Taking Students to the Triassic: An Interview With Paleontologist Robert Gay

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Rob. Can you fill readers in on where you do your research and what area of paleontology you focus on?

Robert Gay: I’m based out of Mission Heights Preparatory High School, a public charter high school located in rural southern Arizona. We are a Title One school, which means that most of our students come from low incomes or flat-out poverty. Despite this we’ve managed to get this program up and running. My focus since I was an undergraduate student at Northern Arizona University has been on Late Triassic and Early Jurassic ecosystems in the American West. I’m especially interested in the rise of the dinosaurs and how they managed to dominate terrestrial ecosystems in the aftermath of the Triassic-Jurassic extinction even. We see in popular books and shows that dinosaurs started out small, running from all kinds of frightening reptiles and what not in the Triassic and then bam there’s Allosaurus, and Brontosaurus, and Ceratosaurus, and Stegosaurus in the Late Jurassic running the show. What happened to go from puny miscreants to world-beating clade? I felt like we were missing part of the story.

To investigate the Jurassic rise of the dinosaurs I’ve been working in the collections at the Museum of Northern Arizona and with the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site in southwestern Utah to try and get a grasp on what was happening in the Kayenta Formation when it was deposited. I’ve also been looking at the Chinle Formation in southeastern Utah with the SGDS and the Natural History Museum of Utah. Between being a GeoCorps intern for the BLM in Moab and my fieldwork with the SGDS/NHMU crew I formulated a plan to bring high school students into the field and help us discover more about the paleontology and geology of the Four Corners area. In addition to my fieldwork with SGDS/NHMU our school has been conducting fieldwork in the Chinle Formation at Comb Ridge, Utah since May of 2014.

Students Xavier Jenkins and Kaitlyn Gutierrez search a test pit for bones. Photo by Robert Gay.
Students Xavier Jenkins and Kaitlyn Gutierrez search a test pit for bones. Photo by Robert Gay.

You do a lot of work, both in the field and lab, with high school students. When did the program get started, and what sort of scientific work do the students engage in?

The genesis of the program had been in my head for a few years. I had been talking about paleontology in my other classes, especially my Bio and Anatomy classes, since our school opened and always had student interest. I also wanted to involve students in “real world” science experiences. I started having some students do very simple ecosystem monitoring work in the local mountain parks but it wasn’t really my passion. Towards the end of 2013 I had several students approach me about teaching a paleontology class. I told them I was ready, willing, and able to do so but our administration had to approve it. Well they talked to our assistant principal at the time, Patrick Brown, who liked the idea. I talked to him and our principal at the time, Matt Chesney, and he also thought it would be good for the students and the school. We started off with one section, just called Paleontology, for 4th Quarter of the 2013-2014 school year. We are now up to four courses; Paleontology 1 (where students learn the history of paleo and a brief overview of life since the Cambrian), Paleontology 2 (which is about the techniques that we use to investigate the past), Advanced Paleontology (an advanced research-based class), and a two week field course at Comb Ridge in the summer. This last one has been generously supported by a grant from the Canyonlands Natural History Association.

In addition to learning about the basics of paleontology (life in the past, evolution, previous paleontologists) we also go over the basic skills required to do paleontology. They get primers in cladistics, reading geologic and topographic maps, creating cross sections from maps, measuring stratigraphic sections, preparing and conserving fossil specimens. They apply all of these skills both in the lab and in the field. This summer students assisted in measuring multiple stratigraphic sections, were very successful in finding new fossil localities, and have helped get specimens ready to be permanently housed at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

In addition students are engaged in helping write up their discoveries. You may recall we published a paper earlier this year in PeerJ where a student of mine and myself described the first occurrence of Crosbysaurus from Utah. We also have a preprint out with some of my students on a tooth found last year and several students are currently engaged in writing up other new discoveries, including other first occurrences and a new taxon. One of my students is the first author on an abstract that was accepted for this year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual meeting in Dallas and will be presenting her poster on our program.

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The first fish fossil from Comb Ridge. Photo by Robert Gay.

How’s this field season been? What finds are you excited about?

The MHP Paleo field season has been very interesting this year! As you know southern Utah has experienced quite a bit of moisture due to a very active El Nino this year. We were flooded out of the main area of Comb Ridge in both March and in part of May. While this disappointed some of the students it also gave us a chance to look at other areas of Comb Ridge that we had not prospected previously. In March some of my students discovered and collected the stratigraphically highest (so youngest) vertebrate fossil from Comb Ridge, just about a dozen meters below the top of the Church Rock Member of the Chinle Formation. In May we were able to get in to the Rainbow Garden area of Comb Ridge. Students collected an amazing amount of microfossils in one day, including many more specimens of Crosbysaurus, phytosaurs, temnospondyl amphibians, and possibly some theropod dinosaur teeth.

Our June fieldwork presented the opposite problem. We were camped at Comb Ridge for two weeks and on Tuesday evening of our first week a huge series of storms swept across southeastern Utah. This caused Comb Wash to flood and trapped us in camp until Monday afternoon of the second week. While our activities were much reduced due to our isolation, students still managed to find new localities and add new animals to our faunal list. Some highlights include the first fish fossil reported from Comb Ridge, additional theropod dinosaur teeth, and a partial phytosaur skull from very low in the formation. This last bit is also interesting and odd because it appears to have been shot (or at least shot at), judging by the numerous spent lead bullets and bullet fragments recovered from the surface in and around the broken pieces of bone.

Once things dried out we were able to get out to see more of Comb Ridge. We discovered new localities at the north end of the Ridge that we will be exploring in the 2016 field season. Students, my field assistant Diana Azouggagh, and myself also worked on measuring several stratigraphic sections. We are hoping that in the next three-to-five years we will be at a point where we can publish a detailed lithostratigraphic paper on Comb Ridge, covering deposition and environmental conditions as well as tying all our fossil localities into the larger geologic time scale. This is a neat project because unlike many other places, Comb Ridge’s outcrops aren’t separated by canyons, valleys, or major faults. Comb Ridge presents one long continuous exposure. Plans are in the works now to utilize the unique nature of this exposure to help students visually understand both the vertical (allochronous) and lateral (synchronous) aspects of stratigraphy – stay tuned for more details!

To go back to Crosbysaurus for a moment –  what was Crosbysaurus, and what makes it such a mystery?

Yes! Last year in May one of my students, Bella St. Aude, discovered an unusual tooth in the lower portion of the Chinle Formation at Comb Ridge. She asked me to identify it and I couldn’t immediately so we took to researching. My friend Andy Heckert, who knows more about Crosbysaurus than probably anyone (he also named the genus) suggested our mystery tooth belonged to this critter. Bella and Andy corresponded quite a bit about her find. When Andy named Crosbysaurus it was thought, like several other tooth-based taxa from the Triassic of North America, to represent a small herbivorous ornithischian dinosaur. Not long after Crosbysaurus was named, however, new fossils were found in Petrified Forest National Park here in Arizona that showed another tooth taxa long assumed to be a dinosaur, Revueltosaurus, was actually not a dinosaur. This cast all other supposed ornithischian teeth into question. This trend has continued with new material from Morocco showing extreme dental convergence between Azendohsaurus and prosauropod dinosaurs. Azendohsaurus isn’t a dinosaur, it isn’t an archosaur, it isn’t even an archosauriform; it is an archosauromorph, a group that includes all of the former groups but has fewer derived characters.

The moral of the story now is that teeth, especially teeth presumed to come from herbivorous animals, should be treated with caution when it comes to assigning a higher-level clade. Without non-dental components of the skeleton (or ideally the skull) we need to recognize that there was a lot of convergence between these groups and saying that we don’t know what exactly this animal was is okay. Which brings us back to Crosbysaurus; we don’t know exactly what this animal was like, what it looked like, or even what higher-order group it belonged to. When I discuss our work with others I usually refer to it as a plant-eating crocodile. This is probably not a bad comparison but no one has ever found a jaw with Crosbysaurus teeth in it so we can’t say for sure. It doesn’t seem like it will end up being a dinosaur when we find more of it – ornithischian dinosaurs seem to be absent from North America in the Triassic and Crosbysaurus lacks a band of enamel around the base of the tooth called a cingulum. We’ve got several more Crosbysaurus teeth from Comb Ridge that we will be publishing in our larger faunal-list paper. Maybe a Crosbysaurus jaw will be found in the near future too. Until then its exact relationships will be a mystery.

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The Comb Ridge crew on the last day of the June field season. From left to right, Xavier Jenkins, Diana Azouggagh, Kaityln Guitierrez, Robert Gay, Jaren Hemphill, Leah Cirks, and Nate Vowels. Photo by Robert Gay.

And now you’re raising money to get a field vehicle for the program. How can people help you achieve that goal?

We are certainly raising money for a field vehicle! Our biggest single expense for the program currently is transportation. A two-night trip to Comb Ridge generally requires the use of two rental minivans and my personal vehicle. This summer we rented two large SUVs to transport all the students to and around the field. While I recognize that having a school vehicle or vehicles doesn’t eliminate all costs (insurance, maintenance, etc.), the annual costs of those are lower than our rental costs and we would have access to vehicles more often. For example: I wanted to take my students to see the Arizona Museum of Natural History during early May. Because we didn’t have access to a small vehicle, the cost became prohibitive and we had to cancel the trip. My students missed out on seeing not only museum displays but also their prep and collections area because we don’t own anything smaller than a large school bus.

Having a school field vehicle (or vehicles) would also cut down on the use of my personal vehicle for fieldwork. I am donating time, mileage, etc. every time I drive my truck up to Comb Ridge for a school trip. Now, I don’t mind doing it but my truck has almost 200,000 miles on it. In June of this year, on a trip with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles my truck had some minor mechanical problems and I was stranded in Moab for most of two days. If we were relying on my vehicle to help support our fieldwork and this happens with students depending on that support that’s a problem. It becomes a bigger problem when you realize that most of our trips are essentially weekend trips: losing two days means a entire class doesn’t do fieldwork.

I am currently running a GoFundMe to help raise money for a field vehicle. It looks like we might be getting a light utility pickup truck donated to us by the end of the year, which will be good for supplies and camp support but it can only haul a couple students, since it just has a standard cab. Still, it is 100% better than what we have now! If our fundraiser doesn’t meet our goal then we’re going to use the money that has been donated to help maintain the donated pickup. I’m hopeful and optimistic, though, that we can reach our goal. If we are able to purchase a used SUV and have a pickup donated to us that will solve the majority of our field logistic issues. We could run our summer field school without a problem on a truck and SUV and the school-year fieldwork would be done with one rented car instead of two minivans, reducing our costs. The truck is going to be great because we can load lots of gear and fossils into the bed and potentially haul a trailer. With an SUV students can get back into the field and do the hands on fieldwork that makes our program work.

Please help Rob and his students continue to investigate the Triassic. You can donate to his GoFundMe page here.