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Digging Into the Past

Digging Into the PastWith his discovery of what may be the world's oldest fossil imprint of a flying insect, R.J. Knecht is tackling a new dimension of New England history—one that dates back hundreds of millions of years.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.17.08] What did the ecology of the Boston area look like more than 300 million years ago? This question is what drives the work of Richard J. Knecht, a Tufts geology major. And his initial discoveries are bringing him closer to the answer.

"So far, we've found what appears to be the world's oldest flying insect trace fossil," says Knecht. "There's going to be a lot of firsts coming out of this as far as species, and [we've already found] the first invertebrate fossil found in this formation."

Working under the supervision of Jake Benner, a senior lecturer in the Geology Department, Knecht is hoping that this specimen, along with other trace fossils uncovered from the site, will help him gain knowledge about the region's ecosystem 315 million years ago, "give or take a couple million," he jokes.

The three-inch long imprint dates back to the Pennsylvania Era-the second half of the Carboniferous Period, which ranges from roughly 360 million to 290 million years ago-and was likely caused by brief contact with a muddy surface. Knecht learned of the dig site, located in a wooded area behind a North Attleboro, Mass., strip mall, while conducting research on sedimentary rocks for his senior thesis.



Michael S. Engel, a leading entomologist at the University of Kansas who is currently working with Knecht and Benner to study the insect, says that a preliminary inspection of the anatomy indicates that it may be related to the common mayfly.

"We can tell from the imprint that it has a very squat position when it lands," Engel says. "Its legs are sprawled and its belly is pressed down. The only group that does that today is the mayfly."

The site has yielded much more beyond the winged insect. Knecht and Benner have found trace fossil evidence of reptiles, amphibians and other insects embedded in sedimentary rock. The specimens have substantial research possibilities.

"A trace fossil would be something like a track or a footprint-anything that shows behavior or presence of an organism," Knecht explains. "Right now, we've got a pretty good hold on what kind of life was there, and by taking how many of each type of track we find, we can begin to build population estimates."

From a large slab of pathways, says Knecht, "We can actually see the direction, if they travel in groups, perhaps if something is following, predator-prey relationships, things like that."

Knecht's research proposal has received funding from three separate sources-the Tufts University Undergraduate Research Fund, the Stephen J. Gould Student Research Award of the Paleontological Society and the Northeastern Section of the Geological Society of America-and garnered international recognition, with Knecht and Benner presenting the fossil at the Second International Congress on Ichnology in Krakow, Poland in September. The pair recently returned from Houston where they presented other trace fossils for the site at the Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America later this month.

Following coursework taken at University of Massachusetts-Boston, Knecht, 30, joined Tufts through the Resumed Education for Adult Learners program (REAL). Knecht enrolled at Tufts as a biology major. But he developed a fascination with paleontology after deciding, on a whim, to take a course in geology.

"Paleontology is kind of the intersection of biology and geology," Knecht says, noting that he quickly became passionate for the field. "I would go look for dinosaur tracks in western Massachusetts on the weekends, and trilobites in the Boston area... Some professors got wind of this and started inviting me on real digs."

The site is the only active exploration of Pennsylvanian rock formation in New England.
"The closest place outside of this would be, probably, Tennessee in the South, or maritime Canada," he notes.

Though a lot can be determined through these trace fossil discoveries, it is still difficult to accurately establish a time frame of when the organisms lived. Dating the rocks where the fossils are found-most easily done if they are igneous rocks-is one way of accomplishing this, and Knecht notes the importance of establishing this timeline.

"We're trying to get a fix on a time because this is within a couple million years of the first evidence of reptiles, period, in the world," Knecht says. A very exciting concept, as new discoveries such as this help to explain how these animals evolved.

Having achieved such a successful start in geology, Knecht says he hopes to continue on in the field and take on new projects.

"Anything's possible," he says. "I am learning a lot from [my current work] that will definitely go on beyond this."

Profile by Hayden Reich (A'09). Additional material provided by Tufts Office of Public Relations.

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