Paleontology is the study of what fossils tell us about the ecologies of the past, about evolution, and about our place, as humans, in the world. Paleontology incorporates knowledge from biology, geology, ecology, anthropology, archaeology, and even computer science to understand the processes that have led to the origination and eventual destruction of the different types of organisms since life arose.
The first floor atrium features fossil casts from the Cenozoic Period, also known as the Age of Mammals, which began 65 million years ago and continues to the present. The display includes an American mastodon, a giant ground sloth, and saber-toothed cats. The last of these mammals appear to have become extinct about 10,000 years ago.
The American mastodon was a huge fur-covered elephant-like mammal with long tusks that inhabited Louisiana and the southeastern United States at a time when ice covered much of North America. A mastodon, called the Trappey mastodon, was discovered in 1970 near the Trappey food canning plant in Lafayette and others where recovered from the Jefferson and Avery Island areas.
Giant ground sloths were herbivores weighing between 6,500 – 8,000 pounds that lived in the woodlands and grasslands of what is now South America. Unlike small, tree-dwelling sloths today, this giant sloth species was a ground dweller.
Smilodon, meaning two-edged knife tooth, was a large Saber-toothed cat known for its elongated canines. An apex predator, Smilodon weighed up to 620 pounds and fed on larger Ice Age mammals such as bison and giant camel.
Beyond the atrium, a fossil of an extinct giant camel, called Megatylopus, is on display as part of the UL Lafayette Geology collection. The fossil is the most complete skeleton known of the creature, which stood 12-14 feet tall and functioned much like a giraffe. The excavation and transport of the 7 million year old fossil found in Oregon was completed by Dr. James E. Martin, curator of paleontology and research professor with UL’s School of Geosciences.
In the lobby and on the second floor, students can examine dinosaur fossil casts from the late Jurassic Period including Allosaurus, Camptosaurus, and Stegosaurus. The Jurassic Period is also known as the Age of Dinosaurs. During the Jurassic Period, from about 199 to 145 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangaea split apart opening up basins that would form the Atlantic Ocean.
While viewing Megatylopus, visitors can also see geologists at work in the UL Geology Preparation Laboratory. Faculty, staff, students, and volunteers work in the lab to remove fossils and minerals from rocks collected in the field. Using microscopes, miniature jack hammers and sandblasters, and other tools, preparators locate fossils ranging from minuscule mice to immense mammoths. The fossils and mineral specimens are prepared for scientific research, displays, and preservation.
News 15's Jordan Sandler gives a more in depth look at the work of the prep lab's scientists, students, and volunteers: