Spotlight: Vertebrate Paleontology Trip to Wyoming, Summer 2019

Wednesday, September 4, 2019
Matthew F. Jones

University of Kansas Vertebrate Paleontology group in the fieldOur team from the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum Vertebrate Paleontology division recently traveled to southwest Wyoming to collect mammals from the first ten million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, an interval of time known as the Paleocene epoch. Colleagues from the University of Washington were also along on the journey, collecting geological information on the Bison Basin. As mammal paleontologists, most of what we collect are isolated teeth and jaw fragments, such as in the image below of two teeth from a primitive hoofed animal (a group commonly called “archaic ungulates”).

Unlike the teeth of most other animals, mammal teeth possess a number of cusps and crests that evolve rapidly. This means mammal teeth are usually diagnostic to species, so even a single tooth provides a great deal of information.

Most of the specimens we find are visible on the surface of the ground, eroding out of the surrounding mudstone. The mudstone is incredibly soft, so most of the time we can collect specimens using only a pocket knife or multi-tool.

Occasionally we find larger specimens that need to be glued or jacketed for protection and stabilization before we can take them out of the ground. Vertebrate Paleotology Collection Manager Megan Sims found the upper arm bone of an unusually large mammal from the middle Paleocene.

Some sites are only accessible by foot. Relocating the Little Muddy Creek locality required a hike of several miles. All of the work was worth it so we could bring back important paleontological specimens to study at KU. Colleagues from the University of Washington were also on the trip, collecting valuable geological information to help us better understand the Bison Basin.

All photos, Matthew F. Jones. Top: The group, including colleagues from the University of Washington, in Wyoming with Matthew Jones on the far right. Middle: isolated teeth and jaw fragment. Bottom row left: using glue before removing a fossil. Bottom row middle: single tooth. Bottom row right: The team walking to the site in Wyoming.