The 2015 Paleontology Field School was extremely successful. This year’s crew set a record for field accessioned fossil specimens (over 500), assisted with quarrying (a first for the field course), and helped to determine the boundaries and potential of one of the most important Colorado State University field localities.
The Department of Anthropology’s Paleontology Field School, ANTH 470, is a 4.0 credit, 4-week, summer field course that provides hands-on experience in vertebrate paleontology field research. The primary goal is to collect data on ancient primates and their co-habitants (crocodilians, ancient horses and tapirs, extinct swamp cows, predators, and much more). Kim Nichols, Biological Anthropologist, and Dr. Tom Bown, Geologist, provide instruction in fossil identification and field methods, fossil preparation, and accession techniques. Field work takes place in primate-bearing fossil localities dating to the earliest Eocene (55-53 mya) in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. The lab portion of the course takes place at CSU Fort Collins in the Department of Anthropology and Paleontology Field School Lab .
Participation in the Paleontology Field School is a unique experience for every student. All tend to be excited about the prospect of finding fossils, gaining lab experience, and learning more about the evolution of primates and their allies. Along the way some find a career direction. One of the most interesting aspects of successfully completing a field course is the knowledge that students gain about their ability to overcome sometimes challenging field conditions (heat, rain, wildlife) and forming life-long bonds with fellow classmates.
For three students this year, the paleontology field school provided challenges, friendships, on-going research opportunities, and preparation for the future.
Kaia Renouf, senior anthropology major, recovered a number of fossils including a beautiful primate jaw (Cantius) and a fragmented, potentially complete Coryphodon skull and dentition. Course instructor, Kim Nichols explains that, “each individual has his or her own challenges when they participate in field research for the first time. Initially, Kaia struggled with the heat. She was trying so hard to excel that she wasn’t giving her body enough time to adjust. So I suggested that she hold back a bit and take over the task of photography – she has a terrific eye and captured unique images in the field. She got her fossil reward on the final day of the season when she discovered that gorgeousCoryphodon – I’m so proud of her!” Working in the Paleontology Field Course Laboratory was an exceptional experience for Ms. Renouf. Like a puzzle, certain fossil pieces found in association with each other fit together and provided information about adaptations in extinct animals. For example, Kaia recovered several fragments of an Allognathosuchus (alligator) together. After the pieces were cleaned and refit in the Paleontology Field School Lab they revealed a nearly complete lower jaw and dentition — based on tooth shape, the alligator probably ate freshwater shellfish! Ms. Renouf will be completing a research project on the dangers of being a generalist using the Field School Coryphodon collection and plans to use her research for her capstone and as a participant in the Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity (CURC) in Spring 2016.
[Top Image: Fossil Quarry, Kaia Renouf (Image provided by Kaia Renouf) Bottom Image: Prospecting Primate (Cantius) Fossil Jaw (p4-m3) (Image by Kaia Renouf)]
“You cannot ask to get more [experience] out of something in such a short amount of time.” – Ms. Ranouf
Ben Rodwell, junior anthropology major with a minor in geology, was an outstanding fossil collector. Course instructor Dr. Thomas Bown remarks that “Ben is a natural for field paleontology – he looks everywhere and gets his nose close to the surface – he is a born paleontologist and I’m pleased that he has found his niche.” Specimens collected by Ben in the 2015 field season included: primates (Cantius, Tetonius, Teilhardina), early ancestral artiodactyls (Diacodexis), numerous faunivores including Arfia, early horses (Hyracotherium),Coryphodon and numerous other taxa. Initially, Mr. Rodwell was not sure what to expect from fieldwork. But he found that he really enjoyed getting outside, the process of finding and seeing something that no one else has seen, and making the connections between what was learned in the classroom and the hands-on field experience. According to the field school instructors, Ben is equally adept at fossil preparation and fossil identification. As Kim Nichols explains, “a number of our field students do volunteer work in the Paleontology Field School Lab each year. This year, Ben has proven an invaluable asset for dental taxonomic work and fossil prep of often delicate specimens and quarried specimens.” For the CURC and Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meetings, Mr. Rodwell will be presenting his research project on species composition in Stage 2 and 3 paleosols at three CSU fossil localities in the Bighorn Basin (55-53 mya). Initially interested in human evolution, the Paleontology Field School experience has inspired Mr. Rodwell to consider vertebrate and primate paleontology careers. Based on his fossil prospecting and collecting skills, Mr. Rodwell was invited back to the Bighorn Basin for late summer field work with the Johns Hopkins University team. His success earned an invitation to work with that group again in the Summer 2016 season.
[Top Image: Ben Rodwell in the process of refitting Coryphodon thigh bone (Image by Paul Knowles) Bottom Image: Palate Diacodexis (Artiodactyla) (Image by Ben Rodwell)]
Patricia (Trish) Stephens, senior anthropology major, was an excellent fossil collector and seemed to be very comfortable with climbing around in the Bighorn Basin fossil localities. Before leaving for the field, Ms. Stephens was excited and not really sure what she would encounter during fieldwork. At first she found that the hot conditions were challenging. Instructor Kim Nichols explains, “Sometimes challenges aren’t what they seem to be. For example, I usually don’t notice the heat if I am finding fossils. Once Trish started recognizing and recovering fossils, she began to thrive!” By the end of the field season, Ms. Stephens knew that she could find fossils! Trish was prized by both of her instructors for her collecting skills, cheery personality and, as Dr. Bown noted, musical skills. “On request, Trish could whistle tunes by Mozart, Vivaldi and Beethoven! She was terrific!” Trish appreciates the memories of her field experience and the new friendships she formed during field school.
[Top Image: Patricia Stephens in the field (Image by Kaia Ranouf) Bottom Image: Patricia Stephens recovering fossils (Image by Kaia Ranouf)]
Once again, CSU Paleontology Field School students engaged in a successful expedition that yielded insights on the fossil record of primates and, along the way, they discovered their future.