J. Mike Hils, Paleontologist and Instructor

Visiting with a metallic Tyrannosaurus rex.
“Let me get this straight: You are a Biology major that takes Geology classes, and you work for Chemistry?” A friend said that to me many years ago. It seemed funny back then, but it still true. I have always loved the natural sciences, and my experiences as a student and as a college instructor have allowed me to participate in these three fields.

My research involved studying the relationships between sediment types, burrowing animals, and the burrows shapes that they make. Although this may like a strange topic, consider this: Insects and mammals can’t burrow into groundwater (water stored in sediment underground), so their burrows stop at the water table (the boundary between dry soil and water-soaked soil). Many plants cannot live if their roots are submerged, so the roots also stop growing at the water table. Because roots and burrows can be preserved in the fossil record, they can be used to determine past climate conditions. For example, if a paleontologist finds that roots and burrows found in a rock layer all have the same depth, then there was groundwater in the past. In addition, the paleontologist could determine that 1) there was enough precipitation to allow water to soak into the ground, 2) there is enough accessible water for an ecosystem to live, and 3) there may have been a river or lake nearby as the water table is near the soil surface.

Burrows, tracks, trails, and root casts are called trace fossils. Trace fossils can also be used to determine what organisms were present in an ancient ecosystem, how diverse the organisms were, and what environmental conditions were. Much of this work is done by studying actual burrows produced in the field and in the laboratory. My work involved allowing trapdoor spiders, wolf spiders, and tarantulas to produce burrows in the lab. After moving the spiders into a new habitat, I poured plaster into the burrows and measured the dried casts.

This is an example of a cast of a burrow created by the tarantula pictured.

One of the big goals of our lab group is to determine the relationship between burrow-shape and burrow-maker. Several arachnid species have been studied in this lab: scorpions, whip scorpions, and spiders. We have found that although these groups are closely related, they all produce very different burrow shapes, and that shapes appear to be related to the behavior of the species as well as its body shape. My favorite part about being a scientist is seeing something that may be mundane and knowing there is a complex story behind it. For example, a piece of limestone used to line a flower bed represents a past environment, the skeletons of small organisms, and the transport of chemical elements from the continents to the oceans.

For the past few years, I have focused more on teaching than on research. I have been lucky enough to teach at three universities in both chemistry and geology. I have worked with many kinds of students, both science and non-science majors. Much like Time Scavengers is addressing, I have found that many of my students have very little interest in science or think that they can’t understand it. In my classroom, I encourage students to find relationships between the material and their daily lives. Although I have enjoyed my research programs and am proud of my work, I have decided that education is my real strength. I am starting a licensure program this fall to earn my teaching licensure for high school earth science and life science. I hope that my research experience and multidisciplinary approach will encourage all of my students to appreciate the natural world and never stop learning about it.

For people wanting to become scientists, I want to offer two pieces of advice: 1) All of the sciences intersect in some way, so don’t despair if you have to study one you hate to get to the one you love, and 2) The more experiences you have, the better prepared you will be for a career or in graduate school. Find ways to become involved in research or outreach. Apply for internships, even if they don’t pay!

Mike helped lay the ground work for developing a website on their lab’s ichnology projects called the Continental Neoichnological Database. Click here to learn more about the database.

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