Brazil 2012 Fieldwork Diary Entry 4: Paleontology in Brazil: Meet the Team

Prionosuchus plummeri is an archaic amphibian that lived in the Parnaíba Basin during the Permian Period of Earth history. Design by Maria Tzeka.

One of the things that I enjoy about being a paleontologist is that I get to collaborate on research projects with a lot of very interesting people from all over the world. I'm privileged to be part of a great team of people working on the Parnaíba Basin project, and I'm sure you'll be hearing more about them as our fieldwork proceeds. Before that happens, though, I would like to introduce you to them. That way you will know who they are when they're mentioned in later posts, but it will also give you a bit of insight into some of the rationale and planning that goes into arranging paleontological fieldwork. Although all of the team members have interests in Permian paleontology, we each bring particular research interests and experiences to the project, and that combined expertise is important for being able to interpret the fossils we find and the data we collect. To give you an example of this, I once almost threw away what seemed to be an undiagnostic fossil bone fragment that I found while doing fieldwork in Tanzania. Luckily, one of my collaborators on the trip asked me what I found before I tossed it, and he recognized it as part of a femur (thigh bone) of a dinosaur relative. It was one of the first of many specimens we found of that animal at the locality that day, which we later described and named Asilisaurus kongwe. Asilisaurus is one of the most important things we found on that trip because it indicates that the origin of dinosaurs occurred about ten million years earlier than previously thought.

I'll start by introducing myself. I'm Ken Angielczyk, and I work in the Department of Geology at The Field Museum in Chicago. My research focuses on a group of therapsids called dicynodonts. Dicynodonts were the most diverse and abundant herbivores in terrestrial communities for much of the Permian and Triassic periods of Earth history, so they're important for understanding how those communities functioned ecologically and how they were affected by the end-Permian mass extinction (the largest mass extinction in Earth history).

Juan Carlos Cisneros works at the Universidade Federal do Piauí, which is located in the city of Teresina in Brazil. Conveniently, Teresina lies within the Parnaíba Basin and some of the areas we want to explore this year are quite close to the city. Juan's research focuses on a group of extinct reptiles called procolophonoids, although he's also worked on therapsids and even mammals. You should check out Tiarajudens, a therapsid that Juan recently discovered in the Permian of Brazil.

Jörg Fröbisch works at the Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (in Berlin). Jörg is one of the few other people in the world who has  intensively studied dicynodonts, and he recently spent two years working with me at the Field Museum. His current research involves studying how the major groups of therapsids are related to one another, a topic that has received surprisingly little attention from paleontologists.

Members of the 2012 Parnaíba Basin fieldwork team. Upper row, left to right: Martha Richter, Ken Angielczyk, Roberto Ianuzzi (a paleobotanist who won't be on this year's trip), Claudia Marsicano, Juan Cisneros, Domingas de Conceiçáo (an undergraduate at the  Universidade Federal do Piauí). Bottom row, left to right: Christian Kammerer, Roger Smith, Jörg Fröbisch, Jeff Johnson. Photos by Ken Angielczyk, Christian Kammerer, Jörg Fröbisch, Jeff Johnson. Not Shown: Mayana de Castro Silva (an undergraduate at the  Universidade Federal do Piauí).

Christian Kammerer also is based in Berlin; he's a postdoctoral researcher working with Jörg. Christian was a graduate student at the University of Chicago during the time Jörg was at the Field Museum, and the three of us recently completed a large work on the dicynodont Dicynodon that we began at that time. Christian has experience studying broad evolutionary patterns in synapsids, and has done detailed work on several synapsid subgroups.

Claudia Marsicano is based at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. Her research focuses on the large, often crocodile-like archaic amphibians that were common members of Permian and Triassic communities. This expertise is especially important for our fieldwork because the only terrestrial vertebrate currently known from the Pedra de Fogo Formation is an archaic amphibian called Prionosuchus plummeri. Fossil footprints are another of Claudia's interests.

Martha Richter works at the Natural History Museum in London, and she specializes on fossil sharks and bony fish from the Permian Period. She's a key member of the team because most of the vertebrate fossils found in the Pedra de Fogo Formation are bony fish and shark remains, and she also has previous experience doing fieldwork in the Parnaíba Basin. If I get any of the names of fossil fish we find right in future posts, it will be because Martha is reading over my shoulder.

Roger Smith works at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, and much of his research focuses on sedimentology (i.e., using the structure and composition of sedimentary rocks to understand the environments in which they formed) and taphonomy (i.e., the study of the processes by which animal remains are preserved as fossils). He's also done a ton of fieldwork in the Permian all over the world, and is one of the most skilled fossil finders I know. Most of the paleontology exhibit at the Iziko South African Museum is a testament to Roger's ability to find amazing specimens, and if we do discover any synapsids on this trip, it wouldn't surprise me if Roger is the first to find them.

Finally, Jeff Johnson is a videographer who is accompanying us in the field. Jeff will be taking photos and videos of us as we do our work, which we use for making short educational videos.