Alumni Successes: Tara Selly ’13 finds the oldest fossil gut Posted on February 2nd, 2020 by

In January, Tara Selly (Geology ’13) made the New York Times’ “Science & Technology” front page for helping to discover the oldest known animal gut!  She is now an assistant research professor Geology at the University of Missouri, and helped make the discovery in her role as the assistant director of the University’s X-ray Microanalysis Center where she operates scanning electron and x-ray microscopes.

Jim Schiffbauer, center, and Tara Selly, right, work with Brock Andreasen in the X-ray Microanalysis Core facility, one of University of Missouri’s core facilities. View from inside the micro-CT.  Image provided by T. Selly

In the New York Times article (L. Joel, 1/10/2020) she and her colleagues explain how they received these fossils and used powerful microscopes to create a 3-D image of the interior structures; when Tara saw the results, she knew right away they had an interesting find.

The ancient guts can be seen in red in the micro-CT 3D rendering (top) of one of the cloudinomorph specimens (bottom).  Image provided by T. Selly

At Gustavus, Tara did summer research with Julie Bartley investigating how organisms decay, and how that might affect what gets preserved in the fossil record.  It was an interesting summer — we kept getting deliveries of gallons of ocean water and algae for her to grow and observe!  She earned two graduate degrees at the University of Missouri before being hired there, where she has continued her studies of fossilization and the evolution of early life forms.

When asked for some words of wisdom to share with Gustavus students, she replied:  “Be creative and investigate what makes you curious. I looked for the animal that made these tubes, not expecting to find anything. What I found instead, however, was really amazing!”


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