By Joseph Boyle and Margaret S. Browne
Editor’s note: Joe and Margaret are members of the Western Paleontological Society. Joe teaches 5th grade and Margaret teaches 6th grade science.
This past August, we had the opportunity to attend the 2015 PCP-PIRE/GABI-RET/FOSSIL Collaborative Paleontology Conference in the Badlands of Nebraska, from August 11th through 15th, as teachers and as members of Western Interior Paleontological Society (WIPS). The conference took place at historic Fort Robinson, Nebraska, against the stark and striking backdrop of the Badlands. The twenty-five conferees comprised Dr. Bruce MacFadden along with post-doctoral research associates, graduate students and research assistants from the University of Florida, undergraduate PCP-PIRE interns (newly returned from Panama), fossil club members, and elementary, middle school, high school, and college educators from around the country.
Working side by side with Bruce and his team, we gained firsthand field experience in prospecting, collecting, identifying, documenting, and jacketing of fossils in the incredibly rich fossil-bearing strata surrounding Ft. Robinson. The stratigraphy here is exposed in horizontal succession just as it was laid down during late Eocene through early Miocene time. It was especially interesting to work in this area, as it is the only location in North America in which four of the five Land Mammal Ages – Chadronian, Orellan, Whitneyan, and Arikareean are visible in a single sweeping vista. Prospecting mainly in the Chadron Formation and the Orella Member of the Brule Formation, fossil specimens of Chadronian and Orellan Age were recovered within mere miles of the type localities for which the ages and formations/members were named. The team collected titanothere, Leptomeryx (a small deer-like ruminant), and oreodont specimens, a tiny Chiroptera (bat) tooth, several specimens of the prized Mesohippus (early horse), and a bunch of turtle carapace fragments! The titanothere finds were especially exciting for us since this was the first in-situ assemblage of bones we had ever seen. The assemblage included vertebrae, neural spines, ribs, and other bones from a single animal recently exposed by this spring’s uncharacteristically heavy rains. Another exciting field experience was to observe the painstaking effort required to excavate and jacket a single titanothere tooth to protect and prepare it for transport to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Following each day’s forays, evening sessions provided the opportunity to reflect upon and share ideas on how best to translate our experiences in the field to meaningful lessons for our students. Additionally, we discussed the collaborative efforts/outreach of FOSSIL to bridge the gap between the amateur paleontology community and professional paleontologists through education and sharing of resources. Our efforts were directed toward answering the following questions: What can we do as paleontology enthusiasts to broaden the scope, range, and depth of our individual and organizational activities to connect our learning with that of other organizations (amateur and professional)? How can recreational fossil collectors contribute their efforts in the field to enhance the scope of research being undertaken on the professional level?
The connectedness of various ornithological groups across the country, as well as that of other citizen science groups across the nation, might serve as a model for what the paleontological community at large could accomplish. By working more closely with research scientists, those who participate in the paleontological community as amateurs could broaden our knowledge of paleontology by gaining access to best practices in prospecting for, collecting, presenting, and documenting fossil specimens; and working scientists could have the depth and breadth of their research samples greatly enhanced by the added availability of well-documented specimens from the field. Additionally, those of us who, as teachers, have the opportunity to inspire students – as well as those of us who participate in outreach programs through our paleontology organizations – can further broaden the community as a whole by disseminating enriching information to many others who are undoubtedly fossil enthusiasts, but who are, for whatever reason, not yet fully aware of that fact.
Many thanks to Bruce and his team for including us in the conference. Anticipating an incredible experience at the outset, we received an exceptional experience far beyond our expectations. The collaborative efforts of the conferees were enhanced by the stellar organization of the museum staff, as well as the enthusiastic willingness of all participants to take on all challenges in the spirit of genuine collegiality.
We look forward to presenting our experiences with our local chapter and hope to develop a relationship with other fossil clubs and museums across the nation.