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!

DIG Podcast

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.

We are excited to introduce “To Hell Creek and Back: The story of the Tufts-Love T. rex,” the pilot episode for a new proposed podcast brought to you by the DIG Field School. Hosted by former DIG instructor and Idaho State University Assistant Professor Dr. Brandon Peecook, as well as former DIG participant, instructor, and high school science teacher Kristy Mar, the podcast weaves together the stories and personalities surrounding paleontological research and discovery. This first episode focuses on the Tufts-Love T. rex—one of the most complete and well-preserved T. rex skulls ever found—and its journey from initial discovery in the badlands of northeastern Montana to the New Burke Museum in Seattle, WA. Tune into the podcast to hear firsthand accounts and untold details from the researchers and volunteers involved in this incredible story—coming soon! Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates.

Other News & Events

The New Burke is open!

In case you haven’t heard, the New Burke Museum is officially open! Come check out the incredible new building, view the Tufts-Love Rex on display, and get a glimpse into the inner workings of the museum by way of the Burke’s inside-out design. You can read more about the New Burke here.

Photo credit: Burke Museum

National Science Teacher Association Meeting in Seattle

The 75th Anniversary National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) meeting is taking place at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, WA December 12–14. DIG Board Member Mark Watrin will be leading a session on Saturday, December 14. Let us know if you’ll be there! More info on the meeting here.

Order your DIG Box today!

There’s still time to schedule a DIG box for your classroom this school year! Teachers who have completed the DIG program can request a DIG box or sediment through the Burke Museum’s website here. Are you a DIG teacher that’s used DIG materials in your classroom this year? If so please feel free to reach out and share any discoveries, stories, and/or pictures!

Recent Happenings

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting

The 79th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) was held this past October in Brisbane, Australia. Each year SVP brings together vertebrate paleontologists from around the world and features leading-edge research in the field.

Several members of the DIG Field School Team, Wilson Lab, and UW Paleobiology community presented on their research at this year’s meeting. See below for a few highlights of the event, and great work everyone involved!

Graduate student Alex Brannick presenting on her research investigating the ecological diversity of metatherians (marsupial relatives) in the Late Cretaceous.
Graduate student Luke Weaver presenting on the paleobiology of multituberculates (extinct order of mammals) using incredibly preserved specimens from Montana.
Graduate student Jordan Claytor presenting on Paleocene mammal recovery following the end Cretaceous mass extinction event.
Graduate student Brody Hovatter presenting on early Paleocene mammal diversification and biogeography.
Past and current members of the UW Paleobiology community at the end of the meeting celebratory dinner (missing several notable people!).

Photo credits: Megan Whitney and Jordan Claytor

New paper featuring Dr. Greg Wilson documenting exceptional record of mammals after the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction

A study co-authored by UW Professor, Burke Museum Vertebrate Paleontology Curator, and DIG Director Dr. Greg Wilson describing an exceptional record of mammals and other vertebrates following the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event was recently published in Science. The record of early Paleocene mammals is dominated by fragmentary skeletal elements, primarily teeth and jaws. This paper reports exceptionally preserved mammal skulls and skeletons—as well as other vertebrates and plants—from the Denver Basin in Colorado, providing a unique and important glimpse into the timing and pattern of recovery following the K-Pg mass extinction. You can read the full paper here, as well as a write-up by the Burke Museum here.

2019 DIG Field School Summary

The DIG Summer Program takes K-12 teachers into the field in Hell Creek, MT for a week of hands-on learning about what it means to be a paleontologist. After the culmination of the program, participants bring the newly acquired skills scientific experiences aback to their own classrooms. They can also stay connected to the program throughout the year by requesting Burke boxes containing sediment that they can sort for fossils with their students!

This year was the 10th anniversary of the DIG Field School! We welcomed 27 teachers into the field from 16 different states and Canada. The first day of the program was mainly aimed to familiarize participants with the equipment and basic skills, such as GPS use, and concluded with an instructor led overview of the research projects for the week.

The second and third day of the program consisted of micro-vertebrate collection and macro vertebrate excavation. Lessons for the days included an introduction to the geological timescale and rock formations of the site, a mapping and sediment collection activity, a fossil ID workshop, and a hands-on lesson about macro fossil evacuations using a recently discovered Triceratops! Back at the camp in the evening, participants learned how to screenwash the sediment they had collected. Later in the night they bonded with one another through group activities.

The fourth day began with a reflection of the previous days and participants were divided into groups to work on their own research projects based upon the different localities in Hell Creek. They were expected to plan, lead, and report on their findings in the evening, finishing the day with a public presentation led by Dr. Dave Grossnickle. On the final day of the program after a week of hard but rewarding work, the groups dived into more fossil sorting activities, paleo-themed board games, and paleontology literature. Later that afternoon, participants were invited to a local museum in town and on an Ammonite-Cruise before graduating the program with a small ceremony in the evening.

Here’s what one teacher had to say about their experience:

“The DIG Field School was one of the top professional development activities in which I have ever participated. From arrival at camp to departure, DIG educators were immersed in a pedagogy and content-rich environment that was highly engaging. Every detail of the camp was well thought out, and the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts, DCI’s and Science and Engineering Practices were integrated in a seamless way into every activity we participated. Course material and NGSS connections were presented in a way that was applicable and meaningful to educators across all grades. We not only had the benefit of learning from the highly knowledgeable instructors themselves but also from other passionate educators. This was the experience of a lifetime and re-energized me as a science educator.”

Overall, it was a great way to recognize 10 years of the DIG Field School!