Buried beneath a mountain of bones

|Buried beneath a mountain of bones

The evolutionary theories we learned last time are powerful tools to explain the world we see today. How different organisms go from simple to complex has always amazed me. I believe our students feel the same way. We also had in-depth discussions about systematics and phylogeny among ourselves. Some of the topics were even philosophical. However, when it comes to the evidence of evolution, especially for extinct animals, we have to rely on things that are preserved in the fossil record. For our main focus, we are learning mammalian bones and teeth: what they are, what they do and how they differ.

In the classroom, Dr. Miller went over osteology and functional morphology, which are fundamental components of vertebrate paleontology. Functional morphology is the study of the correlation between form and function. We know that an animal has to function in its natural habitat because of natural selection. Therefore, knowing something about an animal’s morphology allows us to reconstruct its habitat. For example, if you find features in the fossils that indicate an arboreal lifestyle, it is very likely that there were trees in the habitat. Similarly, high crowned teeth are good for grazing. So a great proportion of high crowned animals would indicate an open grassland environment. There is no better way to learn about bones and teeth than going into the lab! Indeed, students spent a lot of time in the osteology lab the last few days, identifying bone features, making sketches and comparing bones of different animals. Take a look at our dedicated students at work!


Dr. Miller (right) explains how the scapula works to Taylor and Kenneth


Tristan and Meredith listen to Deming (the TA) about cresty monkey teeth


Nyete (TBI fieldwork manager) goes over a warthog skeleton with Kennedy and Brian


Boyu and Meg studying a baboon skeleton


Taylor makes good friend with Bob, our hanging skeleton


Comparing a monkey hand to a human hand


Some excellent sketch of vertebrae

The osteology lab is certainly a good preparation for us before going to Buluk for some serious fieldwork. Buluk is a rich fossil site about three hours away from TBI Ileret. Dated at about 17 million years old, it has produced a good number of mammalian fossils of the early Miocene. Back then, the beasts that roamed the land were very different from the ones we know today. Dr. Miller also talked about the diversity of mammalian fauna at Buluk and what we can expect to find there: ancient elephants, short necked giraffes, rhinos and early apes. Tomorrow, we are leaving for Buluk for a three-day camping trip. This will be the first time for the students to have a multiple-day fieldwork. Excited? Stay tuned!

What do fossils look like? Well, they bear the shapes of bones but the organic component has been replaced by minerals completely. To better appreciate the amazing amount of fossil collection and preparation work at TBI Ileret, students took a tour around the research lab with Nyete, an experienced fossil finder and field manager at TBI. Nyete explained to us how fossils are typically found and collected in the field, and how large fossils are plastered and transported to the lab. In the fossil preparation lab, students learned how to use an air scribe to clear fossil bones and teeth out of matrices. Fossil preparation requires experience and an infinite amount of patience. The best fossil preparators are often highly respected. We were very lucky to have Christopher Kiarie, the best fossil preparator in Kenya, explain to us how fossils from small to large are prepared.


Students looking at fossils collected in the summer with Nyete


Vaishnavi, Mattia, Laura, Dr. Miller and Meg looking at a mysterious piece of fossil


Pamela, Abel and Tristan looking at large elephant bones in the lab


This elephant femur is even taller than Laura!


Tristan cleaning fossil from matrices


Brian trying the air scribe when wearing magnifying glasses


Boyu is totally into it!


Jeanette, Abel and Arbolo (fossil preparator at TBI) observe Pamela doing fossil cleaning

We had another birthday this week! Abel just turned 23 and we all celebrated with him! Happy birthday, Abel!


Abel is taken by a hyena (skull)!


By | 2017-01-04T18:04:39+00:00 October 18th, 2015|Fall 2015, Field Schools|Comments Off on Buried beneath a mountain of bones

About the Author:

Hello! My name is Deming Yang. I am the Resident Academic Director for the Origins Field School, Spring 2018. I am a PhD candidate in the IDPAS program at Stony Brook University and a TBI graduate fellow. Before joining Stony Brook for graduate school, I worked in Kenya for three years and gained amazing field experience. I have broad interests in early hominin evolution and paleoecology. My research is about dietary evolution in Plio-Pleistocene pig lineages.