The Paleo Lab Welcomes A New Intern!

Guest writer: our new intern, Aryanna James.


I am a new addition to the paleontology lab, so an introduction is in order. Additionally, I am new to the area! I moved to Martinsville, Virginia from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania over the past summer after graduating from Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology with a concentration in Ecology and a minor in Geography/Earth Science. In my minor I focused primarily on hydrological studies and GIS. However, insects are one of my greatest passions. I’ve done research that combined the two, hydrology and entomology. I participated in both field and lab work for a graduate student’s thesis. The project sought to analyze the effectiveness of liming practices in acidified mountain streams in restoring their aquatic ecosystems.


This images shows a reconstruction of Tiktaalik roseae. Image credit: Tyler Keillor/ Beth

While in my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to meet renowned evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Dr. Neil Shubin. He is well-known for his discovery of Tiktaalik, the fish with “legs” or rather arm-like structures. Tiktaalik had shoulders, elbows, and wrists, allowing him to do push-ups, likely allowing him to bring his flattened head to the surface of the water and peer into the terrestrial world. Evolutionarily, that’s a push-up closer to humankind. Tiktaalik lived in ancient aquatic environments 375 million years ago and provides insight into the evolution of tetrapods. Dr. Shubin’s discovery resulted from expensive trips to the arctic Ellesmere Island, but it was his humbler fossil hunting beginnings that really sparked my interest. Dr. Shubin began his search along Pennsylvania’s highways. When the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) builds and blasts for roadways it exposes rock. Knowing this made fossil hunting and discovery seem much more attainable to a meek and poor beginner such as me. In fact, I had driven past some of Dr. Shubin’s fossil sites without even knowing it!


Possible fly; scale bar: 5 mm with 0.1 mm div.

Fast forward almost a year later. I am working as an intern at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the paleontology lab. I work alongside lab technician Lucy Treado photographing and cataloging fossilized insects and insect fragments. Much of my time is spent visually scanning over smooth, black shale for shiny and silvery specks that indicate organic life. The fossils come from primarily two locations: a solite quarry and a site along Route 220. I’ve learned that paleontologists are like vultures, scavenging areas of exposed rock that are a byproduct of larger scale digging and blasting projects. On February 7th, 2017 I went on my first fossil hunt along Route 220. We managed to collect a decent number of slabs with silvery specks in them which require further inspection under the camera lens. I am hoping to find some interesting insect specimens!


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