Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Education & Outreach
Here we will explore how Adriane and Jen reach out to the public to explore geology, paleontology, evolution, and climate! We are very involved with getting young minds engaged in science – enjoy a peek inside the outreach aspect of our careers.
While schools across the nation close their halls of learning, millions of Americans are considering how they will continue their children’s education while under quarantine. Why not experience the National Parks from your own home with the Junior Rangers Program? Developed by the National Park Service, the Junior Rangers Program broadens students’ educational experience at national parks across the nation through activity workbooks, ranger presentations, and visitor centers. After completing a specified number of activities in their workbooks, participants can present their studies to a ranger, who will then award them with a Junior Ranger badge. While many national parks design their own specific program, several Junior Ranger badges may be earned from home, including the Junior Paleontologist, Junior Archaeologist, and others. Several national parks, such as Aztec National Park, also provide their workbooks online which, once completed, may be mailed to the specified office. Once you earn your Junior Ranger badge, do not forget to visit a relevant national or state park to learn more about your area of interest!
If you ever find yourself in Canada and have an interest in palaeontology (yes, we spell “paleontology” with an extra “a” up here) and the geosciences, Alberta is a treasure-trove of cool fossil sites and excellent museums. For those of you that might not be familiar with Canadian geography, Alberta is one province east of British Columbia, separated by the Rocky Mountains, and shares the Canada-U.S. border with the state of Montana. Alberta is known for its ranch lands (beef production), prairie crops, great ski hills in the Rockies, and the “oil sands” (“tar sands”) – Canada’s major oil and gas deposit which is, for better or worse, still an important part of the local economy. Oil and gas deposits are often referred to as “fossil fuels”, and as you might have guessed, Alberta also has a LOT of fossil deposits! Alberta is one of the best places in the world to find dinosaur fossils, but there are so many other amazing fossil sites too! I’m here to tell you about a few of the highlights.
But first, some background. Why does Alberta have so many fossils? Rocks in Alberta are part of what is known as the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), a massive package of sedimentary rocks nestled to the west of the Canadian Shield (part of the original continent, or craton, of North America). Throughout its geologic history, Alberta has been part of various shallow seaways next to this North American craton, and at times has been above sea-level, meaning that there is a mix of shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits. Generally, both shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits have the best rock records, as eroded rock material tends to get swept easily into these environments, creating the perfect conditions for fossil formation (rapid burial of organisms is key for forming fossils). For example, during the time of the dinosaurs (Mesozoic), the Rocky Mountains were forming, meaning all of the rocks on the western side of Alberta were getting pushed up, while at the same time experiencing erosion that carried all of that sedimentary material down and towards the east, where there was a shallow seaway called the Western Interior Seaway that acted as a giant catch basin for all of that material. The result? Lots and lots of awesome fossils! Here are just a few notable sites:
Alberta’s badlands have some pretty spectacular geologic formations. The term “badlands” refers to an area where there has been interesting erosion of large packages of clay-rich sedimentary rocks, usually caused by wind and water (rivers). Sedimentary rock layers can have different hardnesses, so the layers might erode at different rates, causing interesting erosional features like hoodoos. In southwestern Alberta, the Red Deer River has cut through these layers over time to form badlands.
Alberta’s badlands are best known for Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, but there are many important microfossil sites containing other small reptiles, fish, and mammals, as well as plants, and invertebrates too. Some of the more famous fossils to come out of the area include: Albertosaurus (a tyrannosaur that is smaller, and slightly older than T. rex), the first dinosaur found in Alberta (hence the name); a massive bonebed of Centrosaurus, a horned and frilled dinosaur (Ceratopsian); another ceratopsian called Chasmosaurus, including a beautifully preserved juvenile (baby) discovered a few years ago; and a lot of hadrosaurs (the duckbilled dinosaurs). Alberta is arguably one of the best places in the world to find duckbill dinosaurs!
Most people think of the badlands when they think of fossils in Alberta, but fossils can be found just about everywhere in the province. There’s even a bonebed in the capital city of Edmonton! If you travel northwest of Edmonton to the town of Wembley (near Grande Prairie), you can visit another museum called the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum (named after famous Canadian palaeontologist Phil Currie, who helped found the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and is now a professor at the University of Alberta). The most famous fossil from the area is Pachyrhinosaurus, another of the horned and frilled (ceratopsian) dinosaurs that has one of the most heavily-built skulls of any vertebrate animal. There are also other dinosaurs found around the area, as well as other reptiles.
Fort McMurray Area
On the northeastern side of the province, is the town of Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray is situated on the very edge of the oil sands, and its population is mostly tied to the oil and gas industry. The oil sands themselves are a very large deposit of Early Cretaceous sandstones, called the McMurray Formation. Most of the fossils within the McMurray Formation itself consist of trace fossils like Skolithos, burrows of small marine animals. The combination of these sandstones and trace fossils became a massive trap for the thick, tarry oil, known as bitumen. Because of the oil exploration in the area, crews occasionally unearth larger fossils, including an exceptionally well-preserved armoured dinosaur called Borealopelta. It was discovered in 2011, and was only recently prepared and described. I was lucky enough to see this specimen in person just last week, and it honestly took my breath away with its incredible preservation. It’s basically a mummy with the skin and armour still intact and truly does look like it was frozen in time.
Beneath the oilsands lies a large unconformity where a large piece of time/rock record is missing. The package of rocks underneath the McMurray Formation is called the Waterways Formation which is where the oil itself often comes from. The Waterways Formation is mid-late Devonian in age (about 390 million years), meaning that there is about 200 million years of time missing between the Waterways and McMurray Formations! At the time when the Waterways Formation was being deposited, Alberta was mostly underwater and near the equator, meaning that conditions were perfect for giant reefs to form. The Waterways is full of a diverse assemblage of marine invertebrates that lived either on or near this reef system, which was built mostly by a type of sponge called a stromatoporoid. There are also abundant brachiopod communities in the Waterways Formation, and they are great for studying things like functional morphology (the relationships between an organism’s shape and how it lived), biotic interactions with encrusting organisms, and community evolution. I did my undergraduate and M.Sc. projects on these brachiopod communities, and still love working on Waterways fossils.
Other Important Alberta Fossil Sites:
There are too many awesome fossil sites in Alberta to describe in detail, but other notable fossils and areas include:
Korite Mine near Lethbridge – The only mine in the world to produce ammolite, a gemstone made from the unique preservation of Cretaceous ammonites (a shelled cephalopod, relative of octopus and squid).
Insect and dinosaur feathers in amber – some of the most fossil (inclusion) rich amber in the world is found in southern Alberta and Canada.
Joffre Bridge – an amazing Late Palaeocene deposit of incredibly well-preserved fossil plants, including leaves, seeds, whole plants, and trees. Fossil flora include lycopsids, Ginko, Equisetum,Metasequoia, and many others.
The Burgess Shale – technically in Yoho National Park in B.C., but people passing through Banff and the Rockies into B.C. often come from the Alberta-side. The Burgess Shale is one of the most important and oldest fossil sites in the world, containing a diverse assemblage of bizarre late Cambrian fossils, including Hallucigenia, Anomalocaris, and trilobites, and many soft-bodied organisms.
A note about fossil collecting in Canada:
Don’t. The rules in Canada are much more strict than in the United States. It is illegal to collect fossils in Canada without permits, and those can only be given to professional palaeontologists that work for the government, museums, or universities. Fossils in Canada are considered “Crown Property”, meaning that they are property of Canada and the Queen (we are part of the Commonwealth), and are protected by the Heritage Resource Act. Even palaeontologists cannot claim ownership over the fossils on which they work.
Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Leighton, L.R. 2015. Breaking the mold: using biomechanical experiments to assess the life orientation of dorsibiconvex brachiopods. Paleobiology 41(1):122 – 133. DOI: 10.1017/pab.2014.8
Currie P.J., Holmes R.B., Ryan M.J., and Coy C. 2016. A juvenile chasmosaurine ceratopsid (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) from the Dinosaur Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1048348.
McKellar R.C., Engel M.S. 2013. New bethylid and chrysidid wasps (Hymenoptera: Chrysidoidea) from Canadian Late Cretaceous amber. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 88(4):433-451. DOI: 10.1007/s12542-013-0208-y
Mendonca S., Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Molinaro D.J., Webb A.E., Forcino F.L., Leighton L.R. 2018. Analyzing trends in tropical Devonian brachiopod communities during environmental change in the Waterways Formation of northern Alberta. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2018.06.020
Weides S., Moeck I., Babadagli T., Bauer K. , Grobe M., Heidbach O., Huenges E., Idowu O., Majorowicz J., Rostron B., Schmitt D.,2 , Unsworth M. 2011. Geothermal technology and exploration of geothermal resources in Northern and Central Alberta. AAPG/SPE/SEG HEDBERG RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Enhanced Geothermal Systems” March 14-18, 2011 — Napa, California
This past fall I attended my first conference and concurrently presented my first research poster at the conference. The meeting attended was the AGU 2109 Fall Meeting in San Francisco where I presented research on the deadly pyroclastic currents of the June 3rd 2018 eruption at Fuego, Guatemala. During the course of this experience there are many things I learned along the way that I feel are important for a first-time meeting attendee or poster presenter/preparer to consider and plan for.
Abstract submissions for conferences are often due several months in advance of the conference. When you submit your abstract you may or may not have all of the data you plan on including in your final poster presentation. This is ok, but you definitely need to make sure the initial abstract you submit generally resembles the research you represent on your final poster presentation. In my case we only had a small fraction of the data we used on the final poster at time of the abstract submission.
The financial obligation that may come with conference attendance is also important to consider. The AGU registration alone for an undergrad was over $200, of which, I paid out of pocket for. However, if I were to have applied for a travel grant through the university, or with the American Geophysical Union themselves, I most likely would have been able to attend for free. If you are a first time attendee to the AGU meetings and apply for their travel grants you get special consideration. Registration and travel accommodation costs can add up quickly so be sure to explore all avenues of possible assistance. Ask colleagues if you are working under a grant as there may be funding available for you.
Plan Your Conference
It is very important to know what to expect when you get to the conference. The AGU Fall Meeting had over 40,000 attendees so you can quickly be overwhelmed if you don’t have a plan. Have a loose schedule of events and presentations you wish to attend while there.
One of the biggest advantages a conference offers is the ability to network with other researchers. Know what researches are involved in topics you have an interest in and be prepared to ask them questions. This is also a great time to represent yourself to potential researchers looking to take on a graduate student. You will be able to discuss in-person with these researchers where you normally would be restricted to email conversations.
For me the conference was the first large geology conference experience I ever had. I admittedly was initially hyper-focused on my poster presentation and learned to just enjoy the experience a little more over time. The presentation of yourself and your research in a professional manner is important. However, it is just as important to be excited by what it is you are doing at the conference and to have fun while doing it. Make sure to explore the city/area too while you’re visiting.
All around the world we are seeing youth rising up and getting involved in advocating for a stable climate. They are organizing, striking, building community, and educating themselves on the science and the policy considerations that we need to achieve these goals. In Western Massachusetts there are a variety of youth led organizations, and there are community partnerships supporting them. One of these in the Western Mass Youth Climate Summit (WMYCS) which is co-organized each year by Mass Audubon Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. This event brings together teams of students from regional middle and high schools, as well as home school students, for a series of workshops to learn about climate topics and to design action plans for their schools and communities. The action plans are then implemented over the following year. The conference planning is in part led by youth and supported by students from local colleges. To make it accessible there is no cost for attendees, meals are provided, and each team is given travel stipends. I have been lucky enough to be able to lead workshops at the summit over the past two years and to see these passionate students in action.
The first day took place at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in mid November. The venue itself is an inspirational setting as it is a completely green building with rain water collection that is used to water the native plant species growing on site, composting toilets, a solar roof, and more. This day was filled with workshops and summit attendees could choose whichever interested their team most during any given timeslot. The workshops offered included food for the climate, decreasing food waste, energy efficiency, cooler communities, citizen science, climate games, song writing, and a tour of the living building. There was also a keynote address on youth activism, a live music performance, and an entirely vegan, climate-friendly lunch provided by a local business.
Workshops are encouraged to be interactive and to provide a takeaway that students can reference while considering their action plans during the month leading up to the second day of the summit. My workshop was on Food for the Climate, as requested by the student team who planned what workshops they wanted to see offered. It focused on how agricultural emissions fit into the larger picture of overall emissions, types of greenhouse gases generated and what causes them, how land use change factors in, and more. To save paper my takeaway was posted online as a resource links page with copies of the slides and links to the sources for all images in the slides.
The second day took place the next month, in mid December, at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary. The students started the day watching a video on the youth climate delegation attending COP25, the UN Climate Summit taking place the same week. They also took workshops on climate communication and sustainable farming. A portion of the day was spent with each student team strategizing about their climate action plan and then presenting the plans to everyone. Many of the team’s presentations focused on common themes relating to the workshop topics. These included things like increasing energy efficiency in their schools, instituting carpool programs, reducing the amount of meat served in the cafeterias, and reducing waste. It will be exciting to see what they are able to accomplish over the next year.
I’m grateful that a program like this exists in my community. It is a great opportunity for students to learn about climate change and create community centered, youth driven action plans to tackle the issues affecting them. I really appreciate that the design of the event is always done with youth input so that the topics they are most interested in are the ones they get to learn about. As we head into an uncertain climate future it is more important than ever that everyone be involved in planning the transition and advocating for their communities, especially the youth who are inheriting a mess then had no part in creating.
This year we participated in Science-A-Thon. Science-A-Thon is a five day celebration of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and everyone who identifies as a scientist is welcome to participate. Each day you share your science goings-on, including conducting research, data crunching, or any major discoveries you made. The goal of Science-A-Thon is to show the public what scientists do in any given day, and also what a scientist looks like! Posts from Science-A-Thon are tagged with #DayOfScience so anyone can find them on social media platforms.
In addition to a global sharing of science, the organization also does a fundraiser to contribute to support women in science. They raised over $14,000 in 2019; check out the fundraiser here: Science-A-Thon 2019. This year, the money went to three major charities: Earth Science Women’s Network, Girls Who Code, and Society of Women Engineers.
I was particularly interested in sharing aspects of my new job as Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. Many people don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes in museums. Many of us have visited natural history museums but this is only what is on display. The display specimens are usually a very small number (<1%) of the actual holdings of a museum. I work at a research museum, so we share specimens with our public facing museum but my job includes helping to facilitate research. So my visitors are usually scientists wanting to look at very specific specimens. These specimens are very important and are not put on display because their scientific value is more important.
I shared pieces of my day on my Twitter (@paleoJB), Instagram (@jenebauer), and Tumblr (phylojenny.tumblr.com). The whole goal being to bring folks into the collection that is not really as accessible as the public museum. My job can be pretty variable. Some days I spend a lot of time on the computer doing paperwork, entering data into our database, or checking specimens against our database. Other days we get a donation and I am helping organize the new specimens that came in or I am putting away miscellaneous specimens that had been misplaced or were hiding out in my office.
Like most of the end of 2019, I was working on my dissertation during Science-A-Thon. But I think it’s important to show that sometimes, the path to becoming a doctor isn’t all classes and science experiments. Much of my science journey is sitting alone in front of my computer, trying to write up the results of those experiments and data generating and collecting I did years ago. It’s not glorious, but it’s an essential part of what a scientist does. All of those fancy papers we publish all begin as crappy drafts (well, at least mine begin that way) that require lots of time editing, polishing, and re-writing.
Anyway, I showcased a bit of this writing process (without going into too many details) and some posts about what I do as a scientist during my Science-A-Thon posts. I only posted on Twitter (you can find my posts by searching ‘@ForamWhisperer #DayOfScience’) as this was my first year participating and I was still getting the hang of Instagram. Overall, I think it went well but I will definitely do more posts next year! More than anything, I also enjoyed following along with other scientists’ posts to see what they do in a typical day, and learn more about my friend’s and colleague’s research. So Science-A-Thon isn’t just for the public, but rather a fun annual event that allows me some insight into other scientists’ worlds as well!
Keep an eye out for next year’s event by following Science-A-Thon on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or checking their website, it will occur annually in October!
This summer I attended the FORCE11 Scholarly Communication Institute. This was a cool opportunity because I have been to many research-focused conferences and workshops, but I’ve not yet been to one that focused on scholarly communications. Scholarly communications refers to the process of publishing and communicating research, from arts and sciences to humanities. FSCI is unique because it brings together students, researchers, librarians, and publishers. Some of the sessions during the week were about new methods for making your research reproducible, from research methods to repositories for code and data. Others were on aspects of the publishing industry and how we can make research more accessible across the divides of language barriers and paywalls (when a paper is only accessible if you or your institution has a subscription to the journal it is in).
The workshop was set up so that each participant would choose three courses throughout the week, one in the mornings and two in the afternoons. The course that I enjoyed the most and felt gave me the most practical knowledge to bring back was called “The Scientific Paper of the Future”. This course talked about various aspects of the research and publishing process in the context of open science. I was familiar with data management plans and depositing data in repositories, but there were some aspects that were new to me. For example, there is now a trend of also depositing code and software packages developed as part of research in repositories, and also writing journal articles to document and describe them. Another is documenting your workflow. There are a few websites to do this now, which involves writing up a plan for who on your team is going to do which aspects of research, and then documenting this as you go. Workflow documenting also includes writing down every detail of your method and even the experiments and workflows that did not work, to help people avoid repeating your mistakes and instead building on your work.
This was a new type of workshop for me, but it was really great to get out of my comfort zone of interacting mostly with fellow scientists to meet librarians and publishing experts who are also interested in open science for everyone.
Recently, we were able to participate in the 11th North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC), held in Riverside California. This meeting is hosted every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. In comparison, we are usually able to attend the annual Geological Society of America (GSA) Meeting. These meetings have many differences and here, we explain the importance and differences of each meeting.
Geological Society of America
The Geological Society of America meeting is held every year in a major city, with smaller regional meetings held each year as well. For example, I (Adriane) am currently in New York, so I am part of the Northeast Section of GSA. The Northeast Section includes Washington D.C., Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont in the United States, as well as the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and parts of Ontario in Canada. Find what section you are in by clicking here.
But here, we’ll just focus on the larger national GSA meetings that are held yearly. The mission of GSA is to “advance geoscience research and discovery, service to society, stewardship of Earth, and the geoscience profession”. The vision of the society is to “be the premier geological society supporting the global community in scientific discovery, communication, and application of geoscience knowledge”. The GSA meetings embody the vision and mission of the society by bringing geoscientists together from all subfields to share their recent research, discuss new initiatives and goals for their specific fields, and to support students. These meetings are also a wonderful place to network, catch up with friends and colleagues, and make new friends and colleagues.
Generally, GSA is held in a large convention center in a well-known city. This year (2019), the meeting was held in Phoenix, Arizona. The year before that (2018), it was held in Indianapolis, Indiana. Next year (2020), the meeting will be held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The meeting location changes every year (except for every 2-3 years, the meeting is held back in Denver, Colorado) to be close to the society’s headquarters.
When registering for GSA, the only thing that our registration covers is access to the meeting and an evening beverage (soft drinks, wine, or beer) during the poster sessions. GSA has different ‘tiers’ for membership, so not everyone pays the same registration costs. For K-12 teachers, registration is only $50; however for professionals (such as professors) the cost is $430. There are additional activities we can sign up for, such as breakfasts, dinners, workshops, and even field trips to check out the local geology. Many of these additional events are at a fee. For example, this year I (Jen) attended the Paleontological Society Business Meeting ($45 for professionals; $15 for students), Association for Women Geoscientists breakfast ($42 for professionals; $15 for students), and the GSA Education Division Awards Luncheon ($54 for everyone). Separately, they aren’t a big deal but they really add up quickly. Click here to read about all the add-ons for this year’s conference.
GSA is structured with a day that is full of talks. These talks are split into different subsections, which are held in different rooms. We call each room with themed talks a session. There are usually tens of sessions going on at any one time, usually scheduled from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm. Poster presentations are hung up in the poster hall all day long for people to view at their leisure, but the poster presenters do not have to be there all day, just for about 2 hours in the evening. The poster presentations overlap with beer, wine, and soda offerings at GSA every afternoon. After about 6:30, the poster hall shuts down and folks go off to other evening events and meetings, to dinner, or sometimes just call it a day and go back to their hotels to rest. I, Adriane, generally try to get back to the hotel early (I’m an introvert and get pretty tired quickly), but that usually never happens as I always run into friends or have plans and just have too much fun to go home early.
North American Paleontological Convention
The North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) is held every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. This year it was held in Riverside, California. The previous event was held in 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. Unlike GSA, NAPC is not a proper organization or society – those in charge rotate out and there are not set staff that are continually helping plan and execute these events. In other words, we cannot become a member of NAPC like we can GSA, as NAPC just refers to the name of a conference and not an entire structured organization.
Similar to GSA, the NAPC meetings have a few goals for the meetings. Namely, the purpose of NAPC is “to exchange research findings, define future directions, and be a forum for extended and relaxed interactions between professionals and early career scientists, most particularly graduate and undergraduate students.” Since NAPC was sponsored by the Paleontological Society (the major society for American paleontologists) the convention embodied many aspects of that society, including their recently revised code of conduct:
This is PS. The Paleontological Society is committed to safe and inclusive events and meetings for all attendees. The Code of Conduct applies to all members of the Society and to all participants of NAPC2019. The Paleontological Society is implementing “This IS PS” (Inclusive and Safe Paleontological Society) to help ensure adherence to the Code of Conduct at Society-sponsored events, including NAPC.
Registration for NAPC allowed you to stay at on campus dorms that were a convenient walk to and from the conference center. They also provided golf cart transportation to those that needed it. The dorms were four single rooms with two shared bathrooms, a living space, and a kitchen. This could be purchased alongside your conference registration and was $360 for five days, a steal in terms of lodging expenses (for reference, a hotel close to the convention center at GSA cost about $150 per night in Phoenix, Arizona). Those staying in these dorms were also offered breakfast in the nearby cafeteria.
Every day there was a catered lunch in a large open area outside where you could grab a sandwich and chat with new or old friends during a break. This meant everyone was on a break during this time so you weren’t rushing to eat between sessions and everyone was in a unified space. This was one of my (Jen’s) favorite parts of the event. There was always someone new to sit with and catch up with. The conference also offered dinner almost every evening, some in the same location as lunch, another more formal banquet, and a more casual finger food event.
There is something that inherently feels like bonding when you are sharing meals with collaborators and friends. I (Jen) think this was a really meaningful and well thought out aspect of the conference. Usually at large conferences such as GSA, everyone is scrambling to find food nearby and you don’t get to really have meaningful discussions. One thing that also really differs from GSA is that NAPC holds a banquet for everyone at the meeting. At this year’s banquet, there were string lights hung in trees, music playing, and very nice tables set up for us all. Later in the evening, we had a dance party which was a ton of fun! There was also a night where we had a raffle, with beer, wine, and food. It was great fun as well!
NAPC is structured similar to GSA, in that there are several talks that are going on in different sessions simultaneously throughout the day. However because NAPC is generally smaller than GSA, the number of sessions going on at any one time was on the range of 4 to 8. Also similar to GSA was the poster hall and session. At NAPC, the poster hall is much smaller, but the posters are left up all day, and presenters are required to be at them during the afternoon hours. Jen and I also chatted with folks at our NAPC posters throughout the day, as they are great places to talk about your research, tell friends what you’ve been up to, and get ideas about research you may want to conduct in the future. The poster sessions and daily meeting ended when it was time for dinner.
I love to educate the public on how important geology and paleontology are. Two Saturdays every month I volunteering my time at my local science center to set up of table of samples of fossils and other geological. I started volunteering for the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia back in 2016. Rick Spears who is a paleoartist and the designer for the science center invited me to give a talk for Earth Science Week.
I gave two main talks, one on trilobites and the other on crinoids. Everyone seemed to really enjoy looking at specimens. I find it very important that everyone has a chance to touch and pick up a fossil. Some fossils in museum are behind glass and in storage tucked away. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make sure that children and even adults have the chance to touch and hold fossil specimens. Children are natural born scientists; they love to touch and interact with things in their environment. For example, that could be a child picking up a rock off the ground or catching and freeing lizards.
I switch up my exhibits a lot. I love to teach about deep time and how vast the fossil record is. I do this by setting my fossil specimens in chronological order. Each specimen has its own label card and the period in which that fossil is from. This is gives visitors a perspective of old our planet is and the various geological events that happened during that time the fossil plants and animals were alive at the time. People are blown away when they learn that a stromatolite fossil that I have on display is 3.4 billion years old! Not a lot of people have the opportunity to hold the oldest fossil on earth. Each Saturday I switch from the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. I could also lay out the entire 4 billion years of earth on the same table at once as well!
I don’t just feature fossils as well. I exhibit rock and mineral specimens as well. In fact, that will be my next exhibit coming up in a few weeks! Adults and parents learn about the various rocks and minerals that are found in Georgia. They get to touch the oldest rock in Georgia which is 1.2 billion years old! Again, not a lot of people have the opportunity to interact with the oldest rock in Georgia. They even get to hold the oldest crustal rock on earth which is the Acasta Gneiss. This rock is 4.2 billion years old. It is always a pleasure to see a person walk away with a smile knowing that were able to hold the oldest rock on earth. It makes me feel that I am making a difference with 1 fossil or rock sample at a time.
Please welcome Ryan, a new guest blogger here at Time Scavengers!
Ryan here –
This June I attended the North American Paleontological Conference in Riverside, California. In the middle of the conference we had a field trip day and I opted for the museum trip with guided tours of collections and work areas. It was nice to have someone else deal with the traffic for us on our way into Los Angeles to see the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum.
The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum is open daily from 9:30 AM – 5 PM. Admission is $14/adult, $6/child (3-12), $11/senior (62+), and $11/student (with ID). Follow the museum on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) for updates, news, and events!
At the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum (one of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County) there is plenty to take in. The museum sits within a city park and even before you go inside the building there is plenty to see. The pond in an old mined out asphalt pit at the main entrance bubbles with gases and looks dark enough to be actual tar. Here an ancient scene is set at the edge of the pond as a statue of a mammoth appears to be trapped and what could be its mate and offspring call from the edge of the shore. The sense of desperation is real.
Walking around the park leaf littered tar seeps are fenced off, and whiffs of volatile gases took my mind between memories of a road construction site, recent roof repair efforts back at home, and imagined scenes of natural history that produced all of the fossils I was about to see. It is clear how deceiving the tar pits would have been to animals, and I felt a rising anxiety as I imagined getting stuck in the viscous material.
We saw where museum volunteers, interns, and researchers cleaned out fossils from a pit where the asphalt has been – and continues to be – pumped out. The workers were focused within a squared section of the grid laid out in the pit, and were busy measuring the location of items they were removing. Lower in the pit tar-bathed fossils lay partially exposed awaiting their turn to be collected. Near the open pit, crates of material collected during a nearby parking garage construction project were being processed by another group of interns. This material has hardened and required some chemical processing to be cleaned off and release the bones. In both the pits and the covered work spaces of the crates, plenty of fresh air was fanned in and foul air vented out.
Inside the museum I was privy to one of many storage areas for the enormous quantity of material that has been collected from the tar pits. I walked down a few hundred feet of cabinet lined corridors with slide out trays from floor to ceiling and shelves with padded boxes that were only interrupted by an occasional workstation and computer. Our guide pointed down one row and indicated it would all be herbivores, then another that would be all carnivores.
Later we were led to the “Fish Bowl Lab” where as many as a dozen volunteers clean and repair specimens and gather microfossils from the tar that coats other fossils. The entire work space curves out into the main display area of the museum and affords museum patrons the opportunity to observe their work. This is a site common at many museums today, but was new and novel when put in place at this museum, and is still one of the best executions of such a space that I have seen.
There are so many fossils (well over three million at this point) that when I finally made my way out to the public display my favorite turned out to be the wall that was covered in hundreds of dire wolf skulls. It gives a sense of how much information is being discovered at La Brea. The exhibits showcase the fauna both in fossil form and in fleshed out full size models. The history of the museum itself is shown through photos and documents, and one of the prettiest murals depicting deep time graces a wall near the 3D theater. The interactive activity with metal rods and tar was informative, and while straining to lift the thick rod from the tar I more fully appreciated the the terrible, repeated events that made all of these fossils and the amount of effort currently being done at La Brea to uncover so many fossils.
I was bad about writing down the names of everyone who gave us the behind the scenes tour, but they were so gracious in taking time out of their day to show us around and allow our group to take up an entire 3D movie time slot.
After a picnic at the park around La Brea I went to the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at the Webb School in Claremont. I’ll share about that part of the NAPC museum field trip in my next installment.
As part of the North American Paleontological Convention, there was a teacher workshop all about sharing digital resources in paleontology. This was hosted by the FOSSIL Project (which employs Jen) and iDigBio with many participating partners. We advertised the workshop about two months in advance and had a webpage with information for the applicants – we were targeting local California teachers. The primary goals were to (1) Raise awareness of resources available for teachers associated with digitized paleontological collections; (2) Connect teachers with a network of professionals, to help them develop and implement collections-based curricula; and (3) Increase confidence in teaching about global change and evolution using fossils.
The day was structured in seven hour blocks. Each presenter had ~20-30 minutes to introduce the platform, provide background content, and explain the utility of the resource. This was then followed by a ~30 minute activity using the resource. We wanted the workshop to allow educators to immediately take content back to their classroom to employ but it’s always best to do a test run so the educators and facilitators can brainstorm modifications or limitations within their own classrooms. You can see a full agenda for the day by clicking here.
We were specifically involved with the presentation on the Digital Atlases of Ancient Life. When we were working on our MS degrees with Alycia Stigall we were both employed as an RA on this project for one year. Jon Hendricks led off our hour block with a presentation explaining the atlases that are available, the Digital Encyclopedia of Life (DEAL, a free online textbook), and the Virtual Teaching Collection. Alycia followed with a short presentation on Paleozoic life and assessing ancient ecosystems. And then we used the Virtual Teaching Collection to work to identify some of the major animal groups that were around during the Paleozoic. We helped facilitate the lesson and answered any questions the educators had.
We also led our own presentation later on using myFOSSIL tools in the classroom. Sadie Mills led off with an overview of myFOSSIL and all of the capabilities of the website and mobile app. Adriane followed with a presentation on how foraminifera are the most awesome creatures to ever float on Earth. And then we walked through a lesson on using foraminifera as a tool to think about morphological shape and how they may have lived in different environments, and we provided other lessons for the teachers to think about forams as a tool for understanding climate change.
Overall, the workshop was a huge success and the participants really learned a lot and got to have lots of in depth conversations with facilitators! All the materials from the workshop can be found on the myFOSSIL website.