Developing paleontology in Chile: A new Master’s Degree in Paleontology at the Universidad Austral

Striking news has appeared recently in the media coverage around the world about fossils discovered in Chile: Chilesaurus, a bizarre midsize herbivorous theropod dinosaur with combined ornithopod and sauropod characteristics (Novas et al. 2015), and an ichthyosaur cemetery uncovered by the regression of the Tyndall glacier (Stinnesbeck et al. 2015), just to name two examples.
Something remarkable is going on in this long, thin country that runs along the west coast of southern South America. Paleontology is starting to play an important role in the scientific sphere, and parallel efforts are working to protect the country’s rich fossil resources. One of the latest signs of paleontology’s rise to prominence is the recent (2014) creation of a Master’s Degree (MS) in Paleontology at the Universidad Austral de Chile (UACh) in Valdivia, a city 800 km south of the capital city of Santiago.

Master’s of Paleontology students discuss a group project in the Paleontology Laboratory of the Universidad Austral.

But before elaborating on the MS in Paleontology program, I will provide a little bit of background so you can better understand the peculiar context of the project.
In contrast to our neighbors in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, which have a long, rich history of paleontological research, Chile was nearly unexplored paleontologically for most of the past century. Instead, geologists focused on metallic ores such as copper, nickel, silver, and gold, which now form the very heart of the Chilean economy. Since these ores come from deep in the earth and are not of organic origin, paleontology can play no role in their discovery or exploitation. As a consequence, paleontology has not been a national priority, and few researchers have been able work in this area in the past. Fortunately, this has begin to change with the recent worldwide focus on sustainability and protection of natural resources. In 2010, Chile was the first Latin American country to sign the OCDE agreement. The same year, it created the office for the National Assessment of Environmental Impact and The Natural Heritage Commission of the Council for National Monuments (CMN), thereby establishing the mechanisms to protect our national treasures: fossils. All fossils found in Chile are owned by the state and cannot be privately held without special permission from the CMN.
Despite the benefits of this new institutional protection, these government entities lacked specialists in paleontology; only a handful of Chilean paleontologists had the necessary skills and qualifications - most of whom were studying and/or working overseas - and there was no university program to train new specialists. Hence, there was a wide open niche to create a paleontology training program.
But why UACh? It was Professor Mario Pino, a Quaternary geologist at UACh, who had the foresight to seize this opportunity. During his academic career, Dr. Pino had encouraged more than a dozen students – including me -  to continue their studies overseas because there was nowhere in Chile to obtain an advanced degree in paleontology. He realized that by developing a program in paleontology, Chileans could be trained in paleontology in Chile and contribute to the advancement of this field in their own country.
But developing such a program required recruiting additional faculty. In 2011, two paleontologists returned to Chile to help start the program: Dr. Ana Maria Abarzúa, a paleopalynologist who was doing a her postdoctoral studies in Ghent, Belgium, and myself, a vertebrate paleontologist/functional morphologist who at that time was working as a lecturer at the Paul Sabatier University, in Toulouse, France. We helped create a new Geology undergraduate program at UACh in 2013, which enabled us to create a position for a third paleontologist. We subsequently recruited Dr. Sven Nielsen, a German geologist working on mollusks at the University of Kiel.
So with four paleontology faculty, we started the MS in Paleontology in the second semester of 2014. It is designed to be completed in two years: one year of courses (including one on the legal aspects of natural patrimony) and another year for a final project. We accept up to 8-9 new students per year. It is geared toward two basic types of students. Students who pursue the “academic track” want to build a research career but still lack the basic skills to matriculate into a PhD program. Students who pursue the “professional track” want to acquire basic knowledge for working at a museum, as an environmental or government advisor, or in education or tourism. Because of this, we do not restrict admissions to only biology or geology undergraduates. A highly motivated anthropologist, archaeologist, journalist, school teacher, or even lawyer may be admitted to the program.

Master’s of Paleontology students record a proboscidean trackway at Pelluhin, a ~50,000-year-old site near Puerto Montt in southern Chile.

Right now we have 17 students, six of which are about to finish, and they are already getting good jobs! For example, Leonardo Pérez, a marine biologist, is the new invertebrate paleontology curator in the National Museum of Natural History in Santiago. Ximena Robles, a geologist, has recently accepted a Lecturer position at Atacama University next to the bone beds of Bahia Inglesa, which contain abundant Neogene marine vertebrates including the giant shark Carcharocles megalodon and is one of the densest fossil whale sites in the world (see the web site of the Pyenson Lab).
The students in the program are investigating a wide variety of topics, such as: Late Cretaceous palmately lobed leaf prints found in Magallanes, the extreme south of Chile (in collaboration with the Chilean National Research Institute for the Antarctic continent or INACH); mesotheriids (native South American mammals) from a late Miocene site at the doorstep of the Altiplano in the extreme north of Chile; foraminifera (microscopic marine invertebrates) from the Chiloé Archipelago of southern Chile that document life before the cyclic glaciations of the Ice Age; extraordinarily well-preserved Miocene marine fishes of Arauco; and late Pleistocene gomphotheres (extinct elephants) from near Valdivia. On the professional side, Luis Pérez, an archeologist, is working to catalog the fossil collection at a municipal museum in Iquique, Northern Chile, while Iván Ponce, an anthropologist, is setting up a participatory model to protect a ~50,000-year-old site at the periphery of Puerto Montt that preserves footprints of mammals walking among fossilized larch trees – a truly amazing site.

Students in the Master’s of Paleontology program of UACh visit the Bryn Gwyn Paleontological Park at Trelew, Argentinian Patagonia, guided by Mr. Pablo Puerta, a renowned Argentinian fossil preparator, and Dr. Marcelo Krause, a geologist from the Egidio Feruglio Museum at Trelew.

We have lab facilities for classical palynological and sedimentological analyses and soon will build a fossil preparation lab. We also have high tech facilities for computational biomechanics (Finite Element Analysis: Strand7), computed tomography (CT) imaging and 3D analysis (Mimics, Geomatics), 3D surface scanning using structured light (GoScan20), and a small 3D printer. All of this has been developed thanks to current research grants we have won, which also allow us to partially fund our students and their thesis research.
Now that we have established the first paleontology graduate program in Chile, our goal is to strenghten it by collaborating with other institutions both nationally and internationally. We also hope to be able to accept international students soon. Although we already have had applicants from Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico, we have not been able to accept them because our program does not yet appear on lists of programs eligible to accept international grants (we are working now to fix this). This project might have a much broader impact than just Chile, a benefit that we did not expect.

Of course, we would appreciate any help or constructive ideas you might be willing to offer, so I invite everyone interested to get in contact with us.
Thanks to Dr. Darin Croft for providing the amazing opportunity to write for this great blog. Also, thanks to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, of which I’ve been a member since 1993 (except for a slight gap), when I was an undergraduate student dreaming against all odds to be a paleontologist. Many, many thanks.

- Dr. Karen Moreno is Director of the Master's in Paleontology Program at the Universidad Austral in Valdivia, Chile
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