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News Release, Kansas Geological Survey, Oct. 11, 1994

Survey Geologist Honored as Promising Young Paleontologist

LAWRENCE--The search for fossils has carried Christopher Maples from Greenwood County, Kansas, to the Gobi Desert of China. In late October, Maples, a paleontologist with the Kansas Geological Survey based at the University of Kansas, was recognized as one of the country's most promising young paleontologists.

Maples was given the Schuchert Award by the Paleontological Society at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Seattle. The Paleontological Society presents the award annually to a scientist who shows "excellence and promise in paleontology." The medal is named after Charles Schuchert, a paleontologist at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Maples specializes in fossils of invertebrate animals, those without backbones. He is particularly interested in trace fossils--the tracks, trails, and burrows or traces left by small invertebrate animals on ancient sea floors. He has also studied fossil crinoids and blastoids--flower-like animals that were anchored to ocean floors and topped with a head of stems to filter food. That research, recently described in an article in the journal Science, has fostered debate about the relationship of continents before they broke apart by continental drift.

"You're always trying to figure how these organisms lived together, why the fossils are out there, and how they become fossils," said Maples. "All of that helps you understand more about the change in diversity of life on earth over time."

For the past four years, Maples and colleagues have worked with associates at the Chinese Academy of Sciences on fossil crinoids discovered in northwest China near Mongolia on the old Silk Road.

By being anchored to ocean floors, and thus limited in their geographic range, crinoid and blastoid fossils from this remote Gobi Desert location have cast light on the position of the Asian and European continental plates about 370 million years ago. These fossils were formed shortly after the Late Devonian mass extinction, one of the great mass extinction events in the earth's history.

"Before we went to China," Maples said, "the sum total of Late Devonian fossil echinoderms (a group of marine animals that includes starfish, as well as crinoids) consisted of about 100 or so species. We've increased that to about 300 specimens--basically tripling what was known before with 200 years of collecting."

Maples received a bachelor's degree in geology from West Georgia College, and a master's and Ph.D. in geology from Indiana University. He came to the Survey in 1987. Maples and his colleagues have garnered more than $900,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and other scientific organizations. He is the author or co-author of 75 technical articles.

Maples is also chief of the Survey's geologic investigations section and oversees a program in geologic mapping--mapping rock formations at the surface of Kansas. Those maps are used for quantifying and managing mineral resources, protecting water supplies, and for a variety of engineering and environmental purposes. Together with colleagues at the Survey and at Kansas State University, Maples is investigating areas of exceptionally well-preserved fossils, locations called Lagerstatten. One site, in Greenwood County in south-central Kansas, includes fossils of delicate insect wings and impressions of muscle and skin tissue preserved by rapid burial at the floor of a shallow sea about 300 million years ago.

In addition to his research, Maples annually teaches at the Indiana University Geological Field Camp in Montana and helps organize fossil hunts for 4-H clubs to expose kids to geology. He has served in editorial positions with the Journal of Paleontology and chairs or co-chairs several graduate student committees in geology at KU.

"Maples' contributions and expertise range from basic geological mapping to trace fossils, crinoids and major extinction events," says colleague Ron West, Kansas State University professor of geology. "Chris is driven by an insatiable curiosity about the earth--an insatiable curiosity that happens to be the history of this planet."

For more information, contact Rex Buchanan, (785) 864-3965

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