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The hunt for a Ph.D. thesis: Collecting Late Cretaceous plant fossils in New Mexico

"It ain't Mexico and it ain't new" [quoted from a postcard in a gift shop]

Armed with hammers, chisels, pry-bars, boxes of newspaper, and sunscreen, two trusty assistants (recent graduate Meriel Melendrez and current undergrad Nicolas Locatelli) and I drove from Berkeley in our 4WD extra-long SUV heading for southern New Mexico. There, we met up with paleobotanist Dr. Gary Upchurch and crew from Texas State University and geologist Dr. Greg Mack from New Mexico State University for two weeks of field work in Late Cretaceous plant localities of the Jose Creek Member. It was a bona fide tri-state expedition working on multiple projects. My interests were to set the foundation for my dissertation work on the ecological diversity of Late Cretaceous forests in warm-wet climates. For this I needed a primary study site to generate new collections and data. The trip wasn’t entirely exploratory — I was familiar with some of the localities from my undergraduate days with Dr. Upchurch, and had collected here previously. Based on this earlier work, we knew that there was an abundance of plant fossils, and preliminary studies have indicated that the fossil assemblages of the Jose Creek Member represent a subtropical-paratropical forest. That’s right, in the present day desert of New Mexico, rich in angiosperms but mixed with conifers and ferns.

Late Cretaceous plant communities often contain interesting combinations of plants that are no longer found living together under the same climatic conditions (for example palms and redwoods). That is because the Late Cretaceous represents an important transitional time, as flowering plants (angiosperms) rapidly diversified and rose to dominance in warmer climates. During this time, the typical early to mid-Mesozoic forests that were dominated by ferns and gymnosperms (conifers and other non-flowering seed plants) transitioned to the modern, angiosperm-dominated forests. This begs several questions: what were the different ecological roles of angiosperms and conifers in these forests, and did conifers and other gymnosperms serve functions that have now been replaced by angiosperms? How has the structure of plant communities in warm-wet climates changed from the Cretaceous to present, and how does this inform our understanding of the evolution of modern tropical forests? These are the questions that fueled my quest into the southwest last summer. The New Mexico sites seemed like an ideal place to start my investigations, and we ambitiously set out to do some major collecting.

In the Jose Creek Member, the best-preserved plant fossils come from beds of recrystallized volcanic ash. My initial goal was to collect quadrats from multiple volcanic ash beds, which would give an indication of the vegetation through time (because beds are not necessarily deposited at the exact same time). But things don’t always work out like you plan, and luckily this was one of those times ….

Field site

Field site on the distant hills (can you see the exposure?), but with modern vegetation of course! Photo by Meriel Melendrez.

Dori with palm frond

Fossil palm frond (with Dori for scale). Photo by Meriel Melendrez.

Preparing a collecting site

Meriel and Nick preparing a collecting site. Photo by Dori Contreras.

The first locality we went to had an ash bed that was known for its abundance of plant fossils and beautiful preservation. After setting up the first collecting quadrat with Meriel and Nicolas, Dr. Mack and I headed off to investigate how far we could track the exposed bed, as its lateral extent was hitherto unknown. To our amazement, we were able to track the deposit for ~1.2 km! This was an incredible revelation; here were the remains of a forest preserved in ash for quite an impressive spatial extent, which would enable the reconstruction of a plant community at a single instant in time. This was considerably more attractive for my questions than reconstructing vegetation from multiple beds comprising an unknown amount of geologic time. I adjusted plans and concentrated our efforts on this deposit alone (rather than a compilation of sites) and spent the next nine days collecting small quadrats along the length of the bed. The deposit is so rich that virtually every rock we cracked open had multiple fossil plant specimens! Consequently, almost everything we touched was wrapped in newspaper, hiked out of the field site, and brought back to the UCMP. This was no light task — thank goodness for the incredible Meriel and Nicolas! In total we collected samples from 14 sites along the exposure. These initial collections reveal a rich and laterally diverse flora, and yet are only the tip of the iceberg!

We headed back west with the SUV packed to the brim and riding low from the weight of the fossils; it was the maximum that could possibly be brought back. I should also mention — Cindy Looy and Ivo Duijnstee, along with some of the other Looy Lab members (Jeff, Renske, Robert) — were in New Mexico for a conference and we arranged to meet them. This was particularly fortuitous, not only for good company, but also because they took two large tubs of fossils back with them! Another two tubs went back to Texas, and made it to Berkeley later that summer. All in all, it was enough fossils to fill two double-door cases in the museum!

Of course, the field work is only the beginning and, since then, a lot of work has gone into getting these first collections organized and examined. Currently, two students (James Buckel and Negin Sarrami) and I are describing and photographing leaf morphotypes from the collections to assess the diversity of plants in the flora. A large portion probably represent unknown/undescribed species, so we differentiate ‘species’ as morphotypes based on detailed descriptions of leaf characteristics. The flora includes a diversity of herbaceous and woody ‘dicots’, monocots (e.g., palms and ginger), cycads, ferns, an abundant extinct sequoia-like conifer and several extinct conifers probably related to the Araucariaceae. Overall, it is clear that it will take several more field excursions and countless hours of lab work to understand the taxonomic and structural diversity of this amazing flora. And, of course, I am eagerly looking forward to the return trips and uncovering the treasure trove of fossils still entombed in the rock out in the desert!

Fossil fern

Fossil fern. Photo by Dori Contreras.

Angiosperm leaf

Angiosperm leaf with insect feeding damage (holes). Photo by Dori Contreras.