DIG Podcast

We’re not able to be in the field this year but listening to our podcast takes us right back to the Montana badlands! To Hell Creek and Back: The Story of the Tufts-Love T. rex paints a beautiful picture of discovery, bringing the specimen back to the Burke Museum, and preparing this specimen for display. Hear first-hand accounts from working in the field to getting this specimen ready to share with everyone from researchers and volunteers! Listen on our website, Spotify, or Apple Podcasts.

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It is a story of a world of blistering heat and dirt, a biosphere where 20-foot-tall dinosaurs roamed. Home to Cretaceous creatures that could rip apart their prey with 6-inch serrated teeth! Venture into this landscape to learn how a group of researchers and schoolteachers tracked down the elusive Tyrannosaurus Rex in the sweltering badlands. Follow how the last-minute discovery of a small protrusion of ribs led to the extraction of the savage toothed king! You’ll be on the ground in an active paleontological field research site examining fossils from millions of years ago. You’ll even discover what it takes to bring a prize scientific discovery into the forefront of research.

PBS Prehistoric Road Trip

Photo credit: PBS/WTTW

By Paige Wilson

DIG instructors are professors, graduate students, undergraduates, and volunteers from across the country who share a passion for paleontology and education. This enthusiasm was on display this past June as two of our DIG instructors, and several DIG research affiliates, were featured in a three part mini-series produced by PBS Chicago along with The Field Museum.

PBS Prehistoric Road Trip, hosted by The Field Museum’s Chief Curiosity Correspondent Emily Graslie, took viewers on a tour through 2.5 billion years of Earth history across the western United States. During episode 2, DIG instructors Dr. Tom Tobin (Assistant Professor, University of Alabama) and Paige Wilson (PhD candidate, University of Washington) were interviewed about their work on fossils from the Hell Creek Area in Montana. Tom walked viewers through the importance of studying clams, snails, and other invertebrate fossils to learn more about the climate and ecological impacts of the Cretaceous Paleogene (K/Pg) mass extinction. Acid rain, wildfire, and massive deforestation following the asteroid impact led to immense climate fluctuations. Tom studies the mass extinction among invertebrate species and uses the specific chemistry of their shells to calculate paleo-temperature. As a geochemist, Tom’s work integrates biotic and abiotic evidence to interpret these ancient environments. Paige focused on the story of plant decimation following the mass extinction event. She took the crew to a plant fossil site dated to just after the K/Pg boundary where plant species diversity is extremely low. By collecting plant fossils and identifying extinct plant species, we are able to quantify the impact of the environmental change on plant communities. Widespread environmental degradation would have led to a massive die-off in vegetation, decimating terrestrial ecosystems; understanding the effect among plant communities is crucial to estimate the magnitude of the mass extinction event. The PBS crew also spent time in the Wilson Mantilla lab’s research camp at the Hell Creek State Park during their visit, where they interviewed other researchers, learned more about the research we are conducting, and shared stories from their travels. Overall, the PBS Prehistoric Road Trip program covered the evolution of life on Earth from our smallest microscopic ancestors to more familiar modern mammals and plants. The program focused on the rich paleontological history of the western U.S. and included interviews with folks from across the country. The host, Emily Graslie, imparted an enthusiasm for science and paleontology which is infectious!

Emily Graslie (left), host of PBS Prehistoric Road Trip, helps Paige Wilson (right), DIG instructor and UW PhD Candidate, quarry plant fossils. Photo credit: PBS/WTTW

Science communication is a crucial part of our research program at the DIG Field School. We are enthusiastic about sharing our science and interest in the natural world with students and adults, fellow scientists and the public alike. This program is just one of the ways in which we hope to share the amazing fossils we find and also our excitement about the Earth’s ancient history. You can learn more about the program and watch clips and interviews at https://interactive.wttw.com/prehistoric-road-trip. We are so excited to have been part of this amazing project, and glad that the PBS Prehistoric Road Trip is shedding light on the diverse folks, fields, and research in paleontology!

Ode to the Volunteers

Volunteers sort through fossiliferous sediment in our sorting lab at the Life Science Building on the UW Seattle campus. Photo credit: Henry Fulghum

By Henry Fulghum

Hi everyone, my name is Henry Fulghum, and I am the Wilson Mantilla Lab manager. In this blog post I wanted to touch on my experiences during quarantine, and more explicitly, recognize the volunteer members of our paleontology community. 

In many respects, the Wilson Mantilla Lab has been able to maintain a productive routine since the beginning of quarantine (early March in Seattle). We still hold lab meetings and reading groups, and we even have remote happy hours on Fridays. I feel very fortunate to say that, in large part, my work and research has continued unimpeded through quarantine. Unfortunately, this degree of normalcy and functionality hasn’t extended to every aspect of the Wilson Mantilla Lab. The cancellation of fieldwork and the 2020 DIG Field School are some of the stark examples of this; for some lab members, quarantine marks their first break from fieldwork in close to a decade.

As lab manager, one of the hardest parts of quarantine has been the loss of engagement and interaction with our volunteers. Normally, there is a group of 10-20 undergraduates, post-baccalaureates, and general paleo-enthusiasts working in the Wilson lab, but the closure of the University has suspended this program. A large part of the work that we do is contingent upon the processing of fossiliferous sediment; many of our DIG Field School alumni may remember collecting sediment and screenwashing in the Fort Peck Reservoir. Once those samples are transported to Seattle, our volunteers become responsible for the remainder of sediment processing. They screenwash the sediment again, bag it, and then ultimately take on the monumental task of sorting through it for fossils. Many more assist with identification and curatorial work, as well as contribute to research. I don’t exaggerate when I say that this group is an essential part of our work. 

But I’d like to emphasize more than just what the volunteers contribute research-wise. They bring a curiosity and an infectious enthusiasm to the lab, and getting to work with them is a highlight of my job. I started as a volunteer in the Wilson Mantilla Lab, and that experience fostered a lot of my passion and professional interest in Paleontology. Because of this, the work I do now as a supervisor feels that much more rewarding.  The University of Washington recently announced their plan to hold 90% of courses online during the coming school year. As of now, it’s unclear what this means for our lab. So to all of our volunteers, current, past, and prospective, I want to express my thanks. You make my job something truly special, and the Wilson Mantilla Lab isn’t the same without you around. Stay safe and healthy. We hope to see you soon.

Arizona State University Virtual Field Trips

Screenshot of the ASU Virtual Field Trips website banner.

Looking for a way to experience paleontology field work from the safety of your home? Check out Arizona State University’s Virtual Field Trips! From investigating the earliest evidence of life to examining ancient lake environments, these amazing virtual experiences explore the geology and paleontology from around the world. In the Dino Doom trip, keep an eye out for the Hell Creek, MT locations! You can explore our Triceratops dig and Iridium Hill—an important site for studying the K–Pg mass extinction. Don’t miss the videos of our DIG founder, Dr. Greg Wilson Mantilla, explaining the importance of Iridium Hill and describing how dinosaurs were affected by the K–Pg mass extinction event!

Recent happenings in paleontology

Brenen Wynd, former Wilson Lab undergrad and lab manager (now PhD candidate at Virginia Tech), along with Dr. Greg Wilson Mantilla and Wilson Mantilla Lab alum Dr. Dave DeMar, Jr. publish their study on the diversity of sharks and rays from the Hell Creek Formation, leading up to the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction!

Shark teeth (Fig.5) from Wynd et al. 2020. Scale bars equal 1 mm.

Check out new research on the Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinction using data from a fossil locality, Hall’s Cave, in Texas here! Their research suggests that climate changed affected this local ecosystem, but may not have been the sole driver of the disappearance of large mammals at the end Pleistocene.

Read about recent research discussing the relative roles of Deccan volcanism and the Chicxulub asteroid impact as kill mechanisms for the Cretaceous–Paleogene mass extinction! These researchers use both fossil occurrence data and paleoclimate models to support that the asteroid impact was the main driver of the non-avian dinosaur extinction.

UWPCC Climate Change Biology Teacher-Scientist Workshop

Would you like more science resources to incorporate into your classroom? The University of Washington Program on Climate Change (UWPCC) is developing a new, interactive resource that explores how organisms respond to temperature change. This workshop is geared towards high school teachers who would like to include more climate science into their lesson plans and includes content that aligns with Next Generation Science Standards in various ways. This workshop, led by UW Biology Professor Dr. Lauren Buckley, will meet virtually September 21, 23, and 25 (for 2 hours each day). You can find more information about this workshop here!