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Pair studies fragments of prehistory

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | July 14, 2012 6:30 AM

When asked what they did over the summer, two Flathead High School alumni will be able to say they spent several weeks in China trying to piece together the prehistoric past using fragments of fossilized dinosaur eggs.

Hannah Wilson, a 2011 Flathead graduate, and Robert Rader, a 2008 Flathead graduate, went on a paleontology trip May 17 through June 19 in China’s Zhejiang Province, studying dinosaur eggs at the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History in Hangzhou.

Wilson just completed her freshman year at Montana State University majoring in history and economics while Rader finished his junior year at the University of Montana and is majoring in geoscience.

They were among nine students chosen from across the state to participate in the International Research Experience for Students program through National Science Foundation grants.

Wilson was intrigued by paleontology after taking a course on dinosaurs through Montana State University Associate Professor of Paleontology David Varricchio in the fall.

“That was the beginning,” Wilson said. “I like the mystery of fossils. In general, it’s like a big puzzle. You find bits and pieces of fossils and have to reconstruct them to see what it looked like, but you’re never completely sure what an organism looked like millions of years ago, how it died or how it lived.”   

Wilson and Rader worked alongside Varricchio in China.

They spent a majority of their time looking at incomplete eggs from the museum’s extensive collection to decipher if holes or cracks found in eggs were made from hatchlings, predators or the natural elements.

“A lot of eggs were fragmented. Some are about the size of a grapefruit or an orange and they are black, almost perfectly round. Previous research said the holes were from hatchlings. We disagreed. Some hatched, but maybe they were crushed over time. We’re still very early in the research process,” Rader said, noting he has yet to study data collected during the trip.

While in China, the students also traveled to Shanghai, Beijing and various rural areas to conduct a week of fieldwork and learn about the culture.

“The program enabled you to interact with local Chinese people, eat authentically and explore the culture,” Wilson said.

Field research and study were different in China compared to the United States. Wilson said there was not much emphasis on documenting field findings.

Wilson said this was a challenge. In the museum, the students did not have documented clues of where or how fossils were found since many of the specimens were dropped off by local farmers or construction workers. Something as simple as deciphering the round egg’s top or bottom was challenging without documenting the position fossils were found in the field, Wilson said.

“A project I took on was trying to identify the tops and bottoms of eggs. We didn’t know how they were laid,” Wilson said.

Wilson said she learned valuable skills in museum exhibit preparation, field exploration, lab work and writing professional research papers.

“The program gave a good sense of what a research project entails,” Wilson said. “I believe the ability to properly execute the scientific method is really important and it’s something I hope to improve upon in my own skill set.”

Wilson, who was an International Baccalaureate student at Flathead, said the baccalaureate program helped her appreciate an interdisciplinary education. She described it as “holistic” learning.

“I would definitely credit the International Baccalaureate program for being able to do all this,” Wilson said.

Both Wilson and Rader are working on research papers with fellow participants on the trip in hopes of publishing and presenting at conferences.

Additionally Wilson is working on papers to submit to the International Symposium on Dinosaur Eggs and Babies in Hangzhou. If accepted, she would present her research at the conference.

Wilson and Rader have extended their fossil digs over the summer. Wilson is in Choteau chipping away at rocks to find more fossilized eggs while Rader is in Bear Gulch searching for fish fossils.

“Yesterday we found a really beautiful Troodon dinosaur tooth,” Wilson said, noting that the Troodon is closely related to birds.

After Wilson graduates, she wants to attend law school while Rader plans to pursue a master’s program in paleontology.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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