Suffolk Biology students joined Professor Eric Dewar in presenting original research at the 76th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Salt Lake City.

Bailey Damron and Cecilia Osimanti, both Class of ’17, took the opportunity to network, attend lectures, and bounce ideas off other scientists. They were among the few undergraduate student presenters; most were master’s or doctoral candidates.

Dewar has mentored the two students as they pursued fossil research and prepared their presentations for a national audience. More than 1,200 scientists, writers, artists, and others attended the society’s annual meeting.

“This was a really great opportunity—and a very rare opportunity—to be able to present my work at a professional conference,” said Damron. “It was wonderful to see so many people as passionate about their work as I am mine and to get some feedback. It was also a tremendous networking opportunity.”

Activity patterns of extinct mammals

Damron submitted a research abstract months before the annual meeting and was delighted when it was accepted.

“The significance of this research is to be able to analyze carnivores alive today and then to use that information to reconstruct behaviors of carnivores that are now extinct,” she said.

Damron presented her work reconstructing the activity patterns of extinct carnivorous mammals based on skeletal evidence of the shape of the orbit and the size of the optic nerve. She quantified the shape of the orbit using a landmark-based method on living carnivores and compared them with some of the earliest fossil carnivores. Her senior project is the extension of work done with Alyssa Montecalvo, Class of ’19 and Suffolk alumni Meg Hartnett, BS ’13, and Enian Kallamata, BS ’15, both of whom are now students at the New England College of Optometry.

After graduation, Damron plans to work in science for a year and then attend medical school.

Fossils provide clues to ancient diets

Osimanti began focusing on fossil research as a freshman after meeting Dewar on a Biology field expedition.

“I’m interested in how fossils can relate to or be used to determine how animals lived in prehistoric times,” said Osimanti.

She presented her project about evidence of diet in extinct hoofed mammals who lived during a period of climate change 37-30 million years ago and how the mammals of that time were not as tied to the land as was previously thought.

Osimanti examined tooth wear on fossils from small and large hoofed mammals, including relatives of rhinos, horses, and deer. She gave each a score related to the type of food they ate, based on a scale developed by a scientist she later met at the conference. The research focused on fossils from the boundary between the Eocene and Oligocene epochs, a period of extreme global cooling and extinction events.

“I looked at 1,000 individual specimens,” said Osimanti, who studied images and casts of fossils from the White River Badlands, rock beds running from South Dakota to Colorado, and worked with fossils at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

“Their diets did not show evidence of change despite changes in environment and forage,” she said. “They were generalists.”

Osimanti is drafting manuscript on her research to be published as soon as next spring.

She also has discussed careers with Dewar. One area of interest is working for the National Park Service, and there was no better place than this meeting to meet other paleontologists working in the parks to talk about careers.

Teaching the teachers

Dewar presented a scientific talk co-authored with Osimanti comparing the tooth wear of mammals at different body sizes, demonstrating that some analytic methods fail to capture the diets of larger species as reliably as smaller ones. Before the main conference, he also co-facilitated a daylong professional-development workshop for paleontologists tooling up to work at teaching-intensive universities. The workshop was attended by more than 20 graduate students and younger faculty. He and his co-facilitators also presented a poster to connect with other paleontologists interested in course design and work-life balance.

“Dr. Dewar and I have had a working relationship over four years,” said Osimanti. “I’ve taken many classes with him, and I feel our research is mutually beneficial.”

The Student Leadership and Involvement Office provided support for Damron and Osimanti to travel to the conference, and Dewar received a Teaching and Learning Innovation Grant from Suffolk’s Center for Teaching & Scholarly Excellence.