Education: South Florida Museum and Planetarium/Toomey Foundation Badlands Field Trips for Educators

by Aaron Bokelmann

Aaron with a tortoise (Stylemys nebrascensis)
Aaron with a tortoise (Stylemys nebrascensis)

Indiana Jones, Dr. Zahi Hawass, and Howard Carter are a few famous archaeologists or not so famous archaeologists that have found some amazing stuff. When I was kid, I thought the coolest thing in the world would be to go somewhere, dig for some amazing treasures and have the time of life. Maybe I would find a hidden city of gold, or the next Tyrannosaurus rex.

I would spend the next 30 years of my life longing to get to a place to dig and be a part of the next big find. My name is Aaron Bokelmann, and I am a high school science teacher in Bradenton, Florida. I currently teach Earth, Space Science, and Zoology to high school juniors and seniors. A couple of years ago, I heard about an opportunity through the South Florida Museum and Planetarium in conjunction with the Toomey Foundation of an opportunity for teachers to go to the Badlands of Nebraska and dig for fossils. Wow I thought, could this actually happen? When I found out about this opportunity, I thought to myself, wow, I have waited my whole life for this, would I be able to go? How can I afford this? What would I find? These and many other questions popped in my mind and so I begged my wife and decided this would be it. I am going to do it. I had dug for fossils in the Peace River, and looked for fossils in dirt piles, and under rocks wherever I visited, but this was going to be big time. We had our first meeting at the museum and I learned about plaster jacketing, digging, and fossil prepping. Once I finally received basic training and learned more about what we were doing, my thoughts on archeology turned to paleontology and I am now obsessed.

I have had the opportunity to go out digging in the Badlands three times now and each time has been the best thing I have ever done. I do not care if I find anything, just the opportunity to look and try to find something that was living many millions of years ago is truly amazing. On each of my trips I have had some excellent guidance from some very experienced and knowledgeable people, like James Toomey and Roger Portell-Florida Museum of Natural History,  that have helped me gain a better understanding of geology and paleontology of the region. For me having no connection to the outer world and sitting in the blazing hot sun with a screwdriver scraping morsels of dirt off some broken bits of bone have been the most exciting times for me.  The teacher inside of me also loves being out there with rookies. I love helping these newbies learn the process of hunting, finding, digging and jacketing. The process is not always easy nor is it always simple, but it is, in my mind, always rewarding. Seeing another person’s eyes light up when they find something is a wonderful thing.

In our trips to Nebraska, we have found many different types of fossils. We generally go out for a week and hunt in the morning and evening hours. We then visit a variety of local places in the heat of the day (many teachers are unable to handle the extreme temperatures and with the nearest medical facility an hour away, safety is important, so we skip the hottest part of the day. I would fossil all day and practically kill myself because the opportunity is rare, but not everyone can handle the heat, so the decision is best for the group.) We generally have good lighting in the morning and evening, so it is the best times to see the bones. We drive out to our site and then spread out, looking for bones. Once someone finds something, one of the leaders goes over and helps the newbies figure out what they have found. Then very carefully the digging begins. My tool of choice is a screwdriver and I slowly and carefully remove the matrix. Any exposed bone is covered with a varnish that helps reduce the degradation of the bones.

As a result of these trips, I have had the opportunity to dig up several tortoises, skeletons of oreodonts, and titanotheres. The place that we hunt on is leased private land, so there are new finds every year, and the amount of fossils is unbelievable. In fact, one of the skeletons I have had the pleasure of working on for several years is the skeleton of a titanothere. I started helping dig on this animal three years ago, and we started exposing the pelvis, which was just a morsel of bone showing on the side of a hill. Over the course of several trips we were able to remove the pelvis and several vertebrae this past September. Hopefully the rest of the animal will be inside the hill, but it may be several more trips before the entire skeleton is removed. Personally I have several fossils from these trips in my classroom. The students love to look at the tortoise, the oreodont skull, as well as some of the teeth from a titanothere.  I have samples of the matrix for the students to see what we are digging in, and I have some great stories about how hard it is to pedestal and jacket these fossils. I love to show pictures of my experience out there to the students and other teachers.

Aaron with a tortoise (Stylemys nebrascensis)
Aaron with a mammal skull

So although I am no longer searching for gold, or lost cities, I have now had the opportunity of finding something so much more exciting. The animals that lived millions of years ago in the Badlands are some of the most interesting. Although I don’t know what caused their demise, the ability to go out and find these fossils, has me hooked. It does not matter the temperature, the terrain, or whether anything is found. I cherish every opportunity that I have been given and am always striving to learn more and take advantage of every moment out in the Badlands of Nebraska. To bring back some fossils of ancient animals is to me better than finding that lost city of gold.

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