Descriptions of two new species of 8-million-year-old fossil grasses, discovered and reported by Dr. Joe Thomasson, professor of biological sciences at Fort Hays State University, have been published in the newest issue of the international Journal of Paleontology.
As discoverer, Thomasson got to name them and chose to honor two fellow biologists: Berriochloa (berry-oh-KLOH-uh) gabeli (GAY-bell-lie) for Dr. Mark Gabel, Black Hills State University, an authority on grassland fossils from North and South America; and Berriochloa huletti (HEW-leh-tie) for Dr. Gary Hulett, one of Thomsason's professors and his faculty advisor when Thomasson was a student at FHSU.
In his paper in the Journal, Thomasson recognizes and honors Gabel, "whose studies have contributed importantly to our knowledge of Tertiary fossil plants from North and South America," and Hulett "in recognition of his many contributions in teaching and research in grasslands ecology."
Hulett, who retired in 1999 after more than 30 years at FHSU, and who is himself one of the leading authorities on grasslands and grasses, though not fossil ones, laughed when asked about having a fossil named for him.
" I got a big kick out of that." Dr. Thomasson, he said, is one of the world's leading experts on fossil grasses. "He's devoted a lot of his career working on fossil grasses from the time he was in graduate school to now."
"My relationship with Joe Thomasson is that he was an advisee of mine when he came to Fort Hays as a student. I had him in class and then we were colleagues together for many years, until I retired."
" I've known him ever since he was a kid," he said, adding, "well, an undergraduate."
The fossil grasses described by Thomasson came from several locations in the Ogallala formation in western Kansas and Nebraska.
" I took a grass taxonomy class on a field trip to the vicinity of Scott Lake in 2000," said Thomasson, "and we found some fossils out there, and one I didn't recognize as having been described before."
He set the fossils aside for additional study, but it wasn't until he went on sabbatical in the spring of 2003 that he returned to Nebraska and western Kansas, at times with students and colleagues, to gather more material and conduct a detailed study of the fossils.
The collecting and study resulted in his paper, which he submitted to the journal in July of 2003. His findings and descriptions of them were then put through a year-long review process and scheduled for publication in the January-February issue (Vol. 79, No. 1) of the Journal of Paleontology.
Besides naming the two new fossil grasses in the paper, Thomasson also reported on the paleo-ecological significance of many animal fossils, such as horses, camels and rhinoceroses, that were found along with the grasses.
He said that modern descendants of the grasses are what are now called needle-and-thread or porcupines grasses.
" One is a stipagrass found as close as the Wilson Lake area," he said.
When the fossil grasses were living, 8 million to 10 million years ago, said Thomasson, "The region would have been an open grassland, probably with a significant number of woody trees and shrubs, especially along the streams. The fossil grasses would perhaps have been bunch grasses two to three feet tall."
The climate, he said, was probably more subtropical, without the cold winters common now.
Fossils that Thomasson used for the study are in the collections of the Elam Bartholomew Herbarium at FHSU's Sternberg Museum of Natural History.