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LU part of NSF grant to excavate in the Uinta Basin, Utah

Lamar University’s Utah paleontology team received a National Science Foundation three-year grant for approximately $764,000. The grant will fund a multi-university collaborative project titled, “Collaborative Research: After the Bridgerian Crash: An Integrated Analysis of Mammalian Paleocommunities and Paleoecologies During the Middle Eocene” to excavate and study 40 million-year-old mammal and associated reptile fossils in the Uinta Basin near Vernal, Utah.

James Westgate, former LU professor of Earth and Space Sciences and Regents' Professor Emeritus of Earth & Space Sciences, has been working with the team to achieve the grant for the past eight years. He and several students have explored the 40-million-year-old Uinta Formation exposed as "badlands" southeast of Vernal, UT as well as the tropical rain forest at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, to compare the two regions.

“Our preliminary evidence indicates that 40 million years ago, global climates were much warmer than today’s and Utah’s Uinta Basin was home to a tropical rain forest inhabited by a diverse mammalian community including tarsier primates and mouse opossums, similar to modern species endemic to today’s tropical rain forests,” said Westgate. “Mammal fossils we have recovered suggest that a tropical rain forest existed in northeast Utah during deposition of the Uinta formation.”

The research team is comprised of paleontologists from Lamar University, Midwestern University, UCLA, San Diego Museum of Natural History, Grand Valley State University and Rochester Museum & Science Center. The grant budget includes funding for two LU students to serve as field assistants during three summers.

“The funding from NSF will allow us to the conduct the first comprehensive study of the fauna and flora of the Uinta Formation including mammals, reptiles, fish and pollen which lived during a time of global warming,” said Westgate. “The fossil mammals from the Uinta Formation are the type community for the Uintan North American Land Mammal Age and are used throughout North America to date mammal communities that lived here between 46-40 million years ago. We also have funding to send samples to a lab to get the first Uinta Formation radiometric dates using uranium-bearing zircon sand grains.”

Select student teams have been assisting Westgate in paleontological research on Uintan age fossils since 2007 at an important micro-mammal (rabbit-size and smaller mammals) site called “The pond site.” These teams have helped to quarry 38 tons of claystone and screen-washed it recovering all objects larger than 1 mm in diameter. To date, about 1,000 complete mammal molars and thousands of fish and reptile specimens have been discovered.

“This project is especially important to LU’s undergraduate majors because it gives them real world research experience in the field and a chance to present discoveries at scientific conferences,” said Westgate.