It's known as the "Triassic trip"—an annual excursion to recover fossils in the American Southwest from the Triassic period.
Geology students at Appalachian State University gain knowledge from the field experience, while also collecting resources for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' Paleontology Section and its research and collections.
The partnership between Appalachian and the museum is in its third year. In that time, the museum has received about 50 plaster-jacketed fossils of various sizes, with weights ranging from 10 to 100 pounds. In a process that can take weeks to years, the museum will extract the fossils for research or exhibit.
Fossils recovered by students during past "Triassic trips" include hipbones of an Aetosaur, which is an early relative of the crocodile, and bones from a Placerias, a mammal-like reptile that lived during the late Triassic period.
The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' collections include fossils from the same time period unearthed in North Carolina. "The long-term research goal is to help us understand the state's Triassic period," said Vince Schneider, curator of paleontology at the museum. "We are getting lots of material from North Carolina, but we don't have a lot of comparative material. These trips are helping us build a decent Triassic collection in the state."
This year's trip was to the Placerias Quarry in northeastern Arizona, which was first excavated by the University of California Berkley in the 1930s and later by the Museum of Northern Arizona in the 1970s and 1980s. It has been at least 20 years since the site was actively studied.
"Historically it's known to be a very rich site," said Professor Andrew B. Heckert, director of the McKinney Geology Teaching Museum at Appalachian and a member of the Department of Geology faculty. He leads the trip each year.
In this latest trip, students unearthed dime-sized upper arm bones, probably from an animal smaller than a squirrel; a bone that might be from a dinosaur; and pieces of bone possibly from a Trilophosaurus, a lizard-like reptile probably weighed up to 100 pounds and growing to about eight feet in length.
"If we didn't have Appalachian, we would have a more difficult time getting this done," said Schneider. "Andy and his students help us get more material than we would otherwise."
Fossils recovered from past Triassic trips have led to research publications and presentations by Heckert and his students in publications such as the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Rocky Mountain Geology and Geological Society of America Abstracts.