Three geology majors— Ben Faulkner ’14 (Greenbrae, Calif.), Alexandra Lawrence ’14 (Bethesda, Md.), and Magaly Perez ’14 (Chicago)—spent the summer researching fossil bones that tell the story of how animals lived and died in ancient aquatic ecosystems preserved in the Cretaceous rocks of central Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. In November they presented some of their findings at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C.
Serious study and painstaking research were done on campus before the trio headed to the Missouri Breaks. To prepare for the trip, they spent the first six weeks of their summer sifting through 45-pound buckets of samples that had been collected in Montana the previous summer.
First, the fossils had to be sifted out from buckets of sediment. A cleverly designed machine developed by Ken Moffet—inventor and scientific instrument technician at Macalester—repeatedly dipped baskets of sediment into water, gently rinsing the sediment from the tiny fossils. Paleobiologists at the Smithsonian Institution, partners in this research, liked Moffet’s machine so much they requested one of their own. The fossils were then dried and placed in small clear bins, ready for identification.
“I was always a dinosaur kid,” says Faulkner, “so it’s been great to handle actual dinosaur teeth and bones. We use a microscope and paintbrushes to find the tiny fossils, things like the jaws or the vertebrae of fish or lizards. When I’m handling a 75 million-year-old fossil, I feel so grateful for this experience.”
“When I’m handling a 75 million-year-old fossil, I feel so grateful for this experience.”
Adds Lawrence, “The majority of the fossils we discovered under the scopes were less than 2 mm long. The smallest were less than .5 mm. Working together, we recovered about 1,000 bones per day, and more than 30,000 bones over the course of the summer. For many we can identify the species.” Lawrence also lined up a Smithsonian internship for winter break, working to prepare the fossils for exhibition.
In August the three students headed to Montana with geology professor Ray Rogers, geology and biology professor Kristi Curry Rogers, and geology lab instructor Jeff Thole. They were joined there by their Smithsonian research partner and a geologist from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which Ray Rogers has been working with for more than 20 years.
A rugged landscape, the Missouri Breaks is a huge tract of largely public land managed by the BLM. The region includes some of the most desolate country in North America and is steeped in history and lore. Native Americans have traversed the terrain for millennia, and early explorers such as Lewis and Clark followed the river through the “Breaks” as a pathway to the great Northwest.
“None of us students had really been camping before,” says Lawrence (Perez had never been in a canoe either). “We spent 10 days in the Missouri Breaks, four of them canoeing on the river and camping at different sites and visiting several fossil beds at each stop.”
Despite being city kids hailing from Chicago, the D.C. area, and the Bay Area, the students quickly adapted, learning the features of the land and listening to Native American public radio. Proof of their acclimation: Perez and Lawrence came home wearing cowboy boots and Faulkner a cowboy hat.
Back in the lab, Perez became known for her eagle eye, finding and “pulling” more fossils in a day than anyone else. These same skills were useful in the field. “We went to different bone beds every day and did surface picks and even found a new fossil bed,” says Perez. Macalester lab supervisor and instructor Jeff Thole discovered the previously unregistered site, which is called “JTT 2012” in his honor. The 75-million-year-old fossils recovered from these sites will all eventually be curated at the Smithsonian Institution.
This research is funded by a collaborative grant with the BLM and a multi-year NSF grant, written by Rogers and Curry Rogers and their Smithsonian colleague. This is the second year of the NSF grant.