By Steve Koppes
Photo by Dan Dry

The fossil record gives you a critical depth of time that you typically can’t get from modern ecological analyses, and I always felt that was really important.”
—Rebecca Terry

Rebecca Terry, graduate student in Geophysical Sciences, carried off the 2007 Alfred Sherwood Romer Prize from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Terry is the sixth University of Chicago student to receive the Romer Prize since 1993. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology awards the Romer Prize annually to a graduate student for outstanding PhD research based on an oral presentation at the society’s annual meeting.

Taphonomy

Terry specializes in taphonomy, the study of how physical and biological processes determine the quality of the fossil record. She inventories small mammals—both living specimens and their skeletal remains—in Nevada and Utah to assess the impact of climate change and humans on ecosystems over centuries to millennia.

“I wanted to do paleontology that has direct relevance to conservation science,” Terry said. “The fossil record gives you a critical depth of time that you typically can’t get from modern ecological analyses, and I always felt that was really important.”

Rebecca’s father, Mark Terry, introduced her to paleontology and taphonomy. As a child, she would accompany her father, a high-school biology teacher at the Northwest School in Seattle, on annual field trips to Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds. In her senior year, she got a formal taste of the science when she enrolled in his Primate Biology class.

Terry continued her scientific training at Macalester College in Minnesota, graduating in 2001 with a degree in geology. Her advisors at Macalester included Chicago alumnus Raymond Rogers (PhD’95), himself a recipient of the Romer Prize (1993). Susan Kidwell, the William Rainey Harper Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College, and the 1995 Schuchert Award winner, was Rogers’ PhD adviser and now advises Terry in her PhD work.

First Live-Dead Study of Small Mammals

Terry’s Ph.D. research is the first live-dead study of small mammals. She is establishing what types of small mammals have lived recently in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah by her own trapping surveys and by consulting a century’s worth of trapping records from museum collections. She is extending that record back 13,000 years in Utah, and 10,000 years in Nevada by analyzing the skeletal remains of small mammals found in owl pellets, which accumulate in caves over millennia.

“The amount of agreement that I’m getting between living communities and the skeletal remains that are left behind is basically the same as Sue gets in her marine system,” Terry said, referring to Kidwell. “These are totally different systems, and yet you’re getting the same high quality of information captured by their fossil records.”

When Terry made her prize-winning presentation at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting and received her award, her father was on hand. “That made it extra special,” she said.

By Steve Koppes

Originally published on April 14, 2008.