From field sampling to published paper: How a scientist works.
At ACAD we are committed to mentoring the next generation of researchers and often conduct seminars to primary/high school students about our work. This page is designed as a resource for Science Teachers to help develop their science topic for classroom teaching. Our topics are based on our research themes, such as: Conservation Paleontology, Forensics, Human Evolution, Megafunal Extinctions and Impacts of Climate Change, and include aspects of our researchers's work from sampling out in the field to writing results in a peer reviewed journal.
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Recently, a team of researchers visited the Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming, US and the Yukon in Canada to undertake field sampling. Samples from these expiditions were brought back and stored in our quarantined labs and subsequently analysed for viable DNA to answer our research questions.
Natural Trap Cave (NTC) Project
To test what effects the end-Pleistocene extinctions had on the genetic diversity of Pleistocene and Holocene species, and if changes in morphology are correlated with adaptation or with immigration and which haplotypes correspond to each morphotype.Below ACAD's Director, Alan Cooper, answers some of the fequently asked questions about his recent field work in Wyoming and the Yukon:
How do horns grow?
The outside of horns are keratin - like our hair, and are secreted from cells in the skin in the same sort of way. The inside of the horn is generally bone - like on the frozen bison skull we were digging up.
How can we tell the age of tusks?
Mammoth tusks have yearly growth rings that you can see along the outside - so you can easily count them to work out how old the mammoth is.
How do you tell what bones are from what animals?
Some of the leg bones of herbivores look pretty similar, so are hard to tell apart - but once you spend some time working with the Ice Age mammals you can quickly identify which animal owned the bones you find..
Why are there dents/scratches in reindeer horns?
You see similar marks on the end of many of the bones as well, and they show where animals have been chewing on the bones - either to get at the marrow inside, or for calcium and nutrients. In some cases, it's actually other reindeer chewing on discarded antlers for calcium.
How many bones were collected?
On this trip we collected around 120 bones from the Yukon permafrost, but only about 30 or so from Natural Trap Cave. It was the first year of a 3 year program at the cave so we were more focussed on the logistics of getting people in and out, and working out what sections of the cave to dig. We'll get a lot more material next year.
Why don't we find good fossils in Australia?
It is so hot here that we don't get great preservation of mammal bones over the same sort of time periods. There are a few exceptions, such as the mountains in Tasmania where we've done a bit of work, but there is nothing like the tens of thousands of bones we can find in the permafrost.
What is your favourite fossil find?
In the Yukon permafrost, I was really pleased with the baby mammoth jaw as it had such a beautiful tooth in it. In Natural Trap Cave the camel leg bone was the best by far, as it is a rare species and the bone was in great condition
How do you map/record where the fossils were found?
In the cave we use a grid of string lines, which have West and North measurements labelled on them. We record the grid position where the bone is found, and the depth below the string
What was the biggest fossil found?
I believe the biggest fossil we found was the lovely frozen bison skull, which was so wide and soild (it is the one in the video). The bison had enormously wide horns at that time - as the horn sheath would have been much longer than the bony horn cores that remain.
Where did we store the bison skull?
The bones are stored in local museums in Canada and North America - we only bring a small sample of bone or tooth back to Adelaide to work on. A sample about 2cm square is enough to do DNA analysis, radiocarbon dating, and studies of dietary isotopes to see what the animal was eating
Why do Australian researchers go to the US to get bones?
Simply because the fossils are not well preserved in Australia due to the temperatures. If we want to study how climate changes impact animal populations, and how species adapt and change to survive, we need to look at past examples of major climate shifts such as those preserved in the records of these bones.
What happens when the video recording gear doesn't work?
We need to double check the notes we are taking, and use photographs of the bones and the site they're found in to make sure that everything is recorded at least twice.
What safety issues are required?
It is pretty important to set up the ropes and safety gear for the cave pretty carefully, as we had a number of novices along who weren't familar with either caving or vertical rope work. A key issue was to make sure that no one was walking around the edge of the cave entrance as there was a lot of loose rock that could accidentally be dislodged and roll down into the entrance. After falling 100 ft (30m) a stone the size of a table tennis ball would be enough to kill someone working below - it would go straight through any helmet.