Adapting to Change


Greg Retallack

Director of the Condon Fossil Collection
Museum of Natural and Cultural History

COVID-19 has transformed campus life at the University of Oregon—and much like the fossil record, it’s making clear the importance of adaptation.

Despite the challenges, the Condon Fossil Collection’s staff and students have adapted in a variety of ways. In order to carry out the essential work of teaching and research, for example, we’ve established specific protocols to prevent the spread of the virus while continuing to access our offices, collections, and laboratories. With the new guidelines in place, research associate Eric Gustafson, volunteer Barry Hughes, and I have been able to continue our efforts to digitally catalog and physically reorganize the Condon Fossil Collection.

Our fossil plants collection has been mostly labelled and organized at this point, and we’re now turning our attention to invertebrates and early vertebrates. We recently acquired important new Oregon fossil collections from Paul Gentry and Jeff Myers—collections that include wonderful Cambrian trilobite specimens as well as Devonian fish and Triassic ichthyosaurs. Our efforts to organize and catalog the newly donated collections have been aided by our recent purchase of six new, state-of-the-art collections cabinets. We look forward to sharing some of these impressive specimens with you when the museum’s exhibit halls reopen to the public.

From K-12 school closures to job layoffs, the pandemic is causing stressful conditions for many scientists’ families—conditions that can directly impact scholarly productivity. Still, for some of us, social distancing and limits on travel have had their silver linings: I’ve used the time to guide several half-completed works through to publication—including one study that revealed Earth’s oldest land plants and another that quantified the link between atmospheric carbon dioxide and catastrophic flooding in the American Midwest.

PhD student Amanda Peng recently organized a virtual paleontology seminar that emphasized BIPOC scientists’ contributions to the field.

PhD student Amanda Peng recently organized a virtual paleontology seminar that emphasized BIPOC scientists’ contributions to the field.

Additionally, PhD candidate Dana Reuter, in collaboration with MNCH curators Samantha Hopkins and Edward Davis, recently completed a study of mammalian carnivore teeth, analyzing a number of specimens from the Condon Collection including coyotes, bears, and pumas. Soon to appear in a major zoology journal, the study identifies a set of interrelated factors that determine tooth shape, providing important insights for future studies of the mammalian fossil record.

Zoom and other digital meeting platforms became indispensable as the pandemic took hold, bringing some unexpected advantages along the way: Suddenly, inviting speakers to give seminars no longer required travel (or travel funding). Vertebrate paleontology student Amanda Peng capitalized on that development, organizing a seminar series emphasizing women and paleontologists of color. Meanwhile, student Adrian Broz arranged a lively virtual session on Martian soils for the annual meeting of the Soil Science Society of America, which took place in November.

While it appears that COVID-19 will be with us for a while, the view from our fossil research labs is an optimistic one—not only because vaccines are on the way, but because our staff members and students have demonstrated incredible resilience, resourcefulness, and an impressive capacity to make the most of a trying time.


Kellum Tate-Jones studying a fossil pinniped collection

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With the Condon Collection at their fingertips, three PhD candidates are probing the deep past to illuminate relationships between climate and ecosystems. 

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