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ANCIENT TREASURE: Megan Rice, a senior geology major from Clarion, examines a 300-million-year-old fossil she collected during a Slippery Rock University student-faculty research dig in Nevada.

SRU geologists dig Nevada;
research delves into ancient seaway

First in a series

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Tamra Schiappa, associate professor of geography, geology and the environment, and two geology majors, Meghan Rice and Sarah Schattauer, have been working to unravel the geologic history of Nevada.

Nevada was once the site of an extensive seaway where ancient marine organisms lived. The research trio traveled to Nevada to investigate layers and the fossils preserved in rock to determine the conditions that existed in the ocean basin 300 million years ago. The project embodies Slippery Rock University's commitment to providing student-faculty research opportunities that help students grow and prepare them for graduate school or employment.

"Learning material in the classroom and from books is something every student at the University goes through," said Rice, from Clarion. "Geology, however, is a field-based discipline. You have to know how to work in the field in order to do any kind of research or possibly work as a geologist for oil, gas or coal companies. Field skills need to be learned and practiced."

"The students have really embraced the research experience and benefited in all aspects. In person, they are more confident and their understanding of science has improved. They're going to be very successful," Schiappa said.

The fossils collected by the researchers and the ones in which they are most interested in are an extinct group of marine mollusks called ammonoids. The squid-like animal lived in a shell. The shell is the only thing preserved as fossils as the animals decayed.

By studying the fossils, the SRU researchers have determined that the ancient ocean basin changed from a warm-water to a cold-water basin about 290 million years ago. The researchers are currently trying to determine specific dates by obtaining and analyzing conodont teeth that are preserved within the ammonoid rocks. Conodonts are extinct, soft-bodied scavengers that lived in ancient seas, Schiappa said.

"Preliminary age dates from the conodont samples indicate that the ocean circulation patterns entering the basin changed sometime around 290 million years ago," she said. "Initially the water circulation patterns were from the south carrying with them warm water ammonoid faunas. Then sometime around 285 million years ago the ocean circulation patterns switched from the south to the north. These northern currents brought cold water from the arctic region and transported cold water ammonoid faunas with them."

The team has also identified a new species of extinct ammonoid from this area. This new species will provide scientists with a better understanding of the evolutionary history of a rare ammonoid family, Schiappa said.

Rice said she was thrilled when Schiappa approached her last year and asked her to assist in the research. "Knowing that she and I had spoken about getting involved with a professor's research in the past, I was excited," she said.