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Appalachian and N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences partner to understand state’s geologic record

BOONE—A partnership between Appalachian State University and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Paleontology Section offers students a fossil-hunting expedition each summer and the museum access to new material for its research and collections.

View larger imageAppalachian State University geology majors Michael Ludlam, left, and Isaiah Reed prepare a plaster jacket to encase a large fossil recovered from the Placerias Quarry in northwestern Arizona. The jacket protects fossils when they are transported from a dig site to an approved repository—in this case, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. (Photo by Dr. Andrew Heckert)View larger imageThe largest fossils collected from the Placerias Quarry were wrapped in a protective jacket of burlap and plaster. The fossils were taken to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Paleontology Section. The museum is a designated repository—an institution that is accredited by the American Association of Museums to hold fossil specimens in perpetuity for research or display. (Photo by Alex Harrison)View larger imageView larger imageAbove left: This image shows the upper end of a femur (lower left) from a phytosaur, an ancient relative of the crocodile. A variety of tools are used to carefully remove fossils such as this one from layers of sediment or free them from rock. Frequently used tools include brushes, small picks, hammers and rock chisels. (Photo by Alex Harrison) Above right: Appalachian students filmed students and volunteers at work in the Placerias quarry to create short video clips to be used for outreach and education. Here, geology major Catharine Jones films a crew of students and volunteers making a plaster jacket to transport a hip bone of the fossil aetosaur Desmatosuchus. Aetosaurs were distant relatives of the crocodile that somewhat resembled large armadillos. (Photo by Dr. Andrew Heckert)View larger imageStudents on a paleontological field trip to northwestern Arizona seek shelter along a hillside from 20- to 50-mph winds that blew constantly while they searched for vertebrates. The annual field trip is offered through Appalachian State University’s Department of Geology and led by Associate Professor Andrew Heckert. (Photo by Dr. Andrew Heckert)

The annual summer trip is nicknamed the “Triassic trip” as the field work focuses on recovering fossils in New Mexico, Arizona and other Southwestern states from the Triassic period. Now in its third year partnering with the North Carolina Museum, the trip is led by Associate Professor Andrew B. Heckert, director of the McKinney Geology Teaching Museum at Appalachian and a member of the Department of Geology faculty.

“It’s a great partnership,” Heckert said. “It gives students experience in paleontology and field geology and we are able to help out the N.C. Museum, which includes their new nature research center.” Fossils recovered from past Triassic trips also have led to research publications by Heckert, including several involving student participants, in publications such as the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Rocky Mountain Geology and Geological Society of America Abstracts. Students also have made research presentations that grew out of their participation in the trip.

The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ collections include fossils from the same time period unearthed in North Carolina.

“The long-term research goal is to help us understand the state’s Triassic period,” said Vince Schneider, curator of paleontology at the museum. “We are getting lots of material from North Carolina, but we don’t have a lot of comparative material. These trips are helping us build a decent Triassic collection in the state.”

This year’s trip was to the Placerias Quarry in northeastern Arizona, which was first excavated by the University of California Berkley in the 1930s and later by the Museum of Northern Arizona in the 1970s and 1980s. It has been at least 20 years since the site was actively studied.

“Historically it’s known to be a very rich site,” Heckert said. “It was a very productive trip.”

Heckert and Schneider chose the established site as they knew they could start recovering fossils immediately, versus going to an unproven area where there might be little return for their time in the field.

The Placerias Quarry is comprised of mudstone, which is quite soft, so students used a lot of tools about the size of dental picks. But they also had to wield shovels and rock hammers to expose the larger fossils and dig around them. Smaller pieces are wrapped in paper towels or toilet paper for protection while the larger pieces are protected by burlap and encased in plaster for transport.

The students videoed the process for use by the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and others.

“We collected a lot of fossils for the museum,” Heckert said. “Some of the students unearthed dime-sized upper arm bones, probably from an animal smaller than a squirrel. One found a bone that might be from a dinosaur and pieces of bone possibly from a Trilophosaurus.” The lizard-like reptile probably weighed up to 100 pounds and grew to about eight feet in length.

The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences keeps all the fossils Heckert and his students recover. “They have to go to a designated repository, which is an institution that is accredited by the American Association of Museums and that agrees to hold the specimens in perpetuity and make them available to qualified researchers,” Heckert explained. “Any time we are collecting fossils, we are working with a museum.”

Schneider helped secure the permits needed to access the fossil site, which was located in state land, and collect the fossils. He and a crew of four volunteers met the Appalachian group at the dig site.

Over the years, the museum has received about 50 plaster jacketed fossils of various sizes from 10 to 100 pounds which the museum will later extract in the lab for research or exhibit – a process that can take weeks to years. Fossils recovered during past “Triassic trips” include hipbones of an Aetosaur, which is an early relative of the crocodile, and bones from a Placerias, a mammal-like reptile that lived during the late Triassic period.

“If we didn’t have Appalachian, we would have a more difficult time getting this done,” said Schneider. “Andy and his students help us get more material than we would otherwise.”