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Collaborating, with the help of the collections

Triassic research group A few weeks ago, we blogged about the discovery of a new species of dinosaur, Tawa hallae. Two UCMP alums, Sterling Nesbitt and Randy Irmis, described this new dino in the journal Science. A few weeks ago, Sterling, Randy, and two of their Tawa co-authors, Nate Smith and Alan Turner, visited the UCMP. They've come from Texas, Utah, Illinois, and New York, to work together and delve into the UCMP's collections. Along with UCMP Faculty Curator Kevin Padian and graduate student Sarah Werning, they are looking at the fossils in old collections — dinosaurs and crocodile relatives that lived around the same time as Tawa, in what is now Arizona and New Mexico.

"We're looking at the old fossils in the context of new ones," says Randy. Many of the fossils were collected by Charles Camp in the 1930s — others were collected even before that. Quite a few were never identified and have not yet been entered in the UCMP’s database. For those specimens that were identified, says Sarah, "we're potentially re-identifying them." There are many new species that were not known when the fossils were last studied. In looking through these old collections, the team could find additional specimens of Tawa, or specimens that represent species that have not yet been described.

Their work in the collections will likely influence their field work plans this summer.  They're returning to the Hayden Quarry, in New Mexico, for their 5th full season. They'll also visit nearby areas where fossils from the old collections were found, years ago. "Some of the big discoveries in paleontology have happened when you re-identify fossils that have already been collected, and then you go back to a particular area to look for more," says Nate.  For example, Tiktaalik, an important fossil that represents an intermediate form between fish and amphibians, was found when paleontologists re-visited a field site in Nunavut, Canada.

The scientific community will reap some benefits as a result of this week's work. As experts in the field of Triassic dinosaurs, "we play a mini-curatorial role," says Nate. They straighten out the identities of the fossils, and they add the specimens to the database, so other researchers can access this information.

When they're not looking through the collections, the team clusters around their laptops in the Padian lab, drinking coffee and Diet Coke and bouncing ideas off each other. It's great to be all in one place, they say. Online communication is "good for getting things started and wrapping things up," says Alan, "but for the meaty part in the middle it's best to be in one place."

This research was made possible in part by the Welles Fund. To learn how you can support research at the UCMP, click here.