Western Interior Seaway Paleoecology

Occupancy modeling of Hesperornis sea birds within the Late Campanian Western Interior Seaway. Study by MS student Blake Chapman (2022).

Kansas has a rich paleontological history dating back to the advent of fossil collecting in North America. The big draw then and now are the Late Cretaceous marine sediments, as these sediments hold the remains of spectacular marine animals and evidence of the environments of the Western Interior Seaway. Many lab projects involve specimens in the Sternberg Museum collection collected from local carbonates and shales.  Information on these organisms that lived in the ancient ocean covering central North America helps us put together the pieces of ecosystems structure – how organisms interacted with each other and their environments. Body size evolution, stable isotope geochemistry, biomechanics, geometric morphometrics, and fauna reconstructions are just some of the methods being used to understand Western Interior Seaway ecologic structure. Of particular interest is species distribution, trophic structure, and how ecosystems change with latitude up and down the Seaway.  Comparisons to modern organisms and ecosystems and between different geographic regions are important to our paleoecological studies, as well as enhance our understand of future evolution in today’s warming climate.

Relevant Publications:

  • Wilson, L.E. 2019. A bird’s eye view: Hesperornithiforms as environmental indicators in the Late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 122(3-4): 193-213. (Link)
  • Wilson, L.E., Chin, K., Cumbaa, S.L. 2016. A new hesperornithiform (Aves) specimen from the Late Cretaceous Canadian High Arctic with comments on hesperornithiform diet. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 53(12): 1476-1483. (Link)
  • Wilson, L.E., Chin, K., Cumbaa, S, Dyke, G. 2011. A high latitude hesperornithiform (Aves) from Devon Island: Palaeobiogeography and size distribution of North American hesperornithiforms. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 9(1): 9-23. (Link)

Bone Histology

Bone growth patterns are affected by phylogeny, ontogeny, biomechanics, and environment, so there is a wealth of data to be uncovered by looking inside bones. Structures like vascular canals, osteocyte lacunae, and collagen fibers are preserved during fossilization and can tell us how an animal grew and lived.  Using our histology research lab at Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum, we are able to explore how various factors affect bone growth in extinct and extant organisms.

Many of our histology projects are exploring ontogeny – what happens to an organism between when it is born/hatched and when it dies? Different animals grow at different rates, and animals grow differently as juveniles than as adults. Consequently, understanding the changes in growth patterns through the life of an animal is necessary to interpret life history characteristics (skeletal maturity, sexual maturity, parental behavior, etc.).  Additionally, histology is currently the only way we can determine the age of an extinct animal when it died, so is becoming a prominent tool in many facets of vertebrate paleontology.

Thin section through the humerus of the Late Cretaceous sea turtle Desmatochelys.

Dr. Wilson is currently working to understand the life history of sea turtles by studying their bone growth. An animal’s life history encompasses everything from metabolism to age at sexual maturity to age at skeletal maturity. A primary goal of this research is conservation paleobiology: the application of paleontological data to conservation and restoration of extant populations and ecosystem. She is also interested in the effects of climate and behavior on bone growth. For example, researchers have attempted to used bone histology to interpret whether extinct animals migrated or overwintered in harsh/high-latitude environments, but have come to very mixed conclusions. By comparing ancient bird bone histology to modern penguin populations, we can better understand how migration or overwintering affect bone growth. 

Lab members are currently exploring Protostega sea turtle life history, Pteranodon pterosaur ontogeny, Clidastes mosasaur ontogeny, and Dolichorhynchops plesiosaur growth using bone histology. Work is also being undertaken on modern Pygoscelis penguins and sea turtle populations.

Relevant Publications:

  • Wilson, L.E., Chin, K. 2014. Comparative osteohistology of Hesperornis with reference to pygoscelid penguins: The effects of climate and behaviour on avian bone microstructure. Royal Society Open Science 1:140245(Link)
  • Padian, K., de Boef Miara, M., Larsson, H.C.E., Wilson, L.E., Bromage, T. 2013. Chapter 10: Research applications and integration. In Bone Histology of Fossil Tetrapods: Issues, Methods, and Databases (eds. Padian, K, Lamm, E.-T.), University of California Press, Berkeley. (Link and Link)

Museum Studies

Natural history museums play an important role in science education – from fostering exploration of the natural world in children to encouraging life long learning in adults. Members of the Wilson Paleontology Lab not only plan and implement outreach activities at the Sternberg Museum, but lab members also work to safeguard museum resources, understand visitor experiences, and develop new educational opportunities. Students pursuing a museum studies emphasis work with paleontology staff in collections and the fossil prep lab to preserves specimens, data, and metadata; they work with the exhibits team to design new exhibits; they collaborate with education specialists to design and implement public programming; and they work with statisticians and marketing experts to understand visitor demographics and experiences. These projects not only benefit the Sternberg Museum and greater natural history museum community, but provide hands-on opportunities for students pursuing museum careers.

Relevant Publications:

  • Wilson, L.E., de Boef Miara, M. 2013. Chapter 6: Database Standaradization. In Bone Histology of Fossil Tetrapods: Issues, Methods, and Databases (eds. Padian, K, Lamm, E.-T.), University of California Press, Berkeley. (Link and Link)

Other Relevant Publications:

  • Field, D.J., Hanson, M., Burnham, D. Wilson, L.E., Super, K., Ehret, D., Ebersole, J.A., Bhullar, B-A., S. 2018. Complete Ichthyornis skull shows unforeseen mosaicism late in the dinosaur-bird transition. Nature 557: 96-100.