Peabody Fossil Hunter

Saturday, July 2

In Uncategorized on July 8, 2011 at 3:03 am

Since 2005, the Yale Peabody Museum’s Division of Vertebrate Paleontology has sent expeditions to North Dakota and Montana to prospect and collect fossils from the end of the “Age of Dinosaurs” and the beginning of the “Age of Mammals.”

This year, the fossil hunters are a group of professors and students from Yale University’s departments of Geology and Anthropology. Professor Eric Sargis is Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Peabody Museum. Graduate students include Jessamy Doman (Anthropology), Stephen Chester (Anthropology), and Tyler Lyson (Geology and Geophysics), who is also founder of the Marmarth Research Foundation. Undergraduates Greg Mittl (Anthropology 2012), and Rae Ellen Bichell (Anthropology 2012), who manages this blog. Natasha Vitek (Yale Geology and Geophysics 2011) will be starting graduate work in paleontology at UT Austin this fall. Photo credits go to Matt Raudabaugh, Broadway sound engineer/vertebrate paleo volunteer.

In the next two weeks, we will be searching for fossils in the Badlands of North Dakota—a vast expanse of buttes and scrub desert that happens to hold some of the best-preserved fossils from our period of interest, the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary.

Sixty-five million years ago, a meteorite smashed into the earth near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The event was catastrophic, and is frequently credited with the mass extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. It marks the end of the Cretaceous, the age of dinosaurs, but it was also a key moment for mammals.

With the non-avian dinosaurs extinct, many ecological niches became available for the smaller animals. In the ensuing Paleocene epoch, mammals underwent a radiation that resulted in many more species. Over the course of the Tertiary period, the subtropical forests here turned to its present prairie grasslands, as mammals radiated and grew in size to those that roamed the region during the most recent Ice Age 2.6 million years ago.

Our understanding of the changes mammals underwent after the asteroid impact is complicated by a few factors. For one, locations with preserved K-T boundary mammal fossils are rare. Also, most of these early mammals were about the size of mice, which makes collecting their remains in the badlands somewhat like searching for needles in a haystack.

Although we’re particularly interested in early mammals, we’ll also collect other specimens we come across including turtles, fish, and dinosaurs. Many of the specimens will go back to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, where most of us work or study.

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