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McCartney discovers new genera, species during research sabbatical

Monday, 29 March 2010

Dr. Kevin McCartney, Professor of Geology at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, spent the Fall 2009 semester on a research sabbatical at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. According to McCartney, the sabbatical was very successful, resulting in five papers submitted to international journals, and a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation.

"Research is an important part of university activity," Dr. McCartney said. "A university must provide a good higher education, but also teach the process and excitement of the discovery of new knowledge."

McCartney's research expertise is in fossil silicoflagellates, which are the skeletons of microscopic organisms found in sediments at the bottom of the ocean. These organisms are found in modern oceans and their fossil record extends more than 100 million years into the past, but they are poorly understood.

The purpose of McCartney's sabbatical was the study of sediments from several islands in northern Canada. The geologic age of the sediments was Cretaceous, a time when large dinosaurs roamed on land. What McCartney studied was a "sweet spot" where silicoflagellates were very well preserved and a lot was happening. His work has resulted in the description of 18 new species, four named after UMPI students who have participated with him in research. The students include Sherry Churchill, Robb Engel, Kirk Lurvey and Chris Power.

McCartney also discovered two new genera, and named one of them and a species after the University of Maine at Presque Isle. The new genus is called Umpiocha, and the new species is called Umpiocha umpiensis. A description of the new genus indicates that Umpiocha was named after the University of Maine at Presque Isle because of the support it has given Dr. McCartney for many years.

McCartney's sabbatical also resulted in several other important discoveries, including new silicoflagellate groups and information on the early evolution of previously known groups. One paper that he has submitted for publication is on the early evolution of the silicoflagellates, of which very little was previously known.

"This is a paper that I never thought I would see in my lifetime, let alone having it be written by myself," McCartney said.

McCartney and his colleagues have written a grant to the National Science Foundation to collect more material in the northern Canadian islands to study the life and climate change in that region during the Cretaceous Period. McCartney is excited about the opportunity to build on the knowledge gained during his sabbatical as well as to share his discoveries with his students.