Dr. Mikael Fortelius and Maegan discuss fossils

Paleontology off to a smashing start

The Turkana Basin if famous for preserving the fossilized remains of our bipedal ancestors. But, there are more than fossil hominins in the rocks piled up around Lake Turkana. The remains of horses, pigs, fish, hyaenas, and hippos (lots of hippos) also tumble from the rock, providing the ecological and environmental context for the evolution of our own lineage.

Our guide through the extinct and evolving African ecosystem is Dr. Mikael Fortelius from the University of Helsinki. He has worked on many projects across Europe and Asia and is just beginning to explore the vertebrate record in east Africa. Throughout the course, Dr. Meave Leakey worked with the students as well. She has spent her entire career focused on the evolution of African faunas over the last 10 million years. So, we got to watch two new scientific collaborators share their knowledge and insights with one another in real time as each gained new insights from the others unique store of paleontological knowledge.

Dr. Mikael Fortelius and Maegan discuss fossils of the Turkana Basin. Especially teeth. Especially hypsodont herbivore teeth.

The course began with piles of fossils and bones. The students moved around the room, identifying what they could and speculating on what they could not. By the end they would be able to look at the small piles of stones and bones and conjure up grazing pigs, running hippos, and slender-snouted crocodiles.

The upper jaw of a narrow-snouted crocodile called Euthecodon provided some lively discussion as students saw antlers, horns, and tree branches in this croc's remains.

A gigantic hippopotamus mandible with the teeth along the top (better views of those coming out of the ground in the next post) and a massive attachment site for chewing muscles along that crazy curved structure at the angle of the mandible.

Eve and Natalie try to sort out some mystery fossils.

Leanna, Sam, and Marcel contemplate fossils and bones. Leanna had a moment of revelation about the Euthecodon maxilla as the shutter snapped.

But before we could learn about the strange menagerie that has moved through the Turkana Basin, we had to think about time. It’s unavoidable. Every module we have tackled – really all of sciences that could be lumped into “natural history” – depends on an understanding of the geological timescale. Having a working idea of the scale is key to understanding the ever-shifting continents, climate, and diversity of species.

In the beginning there was a piece of masking tape...

It’s a lot of information to simply memorize so we built a scale model of the earth history to make the massive swathes of time more concrete (or at least papery). Using two rolls of Kenyan toilet paper (durable stuff), two groups of students laid out and illustrated a scaled history of the planet from its formation to the present.

Events in the beginning including Meg and Sam at the formation of the moon and Leanna at the first signs of life. That's a billion years of toilet paper on the floor.

The closer we get to the present, the more animals radiate and disperse. The Cenozoic ended up with the timescale needing extension sheets for the closely packed inside jokes and art.

What emerged was a lot of blank space for a long time as the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago, cooled and the first single-celled bacteria plied the primordial oceans starting 3.5 billion years ago. And nothing particularly exciting happened for a very long time, at least, nothing that gets vertebrate paleontologists jazzed. Chemically, revolutions were taking place as the genetic code used by every living organism on the planet was refined, cells increased complexity, and microscopic ecosystems started to take shape. A little more than 500 million years ago, billions of years after the formation of the planet, multicellular organisms took off.

One billion years ago, the Milky Way got through anther rotation and the simple, ancient life on earth took note, though this appreciative attitude does not fossilize well.

Another busy Phanerozoic. In the foreground the Cambrian explosion is in full force at Tim's toe with multicellular life radiating into all major categories of animals. In the distance pangolins and creodonts make their later appearances. Front to back: Tim, Ashley, Natalie, Ingrid, Marcel, Ana

The students walked the paper and illustrated the important events along the timeline, trying to cram the origins of primates, apes, and hominins into the last sliver of toilet paper. All that fascinating stuff geologically happened so quickly…if you consider a few million years quick. In the grand scheme of the history of life, we are new arrivals. Or maybe you consider us fashionably late.

Lucy in a dangerous world 3.2 million years ago.

Natalie, Ingrid, Meave, and Mikael contemplate our place on the timescale.

Ashley made sure the timescale ended with the most recent event and the culmination of earth history: the TBI Field School.

Along with the timescale and a sense of the whens and wheres of a fossil locality, a vertebrate paleontologist needs to constantly be thinking about what the record is actually saying. Just because a horse tooth is preserved next to a lion’s jaw, we can’t jump to the conclusion that the horse and lion died during a bloody confrontation. Maybe they were washed into the same channel in the stream or maybe one is more heavily eroded because it traveled a long way before finally entering the fossil record.

The study of how pieces of living creatures are used and abused by the environment before becoming fossils is called taphonomy. In order to study the process of materials entering the record and weathering out of the rock, the field school planted fragments of ceramic plates, bowls and pots in the ground for future field schools to analyze. We started with the complete objects, documented their shapes and colors. Then smashed them.

Ingrid breaks it down. Breaking things isn't usually part of the vertebrate paleontology drill.

Maegan gets ready to smash a plate after politely waiting her turn to wield a hammer and vent some aggression.

The final result of the experiment. There are a few discernible "taxa" on the table to be reassembled.

The shattered table settings were then reassembled from the jumbled mass of shards in the middle of the table, a demonstration that cracks, colors and subtle shape changes are plenty of information for putting the story back together.

The field school puzzle club hard at work trying to reassemble the fragments. Puzzle masters left to right: Cory, Francis, Ingrid, Ashley, Rosie, Sam, Maegan, Bailie, Acacia, Eve, Natalie, Rob, Aaron, and Tim

But we didn’t just use any old ceramics. While brainstorming this taphonomic experiment with Richard Leakey, founder of TBI, and Lawrence Martin, director of TBI, Meave Leakey realized she had a few extra saucers and pots stuffed away in the attic that could be put to good use in the ground. The original owner was Mary Leakey, Richard Leakey’s illustrious fossil-hunting mother. Mary had used the plates and bowls in camp at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and the objects were present for some of the most important early discoveries in East African paleoanthropology including the excavation of Zinjanthropus (now Paranthropus) boisei and the Laetoli footprints (3.6 million year old evidence of our bipedal ancestors walking across a preserved ash field).

Mary Leakey's 100th birthday was honored with a Google doodle a few weeks ago. In the cartoon she's excavating the Laetoli prints. Unfortunately, the artist didn't include her coffee pot in the image.

Mary Leakey’s coffee pot was documented as we would any other fossil. But instead of preserving the artifact, we put it into the ground.

We reverently unwrapped the material, unsure if we were about to destroy objects that should really be in a paleoanthropology exhibit. Meave assured us Mary would have wanted her old plates to be part of an experiment on fossilization and would have been the first to bring the hammer down for science. So we smashed.

Leanna hesitates before winding up. It's hard smashing history, but that's what young optimistic scientists are for.

Putting Mary Leakey's pottery in the ground to run a simple long-term taphonomic experiment.

John marks the spot so future schools can find the spot north of the classroom building. I hope we get to hear the results of our smashing and digging session someday.

Meave and Eve at the pottery burial. According to Meave, this is exactly how Mary would have wanted her plates to be used.

After scattering the fragments and burying them in different layers of strata, we headed back to the lab to spend a little bit of time examining the osteology collection at TBI, comparing a skull of a giraffe to the skull of a camel and a rhino. Dr. Fortelius made sure we paid special attention to the complex teeth, implying we may be spending a little bit of time in contemplation of teeth through the course of the module. It was also important to start to learn how to recognize the anklebones, vertebrae, and dental fragments of the modern taxa housed at TBI so when we could head into the field with a better search image for the progenitors of the modern African fauna.

The field school students politely listen as Matt rambles on about carnivore teeth and skulls and somehow segues into a discussion of arm bone shape and function. Listeners left to right: Bailie, Ana, Holly, Eve, Cory, Ashley, John, and Tim.

Ana and Rosie discuss the sheer size of sauropod (long-necked) dinosaurs. The thing in the foreground is a tail vertebra. This material is from Lapurr, a locality preserving rocks from the Age of Dinosaurs on the Northwestern shore of Lake Turkana. The site is worked on by TBI researcher Joe Sertich from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Dr. Mikael Fortelius demonstrates how to recognize the fused toe bones of a camel before discussing other features that tell us camels are more closely related to sheep and cows than they are horses.

Natalie and Francis scrutinize the humerus of a monitor lizard, comparing it to the flamingo and a few mammal humeri.

Rachel and Aaron search for a snake skull to compare to the monitor lizard skull. The two groups are thought to be closely related based on skeletal characters, though molecular data suggests the similarities between monitors and snakes is convergent.

Ana posits a new theory on camel evolution. Cory is a little skeptical.

Let the hunt begin…

Rosie, Acacia, and Fuzzy are clearly too cool to contemplate the geological timescale.

Note: I’m behind. Very behind. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be documenting the full TBI field school experience. You may or may not know that the students are leaving TBI in one week. I will continue to update the blog until the entire story has been told. If you are curious, please continue to visit until I write about graduating from the program. Back to vertebrate fossils…

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Matthew Borths

Matthew Borths

I am a graduate student in Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University and a Turkana Basin Fellow. I study the evolution of a group of extinct carnivorous mammals called creodonts, a group of mammals that once filled all the carnivorous niches of Africa before the continent was invaded by modern carnivores like dogs, cats, and hyenas. I was one of the teaching assistants for the Spring 2013 Field School. I'm originally from outside Cincinnati, Ohio and I did my undergraduate work at The Ohio State University where I studied Geology and Anthropology. I've done fieldwork in North Dakota, Utah, Madagascar, Egypt, Germany, Kenya and Oman.