Paleontological Field Work at the Pliocene Fossil Mammal Site of Senèze

Dr. Eric Delson (Lehman College / CUNY and AMNH) describes his recently completed re-excavation of the fossil site of Senèze, the reference locality for the late Villefranchian.

Eric Delson co-directed field research at the Pliocene fossil mammal site of Senèze, France, in collaboration with colleagues from the Universities of Lyon between 2001 and 2006. This work involved the re-excavation of a previously known, rich paleontological site, in order to clarify its age, taphonomy and paleoenvironment and to collect further remains of rare taxa such as carnivores and primates. Numerous NYCEP graduate students and faculty, CUNY undergraduates and several dozen French students participated in this project. Improving communication between French and US students, and training them in modern paleontological methods, were additional major goals of the project, which has now stopped for several years of analysis preparatory to publication as a volume in the Vertebrate Paleobiology & Paleoanthropology series.

Senèze was first recognized in 1892 when part of a fossil elephant was discovered by local workmen. The site is located inside the cone of an extinct volcano, which had first become a deep lake and then filled with mud (now solidified); the fossil bones appear to be located along the lake margins near the top. Major excavations were undertaken between 1910 and 1940, especially by local farmers such as Pierre Philis, who worked with and sold fossils to the University of Lyon and museums of natural history in Paris and Basel (Switzerland). This site has yielded about 15,000 mammalian fossils belonging to at least 30 species. Senèze is generally agreed to represent the reference locality for the late Villafranchian, an interval of time between roughly 2.1-1.6 million years ago, across all of Europe and western Asia, yet no significant study had been undertaken there in over 60 years.

Our project goals were to better determine the local stratigraphic sequence; to clarify the age of the mammals both by comparison to those found at other sites and in terms of actual years through application of a variety of dating techniques (ESR, potassium-argon and paleomagnetism); to understand the processes of site formation (taphonomy); and to collect new fossils, especially of rarer species and understand the environments in which they lived.

This research has been supported by a variety of granting agencies, especially the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, PSC-CUNY faculty research program, the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles (Service régional de l'Archéologie), Conseil Général du Département de la Haute-Loire, and the UMR "Paléoenvironnements et paléobiosphère" du CNRS.