The Paleontology Division is an active research and learning environment. From studies of the deep past to mapping future ecosystems, we invite you to explore our current research.
Robson with mesonychid fossil


A long-misidentified fossil in the museum’s Condon Collection turns out to belong to a large carnivore never before documented in the Pacific Northwest. The focus of a recent study by paleontologists Selina Robson and Nick Famoso, both former UO students, and the museum’s own Samantha Hopkins and Edward Davis, the 40 million-year-old jaw bone was originally uncovered at the Hancock Quarry in the John Day Fossil Beds over 50 years ago. During her senior year at UO, Robson found the heavily damaged fossil in the Condon Collection, where it was labeled as a Hemipsaladon.

But Robson wasn’t convinced; the fossil didn’t resemble the Hemipsaladon specimens she’d previously studied. The team turned to computerized tomography (CT) scanning to help solve the mystery. The 3D digital reconstruction revealed new details about the mammal’s jaw and teeth—details that identified the animal as Harpagolestes uintensis, an ancient creature with the skull of an ungulate (think pigs and cows) and the teeth of a bone-crushing carnivore. Newly dubbed the “hyena-pig” or “murder-cow,” the fossil took center stage in a recent paper coauthored by Robson and the team, going on record as Oregon’s first documented mesonychid and only the third carnivorous mammal known from the Hancock Quarry.

Learn more about the find in Around the O or on OPB, and read Robson’s paper on the discovery. You can also see the fossil for yourself in the museum’s current lobby display.

Oregon's Painted Hills


Greenhouse climatic warming is underway and exacerbated by human activities. Future outcomes of these processes can be projected using computer models checked against climatic changes during comparable past atmospheric compositions. A recent study coauthored by Greg Retallack, Edward DavisJon Erlandson, and colleagues gives concise quantitative predictions for future climate, landscapes, soils, vegetation, and marine and terrestrial animals of Oregon.

Fossil fuel burning and other human activities by the year 2100 are projected to yield atmospheric CO2 levels of about 600-850 ppm. Such a greenhouse climate was last recorded in Oregon during the middle Miocene, some 16 million years ago.

Oregon’s future may be guided by fossil records of the middle Miocene, as well as ongoing studies on the environmental tolerances of Oregon plants and animals, and experiments on the biological effects of global warming. See the full report

Pronghorn, vertebrate skulls collection


Museum paleobiologist Edward Davis, working with Andrew Lee of Ohio University and Katie Brakora of the University of California at Berkeley, is investigating the origin and evolution of headgear (horns, antlers, pronghorns) in ruminant artiodactyls. Until recently, the evidence suggested that horns on bovids (cows, sheep, goats, and African antelope), antlers on cervids (deer, moose, and elk), ossicones on giraffids (giraffe and okapi), and pronghorns on Antilocapra americana (the pronghorn antelope) all evolved independently. Our research has generated new insights about the family trees of these animals and the way they grow their horns and antlers, and suggest that this was not the case. You can read the paper online at Proceedings B.

 Pocket gopher


Samantha Hopkins, Curator of Paleontology at the museum and assistant professor in the the University of Oregon's Clark Honors College, is studying the evolution of digging behavior in small mammals such as gophers and moles. Measurements taken from fossil and living skeletons shed light on the levers in arms, legs, and heads that animals use to make their burrows. By comparing incompletely preserved skeletons of fossil animals to the complete skeletons of living animals, we are gaining new insights into the evolution of these levers. 


Ediacaran fossil


Geologist and Condon Collection director Greg Retallack has been looking at soil formation in very ancient rocks—rocks older than mammals, trees, and land plantsin Cambrian and Precambrian sedimentary sequences of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Fossil soils are surprisingly well preserved and diverse in these 540 million-year-old rocks of river floodplains. Some of these fossil soils, or paleosols, reveal evidence for life on land, including certain classical Ediacaran fossils that have been traditionally regarded as marine organisms. Learn more about Retallack's research


Columbian Mammoth


Museum paleobiologist Edward Davis is conducting research related to the patterns and processes of mammalian extinction, primarily aimed at understanding the relationship between climate change and human impacts on the Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions that occurred about 13,000 years ago in North America. Davis, in collaboration with UO alumnae Meaghan Emery-Weatherell and Brianna McHorse, recently published a paper in Paleobiology that mapped the spread of the extinction across North America. That work revealed no clear correlation between human arrival and the major extinction event, suggesting that any influence humans had on the event was a more subtle restructuring of energy flows in ecosystems and not simply overhunting of large mammals like horses and mammoths.



Megan Wyatt is working on an undergraduate honors thesis with Samantha Hopkins using rodent teeth to date stratigraphy and as ecological indicators for the Mascall formation in Cave Basin (early Miocene). She is also using geometric morphometric analysis of extant Heteromyidae (pocket mice) teeth and skulls to find morphological distinctions between genera that could be applied to the fossil record.

Ideas on Tap April


Paul Barrett is investigating aspects of the evolution of feliforms, a diverse group of living and extinct carnivore families that includes (among others) cats, hyenas, civets, mongooses, and nimravids. Much is already known about the relationships of still living groups through genetic analyses, but surprisingly little about the relationships of the many and varied extinct forms. Paul is working with Bayesian total-evidence techniques to combine genetic and fossil evidence to understand the evolutionary relationships of both living species and those only known from the fossil record.

Cat-like carnivores have long been cited to somehow be lacking in evolutionary potential, especially when compared to their dog-like cousins, which have explored aquatic to terrestrial habitats and evolved many and varied morphologies. By comparison, feliform carnivores have been said to be relatively static in their evolutionary history: They are all very cat-like. To assess the perceived limitations of the cat-like carnivores, Paul is employing analysis of three-dimensional landmarks on their skulls. By seeing how correlated the interactions are between bones of the skull and comparing that to the morphological diversity of skull size and shape feliforms explore, we can assess if these correlations have negatively stymied or fruitfully channeled feliform evolutionary potential.

Finally, most carnivores have a pair of shearing blade-like teeth (carnassials) at the back of their toothrow which are typically used to slice meat. Some hyper-carnivorous groups experience extreme amounts of wear upon these teeth, likely indicative of their ecological niche. For a subgroup of these forms (specifically sabretooth taxa) it has been noted that the teeth appear to rotate with an individual’s age, and thus exhibit an auto-sharpening mechanism.  Exactly how this rotation is accomplished and the extent it is present across cat-like carnivores has only been superficially explored. Paul is using three-dimensional morphometrics to analyze the rotation and tooth wear process for these extreme carnivores and compare it to what is seen in their more “normal” relatives.

Kellum Tate-Jones


With the advent of molecular sequencing and high-powered data processing capabilities, the field of phylogenetics has undergone a transformation in the last twenty years. Evolutionary biologists and paleontologists can now combine molecular and morphological data to gain greater resolution of the interrelationships between organisms than ever before. However, researchers have yet to apply these techniques to any pinnipeds except for otariids, or eared seals. PhD student Kellum Tate-Jones, along with museum paleontologists Edward Davis and Samantha Hopkins, is currently applying these techniques to modern pinnipeds and their extinct relatives. A greater understanding of pinniped relationships will provide the scaffolding for future studies into the paleoecology and conservation paleobiology of pinnipeds.


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