This U.S. - Peru planning visit award will establish a collaborative program of vertebrate paleontology in northwestern Peru by forming a partnership between University of Florida (UF) and Universidad Nacional de Piura (UNP). The program will support one senior researcher and two U.S. graduate students under the direction of Dr. David Steadman from UF and they will collaborate with Dr. Jean-Noël Martinez, Director of the Institute of Paleontology at UNP, and his students. Students and professors from both schools will plan a research program for which larger-scale funding will be pursued in 2012-13. Researchers have long been interested in the distribution and diversity of animals in the American tropics, and how changing climates (glacial-interglacial cycles) have affected these phenomena. The planning visits will focus on field and laboratory research at the Talara Tar Seeps (TTS), an asphaltic natural trap with abundant 20,000 year old fossils of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. There have been no formal excavations at the TTS since the 1950s and 1960s. However, evidence of a wetter past climate comes from previously excavated TTS fossils, indicating a richer plant community must have existed once at TTS. Dr. Martinez, a leading authority on Peruvian fossil mammals, and his students have discovered vertebrate fossils in many localities within 500 kilometers of Piura. The UNP team will study the resulting mammal fossils, whereas the UF team will study the bird fossils, and both teams will study the amphibian and reptile fossils. The analyses of fossils will vastly improve the understanding of past climate change in this climatically sensitive region. This international collaboration will provide opportunities to train, educate, and bring together students and researchers from the United States and Peru. In addition to establishing collaborations with their Peruvian colleagues, UF scientists will give lectures at UNP while two U.S. graduate students will receive an international research experience from this award. Furthermore, Peruvian undergraduate students will be given the opportunity to travel to UF and develop directed research projects with UF students. Finally, these visits have the potential to generate a larger international program that will expand our knowledge of how changing past climates in the American tropics have affected the biodiversity of the region.

Project Report

Intellectual Merit We were granted an NSF International Planning award to develop a collaborative program of research and education in vertebrate paleontology among researchers at the University of Florida (UF) and Universidad Nacional de Piura (UNP) in northwestern Peru. This area has a remarkable number of fossil sites spanning the past 50 million years. Studying these fossils will give insight on how species distributions have changed in response to past climatic fluctuations, and will help to predict how species will respond to ongoing climate change. Northwestern Peru is arid today but evidence of a wetter climate during the last ice age (Late Pleistocene) comes from ancient river sediments and from a fossil site (the Talara Tar Seeps; TTS) where many species of vertebrates have been recovered. These fossils represent large mammals (pampatheres, ground sloths, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats) as well as aquatic animals such as frogs, turtles, crocodilians, grebes, ducks, and geese. Thousands of unexcavated fossils remain at the site today. A goal of our collaboration was to lay the groundwork to excavate and curate these fossils, with a focus on under-studied (or unstudied) groups of animals. Compared to that of mammals, the Quaternary fossil record of South American birds is poorly developed, especially considering that this continent sustains the world’s richest and most diverse bird communities. The best studied South American assemblages of Late Pleistocene birds are those from TTS and from La Carolina in southwestern Ecuador, although in both cases, only the non-passerine bird fossils were studied. The abundant unstudied passerine (songbird) fossils from these sites represent a major gap in our knowledge because passerines make up more than 50% of the species richness of modern birds in South America. From only 400 of the 1,800 passerine fossils available from the early excavations at Talara by the Royal Ontario Museum (currently on loan to Steadman), Oswald has identified 21 species of passerine birds. At least three species discovered at the site are extinct and four are not found near the site today. Based on extant species current habitat preferences, during the Late Pleistocene the fossil site was dominated by grasslands and tropical dry forests with tree-lined wetlands. We reached similar conclusions about paleohabitat from studying avian fossils at the northern limits of Neotropical dry forests in northwestern Mexico. Even in montane regions of the South America, Late Pleistocene fossil birds argue for wetter and grassier conditions than exist at present. Lastly, we note that investing in what we know about the history of South American dry forests, a habitat-type of considerable endemism and conservation concern, is critically important for the future of species in the region. Broader impacts The area near TTS is being degraded by oil extraction and exploration. By moving quickly with our planning and subsequent research, we were able to at least discuss with our new collaborators at UNP how excavations of the plant and animal fossils at TTS could be expedited and properly stored in museums. The international collaboration between UF and UNP has enriched our knowledge of South American Late Pleistocene plant and animal communities, and provided opportunities to train, educate, and bring together students and researchers from the United States and Peru. During our visit we gave lectures at UNP to undergraduate students, professors, and administrators. We talked with local residents near Talara about the abundant fossils in their backyards. During our 10-day visit to UNP, we interacted with many UNP undergraduate students who were all Peruvian citizens from various majors. In 2012, two Peruvian undergraduate geology students working with fossils and their advisor and UNP paleontologist, Dr. Jean-Noel Martinez, traveled to UF to further their education and to receive instruction on how to properly curate fossils and effectively design public exhibits via directed projects at FLMNH. These UNP students were encouraged to explore options to pursue graduate school at UF, where we have a strong tradition of graduate education for Latin American students.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Office of International and Integrative Activities (IIA)
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Anne-Marie Schmoltner
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University of Florida
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