The fossils were tiny, but to an Iowa State University senior, they revealed big stories about ancient sea life off the United Kingdom coast.
Dana Korneisel spent the summer of 2013 examining small fossil fragments during a research internship at the University of Bristol in England. Her work shed light on what was swimming in the area 210 million years ago, and it resulted in her becoming the lead author of a research paper in an international geoscience journal.
Few undergraduate students are listed as authors in published papers, and even fewer are the first authors. Korneisel earned that honor when the paper she co-authored with three UK researchers was published online Jan. 15 in the Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, a journal founded in 1859.
“It was really exciting,” Korneisel said about seeing her name listed first among the paper’s authors.
A geology and biology double major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences from Cedar Falls, Korneisel’s job was to sort and characterize small fossil fragments. The more than 1,800-piece collection included shark’s teeth and pieces of fins, jaws, skulls and scales. The fossils came from the Devon Coast in Southwest England along the English Channel.
“This area has a phenomenal collection of fossils in the cliffs,” she said. “The cliffs are eroding so you can always find new fossils.”
The journal article was the first detailed description of a “Rhaetic bone bed” that was well preserved inside a burrow system, which was made by ancient marine shrimp and other crustaceans. “Rhaetic” relates to a series of rocks formed in the late Triassic period, which preceded the Jurassic period. The paper described at length four species of sharks and five species of bony fish including Dapedium, a rare find for the British Rhaetic.
The late Triassic Period, Korneisel said, was an important time in fish evolution. Mass extinctions were taking place in the seas and tetrapods (four-legged creatures such as early frogs and salamanders) were emerging and on land the first dinosaurs had just appeared.
Korneisel did her work at the University of Bristol Palaeobiology Laboratories under the direction of Mike Benton, professor of vertebrate palaeontology.
“I don’t think we have ever had an undergrad being first author on an international, peer-reviewed publication with international scientists of the caliber of Mike Benton,” said Cinzia Cervato, Morrill Professor of geological and atmospheric sciences at Iowa State. “Dana is a very mature and dedicated student with a passion for paleontology. She is uncommonly smart and curious about research and science.
Korneisel said the experience taught her a lot about the long-term evolutionary branches of sharks and fish and the classification of fish species. However, her path toward a paleontology career probably will steer away from fish. “I think I’d like to work with early tetrapods, the prehistoric ancestors to all land animals,” she said.
Although graduate school is in her future, the Peace Corps is her first assignment after finishing her ISU classes in May. She will go to Africa and teach secondary biology for two years in Tanzania.
The paper’s title is “Latest Triassic marine sharks and bony fishes from a bone bed preserved in a burrow system, from Devon, UK.”