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Scientists Overcome Barriers From Pandemic To Find Wyoming Fossils

Scott Wing
Plant fossils are often destroyed in the excavation process. But Currano says they can be glued back together.

In a normal year, University of Wyoming associate professor in botany and geology Ellen Currano would spend about a month searching for plant fossils. But in the midst of the pandemic last summer, Currano wasn't allowed to do her usual research.

Typically, Currano said the first step in the process is pouring over geologic maps. Once she picks a broad area to study, she goes there to walk and drive around. Currano looks for drab gray and brown rocks because plants aren't preserved inside darker rocks.

"Before they became rock, they were exposed on the surface for a long time. There were worms crunching things up. There were roots growing through things," she said. "You're not going to find plant fossils in those."

Once she identifies a good target, Currano digs out the biggest hunk of rock she can. And then, she smacks it with a hammer.

"Inevitably, you're going to damage some of the fossils," said Currano. "That's kind of the big difference between paleobotany and the dinosaur or the hominid paleontology that folks are more used to, where dinosaurs are rare, human ancestors are incredibly rare, so every fossil is precious."

Once she finds the fossils, she wraps them in toilet paper and takes them back to the lab to study.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History research scientist Scott Wing was also not allowed to go into the field.

"I started feeling really homesick for Wyoming because I always go to Wyoming in the summer, and I always look for fossils, and it's always kind of the highlight of my year," he said.

To console himself, Wing started flying around the state in Google Earth looking for possible fossil sites. He said he became addicted to it.

Credit Scott Wing
An example of a plant fossil.

"I started doing that and I started thinking, 'I think I can recognize the kinds of places that I have become used to seeing walking over one hill and looking at the next hill. You know, I think I can see some of those features on this Google Earth image,'" said Wing.

He marked the locations of possible fossils. Later in the summer, Wing finally got approval to travel to Wyoming.

"I just started driving around to these places that I had marked in my GPS to see if my hunches based on the Google Earth images were any good," he said. "After a couple of weeks it became clear, 'Oh yeah, about half of these are panning out.'"

Half may not seem like a lot, but Wing said it's a much higher success rate than normal.

It was important for Wing and Currano to study the impact climate change has on life, so they are using the fossils to explore an ancient climate change event that occurred some 56 million years ago. Wing said it can help scientists understand global warming today.

"It involved an enormous release of carbon, something like the amount of carbon contained in all of the modern day fossil fuel reservoirs," he said. "The release was, geologically speaking, quite fast."

Wing said the climate warmed by about ten degrees fahrenheit and rainfall became sporadic.

According to Currano, the size and shape of leaves before and after the event are key to measuring the change in climate.

"Wetter regions have more diverse plant life and wetter regions tend to have plants with larger leaves," she said.

Currano and Wing agreed that Wyoming is the best place to understand what climate change was like for organisms and how it altered ecosystems. This summer, they are using Google Earth to identify more fossil locations for their research.

Ashley is a PhD student in Astronomy and Physics at UW. She loves to communicate science and does so with WPM, on the Astrobites blog, and through outreach events. She was born in Colorado and got her BS in Engineering Physics at Colorado School of Mines. Ashley loves hiking and backpacking during Wyoming days and the clear starry skies at night!

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