#KUFieldWorks: Collecting 500 pounds of fossil-bearing rocks in Washington’s San Juan Islands

KU researchers conduct fieldwork in fields, streams, rivers and mountains

Editor’s note: Fieldwork provides invaluable insights about real-world environments and processes, expanding and reinforcing what researchers learn in classrooms, labs and collections. KU faculty, staff and students across a spectrum of disciplines are taking their inquiry directly to rivers, prairies, dig sites, glaciers, islands, burial grounds and more this summer. Through the #KUFieldWorks series, we'll join them on their adventures.

Q&A with ecology and evolutionary biology assistant professor Brian Atkinson

University of Kansas researcher Brian Atkinson and a team from the University of Michigan collected and transported 500 pounds of fossil-bearing rocks from Washington’s San Juan Islands to study 80-million-year-old plants.

Atkinson, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator of paleobotany at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, conducted fieldwork on Sucia Island.

He and his team, including Selena Smith and Jeronimo Morales Toledo, are researching the evolution of plants from the Cretaceous period — or 145-66 million years ago — which will provide an understanding of the geographic distribution of fossil floras and climate change.

The Cretaceous was a warm period — and this research will elucidate what plants were on the western coast of North America during this time in Earth’s history and inform how the coast will look in the future as the world continues to warm.

Brian Atkinson sits on a rock while researching on Sucia Island

A small field crew and I took a boat to Sucia Island in the San Juan Island system in Washington, where we collected 500 pounds of fossiliferous rocks, which is a pretty good bounty. Next year, I plan to collect 1,000 pounds because this site ended up being very productive.

The rocks are preserved in limestone and contain fossils. I have no idea what's in them until I bring them back into the lab, where I cut them with a rock saw using the acetate peel technique, which is a thin sectioning technique. This allows me to reconstruct the fossil in three dimensions. Sometimes, I also use X-ray micro-computed tomography to visualize and reconstruct the fossils in three dimensions. This allows me to study potentially fragile specimens without needing to make physical sections.

Why does your study matter to your field and to society?

The Cretaceous period was an important time in the evolution of plants, particularly because this is when flowering plants appeared, which are the most diverse and dominant group of land plants today. Soon after they evolved, they became incredibly diverse and permanently changed terrestrial ecosystems. My field is interested in the timing of these changes, such as when specific types of flowering plants appeared and how fast they diversified.

For society, it's important to understand this because it will give us a good idea of how the ecosystems we see on land today arose. The Cretaceous was a warm period — a greenhouse world. Since we're heading into greenhouse conditions, this might give us information to create a biotic forecast system in accordance with climate change. We’ll learn what type of plants were on the western coast of North America during a warm period in Earth's history and how that can be used to project how the coast will look in the not-too-distant future.

We all rely on flowering plants as a society, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. Knowing where all this has come from is important.

What are some memorable (funny, scary, surprising) moments from the field?

We were almost trapped on one part of the island due to high tide. I did not pay close enough attention to the tide charts, and to get to the specific site, we had to walk around a rocky shoreline to the tip of a peninsula. The water started to get very high near that shoreline, which made it difficult to get back to the main part of the island. I was extremely tired because we had to make two trips back and forth carrying 100 pounds of rock each. I was inside for an entire year and didn't get that much exercise, so this was really intense!

I also found it refreshing to do outreach and to talk to people on the island about my fieldwork and research. The island is a popular camping and boating destination because it's so beautiful. Also, the people who transported us on the boats were interested in what we were doing. The public outreach side of research is engaging and worthwhile.

Also on this trip, we found some cool non-plant fossils, including shark teeth, and fossilized evidence of plant and animal interactions.

The shoreline of Sucia Island in the San Juan Island System

When is fieldwork frustrating, challenging or overwhelming?

Figuring out how to ship 500 pounds of fossils was overwhelming. I didn't anticipate us collecting that much. Logistics is probably the most difficult part of fieldwork — making sure you cross all your Ts on permit paperwork and don’t forget anything essential.

What do you enjoy most about being in the field?

I have had wonderful luck collecting in some beautiful places — from Antarctica to the San Juan Island system. Being out in nature and seeing amazing sights and vistas is breathtaking. It’s also exhilarating to find exactly what you are looking for — and even more — such as a diversity of unreported fossils, most of which are new species. It’s also a great workout.

How does your fieldwork complement the work you do elsewhere?

This field excursion was part of a bigger program to understand similar aged fossil floras along the western coast of North America. I collect in California, Washington, and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I'm continuously looking for other localities along the coast. I have a grant to go to Antarctica to collect fossil plants of the same age — about 80 million years old — so this trip will help understand the geographic distribution of these fossil floras. I'm also interested in how these fossils can impact our understanding of evolutionary relationships and patterns. I collect morphological data from the fossils and put it into data matrices for evolutionary analyses. This gives us a more complete picture of plant evolution in deep time.

First photo: University of Kansas researchers conduct fieldwork in prairies, rivers, streams and mountains. The #KUFieldWorks series follows researchers on their fieldwork adventures.

Second photo: Brian Atkinson, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator of paleobotany at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, conducts fieldwork on Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands. 

Third photo: The shoreline of Sucia Island in Washington's San Juan Islands.