Research

WESTERN INTERIOR SEAWAY PALEOECOLOGY

Kansas has a rich paleontological history dating back to the advent of fossil collecting in North America.  The big draw then and now are the Late Cretaceous marine sediments, as these sediments hold the remains of spectacular marine animals and evidence of the environments of the Western Interior Seaway.  Many lab projects involve specimens in the Sternberg Museum collection collected from local limestones/chalks and shales.  Information on these organisms that lived in the ancient ocean covering central North America helps us put together the pieces of ecosystems structure – how organisms interacted with each other and their environments. Body size evolution, stable isotope geochemistry, biomechanics, geometric morphometrics, and fauna reconstructions are just some of the methods being used to understand Western Interior Seaway ecologic structure. Of particular interest is species distribution, trophic structure, and how ecosystems change with latitude up and down the Seaway.  Comparisons to modern organisms and ecosystems and between different geographic regions are important to our paleoecological studies.

Relevant Publications:

  • Wilson, L.E., Chin, K., Cumbaa, S.L. 2016. A new hesperornithiform (Aves) specimen from the Late Cretaceous Canadian High Arctic with comments on hesperornithiform diet. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 53(12): 1476-1483. (Link)
  • Wilson, L.E., Chin, K., Cumbaa, S, Dyke, G. 2011. A high latitude hesperornithiform (Aves) from Devon Island: Palaeobiogeography and size distribution of North American hesperornithiforms. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 9(1): 9-23. (Link)


BONE HISTOLOGY

Bone growth patterns are affected by phylogeny, ontogeny, biomechanics, and environment, so there is a wealth of data to be uncovered by looking inside bones. Structures like vascular canals, osteocyte lacunae, and collagen fibers are preserved during fossilization and can tell us how an animal grew and lived.  Using our histology prep lab at Fort Hays State University and the Sternberg Museum, we are able to explore how various factors affect bone growth in extinct and extant organisms.

I am particularly interested in the effects of climate and behavior on bone growth. Recently, researchers have attempted to used bone histology to interpret whether extinct animals migrated or overwintered in harsh/high-latitude environments, but have come to very mixed conclusions. Other histology projects are exploring ontogeny – what happens to an organism between when it is born/hatched and when it dies? Different animals grow at different rates, and animals grow differently as juveniles than as adults. Consequently, understanding the changes in growth patterns through the life of an animal is necessary to interpret life history characteristics (skeletal maturity, sexual maturity, parental behavior, etc.).  Additionally, histology is currently the only way we can determine the age of an extinct animal when it died, so is becoming a prominent tool in many facets of vertebrate paleontology. Lab members are currently exploring the ontogeny of Hesperornis birds, Ptranodon pterosaurs, Clidastes mosasaurs, and Dolichorhynchops plesiosaurs.

Relevant Publications:

  • Wilson, L.E., Chin, K. 2014. Comparative osteohistology of Hesperornis with reference to pygoscelid penguins: The effects of climate and behaviour on avian bone microstructure. Royal Society Open Science 1:140245. (Link)
  • Padian, K., de Boef Miara, M., Larsson, H.C.E., Wilson, L.E., Bromage, T. 2013. Chapter 10: Research applications and integration. In Bone Histology of Fossil Tetrapods: Issues, Methods, and Databases (eds. Padian, K, Lamm, E.-T.), University of California Press, Berkeley. (Link and Link)

MUSEUM STUDIES

Natural history museums play an important role in science education – from fostering exploration of the natural world in children to encouraging life long learning in adults. Member of the Wilson Paleontology Lab not only plan and implement outreach activities at the Sternberg Museum, but lab members also work to safeguard museum resources, understand visitor experiences, and develop new educational opportunities. Students pursuing a museum studies emphasis work with paleontology staff in collections and the fossil prep lab to preserves specimens, data, and metadata, the exhibits team to design new exhibits, education specialists to design and implement public programming, and statisticians and marketing experts to understand visitor demographics and experiences. These projects not only benefit the Sternberg Museum, but provide hands-on opportunities for students pursuing museum careers.

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