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Department of geology students uncover fossils in New Mexico

Prep.jpgBOONE—Five undergraduates in Appalachian State University’s Department of Geology recently returned from a trip to the American Southwest where they collected fossils, attended a research conference and presented results of research conducted at the university.

Accompanying the students on the 12-day trip were geology professors and paleontologists Andy Heckert and Johnny Waters.

Carry.jpgThe students,Geology majors Aaron Abernethy, Jessica Camp, Jonathan Quick, Jaime Roberts and Bobby Snow who all volunteered for the trip. They, worked with staff and volunteers from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) in Albuquerque, N.M., to excavate fossil reptiles buried in 210-million-year-old rocks. During the three-day excavation, the group chiseled out blocks of rock containing the fossils of extinct reptiles.

“Geology in general and paleontology especially are field sciences, not just lab sciences,” Heckert said. “I always felt I learned more during a day in the field than in a month of classes.”

Heckert earned his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico and worked for the museum for three years before coming to Appalachian. He also is director of the university’s McKinney Geology Teaching Museum.

“This was a remarkable and unique opportunity for our students because of my connections with NMMNHS,” Heckert said. “You can’t just call and get a chance to volunteer on an excavation like this.”

The fossils the students collected included aetosaurs and phytosaurs. Both kinds of reptiles were common during the Late Triassic period, when dinosaurs were still generally small and rare.

Aetosaurs were heavily armored, herbivorous reptiles. Phytosaurs were aquatic carnivores that occupied a similar niche as crocodiles, and had long, slender snouts and as many as 150 teeth.

The largest block the group collected weighed about 700 pounds and contained an articulated partial skeleton of the aetosaur Typothorax. The specimen is one of the best fossils of Typothorax ever recovered, Heckert said. The rock measured 5-feet-by-three-feet long and was about one foot thick. Another block included a three-and-a-half-foot-long skull of a phytosaur. The expedition collected several smaller blocks of rock containing other fossils.

After the fossils were protected by a “jacket” of plaster and burlap, they were taken to the museum in Albuquerque where skilled technicians will work a year or more to prepare the fossils for research and study. Because of the extremely high quality of the Typothorax specimen, it may be permanently displayed at NMMNHS.

“This trip exposed the students to the scientific process from finding a specimen on an outcropping of rocks, to excavation, transport and preparation of the fossils for study,” Waters said. “It also showed the students how important teamwork is in making this process happen.”

The students and others at the excavation site had to chip in to dislodge the 700-pound block from a rock outcropping, flip it and carry it to a truck for transportation to the museum.

“With classroom activities, students are graded on their individual work and they don’t often get the sense of how important teamwork actually is,” Waters said.

While on the trip, the Appalachian group visited the Albuquerque volcanoes and attended a lecture on a Jurassic dinosaur quarry.

The group also visited western New Mexico and saw a six-foot-long Jurassic dinosaur bone exposed at the Peterson quarry, stood on a 3,000-year-old lava flow in Grants, and walked through the desert landscapes of Red Rocks State Park near Gallup.

The group participated in the Petrified Forest National Park’s 100th anniversary symposium field trip, which included a lengthy tour of some of the most fossil-rich sites in the park. The areas, which are not typically open to the general public, allowed students to see freshly exposed bone weathering out of the same mesas (what does bone weathering mean) where famous paleontologists had excavated 80 years ago. . “It was an incredible experience to stand in an area where people dug 80 years ago and see that the desert is actually pretty dynamic. It’s eroding fast enough to expose new material all the time,” Heckert said.

While at the park, the students attended a research symposium where Heckert presented a talk on an enigmatic reptile called Colognathus that has been found in the park and in rocks of similar age in Texas and New Mexico.

Heckert and rising senior geology major Jessica Camp also presented a research poster session highlighting their study of the microscopic structure of Triassic reptile teeth. The study was conducted in the College of Arts and Sciences’ microscopy facility, and the presentation featured scanning electron microscope images collected by Camp.

“In our field, you start off with field work under conditions that can be physically very demanding, and end up with an analysis using very sophisticated equipment,” Waters said. “The experience should give our students the motivation to carry on with their projects to that same level of research. And it’s just another example of making the university’s vision for undergraduate research becoming a reality.”

The research will continue now that the students and professors have returned to campus. NMMNHS has loaned Appalachian a plaster jacket containing a single large dinosaur bone collected in 2004 by Heckert from rocks in northern New Mexico. Heckert will teach some geology students to carefully remove the rock from around the bone and prepare the fossil for possible display in the McKinney Geology Teaching Museum.

Digital slide shows of trip highlights will be shown in the McKinney Geology Teaching Museum in the Department of Geology at Appalachian State University. The McKinney Geology Teaching Museum is located in Rankin Science South and is free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays when the university is in session.

Educators are encouraged to contact Heckert at (828) 262-7609 or for additional information or to arrange tours.

Top Photo Caption: Students and faculty from Appalachian State University’s Department of Geology apply a protective coat of plaster and burlap to a 700-pound block of stone containing skeletal remains from a Typothorax, a relative of the crocodilians from the time of the earliest dinosaurs.

Bottom Photo Caption: Volunteers struggle to carry the stone containing the Typothorax skeleton from the dig site to a vehicle for transport to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. (Photos courtesy of the Department of Geology)