer (bottom) contains black lignite (coal), wood debris, mud balls, and hopefully it is also full of fossils! Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
The geopick marks a rock unit we hope is the productive layer of sediment producing fossils (top). This ‘junky’ layer (bottom) contains black lignite (coal), wood debris, mud balls, and hopefully it is also full of fossils! Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

Step 4: Screenwash collected sediment

We return to camp with bags of sediment, and to reduce the total weight we bring back to Seattle, we first screenwash collected material in the lake. Each day we put our collected sediment into wooden boxes with window screen on the bottom and let these soak overnight in the Fort Peck Reservoir. The gentle wave motion of the lake breaks up hard rocks, and the smaller particles of sand, silt, and clay will fall through the window screen, leaving the larger items (including fossils and larger rock particles) in the boxes. We pull boxes from the water each morning and let them dry during the hot Montana days, bag the sediment each night, and repeat the process with the next material collected.

Students place wooden boxes full of collected sediment into the Fort Peck Reservoir to allow the natural movement of the water to screenwash the sediment (top). The next day the boxes are placed in the sun to dry (middle), and fossils and larger rocks remain trapped in the screen box (bottom). Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
Students place wooden boxes full of collected sediment into the Fort Peck Reservoir to allow the natural movement of the water to screenwash the sediment (top). The next day the boxes are placed in the sun to dry (middle), and fossils and larger rocks remain trapped in the screen box (bottom). Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

At the end of this microvertebrate collection process we have a diversity of fossils from different animal groups including mammals, dinosaurs, reptiles, amphibians, and fish! These freshly collected fossils help us reconstruct the paleoenvironment pre- and post- K/Pg extinction.

Want more from the field? Check back for next week’s update and follow our Facebook page to see more photos!

 

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DinoByte Wednesday: Who Owns the Fossils?

So you’ve managed to stumble upon a fossil, either intentionally or unintentionally. As an amateur paleontologist you are thrilled with your discovery, but now what? Do you own all rights to this fossil? Well, the short answer is no.

DIG Field School participant holds microfossil found in the Hell Creek. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
DIG Field School participant holds a Triceratops tooth microfossil found in the Hell Creek. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

Fossil ownership primarily depends on whether it was found on private or public land. Let’s use the state of Montana, the site of the DIG Field School as an example. In Montana, every piece of land is owned by someone. This could mean an individual land owner, a nature preserve, the residents of the state of Montana, or even all the people of the United States. For this reason, it is imperative to get permission to search for fossils. During the DIG Field School, we dig on private land at the generosity of the landowners, on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge local nature preserve, on state land run by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. As you can see, there is a diversity of landownership where fossils are collected during the DIG. If you decide to further explore Montana or return later and dig on your own, it is wise to check with local authorities, museums, collectors, and a map to know exactly who owns the land you want to explore.

DIG Executive Director Greg Wilson shows undergraduate students land ownership, latitude, and longitude for sites of the DIG Field School in the Hell Creek. Green on the map indicates the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, blue is state land, and yellow is federal land. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.
DIG Executive Director Greg Wilson shows undergraduate students latitude, longitude, and land ownership for field sites in the Hell Creek. Montana is a patchwork quilt of landownership: green on the map indicates the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, blue is state land, and yellow is federal land; each little square is 1 sq mile. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

DIG Field School Executive Director, Greg Wilson, obtains permits and/or permission through the Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle to dig so if you’re out collecting with us, we’ve got you covered. Many of the fossils we find in Montana are collected on either state-owned or federally-owned public lands. Specimens collected in Montana must be stored in Montana’s official state repository, the Museum of the Rockies. The Museum of the Rockies loans many of the fossils we find to the Burke Museum of Natural History so we can continue our research once we return to Seattle. Collecting from state and national parks remains prohibited.

Students touring the Burke Museum of Natural History examine the mammoth tusk found at a construction site in Seattle. Photo credit: Burke Museum of Natural History.
Children on the DIG behind-the-scenes tour of the Burke Museum of Natural History examine the mammoth tusk found at a construction site in South Lake Union Seattle this spring. Photo credit: Lauren DeBey.

If a fossil is collected on private land, it belongs to the landowner and they reserve the right to keep anything found on their property. Earlier this year, a fossilized mammoth tusk was found underneath a construction site in Seattle. This discovery was made on private land, and suddenly the residential developer who owned the land also owned a mammoth-sized tusk! Luckily, the company donated the tusk to the Burke Museum of Natural History, and skilled paleontologists excavated the material in a quick three days to best preserve the tusk before construction resumed. Based on pollen, soil, and the context of the find, the nearly 9 foot long mammoth tusk is estimate to be between 16,000 and 60,000 years old! Now safe in the Burke Museum, it is currently encased in plaster to facilitate drying and preserve the tusk. In a year, it will be opened again and further studied. Such a find gives paleontologists important information about the paleoenvironment during that time.

Members of the Burke Museum of Natural History team, prepare to lift the plaster encased mammoth tusk found at a construction site onto a palette for transport to the Burke Museum. From left to right, Vertebrate Paleontology Curator Christian Sidor, Dave DeMar, Bruce Crowley, and Burke Volunteer Bax Barton. Photo credit: Burke Museum of Natural History.
Members of the Burke Museum of Natural History team prepare to lift the plaster encased mammoth tusk found at a construction site in Seattle onto a palette for transport to the Burke Museum. From left to right, Burke Vertebrate Paleontology Curator Christian Sidor, UW Graduate Student Dave DeMar, Burke Preparator Bruce Crowley, and Burke Volunteer Bax Barton. Photo credit: Burke Museum of Natural History (view more pictures).

Watch the CNN story about the discovery here.

Next week, we’ll get an update from the field where the DIG Team is currently leading a UW undergraduate course, Paleontology Field Methods and Research!

 

 

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DinoByte Wednesday: Meet the DIG Field School Co-Founders

 

Dr. Greg Wilson
DIG Executive Director Dr. Greg Wilson

Dr. Greg Wilson received his PhD in Integrative Biology from the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. He previously held curatorial and research appointments at Denver Museum of Nature and Science before joining the Department of Biology at the University of Washington as an Assistant Professor in 2007. This past September Greg received a promotion to Associate Professor at UW. Greg also has an adjunct position in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences and serves as Adjunct Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History in Washington. Over the past 17 years, Greg has led, co-led or participated in paleontological and geological field research in Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic deposits all over the world including Ethiopia, Niger, India, Colombia, Mexico, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, California, Texas, and Montana. Greg’s research lab at UW focuses on the evolution and ecology of early mammals in the context of major events in earth history through fieldwork, systematics, and quantitative functional analysis of modern and extinct species. The rigorous, creative, multidisciplinary, and immersive nature of the scientific process got Greg hooked on science, but he identified a deficiency in translating this to the classroom. In 2009, Greg founded the DIG Field School after realizing that paleontological and geological field research conducted in Hell Creek was tailor-made to teach the scientific process.  Greg aspired to connect teachers and their classrooms with real and engaging science by giving them the DIG experience.  He serves as Executive Director of the DIG Field School which continues to grow each year.

Watch below as Greg discusses his research program and love for field work and paleontological discoveries:

Lauren DeBey
DIG Assistant Director Lauren DeBey

Lauren DeBey is a PhD student in Greg Wilson’s lab in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington. Her research is focused on the extinction and recovery of mammals at the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction. Lauren uses the shapes and sizes of limb and ankle bones to infer locomotion and body size among communities of mammals. During her undergraduate work at the University of California Berkeley and graduate work at UW, Lauren has spent seven summers doing fieldwork in the Hell Creek area, and has also done fieldwork in Alaska, Utah, and California. Her passion for education led her to pursue opportunities in graduate school where she could interact with students and teachers. She co-founded The DIG Field School with her graduate advisor, Greg Wilson, after realizing they share the same enthusiasm for combining authentic science experiences with education. Today, Lauren serves as Assistant Director of the DIG Field School. Since its inception in 2009, Lauren has helped grow the DIG tremendously, and has furthered her excitement for K-12 STEM and science outreach, a career she hopes to pursue after graduate school. Last but certainly not least, she is thrilled to welcome the teachers to the 5th Annual DIG Field School this summer!

 

 

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DinoByte Wednesday: What Happened to the Dinosaurs?

The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K/Pg) extinction event wiped out up to 75% of ALL species on earth, including the non-avian dinosaurs! Why the “non-avian” distinction and what does it mean? The fossil record indicates that birds (avians) evolved from dinosaurs by the end of the Jurassic Period, meaning birds ARE dinosaurs. Birds obviously survived the K/Pg mass extinction, but what happened to the all of the “non-avian” dinosaurs? The K/Pg mass extinction was rapid, global, and severe. Evidence from 66 million-year-old rocks around the world support various theories and scientists today continue to debate whether the K/Pg mass extinction was due to a single cause, or to multiple causes. In fact, DIG teachers help scientists answer this very question during their time at the DIG Field School. Let’s examine each of these ideas and the evidence supporting them.

Artistic rendition of a dinosaur looking on as an enormous asteroid crashes into earth.
Artistic rendition of a dinosaur looking on as an enormous asteroid crashes into earth.

Single Cause Theory (or the Asteroid Impact Theory)

If you ask most people how the dinosaurs went extinct they would probably tell you it was from an asteroid impact. This idea was first proposed in 1980 by Luis and Walter Alvarez, a nobel-prize winning physicist father and geologist son team from UC Berkeley. In the 1970s Walter was a young professor doing fieldwork in Italy in sediment that straddles the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. In sediments older than 66 million years ago (mya), he discovered abundant marine microfossils (including various forms of plankton), above these was a distinct clay layer lacking any fossils, and in the layers above the clay, (younger than 66 mya), there were very few microfossils. Further investigation revealed that the clay layer contained extremely high concentrations of iridium (30x normal levels!), a rare earth element found in high concentrations in asteroids and comets. Walter’s father, Luis, suggested this “iridium anomaly” could be due to some sort of extraterrestrial impact, and the hunt was on for more evidence to support this theory for non-avian dinosaur extinction, or the “Alvarez Hypothesis.”

A few pieces of evidence to corroborate an extraterrestrial event were found in Italy and ultimately worldwide. Shocked quartz results from impact shock waves (extraterrestrial, nuclear bomb) penetrating quartz crystals with such force that the crystalline structure is disrupted. Produced at the site of K/Pg impact, shocked quartz would have floated into the atmosphere, and dispersed across the globe. Additionally, the impact would have been forceful enough to liquefy nearby rock and sand, creating tiny “glassy spherules” that would also have been dispersed globally.

It appeared the rocks were telling Walter the story of how the dinosaurs met their fate! At the site of the DIG Field School, rocks tell the same story. We find a clay layer at the K/Pg boundary, with shocked quartz, glassy spherules, and high levels of iridium, as well as a coal layer immediately above the clay that contains high levels of spores from ferns. This “fern spike” is a common indicator of “primary succession” following an ecological disturbance, and even today, as on Mount St. Helens, ferns are the first to colonize devastated areas. At the K/Pg boundary, the fern spike tells us plants were growing again and the environment was recovering after the mass extinction.

Shock waves from an impact disrupt the crystalline pattern of quartz causing lines to form in the rock (left). DIG 2013 participant, Siri, examines the layer of rock that marks the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and the end of the Mesozoic (right). Shocked quartz and the iridium anomaly are found at the K/Pg boundary at this DIG field site. In the rocks below the Hell Creek Formation one finds abundant non-avian dinosaurs, but the only dinosaurs found in the Tullock Formation above are birds! Photo credit (right): Lauren DeBey
Shock waves from an impact disrupt the crystalline pattern of quartz causing lines to form in the rock (left). DIG 2013 participant, Siri, examines the layer of rock that marks the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and the end of the Mesozoic (right). Shocked quartz, glassy spherules, and  the iridium anomaly are found at the K/Pg boundary at this DIG field site. In the rocks below where Siri is pointing, in the Hell Creek Formation, one finds abundant non-avian dinosaurs, but the only dinosaurs found in the above Tullock Formation are birds! Photo credit (right): Lauren DeBey.

There was ample evidence to suggest an extraterrestrial impact, but where was the crater? Separately but at approximately the same time, geophysicists searching for oil off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula region in the Gulf of Mexico found a 110-mile wide circular feature. Working with geologist Alan Hildebrand, they determined it was a crater that was the result of an asteroid impact, and they named it the Chicxulub Crater, after a nearby town.

Shortly after Walter Alvarez proposed his impact theory, geologists from a Mexican oil company discovered the 110-mile wide Chicxulub crater off the Yucatan Peninsula shown above.
Shortly after Walter Alvarez proposed his impact theory, geologists from a Mexican oil company discovered the 110-mile wide Chicxulub crater off the Yucatan Peninsula shown above.

Based on the size of the enormous crater, it is estimated that the asteroid was 6-miles wide! Such a large impact would have had approximately the energy of 100 trillion tons of TNT, or about 2 million times greater than the most powerful thermonuclear bomb ever tested. An impact of this size would have produced many cascading environmental effects in addition to distributing iridium, glassy spherules, and shocked quartz globally. First, the collision of the asteroid with the earth’s crust likely triggered earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires. In some places deposits from this time preserve giant trees that suggest these monster tsunamis from the Gulf of Mexico penetrated all the way to Texas and Brazil! Second, the impact would have ejected huge amounts of debris and rock into the atmosphere, which would have globally darkened the skies and cooled the planet for approximately a year, ultimately inhibiting photosynthesis and collapsing ecosystems dependent upon plants

Scientists generally agree that this enormous impact was a significant contributing cause to the K/Pg mass extinction. However, many scientists argue that evidence of environmental change and disturbance BEFORE the impact suggests the asteroid impact was not the ONLY cause, but was potentially one of MANY causes resulting in such a devastating extinction event.

Multiple Causes Theory

During the last few million years of the Cretaceous, and the last ~10 million years that non-avian dinosaurs were in existence, the earth was a very dynamic place. Volcanic activities in India, known as the Deccan Traps, were erupting 1.5 million square kilometers of lava (thats half the size of India!) and releasing huge amounts of dust and sulfurous gases into the atmosphere. These factors caused decreases in sunlight, as well as global cooling that would have affected plant-dependent food chains worldwide before the K/Pg mass extinction. Fossil evidence from our field sites suggests that during these Deccan Trap eruptions in India, ecosystems in the Hell Creek of northeastern Montana were stressed. Stressed ecosystems are analogous to the whole pile of straw on a camel before the last piece added (the asteroid) will break its back. Much of our work during the field season and during the DIG is designed to investigate which groups of animals were suffering decreased numbers before the asteroid impact (like dinosaurs and mammals), and which animals were thriving or doing just fine (like amphibians).

Deccan traps are one of the largest volcanic features on Earth measuring approximately 6,500 feet thick and covering around 193,000+ square miles. The term “trap” is derived from the Swedish word for stairs (trapp, trappa) and refers to the step-like hills forming the landscape of the region.
Deccan traps are one of the largest volcanic features on earth, measuring approximately 6,500 feet thick and covering around 193,000+ square miles. The term “trap” is derived from the Swedish word for stairs (trapp or trappa) and refers to the step-like hills forming the landscape of the region.

Another contributing factor was regression of the Western Interior Seaway (remember the Western Interior Seaway?) that we can trace in the changing rock formations in northeastern Montana. As the Western Interior Seaway regressed, or receded, areas that were once marine or near shore would have dried up and been replaced by more inland ecosystems and different species. Also during this time, global climate change was also occurring and the once warm, mild climate became more varied. So although the asteroid impact at ~66 mya would have had a major effect on the planet and its inhabitants, the geological and biological evidence suggests a much more complicated explanation for the end of the non-avian dinosaurs. Will YOU help us find more evidence to answer these questions?

The Aftermath

Regardless of the exact cause, the K/Pg mass extinction wiped out three quarters of the species on earth and led to a major transition in floras and faunas. Not all groups were affected equally, but non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs, ammonites, and many mammals went completely extinct during this time. A loss of different species at various levels of the food chain can result in empty “ecological niches,” and with these previously occupied ecological niches now open, other groups can evolve to fill them. What followed the K/Pg mass extinction were a series of radiations (rapid diversification of organisms resulting from environmental change), with Cenozoic mammals ultimately replacing the niches left empty by the Mesozoic non-avian dinosaurs. We can even think of today’s tigers, cows, and rodents as the modern day version of the Mesozoic’s theropod carnivorous dinosaurs, Triceratops, and multituberculates, respectively. Most dinosaurs went extinct 66 mya, but a few survived and have been very successful. If you had chicken for dinner last night, you ate one!

Artist Rudolph Zallinger’s famour “Age of Mammals” mural at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History depicts the evolution of mammals over the past 66 million years. At 60 feet wide, it is one of largest murals in the world.
Artist Rudolph Zallinger’s famous “Age of Mammals” mural at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History depicts the evolution of mammals over the past 66 million years. At 60 feet wide, it is one of largest murals in the world.

Next week we’ll get to know our DIG Field School Executive Director, Greg Wilson, and Assistant Director, Lauren DeBey, a little better. Also, we’ll publish our May/June Newsletter!

*If you are interested in learning more about Walter Alvarez’s scientific journey and his process of science, the Understanding Science website has an excellent interactive narrative describing his discovery.

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DinoByte Wednesday: Fossils and the DIG Field School

It is thrilling to find fossils and know you are the first to uncover those remains of an ancient world. Word of new, large fossil discoveries, like the recent uncovering of a sauropod dinosaur in Argentina, makes news headlines across the globe. However, much of the information paleontologists use to reconstruct paleoenvironments comes from the study of microfossils. Microfossils, as you might imagine, are very small, and therefore require a microscope to properly examine. The picture below will give you a better idea of the scale of fossils we find.

A sample of fossils that might be found on the outcrop in the Hell Creek area in northeastern Montana. Photo credit: Greg Wilson.
A sample of fossils that might be found on the outcrop in the Hell Creek area of northeastern Montana. Photo credit: Greg Wilson.

Many different animals are represented here, including dinosaurs, turtles, and fish. Let’s take a closer look at the type of animals we find fossilized during the DIG.

Mammals

The mammal fossils found at the DIG field site are from three major groups: marsupials, placentals, and multituberculates (called the “rats of the Mesozoic,” see below). Due to the fragility of bones of these animals, we primarily find their teeth and jaw bones. The main focus of DIG Executive Director Dr. Greg Wilson’s lab is the evolution and ecology of early mammals in the context of major earth history events. Specifically, Greg investigates change across the K/Pg boundary by examining mammalian tooth shape and diet, and relative abundances of different species through time. Although teeth are by far the most commonly found elements, there are a few other bones of mammals we can find in Hell Creek. Lauren DeBey, a graduate student in the Wilson lab, and DIG Field School Assistant Director, studies the limb elements (e.g., femur, humerus) of these small mammals to assess changes in locomotion in relation to the K/Pg extinction event.

(http://ircamera.as.arizona.edu/NatSci102/NatSci102/text/extpaleocene.htm) Depiction of the multituberculate mammal, Ptilodus (top), that lived during the Paleogene Period. In Hell Creek, many fossilized mammalian jaws are found like those shown here (bottom) from a multituberculate.
Depiction of the multituberculate mammal, Ptilodus (top), that lived during the Paleogene Period. In the Hell Creek, many fossilized multituberculate teeth are found like the one shown here (bottom). Multituberculates are named for the shape of these molar teeth, which are composed of “many tubercles” or “many bumps.” Fossil photo credit: Greg Wilson.

Dinosaurs

In the Hell Creek Formation, we find representatives of both major dinosaur groups, the Saurischians (“lizard-hipped” dinosaurs), and the Ornithischians (“bird-hipped” dinosaurs). As with mammals, the most common dinosaur microfossils we find are teeth because dinosaurs constantly shed their teeth, and teeth are the hardest substance in the body. Carnivorous saurischian dinosaurs from the Hell Creek Formation include the raptors Dromaeosaurus and Saurornitholestes, and the Tyrannosaurus rex. Ornithischian dinosaurs we find include the herbivorous Triceratops, which was so common on the Cretaceous landscape their nickname is the “cows of the Mesozoic.” We also find duck-billed ornthiscian dinosaur remains, often toe bones from Edmontosaurus.

(dinosaur: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jul/15/t-rex-tooth-embedded-prey-dinosaur); Teeth from Tyrannosaurus rex (left) and Triceratops (right) are common finds at the DIG field site. Recently, a T. rex tooth (link T. rex tooth with guardian article) was found embedded in the vertebra of a plant eating dinosaur, suggesting the scavenging T. rex also actively hunted its prey. Photo credit: Dave DeMar.
Serrated teeth from Tyrannosaurus rex (left) and leaf-shaped teeth from Triceratops (right) are common finds at the DIG field site. Recently, a T. rex tooth was found embedded in the vertebra of a plant eating dinosaur, suggesting the scavenging T. rex also actively hunted its prey (middle). Fossil photos credit: Dave DeMar.

Reptiles

In addition to dinosaurs, many other reptilian groups are preserved in the Hell Creek, including common finds like turtles, crocodiles, champsosaurs, and more rare finds like lizards, snakes, birds, and winged pterosaurs (related to Pterodactyls). Fossilized turtle shells are very common, and the majority come from soft-shelled aquatic species. Crocodile microfossils include teeth, vertebrae, and scutes (flat-plate-like bones embedded in the skin). Champosaurs were mostly aquatic, crocodile-like reptiles and we find mainly teeth and vertebrae from these creatures that went extinct over 50 million years ago (mya). Lizards and snakes are more rare finds in the Hell Creek, most often found as jaws and vertebrae.

Amphibians

We know of three groups of amphibians, two living and one now extinct, that inhabited the Hell Creek region. Of the groups still living today, we find the jaws and vertebrae of salamanders, and less commonly the jaws, skull parts, and hip bones from frogs. We also find jaws and vertebrae of extinct, salamander-like amphibians called albanerpetontids. A graduate student in the Wilson Lab at UW, Dave DeMar, studies the fate of amphibian groups across the K/Pg extinction boundary.

A sampling of sirenid and albanerpetonid tooth bearing elements found by Dave DeMar in the Hell Creek Formation in northeastern Montana (Wilson et. al 2014).
A sampling of sirenid and albanerpetontid tooth-bearing elements (maxillae and mandibles) from the Hell Creek Formation in northeastern Montana (Wilson et. al 2014; photo credit: Dave DeMar).

Fishes

The Hell Creek region preserves fossils from both cartilaginous and bony fish. The two most abundant cartilaginous fishes found here are sharks and rays, (yes, sharks and rays are as old as the dinosaurs!). Since the skeletons of these fish are made of cartilage, we generally only find their teeth and placoid (or “tooth-like”) scales in the fossil record.

The most common cartilaginous fish fossil found in Hell Creek is the flat, hexagonal shaped, double rooted tooth (left) of the ray Myledaphus bipartitus depicted as a cartoon on the right (https://cumuseum-archive.colorado.edu/Exhibits/BioLounge/HarvesterAnts/ray.html).
The most common cartilaginous fish fossil found in Hell Creek is the flat, hexagonal shaped, double rooted tooth (left) of the ray Myledaphus pustulosus depicted as a cartoon on the right. (Fossil photo credit: Dave DeMar).
Outer and inner views of fossilized scales from a gar fish found in Hell Creek.
Outer and inner views of fossilized scales from a gar fish found in the Hell Creek. Photo credit: Dave DeMar.

 

Remains of bony fish found in our field area include scales, vertebrae, jaws, teeth, and skull elements from primitive bony fish (some that are still alive today!) like the paddlefish, gar, and bowfin, and more derived teleost fish like Coriops. The most common fossil we find in the Hell Creek area is a gar fish scale, which are easily recognized by their (usually) black color, and flat, shiny surfaces.

Different anatomical views of fossilized vertebrae, from top to bottom row, from bowfin, gar, and teleost fish.
Different anatomical views (columns) of fossilized vertebrae of common fish found in the Hell Creek. The rows of fish are: bowfin (top), gar (middle), and a teleost fish (bottom). If you find a fossil that resembles a hockey puck, you can be fairly certain you’ve found a fish vertebrae! Photo credit: Dave DeMar.

In total, the vertebrate microfossils found at our field site represent over 125 different species! Because these microfossils are so abundant they provide a more complete picture of the vertebrate fauna. And, since they are from multiple fossil horizons spanning different geologic time periods they allow us to paint a detailed picture of the last two million years of the Cretaceous Period and first one million years of the Paleogene.

If there are fossils from 125+ species at the DIG field site, how will you know what you’ve found? Well, fossils can be distinguished based on characteristic shapes (circular, thin and flat, cone-shaped, flat with pegs) or textures (smooth, pitted, bumpy). By observing the shape and texture of the fossils, it quickly becomes easier to pinpoint what kind of fossil you have found.

Next week we will DIG deeper into the causes of the K/Pg mass extinction, and the evidence found in the Hell Creek for the end of the dinosaurs and some 75% of species on earth!

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DinoByte Wednesday: Rock Formations of the DIG Field School

Why do paleontologists care about rocks? Rock formations house the secrets of the past! Let’s take a walk through time, starting with the oldest formation preserved at our field site, the Bearpaw Shale, and work our way forward through the Fox Hills Sandstone, to the Hell Creek and Tullock formations, the two formations that are the focus of our DIG research.

A simplified stratigraphic section of the formations visited during the DIG Field School. The lowest (and oldest) formation is the Bearpaw Shale, while the Tullock Formation is the highest in section (and the youngest) in the area. The meters at the left indicate the approximate stratigraphic position relative to the Hell Creek–Tullock formational contact (0 meters), which also coincides in this area with the K/Pg mass extinction. Modified from Johnson et al. (2002).
A simplified stratigraphic section of the formations visited during the DIG Field School. The lowest (and oldest) formation is the Bearpaw Shale, while the Tullock Formation is the highest in section (and the youngest) in the area. The meters at the left indicate the approximate stratigraphic position relative to the Hell Creek–Tullock formational contact (0 meters), which also coincides in this area with the K/Pg mass extinction. Modified from Johnson et al. (2002).

Bearpaw Shale

The lowest (and oldest) formation exposed near the DIG field camp is called the Bearpaw Shale (or Bearpaw Formation). This formation formed ~74-70 mya (million years ago) as a fine-grained layered mudstone (or shale) in a shallow sea, the Western Interior Seaway, that ran through the United States from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. This formation was deposited just before the sea began to recede near the end of the Cretaceous Period. Can you believe there was once a sea cutting North America in half, and living in this seaway were sharks, giant marine reptiles like the long-necked plesiosaurs, and extinct molluscs called ammonites? All of these creatures (and others!) went extinct with the dinosaurs 66 mya.

A paleoreconstruction map of Late Cretaceous North America 75 mya depicting the Western Interior Seaway that separated North America (left), and a shark and plesiosaur (right) that inhabited this sea. In addition to these giants, other twenty foot long swimming reptiles like mosasaurs lived in the sea and fed on fish and ammonites, relatives of squids and octopi. We often find the remains of the straight-shelled ammonites, called Baculites, in these shale deposits. *Ron Blakey has produced many maps like this of North America and the world through time that can be found online.
A paleoreconstruction map of Late Cretaceous North America 75 mya depicting the Western Interior Seaway that separated North America (left), and a shark and plesiosaur (right) that inhabited this sea. In addition to these giants, other twenty foot long swimming reptiles like mosasaurs lived in the sea and fed on fish and ammonites, relatives of squids and octopi. We often find the remains of the straight-shelled ammonites, called Baculites, in these shale deposits. *Ron Blakey has produced many maps like this of North America and the world through time that can be found online.

Fox Hills Sandstone

As the Western Interior Seaway receded, eastern Montana went from being covered by a shallow sea to being near shore and beach, with the seaway still present but located further to the south and east. The sediments that preserve this ancient beach make up the Fox Hills Sandstone Formation, and were deposited 70-68 mya. These yellow/tan, plain sandstone beds are very thick and contain few fossils in our field area, so we most often use the resistant, ledge-forming sediments at the top of this formation as a “marker bed” to help identify the  overlying Hell Creek Formation. Scientists think the Fox Hills Sandstone would have been home to a community of dinosaurs, mammals, reptiles, and early birds that would have come down to the shores of the shallow sea to drink and feed.

In Reid Coulee (northeastern MT), the Fox Hills Sandstone and Hell Creek Formation are exposed in one stratigraphic section. This sandstone is “concreted” or “well-indurated,” meaning it’s resistant to weathering and forms steep cliffs like the one pictured here. Photo courtesy of Dave DeMar, 2012.
In Reid Coulee (northeastern MT), the Fox Hills Sandstone and Hell Creek Formation are exposed in one stratigraphic section. This sandstone is “concreted” or “well-indurated,” meaning it’s resistant to weathering and forms steep cliffs like the one pictured here. Photo courtesy of Dave DeMar, 2012.

Hell Creek Formation

The Hell Creek Formation overlies the Fox Hills Sandstone, and is one of the two focus formations for the DIG researchers. This is one of the more famous and widely exposed formations from the Mesozoic Era in the state of Montana. This formation was deposited 68-66 mya and is primarily composed of “drab” and “somber” colored beds of tan sandstones, gray siltstones, and purple mudstones, with little to no coal. These sediments were deposited by freshwater and brackish rivers flowing from the proto-Rocky Mountains into the Western Interior Seaway. Paleontologists have used these sediments to infer an environment that looked something like the picture below. During this time, the environment was composed of large rivers that had rocky shores. Fossils from many animals are found here including invertebrates (like clams and snails), fishes, amphibians, mammals, turtles, crocodiles and dinosaurs. In fact, the first T. rex skeleton, discovered in 1902 by Barnum Brown, was found in the exact region of the Hell Creek Formation that the DIG Field School takes place!

The Hell Creek Formation during the late Cretaceous (left), and in 1902 when Barnum Brown, of the American Museum of Natural History, found the first Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the Hell Creek area. Note the preferred attire of the earliest paleontologists: a fur coat and bowler hat.
The Hell Creek Formation during the late Cretaceous (left), and in 1902 when Barnum Brown (right), of the American Museum of Natural History, found the first Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the Hell Creek area. Note the preferred attire of the earliest paleontologists: a fur coat and bowler hat.

Tullock Formation

The second focus formation, and the highest we find at the DIG Field school preserves the first Paleogene sediments, and was formed just after the K/Pg mass extinction event. This earliest Paleogene formation was deposited 66-64 mya and is known as the Tullock Formation (also known as the Tullock Member of the Fort Union Formation in some areas). This formation consists of thinner, vibrant and colorful beds with yellow, orange, and tan sandstones, siltstones, and mudstones, and lots of large coal seams (low-grade coals known as “lignites”). These beds are so thin, that from far away the different sediments look like stripes on the outcrop, and they have been dubbed “pajama beds” by someone who must have had striped pj’s! During this Era, rivers carried sediment from the mountains to the inland sea causing a swampy vegetative environment. Here, we find remnants of the mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and birds that succeeded the dinosaurs, some of whom survived, and others who immigrated to the area shortly after the mass extinction.

The Tullock Formation of Montana during deposition in the early Paleocene (left), and as the pajama beds seen today (right). The Paleocene environment included sequoia trees, with a dense undergrowth of shrubs such as tea and laurel, with the addition of ferns and horsetails. Pictured above on the ground is Chriacus, a racoon-like omnivore. On the tree is Ptilodus, a surviving member of the multituberculates, primitive mammals often termed the "rodents of the Mesozoic. " Higher up in the tree is Peradectes, an early opossum-like marsupial. Figure and caption revised from The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth, by Stephen Jay Gould.
The Tullock Formation of Montana during deposition in the early Paleocene (left), and as the pajama beds seen today (right). The Paleocene environment included sequoia trees, with a dense undergrowth of shrubs such as tea and laurel, with the addition of ferns and horsetails. Pictured above on the ground is Chriacus, a racoon-like omnivore. On the tree is Ptilodus, a surviving member of the multituberculates, primitive mammals often termed the “rodents of the Mesozoic. ” Higher up in the tree is Peradectes, an early opossum-like marsupial. Figure and caption revised from The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth, by Stephen Jay Gould.

When you compare the deposits of the Hell Creek and Tullock formations, they look totally different, as do the inferred landscapes they represent! Can you differentiate the drab, somber, mudstones of the Hell Creek Formation from the more finely striped beds of the coal-bearing Tullock Formation in the photo below? Knowing where you are in time when you’re standing on the outcrop is a critical paleontological skill.

Actual Hell Creek and Tullock formation rocks that were formed during the Cretaceous and Paleogene Periods, respectively, in the northeastern Montana.
Hell Creek and Tullock formation rocks formed during the Cretaceous and Paleogene Periods, respectively, in the northeastern Montana, at a site the DIG Field School visits for fossil plants.

Next week we DIG into the fossils we will find during the DIG Field School!

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DinoByte Wednesday: Rock Formations

What is a geologic formation? We can think of a formation as a unit of rock. Each unit is a package of sediments, such as sand, silt, and volcanic ash, that cover an area large enough to be mapped, and contain a particular group of fossils. As time passes, different sediments are packed on top of one another forming different geologic layers of rock. So, the top layer of rock should be the most recent formation and the deeper we dig down vertically, the older the rocks and corresponding fossils, right?

It’s a bit more complicated than that, as sometimes rocks exposed at the surface are older (or younger) than you would expect. Changes in the earth’s landscape are represented in the geology of the different rock layers. Then, movement of deep molten rock pushing upward to form mountains can rearrange different rock layers and can tip originally flat layers. Similarly, changes in the movement of different bodies of water like streams, lakes, and oceans cut through the rock layers, erasing younger sediments on the surface, and exposing older sediments in stream and road cuts. The Grand Canyon is a picturesque example of geologic change, with billions of years of exposed rock, tilted layers, and river channels cutting through layers.

The Grand Canyon has many formations exposed (top) that differ in rock composition and appearance. These formations illustrate uplift and tilting events, as well as more than two billion years of rock deposition (bottom).
The Grand Canyon has many formations exposed (top) that differ in rock composition and appearance. These formations illustrate uplift and tilting events, as well as more than two billion years of rock deposition (bottom).

Having trouble visualizing how this works? Watch this short video of paleontologist Kirk Johnson as he explains how rocks can change over time, using pancakes!

In Montana, many of the formations are from the Mesozoic Era, but the site of the DIG Field School contains formations from both the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras (remember last week’s post?). By looking at the different rock formations we are actually trying to piece together clues about how the environments differed during each of these geologic time periods. We use the rock formations to guide our interpretation of the landscape and environments experienced by the dinosaurs, mammals, crocodiles, turtles, amphibians, and fish when they were alive here, 68-65 mya (million years ago).

An artistic rendition of a paleontologist as she uses exposed rock to infer past environments.
An artistic rendition of a paleontologist as she uses exposed rock to infer past environments.

So what packages of rocks do we encounter during the DIG Field School? Next week we’ll discuss the specific formations found at our field site, namely the Hell Creek and Tullock formations.

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DinoByte Wednesday: Geologic Time

Welcome to the first DinoByte Wednesday! In preparation for the upcoming 2014 DIG Field School, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts on our DIG team, research, and fieldwork in the Hell Creek area of northeastern Montana. Today, we’ll discuss the geologic time scale as it relates to our field site.

The Earth is 4.6 BILLION years old, and the geologic time scale breaks this long amount of time into smaller units. These units, arranged from longest to shortest, are eons, eras, periods, epochs, and stages. The divisions between units are based upon major geological and paleontological events. At our field site in Hell Creek, Montana, the fossils indicate dinosaurs lived there during the Phanerozoic Eon, of the Mesozoic Era, during the Maastrichtian Stage of the Cretaceous Period.

Geologic Time Scale
Geologic Time Scale, modified from the Geological Society of America

The Mesozoic Era is the “Age of Dinosaurs,” and the dinosaur fossils we find in the field are 68 million to 66 million years old! We will find dinosaurs during the DIG Field School (as well as turtles, crocodiles, fish, mammals), but one of the things that makes our field site so special is that in this area there are rocks that preserve the last two million years that non-avian dinosaurs inhabited the earth, the layer that shows dinosaur extinction, AND the first one million years of the Paleogene Period.

The Paleogene Period (and the Paleocene Epoch) marks the start of the Cenozoic Era, the “Age of Mammals.” At our field site, in addition to Cretaceous dinosaurs, we find fossils of the mammals and other animals that survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene Mass Extinction that killed the dinosaurs (except birds). That makes this area one of the best places in the world to study dinosaur extinction AND the subsequent recovery of mammals.

Cretaceous-Paleogene rocks in the Hell Creek area of northeastern Montana
Cretaceous-Paleogene rocks in the Hell Creek area of northeastern Montana.

Most of the geologic layers in Montana that contain dinosaurs lay at the surface. Next week, we’ll DIG further into rock formations and uncover why these fossils sit at the surface when they are up to 60+ million years old.

Strata Column by artist Ray Troll, http://www.earth-time.org/trollart.html
Strata Column by artist Ray Troll

P.S. Are you wondering how we can determine the age of the fossils found in the Hell Creek area? These are much too old to use carbon dating, so we can use nearby rocks as clues, particularly layers of ash and coal. Stay tuned for more on dating fossils in a future DinoByte post!

(Most of this information came from the excellent book Dinosaurs Under the Big Sky by Jack Horner)

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