Hunting for Leftovers in a Refrigerator Cave

Jenny McGuire is one of several scientists featured in a documentary that WyomingPBS will air twice in February. The documentary is part of a series called “Main Street, Wyoming.” The episode, “Natural Trap Cave,” is about a pitfall cave in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming. The cave harbors fossils from 150,000 years ago, which scientists have been collecting for research.

“Inside the cave is like a refrigerator,” McGuire says. “The temperature is 40 degrees all year round, so everything preserves beautifully.” In the cave are layers of fossils dating back from 150,000 years to recent times, giving McGuire the opportunity to study how a community changes over long periods.

McGuire is an assistant professor with joint appointment in the Schools of Biological Sciences and of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. She is using the fossils to understand what types of species fill ecological niches after extinction events and how long it takes populations to normalize after a major transition. Similar extinctions of large mammals are occurring today in Africa and South Asia, according to McGuire. She is using the data to determine what to expect not only from specific extinctions, but also from major ecological disruptions occurring worldwide.

In between field visits to Natural Trap Cave, McGuire outsources the fossil work through Fossil Wednesdays. On Wednesday afternoons, 3-5 PM, during the semester, McGuire’s lab is open to all who are interested in hunting for fossils in the rock samples she brought back from Natural Trap Cave.

“Folks come to Fossil Wednesdays to experience the excitement of making new discoveries, accompanied by dramatic soundtracks playing in the background,” McGuire says. “At the same time, it is a relaxed atmosphere for chatting and really getting your mind off the stresses of the week.”

Through Fossil Wednesdays, McGuire has brought the thrill of discovery-based biology to engineers, business majors, and staff members from across campus and beyond. She has also trained K-12 school teachers to bring the excitement of hypothesis-driven discovery to their students.

The WyomingPBS crew visited the cave in July 2017, according to McGuire. “They filmed us inside the cave and did individual interviews with several of us outside the cave.” In the preview provided by WyomingPBS, McGuire is on camera at the end, holding a fossil.  In the documentary itself, McGuire first appears at around 5:15.  

WyomingPBS will air the episode on Sunday, Feb. 18, at 9 PM and on Friday, Feb. 23, at 10 PM. It is at wyomingpbs.org and on WyomingPBS’s YouTube Channel after the broadcasts.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This item was revised on Feb. 20, 2018. The documentary was added from YouTube. 

Author: 
A. Maureen Rouhi