Spelunking for carnivores

Preparing for fieldwork

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It doesn’t take an extensive science background to quickly grasp Julie Meachen’s research passion. Just peruse the titles of her co-authored papers tacked up outside her office in Ryan Hall:

“Postcranial morphology and the locomotor habits of living and extinct carnivorans”

“Ecological determinants of clinical morphological variation in the cranium of the North American gray wolf”

“Evolution in the sabre-tooth cat, Smilodon fatalis, in response to Pleistocene climate change”

Julie Meachen is determined to collect data on climate change, genetic variability, extinction and how they’re interrelated during her dig.

Needless to say, the vertebrate paleontologist, classically trained as a comparative anatomist, is interested in carnivores as well as other animals that lived in the latter part of the Pleistocene Epoch, 10,000 to 100,000 years ago. Commonly referred to as the Ice Age, the epoch – which began approximately 1.8 million years ago – was a time of repeated glacial cycles, environmental change and extinction events.

That’s why the new assistant professor of anatomy is excited to the point of nervousness about the two weeks she’ll spend this summer at Natural Trap Cave at the base of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. She received a $20,000 grant from the Committee for Research and Exploration of the National Geographic Society and a $24,000 grant from the University for this expedition and analysis, titled “Natural Trap Cave Revisited: Ancient DNA , Climate, and the End-Pleistocene Extinctions.”

Meachen and DMU have applied for an additional grant from the National Science Foundation to support a related multi-year project, “Natural Trap Cave Revisited: the Effect of Climate Change and Ice Age Extinctions on Genetic and Morphological Variability in North American Mammals.”

According to the U.S. National Park Service website, Natural Trap Cave is an 85-foot-deep sinkhole that’s “virtually impossible to see until it is directly underfoot.” That made it a deadly trap for prehistoric animals, including Columbian mammoths, short-faced bears, lions, cheetahs and camels, and a treasure trove for scientists.

“It’s an amazing site that’s full of animals,” says Meachen, Ph.D. “It’s never above 40 degrees there, which is best for skeletal and DNA preservation. Siberia and the Arctic are the only other places you can get good ancient DNA from such a large number of animals.”

Meachen will be joined by other scientists hoping to acquire specimens and, eventually, entire mitochondrial sequences. It’s no small undertaking: Natural Trap Cave is under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management and open only for approved research efforts, requiring months of paperwork to get a permit. Transporting people, equipment and Rubbermaid bins big enough to haul out Pleistocene-sized bones demands a high level of organization and expense.

Add the fact the scientists must accomplish all that, safely, at a site that’s basically eight stories deep, and you understand why Meachen is “very excited and a little scared.”

“We will be rappelling in and out of the cave. We have to be good paleontologists as well as good spelunkers,” she adds. “We’ll spend six to eight hours a day digging with dental picks, shovels and trowels. It will be a blend of gardening tools and fine modeling equipment.”

Scientists joining Meachen include her co-collaborator, Alan Cooper, Ph.D., director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA , and Xiaoming Wang, Ph.D., a curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Cooper shares her interest in evolutionary processes and events associated with climate change; Wang was a graduate student onsite in the 1980s, at the end of the first Natural Trap Cave expedition.

In addition to her crush on carnivores, Meachen is motivated in this ambitious project by its potential to shed light on one of Earth’s most pressing crises, climate change. Ironically, concern 40 years ago that the planet was headed into another Ice Age helped drive the first Natural Trap Cave dig.

“To look at climate change from the Pleistocene Epoch will give us good information on exactly what these animals were experiencing as their environment changed,” she explains. “We want to get some really good data on climate change, genetic variability and extinction and see how those are interrelated.”

Julie’s adventure has begun. For more information, check out  articles from Reuters, ABC News, NPR Wyoming and BBC World Service and follow  her journey using #NTCave14 on Twitter.

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