Vertebrate taphonomy in hot spring environments
a palaeobotanist working in the UK it seemed a long shot that I would
get to work with some of the big names in vertebrate palaeontology from
the US! However, reasearch is full of surprises! During fieldwork in
Yellowstone in 1998 whilst looking for fossil sinter deposits in the
dense lodgepole pine forest west of Elk Park we discovered a fossil coot!
body was preserved as an external mould by a layer of fossilised
microbial mat. The feathers attached to the the bird were preserved in
beautiful clear opal-A. The fossil ended up at the Museum of the
Rockies. Over the next few years I worked on and off with Jack Horner
and Mary Schweitzer to describe the taphonomy of this very unusual
Is it a one off? Well of course it could
be! But when you spend a little time thinking about hot springs and
ecosystems and look for other instances of vertebrate death in
geothermal environments it appears unlikely.
of the flocks of 10's of thousands of flamingos in the African Rift
lakes for instance. They are there because the lakes are full of aquatic
crustaceans on which they feed. The crustaceas are there because the
lakes are evaporation driven and saline. The salinity derives in part
from water flowing into the lake from adjacent hot springs. The lake
water is too saline to drink so the flamingos go to the hot springs to
drink as the water is only brackish. Other organisms in the lakes
include cyanobacteria - every so often there are bacterial blooms that
create toxic water conditions in the lake. Flamingo mass-mortality
events occur. Is it unlikely that over the 1000's of years that this
ecosystem has been in place that a flamingo never died in a thermally
A similar thing happens in
Yellowstone where in winter only thermal waters may remain ice free.
Elk, Bison and other animals are drawn to springs to find food and
water. Bones and carcasses found in hot spring pools indicate that they
frequently fall in.
Here is an image and narative extracted from the NPS website
"Old Faithful Virtual Visitor Centre"
of all sizes can break through the thin crust in hydrothermal areas or
simply step in the wrong place. Over the years, at least two bison have
fallen into Scalloped Spring in the Upper Geyser Basin. Both times the
unexpected intrusions caused Scalloped Spring to erupt as a geyser. The
eruptions lasted for a couple of days, throwing water as high as 10 feet
(3 m) into the air.
So are there any dinos out there preserved in hot spring deposits? I don't know but I am looking!!!!