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!

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