As the first week of the fall semester draws to a close, I am still amazed to think about everything I accomplished over the past few months. Telling my friends and classmates that I spent my summer conducting paleontology research in Madagascar and France feels unreal, yet I have the photographs and data to prove it. Even without such tangible reminders, my experiences this summer, and the lessons that they taught me, would not be soon forgotten.
The most obvious things I learned this summer are those related to my research. I set out with the goal of studying and identifying as many of Collignon and Cottreau’s sirenian bones at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of National History, also known as the MNHN) in France as possible. Not only was I able to work with all of their original material, but the museum also allowed me to work with other material from the same site, which may prove useful for my own or future research. Being able to see and physically touch the sirenian fossils as I took pictures and measurements, and made a few sketches, taught me more than simply reading about them or even looking at photographs ever could.
Aside from working in the MNHN collection, I was able to tour the exhibit space where several sirenian skeletons were assembled. Although they represented different species from the specimen that I’m focusing on in my own paper, it was helpful to see what a complete skeleton looks like. The piles of fragmentary and unarticulated bones I had been examining so diligently suddenly took on much more significance as I could see roughly the size and shape of the creature they had once been.
Other sirenian skeletons at the MNHN
Upon my return to the United States, I got in touch with Dr. Daryl Domning, a fossil sirenian expert, in order to help identify some of the bones I had photographed in France. He was able to confirm my suspicions that several of the bones I had studied there were incorrectly labeled, and positively identify a number of others.
The next step in my research will be to measure, photograph, and sketch the sirenian material in Dr. Samonds’ lab here at NIU, and comparing the data with those I collected in Paris. Throughout the upcoming academic year, I will continue to work with Dr. Samonds on the paper, which we expect to publish in a high-impact scientific journal, naming this new species of sea cow.
Some highlights from my summer research
In reflecting upon my research this summer, I can conclude that it was by far the most exciting, demanding, and edifying experience of my academic career so far. I am grateful for the chance to have gotten a head start on my Honors Capstone, but more than that I am overjoyed to have spent the summer doing what I love and studying a subject about which I am very passionate. I was able to access and work in the collections of two world class natural history museums, explore several potential career paths, develop my paleontology skills both in the field and in the lab, collaborate with peers and professionals in my field in several countries, and begin writing a significant academic paper. I cannot wait to see how these opportunities and abilities will continue to aid me in the future, as I pursue a graduate degree and later, a professional career.
By Rebekah Ernat