‘Thunder Beast’ and Little Feet: How Westminster’s Young Geology Department Continues to Blossom

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A group of about a dozen students recovered this brontothere skull in northwestern Nebraska this summer. PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.

BY JIM MALVEN
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF 

Having the chance to excavate a gigantic, 35-million-year-old skull and help elementary-school students learn about paleontology are just some of the unique opportunities offered by Westminster’s young Geology Department.


The Thunder Beast

While searching for fossils in Nebraska’s Oglala National Grassland during the summer of 2015, Associate Professor of Environmental Science Dr. David Schmidt and a team of students discovered what Schmidt called “probably the most exciting thing [he has] ever seen in the field.”

The brisk winds of the Nebraska plains had partially exposed a large, round fossil that Schmidt guessed was either a skull or a hip bone. Unfortunately for the group, the fossil lay about 10 meters outside their land permit. However, Schmidt applied for and received an addendum from the U.S. Forest Service, granting them access to the specimen.

A year later, Schmidt and another group of students, some of them from the 2015 expedition, returned to the site to excavate the fossil. After performing some fieldwork, the group learned that the fossil was a skull and that it belonged to a member of the brontothere family, a group of large ungulates that are most closely related to the modern horse.

“In appearance, they were as large as an African elephant, and the body resembled rhinos, but instead of a horn at the end of its nose, it has a large bifurcated club,” Schmidt said. He added that the name “brontothere” comes from a local indigenous term meaning “thunder beast.”

The name “brontothere” comes from a local indigenous term meaning “thunder beast.”

Schmidt said that brontotheres lived about 30 to 55 million years ago, during a geological period known as the Eocene. He said that, according to radiometric dating techniques, the specimen he and the students collected is approximately 35 million years old.

“These brontotheres are among the largest varieties and were very abundant during this time, probably living in large herds across much of western South Dakota, western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming,” Schmidt said.

As the group removed the fossil, the group wrapped it in a plaster jacket and then carried it to a van about 200 yards away. Later, they transported it to a lab room in Coulter Science Center and removed the plaster jacket.

Recently, Schmidt has been using a micro jack, a small jackhammer powered by compressed air to remove the fossilized sediment surrounding the bone, known as the matrix, from the skull. He said that his ultimate goal is to identify the specimen to its highest taxonomic level and that he needs to access the skull and teeth in order to do so.

“We are preparing the skull so we can see the details in the tooth morphology (shape) and bone,” Schmidt said. “To determine the taxonomic relationship of a fossil organism, the morphology of the skull and teeth retain the most information.

“[The fossil] is probably the most significant find of my career,” [Schmidt] said. “You dream of that.”

Schmidt said he anticipates that the skull will be fully prepared by sometime early next school year.

“It is a very slow and tedious process,” he said, adding that several students will join him in working on the fossil after they complete other projects.

Despite the slowness, Schmidt said that the discovery, excavation and preparation of the fossil have been very exciting.

“[The fossil] is probably the most significant find of my career,” he said. “You dream of that.”

Allison Schott, ’17, who participated in the 2015 and 2016 expeditions and helped excavate the brontothere skull, said that finding recovering fossils in the Badlands area has been one “of the high points of [her] college career.”

“It’s a really cool experience being out in the field, and it was almost therapeutic for me,” Schott said. “I would recommend this experience to any Westminster student, because it can change your life or it can be a really amazing experience.”

Young Paleontologists

Last month, Schmidt and Schott were joined in their Historical Geology lab by 41 elementary-school students from Explore, Enrich, Research, a program for gifted students from Jefferson City Public Schools.

E.E.R. teacher Ruthie Caplinger explained that students attend classes for the program on a weekly basis and sometimes go on field trips to supplement their in-class learning. She said that 41 of her 90 students are studying paleontology, or the study of fossils, while the remaining 49 are learning about the brain.

Each of the 41 students who are focused on paleontology have been studying a specific animal from the Cretaceous or Paleocene period that has been found in Nebraska and South Dakota. The students will create a poster about their animal and present their posters to Schmidt’s class on April 3. The event will be open to all members of the Westminster community.

On Jan. 23, the E.E.R. students attended Schmidt’s Historical Geology lab, to get a better understanding of paleontology. The E.E.R. students engaged in activities such as cleaning small fossils found near the brontothere skull, forming fossil molds and creating geological timelines, all with guidance from Schmidt’s students.

While scraping fossils with Westminster students, fourth grader Sydney Hartley said, “I want to go somewhere and find these,” adding that she enjoyed working with the tooth fragments the most.

Anna McDonald, also in the fourth grade, called the brontothere skull “really cool” and said that she might make a hobby out of paleontology in the future.

“I want to go somewhere and find these.”  –Fourth grader Sydney Hartley

When asked about the young students’ enthusiasm, Schmidt said, “That’s another reason we do what we do; it inspires the next generation of eager scientists.”

Schmidt’s students said they enjoyed collaborating with the E.E.R. students.

“Those kids were extremely intelligent, and I loved working with them. I’d say we have a bright future,” said Devin Brown, ’18, who participated in the 2015 expedition.

Schott commented: “Working with the kids was really cool. I’m excited to hear about the research they are doing and super jealous that they are able to have this experience so early in their education.”

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E.E.R. students show off the tooth fragments they cleaned in Schmidt’s Historical Geology lab. PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.

A Blooming Program

Westminster’s geology students are also involved in several of their own projects. For example, sophomores Leticia Ferreira and KaWai Wu are working on using stable oxygen isotopes from bone phosphate of tooth enamel to help reconstruct ancient environmental conditions. Meanwhile, Sawyer Young, ’18, and Ahmed Baqai, 17, have begun constructing a quarry map of the fossil bone bed where the 2015 group discovered the brontothere skull.

“We literally have dozens and dozens of exciting projects waiting for students to take on in the future,” Schmidt said.

“I’ve been around since the program started three years ago, and it has bloomed into one of the greatest programs on our campus.” –Allison Schott, ’17

Schott said that she thinks Westminster’s Geology Department is widely “underappreciated.”

“I’ve been around since the program started three years ago, and it has bloomed into one of the greatest programs on our campus,” she said.

Schott added that she has gone on many Geology-Department-sponsored field trips, which make the program unique.

“We get to learn about things in class and then experience them ourselves on these trips. It allows us to apply our knowledge in the real world, so I feel that I really know my stuff in geology,” she said. “It is hands down one of the best programs at Westminster and it does not get the recognition it deserves.”

 

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