Charles Marshall, Professor

Open (1) Isolating and documenting 385-million-year-old microarthropod fossils from organic residue

Open. Apprentices needed for the fall semester. Enter your application on the web beginning August 18th. The deadline to apply is Monday, August 30th at 9 AM.

The colonization of land by plants and animals from the oceans was pivotal in our planet’s history, leading to major climate change and the evolution of the great forests, dinosaurs, and our own species. However, the first terrestrial and freshwater aquatic ecosystems are poorly understood due to a spotty fossil record. Sedimentary rocks from the Catskills Mountains in New York provide rare evidence of some of the earliest complex terrestrial communities, preserving 385-million-year-old (Middle Devonian) fossils of arthropods (e.g., centipedes and scorpions), as well as the oldest known trees and a range of other fossils. Our project will focus on exceptionally preserved freshwater microscopic arthropods from this region, which open a key window into early freshwater life and will be important in reconstructing food webs from this period. The first step, however, is recovering and documenting the fossils.
The arthropod fossils are tiny (micrometers to millimeters), flattened fragments embedded in mudstone. To extract the fossils, the rock is placed in hydrofluoric acid, which dissolves (macerates) the surrounding silica-based mudstone, leaving carbon-based plant and animal material intact. For every recognizable fossil, there is a great deal of decomposed organic matter – recovering the fossils requires carefully sifting through this material under a stereo microscope.

The URAP student will help us search through already macerated rock to discover microfossils, isolate and document the specimens, and prepare microscope slides. The work includes use of stereo and compound microscopes, and the student will learn techniques for manipulating microscopic specimens and mounting samples on permanent slides. The student will be trained in recognizing and handling fossils by day-to-day supervisor Tanner Frank, who will work closely with the student. This project is an opportunity for a student to gain hands-on experience in paleontology, discovering fossils from an exciting, largely unexplored site. The skills learnt will be applicable to palynology, invertebrate paleontology, and paleoecology. The eventual goal of this project is to reconstruct the fossil community and its associated food web, and we hope the student will engage with these concepts during their time working with us, via discussions and in making observations from the samples.

Day-to-day supervisor for this project: Tanner Frank, Ph.D. candidate

Qualifications: Attention to detail, patience, and fine motor skills for handling fragile microscopic specimens will be important in this project. The student should also be curious and motivated to participate in paleontological research. No specific knowledge is required, but any background in paleontology, geology, or arthropod zoology would be helpful, as would experience working with microscopes or spreadsheets.

Weekly Hours: to be negotiated

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