UW Professor Ellen Currano touches the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary in the Denver
Basin, where plant fossils are being collected as part of a project to better understand
how and when life rebounded after a meteor wiped out 75 percent of species on Earth
66 million years ago. (Regan Dunn Photo)
Using clues from the fossil record, researchers at the University of Wyoming are traveling
back in time to study a mass extinction event that occurred 66 million years ago.
Their goal is to better understand how and when life rebounded after a meteor wiped
out 75 percent of species on Earth.
The five-year study is part of a multidisciplinary effort led by the Denver Museum
of Nature & Science and funded by a nearly $3 million grant from the National Science
Foundation (NSF). Seven collaborating research institutions, including multiple universities
and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, are involved in the project.
As research findings become available, they will be shared with the public through
museum exhibits, classroom presentations and other outreach events.
The study will focus primarily on the collection and analysis of plant fossils from
the Denver Basin and Williston Basin, says Ellen Currano, a UW professor and paleobotanist.
“We have a really good understanding of how old the rocks are in these basins, which
will allow us to understand the amount of time that different phases of recovery took,”
Why plants, not dinosaurs?
“Plants form the base of terrestrial ecosystems, and everything else relies on plants
for food and habitat,” Currano explains. “If we are going to understand how life on
land recovered after the bolide impact that killed off the dinosaurs and approximately
75 percent of all species, we need to understand what was going on with the plants.”
In addition to offering clues about the evolution of modern plants and animals, studying
past extinctions can provide insight into extinctions occurring today.
“In the larger scheme of things, my research agenda is to understand how ancient forests
responded to abrupt environmental changes, with the hope that we can apply what we
learn to the present day,” Currano says.
When the NSF project concludes, she hopes to expand her research to new sites in Wyoming.
To learn more, email Currano at email@example.com.