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Dr Alan Channing

Hot spring environments and ecosystems through time
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Vertebrate taphonomy in hot spring environments
As 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!

 
The 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 fossil.
 
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.
 
Think 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 influenced area?  
 
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"

 

HYDROTHERMAL HAZARDS

Animals 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!!!!