Two grants fund biology professor’s coastal fossil research

Dr. David Patterson has expanded his research of ancient environments and fossil mammals in Brunswick, Georgia, thanks to a National Geographic Society Exploration grant and two UNG Presidential Incentive Awards.

The grant and Presidential Award funded a research trip in summer 2019 to explore late Pleistocene-aged fossils found at the site. The funding meant the assistant professor of biology and his UNG undergraduate students made an additional trip in October 2019 with another planned in February 2020 and more in the summer.

“By adding more trips, we can incorporate more student researchers and expose them to paleontological field work,” Patterson said. “These same types of trips sparked my obsession with fossils and ancient ecosystems, so I hope that it will do the same for some of our students.”

The National Geographic Grant was for $29,800, and the 2019 Presidential Incentive Award was for $9,905. The funds allowed Patterson to purchase a total station – a surveying tool that can create a precise, 3D map of the ancient landscape 20,000 years ago. He acquired the new equipment in fall 2019.

Elizabeth Noble, a sophomore from Alpharetta, Georgia, pursuing a biology degree, said the total station will be a game-changer for future research trips.

“It allows us to go into more detail with the mammoth and bison ecology in the late Pleistocene,” Noble said.

The work is a continuation of Patterson’s undergraduate and master’s research at Georgia College and State University (GCSU) in Milledgeville, Georgia, with Dr. Al Mead. Through that connection, UNG partnered with GCSU in the creation of a Coastal Georgia Fossil Database, which will feature new and existing fossil collections.

“Securing the National Geographic and Presidential grants demonstrated that there was tremendous support for this work both within and outside of UNG,” Patterson said. “These two grants, along with the Presidential Award from last cycle, have essentially kick-started the long-term project and already led to some really interesting findings.”

In summer 2018, Patterson and his students discovered that fossils in the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Brunswick, Georgia, occurred within a complex system of river channels draining to the coast, which 20,000 years ago was approximately 50 miles farther out to sea than its current location.

“That trip provided a framework for future investigations,” Patterson said.

The first trip included fellow faculty members Dr. Christopher Seminack and Jessica Patterson. David Patterson’s students dug test trenches and found some bones at the location while Seminack and two of his students used ground-penetrating radar to understand the ancient landscape.

Madison Ussery, a junior from Loganville, Georgia, pursuing a biology degree, was part of the research team in summer 2018 and 2019. She recounted digging 6 to 8 feet deep holes for six or seven hours a day.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Ussery said. “We supported each other, and everybody pushed each other to do the best we could.”

And their best work is not complete. Patterson said students submitted a paper to “Quarterly Science Reviews,” a top-tier journal in the fields of paleontology and paleoecology. The work will also be presented at more local, regional and national conferences.