19 August 2007

What am I doing here?

Last week I rambled on for a while about the countryside in which I've found myself living for the latter half of the summer. I never really did explain what exactly it is I'm doing here, though. As I think I mentioned once way back when, the John Day Country has more than just desert scenery. What it's best known for is its fossils, which represent one of the world's best records of life on land over the last 30 or so million years. Not only is the fossil record outstanding, it has a remarkable climate record and several accurate dates attached to it, making it an ideal place to study paleoecology and evolution. That's why I'm out here wiling away my days in a town with a population much smaller than that of my high school: to figure out what aspect of this exceptional record I want to focus on for my PhD dissertation project. To that end, I've been puttering around the collections and library of the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, as well as making occasional forays into the field with some of the researchers here in order to figure out what has been done and what remains that I might want to spend the next few years of my life studying. At the moment, the answer to that question seems - somewhat surprisingly - to be volcanoes. No, I haven't gone soft in the head and given up paleontology for volcanology. Far from it. In fact, the question in which I'm interested is very much a biological one. A long-standing debate in paleontology has centered on whether or not flood basalt eruptions (a type of eruption similar to that you might see in Hawaii, but orders of magnitude larger) are at least partially responsible for mass extinction events. It so happens that just such an event took place 16 million years ago right in the backyard of the John Day Fossil Beds. Any of you that have been to eastern Oregon or Washington have seen the remnants of this event, whether you realized it or not. A series of eruptions flowed from what is now the Columbia Plateau all the way to the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind the layers of dark, columnar rock known today as the Columbia River Basalts. The CRBs, as they're affectionately known, are at least partially responsible for, among other things, the lack of topography around Moses Lake, the stunning waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, and the top-rate wines of the Willamette Valley. They also might reasonably be expected to have a major effect on any animals living in the path of the lava. Just how major that effect was will, if all goes to plan, be the focus of my PhD. It'll be a complex project, requiring field work on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and possibly in the middle of nowhere in Southeast Oregon, as well as lots of time nosing through collections both here and in several museums down in California. It will necessitate lots of library time to factor in the effects of a major migration from Asia that occurred at the same time, as well as to compare patterns in diversity here to those in other regions where flood basalts have erupted. It'll be lots of work, of course, but I can't wait to get started.

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