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Mining the field
By Deborah Anderson, Associate Professor of Biology

Deborah Anderson
Deborah Anderson (Biology)

In late June of each summer, I pack up my Springbar tent, rock hammer, anvils, GPS, collecting bags and other field gear and drive to Lost Cabin, Wyoming, to look for fossils.

Lost Cabin is located about 12 miles outside a ghost town called Arminto. The most interesting, and perhaps most unnerving, aspect of the drive to the field camp comes over the last 10 miles, when you start to see the Poison Gas signs. There are windsocks mounted atop poles so that, if the colorless, odorless gas is accidentally released from nearby oil drilling operations, you know which way to run.

Once we arrive in camp, tucked in a flat area of the Wind River Basin near Buck Springs Quarry, we forget about the poison gas and worry about staying clear of the rattlesnakes and scorpions whose territory we are about to invade.

We time our arrival to match that of my colleague and friend, Richard Stucky, a vertebrate paleontology curator from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Lance (my youngest son) and I have been prospecting for fossils in the Wind River Basin with Richard since 2005. Eventually, a number of volunteers, high school students, other geologists and paleontologists, and graduate students will arrive. And, one week out of two, we have a camp cook; truly a luxury!

The roughest part of fieldwork (rattlesnakes and scorpions aside) is the lack of running water. But after a couple of days, everyone is in the same state. Plus, you can get an early start in the field when you don’t have to wait for everyone to shower! We do go into town to shower, wash clothes, and get groceries once every five to seven days.

It was during a poster session at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings that I first met Richard. I was reading, with great interest, his poster about Buck Springs Quarry. He was talking about finding large numbers of ischyromyid rodents, one of my areas of expertise. We started talking and, at the end of the conversation, he invited me to join him in the field sometime. Richard walked away; I thought about this offer for five minutes, ran after him and said that if he was serious, I would be out the following summer. I haven’t missed a summer since.
Mandibular and maxillary specimens of Thisbemys and Paramys, rodents of the Eocene period.

The study of the Wind River Basin fossils – plants and animals – can serve as a proxy to learn more about how future climate changes may affect current flora and fauna. Why Lost Cabin? Well, in its rocks of the Eocene period we find fossils of the warmest period in Earth’s history that we have on record. The rodents seem to be small in size and high in diversity at this time. As the climate cooled, the rodents became less diverse and larger.

It is very exciting to spend two weeks exchanging ideas on topics like the effect of climate change on past organisms, and how paleobotany (fossil plant studies) can inform our understanding of patterns of change in mammals. As the only paleontologist on the faculty at St. Norbert, I particularly relish this opportunity to reconnect with colleagues in the field and get my scholarly energies recharged. Time in the field is time to reflect. Each day is filled with exploration, discovery and survival.

Collaboration is the key to successful scholarly activity. It is chance encounters and conversations with friends of friends that have spurred my own efforts in this area.

My South American rodent project began after John Fleagle offered me help on a shuttle bus to the airport. We were both leaving the annual paleontology meetings in Kansas and I was juggling a four-month-old, luggage, a diaper bag and a car seat. Three months later, I was flying to Argentina with John, distinguished professor of anatomical sciences at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, to study fossil rodents in Buenos Aires.

Gregg Gunnell, of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, is another valued colleague. My first Wyoming field camp experiences at South Pass, Wyoming, were with Gregg and Bill Bartels, a geologist at Albion College.

My collaboration with Gregg has made it possible for me to borrow specimens from the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, and I spent my fall 1996 sabbatical at U of M.

My more recent experiences in Wyoming with the Lost Cabin field research crew have led in turn to the development of two of my current projects, both of which include another kind of collaboration: that with my students.

With Kim Keil ’10 and Kate Casey ’12, I am working on an extension of a project I had already started, to revise the alpha taxonomy – the first step in naming the species – of Thisbemys. This new phase is exciting because I was the first one to discover lower molars of this species.

While I am not allowed to bring any of the fossils that I find back to Green Bay, I have been able to increase my sample size by borrowing the specimens once they have been catalogued. So, I have about 300 rodent jaws and teeth in my office.

The rodents that I study have a combination of primitive and advanced features to the crown pattern. The number of cusps and rhomboid molar shape are primitive. The presence and arrangement of accessory crenulations, uniquely shaped incisors and variable jaw dimensions make each group I study distinct.

Sara Coursin ’12 and Ashley Erdmann ’12 are working with me on a second project, a description of the bio-diversity of the sciuravid rodents. This family of rodents is closely related to the Ischyromyids, the first rodents to show up in the fossil record, about 53 million years ago. This project, too, has taken an exciting turn. Scientists had combined two previously named species into one. With new specimens, I am able to show that the two originally named species are in fact valid.

Last summer, staff at Yale Peabody Museum gave me access to the type specimens, the original specimens collected in the 1800s, so that I could determine the characteristics and size of each species as originally named. The collections are located in the museum’s basement and I was issued my own set of keys to the gates I needed to pass through to access the fossils. Once there, I set up my microscope and began taking measurements. It was an intellectual thrill to look at the actual specimens found in the 1800s, the ones scientists originally based the taxonomic names on: something like meeting the author of your favorite book and seeing the original notes for their manuscript – so cool!

Spring 2011 magazine

Web extraLook here for web-exclusive content that expands on topics presented in the current
St. Norbert College Magazine.

VideoMaterials from Minahan Stadium find new expression
Bill Bohné (Art) transforms reclaimed materials into pieces that speak to many storied decades.

VideoIt’s a question of football, and a question of history
Kevin Quinn (Economics) interviews the Green Bay Packers’ former general manager Ron Wolf.

VideoA Day to Celebrate
Each spring research partners on campus share their work at an event that is abuzz with scholarly achievement.

Text ExtraPaired offerings
The college’s partnerships with other institutions expand options and academic opportunity.

Text ExtraIce cubed
Blogging about their research in Antarctica gives St. Norbert geologists a way to share their findings – and their experiences.

Text ExtraRitual in relationships
University of St. Thomas professor Carol Bruess ’90 makes the study of interpersonal communication her scholarly business.

GalleryFarm work, personified
A photography project by Elizabeth Groshek ’11 stands as testimony to the work of her family’s farming community.

VideoSisters in learning
Norbertine sisters from Slovakia join student singers to enrich worship at St. Norbert Abbey.

Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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