Paleontological Research

The Paleontology Division is an active research and learning environment. Our scientists are constantly working to understand the lives and deaths of the fossil plants and animals housed in our collections.

Collecting new specimens in the field is essential to paleontology. New fossils are always being revealed by erosion, and there are countless new sites that have never been visited.

More on Paleontology Field Collecting

Current Projects include:

Dogs of the Juntura Formation

For much of the last 30 million years, dogs and their relatives have been some of the most important carnivores in North America. The Late Miocene (9 million years ago) was an especially important period in dog evolution, both because it saw the appearance of the giant, bear-sized Epicyon and because it marks the beginning of the diversification of the group that includes all living dogs, foxes, and wolves. John Orcutt and Samantha Hopkins describe the dogs found in southeast Oregon's Juntura Formation, which dates to the Late Miocene. It includes fossils of Epicyon and a small, fox-like dog, as well as the rare skeleton of the medium-sized dog Carpocyon. These finds are important not just because of what they reveal about the evolution of dogs, but because they allow age estimates for other sites across the Northwest in which similar animals have been found. Here is a link to the abstract of the paper.

Giant Felid (Cat) of the Miocene

John Orcutt, Edward Davis, and David Levering are currently describing specimens of a giant felid (cat) from the late Miocene of eastern Oregon. Currently, the cat is known only from fragmentary bones of the front limb: a piece of ulna from McKay Reservoir and a piece of humerus from Juntura. We think this animal may be the same as one described by J.C. Merriam in 1911 from Thousand Creek, NV. The cat was bigger than a modern tiger. It was likely a top predator, like a tiger, which would explain its rarity in fossil deposits.

Pronghorn from Thousand Creek, NV

Edward Davis and Jonathan Calede are describing the astragalus (ankle bone) variation of Ilingoceros alexandrae and Sphenophalos nevadensis, two kinds of pronghorn antelope from the late Miocene fossil site at Thousand Creek. These species have very different horn styles, implying different mating systems. Surprisingly, the other bones of their skeletons are almost identical, including their ankle bones (astraguli).

Evolution of Headgear in Ruminants

Edward Davis, working with Andrew Lee of Ohio University and Katie Brakora of UC 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 free online at Proceedings B.

Evolution of Digging in Small Mammals

Samantha Hopkins, Curator of Paleontology and assistant professor in the 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. Insights about the evolution of these levers can be made by comparing incompletely preserved skeletons of fossil animals to the complete skeletons of living animals.

Evolution of Cambrian and Precambrian Soils

Greg Retallack has been looking at soil formation in very ancient rocks--before mammals, trees, or land plants--in Cambrian and Precambrian sedimentary sequences of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia (more than 540 million years ago). Fossil soils are surprisingly well preserved and diverse in these ancient rocks of river floodplains. Some of these paleosols (fossil soils) reveal evidence for life on land, which includes some of the classical Ediacaran fossils, traditionally regarded as marine organisms. The increase in soil development and diversity through time is new evidence for the early history of life on land.

For more information, please contact Greg Retallack, co-Director of Paleontological Collections, (541) 346-4558,