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Oregon Family Magazine

The Stories Fossils Tell

04/30/2018 ● By Sandy Kauten
Fossils can tell us all kinds of stories. By studying them, we can learn about the animals and plants that lived on Earth millions of years ago, and about the changing environments they lived in.

But did you know that fossils can also help us predict the future?

Just ask Win McLaughlin. Win is a paleontologist and a graduate student at the University of Oregon. Like other paleontologists, she studies fossils to understand the deep past. But she’s also interested in what fossils can tell us about the future—especially about future earthquakes.

Win recently spent several months uncovering mammal fossils in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan, which is located in Central Asia, has more earthquakes than any other country in the world. It also has a growing population that needs information about how to stay safe in an earthquake-prone region. This is where Win’s research comes in.

We can’t predict exactly when earthquakes will happen or what their magnitude will be, but we can make informed guesses based on what’s happened in the past. It all starts with faults, or long cracks in the planet’s surface where earthquakes occur. If we know the age of a fault—when it originally formed—as well as how active it’s been over a long period of time, we can estimate when the next earthquake might come along and how intense it might be.

In Oregon, we have it easy. Scientists here can rely on volcanic ash to determine the age of rocks, faults, and other objects. Since the ash itself can be dated, we can estimate the dates of the materials buried beneath it. But there are no volcanoes in Kyrgyzstan, so it can be hard to determine the age of faults.

Unless, of course, you use fossils as a guide. Win studies the different kinds of animals preserved together in the rocks around a fault. Based on what she knows about when certain species lived in the area, she can determine a time window for when the fault formed.

The Kyrgyz Institute of Seismology is using Win’s research to develop earthquake hazard maps. The maps will help inform the citizens of Kyrgyzstan about where earthquakes are most likely to strike and how big they are likely to be.

It’s just another example of how understanding the past helps us prepare for a better future.

Want to learn more? Join us at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History on Saturday, May 19, for Treasures from the Vault, the museum’s spring family day. From 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., you and your family can explore fossils that Win uncovered in Kyrgyzstan—plus lots of other amazing objects from the museum’s vaults—at our newest exhibit, Navigating Knowledge: A Journey through Museum Collections. There’ll be games, trivia, scavenger hunts, snacks, and plenty of fun for the whole family!

The Museum of Natural and Cultural History is located at 1680 E. 15th Avenue, on the UO campus. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Visit us online at