Clermont Geology Undergraduate Student Researchers Dig Up Data on Dinosaur Fossils and How They Died

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Research students with Peter Larsen founder of the Black Hills Institute in their museum.

Research students with Peter Larsen founder of the Black Hills Institute in their museum.

“Science is the human mind at play – mind candy!” says Dr. Amanda Hunt, Associate Professor of Geology at UC. Clermont. For three weeks in the month of May, Dr. Hunt, Steve Ransom, Tommy Farron, Jessica Bowling, Hayden Owens, and Scott Liming—geology majors who are published authors through our Geology Undergraduate Research Program—set out on an expedition to investigate the Lance and Hell Creek Formations around the perimeter of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The objective was to conduct geochemical, paleontological, sedimentological, and stratigraphic research on the dinosaur fossil beds. This was in order to discover how specific depositional environmental factors may have favored the preservation of soft tissue (skin, tendons, etc.), or resulted in either good or poor bone fossilization. These geological methods were also applied to mapping the K-T (now K-Pg) Boundary in order to discover geochemical clues that may help explain the apparent survival of some dinosaurs beyond the catastrophic meteorite impact event.

Dr. Hunt said that there was great motivation for this trip. First, she wanted her students to continue the research in the field for which they had already published lab progress reports. Also, it offered the opportunity to gain hands-on experience using new analytical instruments (Niton XRF Analyzer), tools (e.g. diamond core drill), and methods to collect, preserve, and analyze data. This was intended to give students practical experiences from which they could learn marketable skills useful for graduate studies, fellowships, internships, or work. Each student had already become a published author in a geological specialty in the lab; this experience gave them real-world field training and experience that may serve to help them fund additional education or land a good job.

Lance Formation bone bed with exposed Hadrosaur bones. Students recovered specimens here and brought some back to UC Clermont to prepare for display.

Lance Formation bone bed with exposed Hadrosaur bones. Students recovered specimens here and brought some back to UC Clermont to prepare for display.

Students recovered specimens here and brought some back to UC Clermont to prepare for display.Unlike the typical structured field trip most commonly provided by colleges, this experience allowed students to conduct their own research and learn more independently. They learned to pose geologically substantive questions about the problem they chose, develop their own work/research plans, and carry them out using the appropriate field tasks and methods. They were required to analyze the data and specimens collected, then produce documentation of the research for peer review and dissemination. The commitment to carry the research through to this point demonstrates that the student is engaged and has some expertise in their research topic, as well as the strength of character to complete a long-term project. These particular projects enabled students to practice vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology as well as sample preparation techniques.

Students used sophisticated state-of-the-art geochemical analytical instruments in the field—specifically, the Niton XRF 3T GOLDD field portable analyzer, that when held at each thin layer reveals the complete list of elements, isotopes, oxides, etc. in the bone or rock being tested in ppm or percentages. Those data are available within a minute and can be saved or placed on a GIS map. This allows for real-time data acquisition rather than waiting on sample transport to a lab and the analysis report, which in turn enables the researcher to evaluate data and make decisions in the field when it is still possible to take additional samples or redirect efforts.

In addition to employing stratigraphic and sedimentological field methods, students were able to determine appropriate methods of data collection, analyses, and documentation in the field and lab. They gained experience practice in geological writing and presentation of their own work. Through this intensive effort, hardships were encountered which only seemed to bolster their confidence in their choice of geology and in their own capabilities. Their projects involved collecting field samples and mapping geochemistry of the K-T boundary, which is associated with the mass extinction of dinosaurs.

Statue of Crazy Horse, Sioux warrior under Sitting Bull on horseback, being carved in granite.

Statue of Crazy Horse, Sioux warrior under Sitting Bull on horseback, being carved in granite.

Dr. Hunt claimed that the overall goal of the expedition was to help students further a love of geological science and allow them to use their own creativity and initiative to solve problems. “Geology is more important now than ever. Everything we have is from Earth; we either mine it or grow it,” she explained. Trips like these allow budding geologists to explore a sense of just how important their field is and what they can do to be successful in it. They observed in nature, as they traveled through Wyoming, what they had only read about in books, such as mountains, folds, faults, and rocks formed by the events of the Laramide Orogeny at the end of the Cretaceous.

While on the trip, students found a variety of dinosaur bones, teeth, petrified tendons (rare soft tissue), and other fossils such as clams, baculites, and ammonites. Each student got to keep a few specimens from the various

Steve Ransom using magnetometer to see if it might detect remaining fossil bones at excavation site where a partial Stegosaurus was recovered.

Steve Ransom using magnetometer to see if it might detect remaining fossil bones at excavation site where a partial Stegosaurus was recovered.

excavation sites. Many were donated to the Tate Museum at Casper College, University of Wyoming. The group learned from some world-renowned researchers from the Tate Museum, Black Hills Institute, Denver Museum of Natural History, Wyoming Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, and the Zerbst Ranch—all who spent time with our Clermont students at different locations.

Serendipitously, while visiting the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, where approximately sixty-three mammoths have been unearthed to date, they met a former UC Clermont geology student, Justin Wilkins. He is now the Curator and Education Director for the best such site in the world. Thus, the students became aware of the possible range of careers available to geologists.

Dr. Hunt said that in the future, her goal is to take more students on trips like this. We want to nurture a thriving Geology Undergraduate Research Program at UC Clermont College that will stimulate students’ interest, prepare them with sound marketable skills, and propel them into successful, deeply satisfying careers.

See more about their experiences at clermontexplorer.weebly.com.

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About Author

Emily Ogle is a junior biochemistry and chemistry major at UC, concentrating in pre-medical sciences. She keeps herself busy working on research, writing for The Lantern, and getting as involved as possible in campus activities.

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