Stephanie K. Drumheller-Horton, Paleontologist

All kinds of things can move, alter, or even destroy animals’ remains after they die, but before they fossilize and are discovered by paleontologists. The study of these processes is called taphonomy. I specialize in taphonomic processes affecting vertebrates (animals with backbones), especially archosaurs (crocodiles, dinosaurs, and everything in between).

American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) bite mark collection on cow bones, at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, Florida.

I work a lot with living animals to better understand extinct ones. In my bite mark research, this includes collecting crocodylian bite mark examples on pig and cow limbs. I have spent a lot of time at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm collecting data. By studying modern bone surface modifications, I am trying to find novel marks or patterns of marks, which can be used to positively identify similar structures on ancient bones. This lets me identify fossil traces left by particular behavior types or organism groups.

Bone surface modifications are traces on bone surfaces left by other members of or features in its paleoenvironment. This includes everything from sediment abrasion to carnivore bite marks. All of these different types of bone alterations can tell us something about the environment in which the affected animal lived and died. However, we can only access this information if we are able to correctly identify and interpret the marks. Once we can differentiate these marks, we can start asking questions about evolution and paleoecology. What kind of environment was here when these animals were alive? Who was eating what in this ecosystem? How did this animal become fossilized, and what might that tell us about the diversity of the original environment? Paleontologists are not the only people to consider how bones have been altered through time. Forensic osteology is a field of science dedicated to studying what happened to human bones based on features left on the bone material. Read more about forensic osteology here.

A) Line drawing cross section of a stereotypical mammalian long bone, with explanatory illustrations bite mark classifications. Photographic examples of bite mark types: B) Two pits made by an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus); C) Puncture made by an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus); D) Score made by a Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis); E) Furrow made by a New Guinea crocodile (Crocodylus novaeguineae). Scale bars = 1 cm. From Drumheller & Brochu (2016).

The thrill of discovery is a big draw. When I find a new fossil out in the field, it’s pretty exciting to know that I am the first human being to ever see it. I feel the same thing about collecting data from lab experiments and field observations. Publishing a finished paper on a project can feel like you’ve been keeping a really cool secret, and now you finally get to share it with everybody.

Take as many opportunities to branch out and explore different fields as you can. You never know where they might lead you. My last semester of undergrad, I needed one more class to graduate. I already knew I wanted to be a paleontologist, I had actually already been accepted into graduate school. I ended up signing up for a forensic anthropology class, just because it sounded interesting, and my school had a world class program in the field. It was that class that introduced me to taphonomy and the study of bone surface modifications. One random elective class ended up shaping my entire career path.

Find out more about Stephanie’s research by checking out her Research Gate profile here or get more immediate information from her twitter here. Stephanie was part of a crowd funded experiment, found here, to excavate the Arlington Archosaur Site.

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