From hunting stories to hunting fossils

Montana Hodges just brought a suitcase full of fossils back from Alaska and wears Tyrannosaurus Rex shaped earrings. This month she is the lead author of a paper in a geology journal about approximately 200 million year old coral reefs. Believe it or not it was journalism, a career singularly obsessed with the here and now, that brought her here.

Montana Hodges unpacks coral reef fossils after a recent trip to Alaska.
Montana Hodges unpacks coral reef fossils after a recent trip to Alaska. Photo by Andrew Graham

Now, she’s pursing a degree in the University of Montana’s Individualized Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program (I.I.P.). As an undergraduate student at Sacramento State she double majored in journalism and geology. Afterwards Hodges entered the graduate program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism at the University of Montana. Right from the beginning, she knew she wanted to write about fossils for her Masters Project.

Her story, ‘Dinosaur Wars,’ would run on the cover of the August 19, 2013 issue of High Country News, a prestigious environmental news magazine out of Colorado. It described the conflict between for-profit fossil hunters and academic paleontologists. Hodges explored whether this conflict existed to the detriment of the science.

Hodges was nowhere near finished with fossils after receiving her Masters degree however, and decided to pursue an I.I.P. The article didn’t make her the most popular newcomer to the field. “There’s a lot of people in the paleontology community that don’t accept me,” she said.

She’s now studying mass extinctions; points in the Earth’s history where half or more of all living species have been wiped out. Her focus is on an extinction event which occurred around 2 million years ago, probably as a result of global climate change.

In particular, she is studying the massive die off, and eventual recovery, of coral reefs. Her new paper describes coral reef fossils found in Nevada, which was underwater 2 million years ago. They’re the earliest examples of coral’s recovery after the extinction.

Journalism has helped her with her new work Hodges thinks, particularly in her ability to write clear and succinct scientific papers. Though the writing is more technical, she says the foundation remains the same. Her reporting career has also helped. “I think journalists are trained to do excellent research,” she said.

Hodges hopes her current work with coral will eventually lead to a better understanding of the perils coral reefs face today. According to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, coral reefs face near extinction as a result of warming temperatures.  There is a story of recovery too, says Hodges, and even though it’s a story predicting far into the future, it’s one she’s particularly well equipped to tell.

By Andrew Graham
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