June 03, 2013

What really killed the dinosaurs? K-12 teachers are helping us find out

By Gregory P. Wilson

Many of us think of extinction as a terrible process that strips us of amazing biodiversity. On one hand, that’s certainly true. It’s estimated that more than 99.9% of living things that once existed are now extinct! On the other hand, extinctions often benefit the survivors.

As a paleontologist with the Burke Museum and University of Washington, I examine the evolution and ecology of early mammals in the context of major events in the earth's history.

Dr. Wilson in the field.
There’s no better example of this than the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs (except for birds) and allowed mammals to expand into all corners of the earth, all body sizes, and all modes of life.

Marine fossils from around the world contain important clues to understanding this mass extinction event. But relevant terrestrial fossils, including dinosaurs, can only be found in a handful of places.

One of the most famous and intensively studied fossil sites is the Hell Creek badlands in northeastern Montana, where the type specimen of T. rex was discovered in 1902 by paleontologist Barnum Brown. In the 1980s, this area became a testing ground for the ‘Alvarez hypothesis’, which posited that an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs in a geologic blink of an eye.

Recently, some scientists have argued that the cause of dinosaur extinction was more of a ‘one-two punch’ of massive volcanic activity and the asteroid, rather than a single knockout blow from an asteroid. So what really killed the dinosaurs?

Three years ago, we began inviting K-12 science teachers to take part in answering this question at the Hell Creek fossil site. Through a program known as the DIG Field School, teachers work and learn side-by-side with me and other University of Washington scientists as we excavate dinosaurs and other fossils and collect data. The teachers develop research skills and experiences they can take back to their students.

DIG Field School participants in 2011.
We're gearing up to take this year's group—22 science teachers from Washington, Montana, Oregon, Nevada and Georgia—into the field.

The data they help collect will further our ongoing research about the extinction of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals, while hopefully inspiring K-12 students to see that science is not just done by people in white lab coats with gray beards, but by real people—like your teacher, or maybe even you.

Gregory P. Wilson is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Washington and the Adjunct Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Burke Museum.