Lamar University students complete geology tour
Five Lamar University students, two volunteers and their instructor, Jim Westgate, returned home after a two-week trip June 21-July 4 that took them to locations in Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
The field course takes geology and earth science majors to geologically significant sites in the central U.S. Travel is an essential part of the course because little of the fossil record can be found in the soils of Southeast Texas. To read time on the geologic scale you’ve got to go to the rock.
“Nothing can replace the experience of a seeing what we’ve been studying in the real-world,” said Westgate, professor of earth and space science.
The Lamar group did get their hands dirty, bulk sampling five tons of fossil pond sediments that were then screen washed down to about 250 pounds to be processed in the geology laboratory on campus, Westgate said. This material will be painstakingly examined under powerful binocular microscopes for significant fossil materials that are evidence of a mammal community.
Concentrate from bulk samples collected on this expedition will provide evidence from the first late Uintan age (42-41 million-year-old) micro-mammal community discovered in the Rocky Mountains’ geologic basins, Westgate said. Micro-mammals, such as rodents, small primates, shrews and mouse opossums provide evidence of climate fluctuations that did not impact larger mammals such as horses and rhinos. During more than 100 years of collecting late Uintan mammal fossils in the Uinta Basin, medium and large mammal remains have dominated the discoveries.
“Documentation of evolutionary shifts in the small mammal community in the Rocky Mountains at this time is significant because the initial glaciation of Antarctica was occurring simultaneously and signaled the beginning of a long-term shift from the dinosaur-age “Greenhouse Earth” conditions to the “Icehouse Earth” climatic regime which continues today,” Westgate said.
Funds for Westgate’s LU Research Enhancement Grant will become available in September to support student assistants in conducting microscope analysis on samples to recover sand-grained size micro-mammal teeth during fall and spring semesters. Their results will determine the focus of next summer’s expedition to the Uinta Basin. Analysis of the Uinta Basin’s paleontologic treasures is a multi-university effort. The LU team worked alongside field crews comprised of researchers from the College of Charleston, S.C., Midwestern University, Ariz., UCLA and the University of Iowa.
“We dug and washed a ton and a quarter of material each day for four days,” said Westgate who has been a member of Lamar’s faculty since 1989. In addition, the students collected samples of the Eocene Epoch Green River formation’s “oil shale” to search for fossil evidence of a 48-million-year-old forest.
It wasn’t all hard work. The group enjoyed whitewater rafting in Split Mountain Canyon on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Closer to home, the class visited the oldest rock in Texas at Enchanted Rock State Park near Fredericksburg and Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose.
The group hiked Carlsbad Caverns and witnessed the bat flight, then toured the Rockies from Los Alamos, N.M., to Durango, Colo. The students camped at the 10,000-foot elevation in the Spanish Peaks in south-central Colorado, and visited Dinosaur Ridge near Denver.
“Both the science and the scenery are breathtaking,” said Westgate. “It’s a real eye-opener every time we go.”