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Paleontology

Paleontology is the study of ancient life.

Thomas Broadhead is now the University's Director of Undergraduate Academic Advancement in office of Undergraduate Admissions. He is not teaching nor conducting research in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Tom Broadhead's interests lie in the applications of paleontological data to the solution of geological problems, particularly in age dating and in paleoenvironmental reconstruction. Graduate theses of his students have focused on the Middle Ordovician of the southern Appalachians and on the Silurian and Devonian carbonate rocks of western Tennessee. Particular groups of organisms studied have included echinoderms, conodonts, and more recently colonial corals.

The current interest in corals is directed toward understanding the genetic-based and ecophenotypic determinants of colony form. These are particularly important in both interepreting the response of the colony to small and moderate physical environmental disturbances. It is also significant to the recognition of evidence for those disturbances, which commonly are masked, in the stratigraphic record, by the overprints of larger and successive disturbances.

Approaches to interpreting the histories of coral colonies include standard techniques, such as thin sections and acetate peels. Analytical facilites of the department, especially the cathodoluminescence petrography and the stable isotope geochemistry laboratories are useful in the studies of skeletel structures and associated diagenetic features. The 6 m recirculating flume provides a means of examining patterns of carbonate sediment distribution associated with different colony forms.

Stephanie Drumheller-Horton's research interests center on vertebrate taphonomy, ichnology, paleopathology, and paleoecology. In particular, I study bone surface modifications generated under modern and experimental conditions to better understand the processes which left similar traces on bone in the fossil record. My current research projects include: 1) testing methods for applying these modern analogies in a deep time perspective; 2) interpreting trophic interactions, behavior, and diet from bite marks left by different archosaurian groups, especially members of Crocodyliformes; 3) identifying and differentiating historically understudied traces and pathologies, such as bite marks vs. shell disease and different types of plant mediated damage to bone.


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Michael McKinney's research interests have generally focused on biological issues. I started out in paleobiology, in which I still have an active interest. In this area, I have published several papers on extinction and evolution as seen in the fossil record.

Colin Sumrall's research is centered on understanding the paleobiology of extinct echinoderms (starfish and their allies). My research tends to be phylogenetically oriented and echinoderms lend themselves to a phylogenetic approach because their intricate morphology, coupled with a high degree of morphological disparity, allow for the coding of robust datasets for phylogenetic analysis.

At present I am focusing on three fundamental questions:

  1. What is the nature of the Cambrian-Ordovician explosive radiation of echinoderm body plans?
  2. How can phylogeny and development be used to answer paleontological questions?

Fossil life incorporated into rocks of the Earth's crust is one strongest tools for understanding the evolution of the Earth System. To best interpret how life has changed through time, it is critical to place organisms into an evolutionary framework. Dr. Sumrall has been investigating the evolutionary history of echinoderms (relatives of starfish and sand dollars) to determine the causes of origination and diversification of major taxonomic groups. Much of this research centers on the identification of like parts in different organisms (homology) that is used to analyze evolutionary relationships.

  1. How is the collection of fossils and consequently our understanding of the fossil record biased by geography, time, and facies?

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