Microfossil hunters to meet in St. Louis

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On July 20, 2005

Led by a University of Missouri-Rolla scientist, a group of fossil hunters will converge on St. Louis in September to discuss new developments in the field of palynology, a branch of paleontology that is focused on microscopic evidence dating back a billion years.

Dr. Francisca Oboh-Ikuenobe, a professor of geology and geophysics at UMR, is directing the 38th annual meeting of the Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists scheduled for Sept. 18-21 at the Radisson Hotel and Suites in St. Louis.

Palynologists are more concerned with organic evidence of pollen, spores and microplankton than they are with dinosaur bones. But that doesn’t mean their work doesn’t have big implications.

“This field really took off in the 1950s when oil companies first saw the relevance for exploration,” says Oboh-Ikuenobe. “By providing the age for source rocks and reservoirs, palynologists and paleontologists successfully guide prospectors who conduct drilling operations.”

The conference, which is expected to attract palynologists from around the world, is sponsored by UMR, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and several oil companies.

Symposia on various topics and field trips are planned during the week of the conference.

Dr. David Dilcher, a research professor at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History and member of the National Academy of Science, will take a group of participants to a site in Tennessee where ancient flowers have been recovered from Eocene clay pits.

The UMR research team in Australia (left to right): Bo Young Hong, graduate student in biological sciences; Dr. Melanie Mormile, associate professor of biological sciences; Stacy Jones, graduate student in geological sciences; and Oboh-Ikuenobe.

Oboh-Ikuenobe will lead groups to the Cahokia Native American mounds east of St. Louis in Illinois, and to Onondaga Caves in Leasburg, Mo.

“If we can find evidence of past life trapped in this salt in Australia, maybe we can find something similar on Mars.”

Palynologists can use evidence of past life to discover things ranging from geological dates to how vegetation, climates and environments change over time – on earth and possibly elsewhere.

Oboh-Ikuenobe recently returned from Australia, where she conducted field tests with a team of colleagues on the geomicrobiology of ephemeral salt lakes. The team is interested in several lakes in Western Australia that, unlike most salt lakes, are acidic.

“The extreme environment resembles what a rover might encounter if Mars had water today,” Oboh-Ikuenobe says. “It was red everywhere. I was shocked. I’ve never seen so much salt in my life. We were walking on salt crusts in very shallow water that stung our legs.

“If we can find evidence of past life trapped in this salt in Australia, maybe we can find something similar on Mars.”

More information about the Association of American Stratigraphic Palynologists meeting in St. Louis is available at http://www.palynology.org/. Registration as soon as possible is encouraged. To reach Oboh-Ikuenobe, call (573) 341-6946 or email ikuenobe@mst.edu.

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On July 20, 2005. Posted in Research