Vertebrate taphonomy, the study of the mechanisms and circumstances of fossil vertebrate preservation, has grown as a science over the last few decades as a vital tool for understanding paleoecology and developing paleoenvironmental reconstructions. However, the greatest challenge for taphonomic research is the high variability of taphonomic modes that have the potential to impact the formation of a fossil.
My research in vertebrate paleontology strives to incorporate sedimentologic data and associated taphonomic processes in terrestrial settings. A comprehensive understanding of taphonomic processes is essential to paleoenvironmental reconstructions and paleoecological interpretations. Such work also incorporates aspects of sedimentology, stratigraphy, geomorphology, and modern ecological studies, and may include geochemistry and geomicrobiology.
Part of my current focus is on the preservation of primary soft-tissues in vertebrate fossils. The mineralization of bones and tissues is the most common form of fossilization in the vertebrate record. However, recent studies have presented new data interpreted as preserved proteins and tissues in the form of integument, feathers, and vessels. These claims have not come without objections, however, with arguments that these artifacts are microbial in origin.
My current research experimentally examines the role of microbial biofilms on soft-tissue preservation in vertebrate fossils by quantitatively and qualitatively analyzing the establishment, growth, and morphology of biofilms on extant archosaur bone. Preliminary results have been compared with soft-tissue extracts from vertebrate fossils from the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana in order to investigate the role of microbial biofilms on the preservation of fossil bone in a variety of taphonomic settings. These results suggest new methods of soft-tissue preservation by means of the crystallization of microbial biofilms in decomposing bone during early taphonomic stages.