October 11, 2019
Paleontology is a study of the history of life. It not only covers a time span of hundreds of millions of years, but also has a geographical scope that is truly global. Progress and breakthroughs in paleontology require for scientists to study fossils on different continents, and depend on the collaboration of a myriad of research institutions across the world. As we found this summer, it takes a journey of thousands of miles, for students and professors alike, to study fossils on different continents, in an effort to truly understand the history of life.
Under the guidance of Dr. Zhe-Xi Luo, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, and also working with Dr. Kenneth D. Angielczyk, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago, we did comparative studies of fossil mammals and their evolutionary precursors, also known as synapsids. Our summer fellowship studies began in Chicago: We learned to use computer software to visualize the CT scans of skeletal morphologies of modern mammals and synapsid fossils from Africa, for comparison with fossil mammals and therapsids that we aimed to examine in Beijing. Through comparison of fossil mammals with their living mammalian relatives, it is possible to reconstruct the livelihood of the fossil mammals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.
Once we completed all the requisite work to visualize the CT scans of comparative specimens, we went to China to examine the fossils. During our time in Beijing, we analyzed several mammal fossils from the Jurassic and Cretaceous from the collections of the Beijing Museum of Natural History, gaining valuable insight on the lives of these animals, by comparing these to the specimens of modern mammals for which the function and ecology are known. We also were able to examine the Mesozoic synapsid collections of the Paleozoology Museum at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. By comparing the fossils of China, with the African fossils in the Field Museum of Natural History, we helped a larger team effort to build an incredibly large set of morphology data from which to study the morphometrics and functional adaptations of mammals and their related synapsids from hundreds of millions of years ago.
While being able to study these unique fossils in their country of origin was an incredible experience in and of itself, it was truly interesting to think of the history of life by comparing the mammals from the Age of Dinosaurs with their extant mammal relatives, and by comparing synapsids from China with those from Africa, on a global scale. It was also very special to be able to carry out our student research in the research institutions in Beijing. Working and lunching with the scientists at Beijing Museum, being able to see their same passion for science, made this global aspect of paleontology into something very real and exciting for a future career in the field.
By Andrew Traynor, University of Chicago College Class of 2021