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Rare Haul of Prehistoric Bones Supports UC Research on Climate Change, Mass Extinction


A University of Cincinnati professor's team of students excavates a large number of rare fossils dating to the time when mastodons died out. WATCH video of students uncovering a mastodon tusk and other items.

Date: 6/24/2013 11:07:00 AM
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: Photos and video by Tom Robinette; additional photo provided by Ken Tankersley

UC ingot   As exacting as science can be, sometimes serendipity leads to the greatest discoveries.

And that's just how Ken Tankersley came about what he calls the biggest paleontological haul to come out of Big Bone Lick State Park since hundreds of specimens were delivered to President Thomas Jefferson in 1808.

"It's science's ugly little secret that no one wants to talk about," says the University of Cincinnati's Tankersley. "All science classes discuss theoretical perspectives. But in every field, serendipity comes in. And this is a wonderful example of serendipity."

Tankersley, an associate professor of anthropology, and 15 of his students have been at the Union, Ky., park since May learning field excavation techniques as part of a seven-week long summer course called "Surviving Climate Change." Data obtained during class can help students analyze how ancient species adapted – or didn't – to climate change.


Their first digs had uncovered very little. With only a couple classes remaining and desperate to find something substantial, they began excavating new sites along the tree-lined creek bed. That's when Megan Long, a double major in anthropology and archaeology, nearly stepped on a bone fragment that was more than 18,000 years old.

"We were thinking we weren't going to find anything in this field school," says Long of Monroe, Ohio. "In archaeology they teach you surface survey, and I noticed something by my foot. I picked it up and at first it felt like wood or rock. But then I cleaned it off, and I recognized it was trabecular bone right away."

Long's find drew the attention of the rest of the class. Soon many of them were crouching in the creek, up to their shoulders in cool, cloudy water as they blindly dug their fingers into the sediment for more hidden treasures. Before long they had buckets filled with femurs, molars and various bones from many long-extinct animal species. Among the animals represented were: American mastodon, ice age horse, ancient bison, woodland musk ox and ground sloth. Perhaps the prize find was a mastodon tusk longer than a king-size bed.
UC students in Ken Tankersley's "Surviving Climate Change" class search for fossils.


Tankersley has been doing research at the 525-acre park for decades, and nearly all the fossils housed in the Big Bone Lick Museum are ones he uncovered in 1981. But he's never seen abundance that compares to this latest excavation.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND MASS EXTINCTION

Tankersley analyzes the team’s findings to support his work on climate change and mass extinction. Radiocarbon dating shows the bone bed is between 18,363 to 19,393 years old, a time period that’s important to his research. He uses anthropological and geological methods to study how sudden and extreme climate change caused large numbers of plant and animal species to go extinct about 12,000 years ago, during what he describes as the last gasp of the last ice age. He recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing what he and a team of international researchers have discovered and offering lessons we can apply today.

"We're trying to figure out what is the truth about climate change and mass extinction," Tankersley says. "We're in a period of climate change, and we're also in a period of mass extinction. We don't see it because we're in this temperate latitude, but if you get down in the tropics on the edge of Amazonia, thousands of species are going extinct. What's the loss of that biodiversity?"
Some of the fossils collected by UC students in Ken Tankersley's "Surviving Climate Change" class.


The "Surviving Climate Change" class introduces students to archaeological, paleoenvironmental, paleontological and other Quaternary science field techniques. This summer is the first time Tankersley has taught the class at Big Bone Lick, an ideal location thanks to its rich history of paleontology. Millennia ago, the salt lick was surrounded by swampland, and prehistoric animals were drawn there to drink the mineral-rich waters. The enormous weight of mastodons and other megafauna often caused them to become trapped in the mire where they were easy prey for predators. The remains of the swamp's victims have drawn the curiosity of explorers and scientists – including Jefferson – for centuries.

"The truth is, what we're doing here, no one will ever forget that," Tankersley says. "You'll never forget what a mastodon tooth felt like."

COLLABORATION AND INNOVATION

The class out of the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences is made possible through a series of partnerships with Big Bone Lick State Park, the Kentucky State Parks system and the Cincinnati Museum Center. It's also an interdisciplinary effort involving UC faculty from anthropology, geology and education. For example, Linda Plevyak, an associate professor in the School of Education, is working with Tankersley's group to develop an interactive questionnaire that gives park visitors insight on the scientific and educational bounty at Big Bone Lick.

The multiple partnerships and blend of disciplines helped Tankersley secure financial support from UC Forward, the university's teaching and learning initiative designed to inspire innovation and collaboration.

"One of the things I think UC does better than anyone else is interdisciplinary work," Tankersley says. "You can accomplish so much more and you have so much more intellectual power if you work together in a team from various disciplines. I've taught in many different places, and no place I've been does this with as much passion and encouragement."