Blog Post 4: My findings and Reflection

This project has been very enlightening though I have not advanced at the pace I had originally planned. My original goal was to create a general geologic history of Orange County since the last ice age. However, this quickly changed. I realized that this original goal would take much more time to achieve then I had available to me. I decided to divide the work into much more manageable goals. My first task was to collect as much data as possible and begin to draw connections between different sources.  The majority of the information that I have gathered deals with the behaviors of both mastodon and early Native Americans. I have also learned a great deal about how habitats evolve after a glacier leaves an area. This new knowledge serves as a foundation from which I can build on as I continue to research. However, as interesting as this knowledge is, I find my development as a scientist to be even more meaningful.

One of the most important things to understand is how mastodons interacted with their environment. Though they look similar to their more well known cousins, the mammoth, there are several key differences between the two creatures. One of the primary differences is in their diets. It is believed that mammoth primarily foraged on grass. This is evident by the shape of their teeth. Mammoth teeth are flat with several grooves running across the surface. These teeth as best suited for grinding up grass. In contrast, the mastodon’s teeth are best suited for breaking up tree branches and other though plants. Each tooth has three high points and many other smaller ones.  Their teeth almost look as if they belonged to a carnivore. In fact, those that first discovered the beasts’ skulls were convinced that it was a giant predator. Understanding the diets of these great beasts is vitally important to understanding where they once lived. Since mastodons are the most prevalent megafauna fossil found in Orange county, it can be assumed that the region was once densely forested.

Researching the early human history of the area is very interesting. Based on evidence found around the county, humans and mastodons seemed to coexist for a time. We have found several of their finely crafted stone tools and have been able to accurately date them to around the same age as many of the mastodon remains. However, of the nearly 30 mastodon skeletons uncovered since the late 1700’s, none have shown signs of human predation. The stone tools they used leave tell tale cut marks in the bones of the creatures they butchered. However those marks are nowhere to be found on these skeletons. This is unusual. If these people lacked the ability to kill a mastodon for themselves, it seems odd that they wouldn’t try to scavenge one that had died after falling in one of the numerous bogs in the area.  Many researchers feel that this is how most of the mastodon in Orange County had died. For a hunting and gathering society, a mastodon would have been able to provide a tribe with enough food for a long time. This suggests to me that we are missing some crucial piece of information about these early people.

Post- glacial environments go through a very structured evolution from the time the great mass of ice first begins to recede. One of the first environments that develop is tundra. These wide grasslands would have been ideally suited for mammoths which grazed on grasses more than anything else. This environment would have also been suitable for other creatures that thrive in open areas like buffalo. As time progresses, the tundra gives way to evergreen forests. This is the habitat that mastodon prefer. Deciduous trees follow shortly after and eventually totally replace pine and spruce. The most effective way we have to measure this progression is through pollen spore analyses. The spores are extracted from a sample of soil and then identified. These records paint a fairly clear picture of how the environment changes over time. Interestingly, the pollen data from this area shows that the final extinction of the mastodon occurred near the same time that the forests in the area began to transition from evergreen to hickory and oak. Researchers believe that mastodon feed primarily on pine and spruce and this change could have helped push them to extinction.

This project has truly been a wonderful experience. I have always enjoyed the study of paleontology and I feel that it has taught me more about how life has developed since the last ice age then I would have ever hoped to learn on my own or in a classroom. However what I find more meaningful is how much I have learned about the scientific process itself. I have known for some time that part of the scientific method involves research but I lacked any real concept of what that meant. To me, research simply meant looking a few things up before you head out into the field to conduct the bulk of your work. I now see that research has a significant role to play in this process. Research provides a foundation from which to build from. If one does not have a firm grasp of what they are studying then they will continue to run into problems as they move forward. Furthermore, I never anticipated how much a project can change. Often it seemed .like every time I went to work on it, the project evolved in some way. Eventually I needed to pick a course and follow it. Otherwise I may never have got anywhere. I truly feel that this project has helped me develop as a scientist and has given me valuable knowledge that I can share with my future students.

Blog Post 3

Unfortunately, I have made very little progress since my last posting. At I thought that I would be able to complete a significant portion of my work before the spring semester would begin. To my dismay, this was not the case. I was unable to gain any very useful information that could have helped me toward understanding what the region’s history might have been. It seems like it is a topic that no one has ever cared to give much thought. If I had progressed as I intended, I would be at the stage where all I really needed to do was compile the information I had found. In reality, I am still looking for resources and data. The most interesting document I have come across is a map that roughly shows the location of several significant fossil finds Orange County. Unfortunately, the map lacks any real distinguishing features so it is impossible to pinpoint where the locations really are. What makes matters worse is that the email address for the individual who made the map no longer exists so it is impossible to gain any more information about the map. For now I plan to continue my search for resources. Hopefully, the local historical societies and libraries my hold some information I have yet to come across.

The biggest challenge I have come across in this project is the lack of time. I knew that I would need to find time in my already busy schedule to conduct this research and, though I knew it wouldn’t be easy, was confident that I could proceed at a reasonable pace. However I was greatly mistaken. I learned very quickly that I would have very little free time this year. Now that I am student teaching I have even less time to work on this project. I actually find this very embarrassing. I never take on an ambitious project like this if I do not think I can devote a considerable portion of my time to it. I was sure when I applied for this program that I would be able to devote more than enough time to it but I now know I was wrong. I have learned that research is never as simple as it seems. There will always be things that will come up that will delay your progress or even turn you completely around. However I have also learned that you need to do what you can when you can. Though it may not work out all of the time, when the opportunity presents itself you need to capitalize on it.

Blog Post 2: My Progress As of Nov. 26th

I have found that the more I work on this project, the more it fascinates me. It seems like every day I am making new connections and discovering new things. The current focus on my research is to map the standstill positions of the great ice sheet that rested in this area about 15,000 years ago. Once I develop a model of where these standstills were and the time at which they occurred, I can then begin to reconstruct the development of plant communities in the area. Recently, my professors and I made three very interesting discoveries that may hold answers to not only my research but also theirs. The first discovery had to do with an actual recessional moraine of the glacier itself. The second discovery was in regard to the Clovis people that lived in the area around the same time as the glacial retreat. The third was a possible model of the glacial standstill locations in Orange County. Since we found these, I have been eager to increase the amount of time I spend in the field.

The first and second discoveries occurred almost instantly. During one of our field work sessions, Professor LaPorta and I decided to take a stop at a gravel quarry that he knew held some glacial deposits. When we arrived at the quarry we found that the owner had recently done some excavation. However we soon realized that what he had also done was uncover a nearly complete record of the climatological conditions that existed at the face of the glacier. We could see from the visible layering of the sediment and the presence of actual ripple marks that the glacier was melting and the water was flowing over the moraine. We could also develop a general idea of how warm the conditions were because some layers contained more course sediment then others. For example, at the top of the sequence we could see watermelon sized cobbles sticking out of the face. This makes sense because as the glacier began to retreat again, the amount of water that would have melted off would have had the power to move rocks of this size and deposit them in a neat layer. The entire structure was between 50 and 100 feet tall. We were absolutely floored at the amount of detail that had been preserved. I made sure to take multiple photos because there was no guarantee that these samples would be there in the future. Now that I have seen what these moraines can look like, I want to locate others to see if they show a similar climatological record.

The second discovery took place as we explored the moraine.  We noticed that the sediment contained a large quantity of slate. I found out quickly (because I forgot to wear my gloves) that these fragments were about as sharp as glass. After a while, Professor LaPorta introduced an interesting idea, he believed it was possible that the Clovis people that lived in the area may have been using the material for quick tools. It was in a large enough abundance that the native hunters would never need to search very far. As we continued to find fragments of the slate and tried to see how well they could be worked we began to seriously consider this hypothesis. The samples were not as easy to work with a chert, which is what many projectile points in the area were made from. However, they could be fashioned into crude blades. We think that if these people were using the slate for tools, they most likely were using them as blades for preparing their meals and cleaning their quarry. Of course this is only a hypothesis at this point that requires more investigation but it was a very exciting discovery.

The third discovery occurred a few days later. While at home I was reflecting on the work we had done and questioned if there was a listing of gravel quarries in Orange County. I reasoned that if the one we had found held glacial deposits then there could be others. When I input the question into Google I was directed to a DEC listing of gravel quarries in New York State. To my delight, the information was available as a KML file (this is the type of file Google Earth uses). When I uploaded the file and zoomed in on Orange County I saw that there were several listed right in the area of my research. As I examined the data I came to the realization that these locations formed patterns. When I connected the dots, I saw that they made three, possible four, distinct lines. I believe that these quarries outline the distinct stand still locations of the glacier as it retreated from the area. In order to test this, I plan on visiting several of the locations to see if they really are moraines. If they are, it would answer many of my questions about the area and it would give me an idea of where I can look to find others. After I showed this data to Professor Brewer, she mentioned that old cemeteries are also good indicators because they preferred to dig graves in sand. When I put this criterion into Google Earth, I saw that many of the local graveyards occurred along the lines I had originally traced, further supporting my hypothesis.

I am really eager to continue my research. These recent discoveries have really inspired me. However, I continue to run into the same problem, time. It seems like there are never enough hours of the day or days in the week to perform my work. Between my responsibilities in school and at home and my job I have found it extremely difficult to find time to do much research. It also doesn’t help that it seems like the project doubles in size every time I work on it. I am constantly asking new questions and encountering new problems. I hope that once the semester ends I will be able to devote much more time to the project. I am determined to answer some of my question before the year is out. All I need is time.



Blog Post 1: Why I Chose this Topic

The research I am taking part of this year came about completely by accident. I was doing field work for another class last semester when my professor happened to mention that the Wallkill River Valley has some of the highest concentrations of megafaunal remains of anywhere and no one really knows why. When I heard this I immediately asked “why?’ I have always been fascinated by the fossil remains of past life so I naturally was drawn to this project. I soon realized however I will need to expand my focus in order to solve this problem.

My goal for this project is to reconstruct the Paleoenvironmental habitat of the Wallkill River Valley. This is a fairly large project. Because of this, my mentors and I have decided to break it up into several smaller portions. This year, my focus is on developing a map that tracks the progression of the last glacial retreat approximately 15,000 years ago. To do this, I will combine the data help in printed topographic maps from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Once I have extracted the data I need I will then input it into a powerful mapping program called ArcGIS. Once the sedimentological and geologic information I need has been placed in the program I can trace the outlines of several major post-glacial lakes. With this data in hand I will have a model that I can use to track the progression of forests as they developed, the routes that animals may have taken as they migrated and the humans who followed close behind.

Since this is such a large and complex project there are several different methods that will be used. For the portion of the project I will be working on now, I will need to develop a system of standardizing the various maps I find so that they conform to a single scale and then find a way to digitize these images. With any luck most of the data I will need will be in digital form already. Then I will research the ages of the sediments found in the various terminal moraines of the glacier to establish when they stalled. Finally, by interpreting the contour lines on these maps, I will hopefully be able to trace the outlines of several large lakes that once dotted the tri-state area.

My main goal for this project is to answer the question I first asked when I started this project, “why?” I am eager to finally begin to put these pieces together and also be able to share it with my colleges in the field. However, I have another goal for this project. I would like to know how science really takes place in the field. As students, we tend to see take the data presented in out texts as fact and never question the amount of work that goes into collecting that data. I would like to see what it is like on the other side of the text and be the one finding the data as opposed to the one reading about it.