Rebecca Johnson

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Paleontologists Dig Up a Mystery

Paleontologists don’t necessarily find what they are looking for – even when they know where to look. But as a crew of KU paleontologists, students and volunteers discovered this summer, a disappointment in one location can yield surprising results somewhere else. 

In June, a group led by Biodiversity Institute paleontologist David Burnham intended to return to the site where for two years they had excavated a Tyrannosaurus rex piece by piece. They hoped to build on the large femur they discovered last year, which belonged to a subadult female T. rex now on display at the KU Natural History Museum.

The formidable rock above the layer of fossils, or overburden, was difficult to remove, however. While the crew waited out several delays getting heavy equipment to the area, David directed the group to another site. They began to call it the “mystery theropod” site, home to what David said may be another, even younger, T. rex, or a dinosaur entirely new to science.

“The second site was discovered in our permit area during our last field season in 2016,” David said. “At that time, we found a fragmentary bone that looked interesting and made plans to return later to see if the site would yield more fossils.”

Digging for dinosaursThe mystery theropod site, near Jordan, Montana, proved to be much easier to dig than the first site. During the four weeks that crew members were there, they discovered more than 20 fossils along with dozens of bone fragments. These included three pedal unguals, or claws. The crew also unearthed a foot bones, and skull bones such as jaws with teeth, isolated teeth with roots, backbones and possible pectoral bones, ribs and parts of the pelvis. 

“We don’t know what dinosaur it is yet, but we do know it’s a theropod—a carnivorous dinosaur,” David said. “The skull is over a half meter long.”  

But in addition to all the fossil material from that site, plus clearing the original site of immense overburden, the crew also excavated the partial skeleton of a fossil bird. They found most of a leg, which had an articulated claw, and mixed in with the bird was a fossil crocodile skeleton. The crocodile had a partial skull, back bones and limb bones.

Bird fossils from this long ago are rare and therefore useful for unraveling bird evolution, Burnham said. The site was probably the remains of an ancient lake where the birds and crocodiles had lived.

Thanks to more than $15,000 in donations to the project -- including a lead contribution from John Weltman and Cliff Atkins of Boston, MA., the crew was able to obtain digging equipment, supplies such as plaster and glue, rent vehicles to transport workers to and from the sites, book hotel rooms, purchase food, and even hire a backhoe operator for removing overburden off the original T. rex site. 

Donors also provided support for students to work in the laboratory for the coming months to clean, prepare and examine the fossils they brought back to KU, as well as pay for a series of scientific tests on the bones and rocks from the T. rex. The preliminary tests have shown that KU’s T. rex is probably the geologically oldest ever discovered and that the long bones contained calcium—a preliminary indicator it was a female capable of laying eggs.

Donors to the project and the public are invited to learn more about the work at “Tooth & Claw,” 6:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 14. The event will include a talk by David Burnham, food, and drinks available for purchase. Attendees will also have the chance to see not only the new mystery theropod fossils but also a new young T. rex on loan to the museum through December, and see new paleontology exhibits such as the recently completed paleogarden. The event is free but tickets are required and can be reserved here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Herpetology Field Course 2017

The research interests of KU Biodiversity Institute herpetology curators Rich Glor and Rafe Brown focus on far-flung countries such as the Philippines and Cuba, but this summer they led a team of students enrolled in a herpetology field course much closer to home, across several counties in Kansas. For two weeks, the students learned how to find frogs, salamanders and snakes, and how to catch them safely, prepare them, and bring them back to add to Biodiversity Institute research collections. Along the way, they pitched tents and camped, and learned more about the ecology and geography of Kansas. 

The course was created as a way to supplement what the students learn in the classroom and allow them to get that hands-on experience that really helps solidify understanding of the concepts, Glor said. The course is open to students of any level -- undergraduate and graduate -- and not just KU students either; the course welcomes students from any college to apply. The course also gives students a chance to see if they enjoy biodiversity field work and can endure the two weeks of camping. 

Photographers from KU Marketing and Communications joined the group for part of the trip and documented the students' experiences. 

"We are in a field where we love doing what we're doing," Glor said. "It's a lot of fun for us and it's a lot of fun for the students." The group surveyed, or looked for and documented specimens, in Barber, Cherokee, Douglas, Ellsworth, and Riley counties.

Collections manager Luke Welton said the group collected 127 specimens - 38 amphibians, 87 snakes and lizards, and two turtles. Many of these samples represent valuable county records for genetic samples, and a potential size record for Thamnophis sirtalis (red-sided garter snake).