Geology guest speaker talks ancestry

Calvin Skalet, News Editor

Lauren Michel, a professor at Tennessee Tech, spoke to UW Oshkosh students about her findings in eastern Africa and how the earliest human ancestors adapted to the environment as a part of the UW Oshkosh Geology Distinguished Speaker Series.

The presentation was a discussion about the environment in which the earliest human ancestors lived. Michel spoke about the evolution of the hominoid, which is a primate of a family that includes humans and its past fossil ancestors.

Michel is a terrestrial paleoclimate scientist. Her research interests involve reconstructing climate in the rock record from paleosols, [fossil soils] and studying modern soils for their deep-time application.

The presentation also pointed to paleoecological reconstructions for Ekembo and Dendropithecus sites on Rusinga and Mfangano Islands, Lake Victoria, Kenya.

Ekembo is an extinct primate genus found in 20 – to 17-million-year-old sediments from the Miocene epoch, and Dendropithecus is an extinct genus of apes native to East Africa.

Michel said looking back at history is important when thinking about our original ancestors, however distant it may be.

“If we want to know how old world monkeys and apes came to be, we first need to understand what came before,” Michel said.

Michel said one of the most interesting parts of human ancestors was their ability to adapt to different environments.

“Some of our earliest ancestors were probably able to adapt to a variety of different environments,” Michel said. “We as humans are generalists; we can live in a bunch of different environments and this potentially is an inherited trait, and I think that is very interesting.”

Michel points out while most thought Proconsul was the earliest ape known, the Rusinga Island proved that there was evidence of Ekembo.

“For the longest time, the idea was, Proconsul was the first ape and was thought to be on the Island of Rusinga,” Michel said. “Five years ago, everything from Rusinga was decided that it wasn’t Proconsul. Proconsul still exists, but it only exists off of the island.”

UWO geology professor Jennifer Wenner said she’s always been intrigued by the evolution of these fossils that were once around during a time in which the Ekembo lived.

“I was struck by the idea that scientists had been walking over the fossils of the trees for years before they realized that these were actually stumps and roots that were from the trees Ekembo lived in,” Wenner said.

UWO geology professor Eric Hiatt said these speaking events do more for students that a classroom doesn’t offer.

“We bring speakers from all over the world, to talk to us about their discoveries and unveiling their knowledge, which I think is at the fundamental core of a university,” Hiatt said.

Hiatt also said this is a great opportunity for UWO students to network with professionals.

“It’s a fantastic networking tool for all of our students, not just geology majors,” Hiatt said.

Michel said she will be continuing her work in Africa in the summers, and will bring some of her own students with her.

“I’m going to continue working in Kenya,” Michel said. “I’ve got a bunch of projects in Kenya. I’ll be out there for a couple months. I usually take a couple undergrad students out with me for the summer and do a bunch of field work.

Michel said her best advice to students would be to keep pushing towards their degree. Although she said this isn’t just a way of getting the foot in the door, it is an opening to many possibilities.

“There’s a lot of ways you can use your degree,” Michel said. “Having a good, solid degree and a good footing can lead to a ton of cool research and stories that you can do.”