An Ethiopian adventure

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Imagine unearthing a fossil more than four million years old. That’s about the same time our ancestors were beginning to walk upright.

Now imagine that fossil being named after you, its finder, for all scientists, researchers and enthusiasts to use in references for years to come.

That’s what happened for Iowa State University geologist Mark Mathison, who found the skull of Vulpes mathisoni, “Mathison’s fox,” on a dig in Southern Ethiopia twelve years ago.

“It was pretty crazy,” said Mathison, a teaching lab coordinator in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences. “It’s very unusual to find a skull that is preserved that well.”

Mathison said most times skulls that old are so fragile they break easily and are rarely found intact. It was in such good shape that at first he thought it was a modern skull. But after closer inspection, Mathison and his team realized it was, in fact, ancient.

Mathison’s excursion to Ethiopia was in 2003, and it took more than ten years for professionals to scribe (carefully clean) and research the fossil (fossils are not allowed to leave the country in which they are found). In a profile published by National Geographic, Vulpes mathisoni is said to superficially look much like today’s African sand fox, but its age and anatomy indicate it was probably one of the earliest foxes belonging to a group that once thrived in southern Africa.

A true adventure

Mathison’s trip was exhilarating not only because of his find, but because of the sheer adventure of Ethopia.

“We drove four-wheelers through the mountains to get to the middle of nowhere,” he said. Along with nine other researchers, Mathison set up camp in the Omo Valley – which still considered one of the last undiscovered places on earth, perhaps best known for the ethnic Mursi tribe and its dramatic clay lip plates.

Completely off the grid, their primitive camping conditions included bathing in the Omo River, which was heavily inhabited with crocodiles and biting fish.

“We were right on the equator,” he said. “So we got up before dawn every morning and worked until about noon, when it would reach about 110 degrees.”

Mathison said these types of experiences are what make studying geology at Iowa State so thrilling. In addition to conducting research in exciting places, the department is a tight-knit group where students and faculty have created lasting friendships.

“Geology is the ultimate experience,” he said. “To study the earth, you have to see the earth. Geology is truly where you can apply science and adventure.”


About Liberal Arts and Sciences The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a world-class learning and research community. Iowa State’s most academically diverse college, LAS educates students to become global citizens, providing rigorous academic programs in the sciences, humanities and social sciences within a supportive personalized learning environment. College faculty design new materials, unravel biological structures, care for the environment, and explore social and behavioral issues. From fundamental research to technology transfer and artistic expression, the college supports people in its community and around the world.

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Contacts: Mark Mathison, Geological and Atmospheric Sciences, ( Jess Guess, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications, (

Mark was also interviewed by Iowa Public Radio