Reflections on the 2016 GSA Southeastern Section Meeting in Columbia, SC

by Lee Cone, President, Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum

Lee Cone, photo courtesy of FLMNH
Lee Cone, photo courtesy of FLMNH

The 2016 Geological Society of America Southeastern Section (SEGSA) regional meeting was held in Columbia, SC, on March 31-April 1. Quite a few members of the Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum made the trip to the Capital City, including Lee and Amanda Cone, Linda and Bruce McCall, Jayson Kowinsky, Chuck Ferrara, Al Klatt, George Powell, and AFM director Cynthia Crane. Between speaking times for oral presentations and discussion times for poster presentations, attendees had few opportunities for idle chatter. The combination oral/poster theme session hosted by the FOSSIL Project was entitled, Synergistic Paleontology: The FOSSIL Project and Amateur Contributions to the Field.

Oral Sessions. This was the first time, that I am aware, that both a morning session and an afternoon session at a professional conference were filled by presentations devoted to amateur contributions to paleontology. Seventeen speakers in total presented on a wide variety of topics, ranging from a museum’s point of view to a commercial paleontologist’s point of view. Representatives from the west coast, the east coast, and areas in between spoke on collaborative ventures between amateurs and professionals. Also highlighted were the academic contributions made by amateurs, as well as the important support system that many amateurs provide to museums across the country. Surprisingly, although the core themes were consistent throughout, none of the talks were repetitive in nature or overlapped in coverage. All of the talks were very well received by the audience, which was supported in part by numerous professional paleontologists.

Topics covered by amateur/avocational paleontologists are listed below, and show the diversity of the oral presentations:

Topics covered by professional paleontologists are listed here, and highlight the positive influence of amateur involvement:

Additional talks in the oral session provided excellent ‘food for thought’ for all in attendance:



Left: Cynthia Crane and Linda McCall waiting patiently for the morning oral session to begin. Center: Jayson Kowinsky delivers his talk. Right: Chuck Ferrara gives his presentation. To view more photos from SEGSA, click here.


Poster Session. The poster session featured six posters, the majority of which listed amateur paleontologists as first author. The posters were displayed in a large exhibit hall, enabling one-on-one discussions with any interested conference attendees. George Powell presented the Aurora whale prep and jacket process that he had organized and carried out with volunteers from the Special Friends. While some poster presenters were balancing the oral session with the poster session, George and other dedicated poster presenters, such as Paul Roth (Florida Paleontological Society), Russell Brown, Bonnie Cronin, and Cindy Lockner (all three from the Florida Fossil Hunters), held court all day long in the exhibit hall fielding questions.

Poster topics were varied and emphasized the value of amateurs for public outreach and education:


Far Left: George Powell with his poster. Center-Left: Chuck Ferrara, Lee Cone, and Walter Stein explore the exhibit hall. Center-Right: Russell Brown and Paul Roth pose with their poster. Far Right: Cindy Lockner and Bonnie Cronin display their poster. To view more photos from SEGSA, click here.


It is important to recognize that several non-presenting fossil club members from across the southeast took the time to come and support the ‘Synergistic Paleontology’ theme session.  Al Klatt, a Special Friends member, made the trip from Franklin, NC.  Paul and Gail Fazzina, members of the Southwest Florida Fossil Society, came all the way from North Port, FL.  Prescott Atkinson, vice president of the Alabama Paleontological Society, drove a long way from Birmingham, AL.  There may be others I missed; though these folks did not have a poster or speak, it was wonderful to have their support and added conversation as part of this theme session.

Conclusions and Reflections. As I look back on this experience there are several important milestones that we as amateurs crossed in Columbia. The first is the legitimacy that we brought to the FOSSIL Project as a critical force in the future of progressive paleontology. That is not to say that what has transpired in the past with respect to the FOSSIL Project is not legitimate. It has been monumental in so far as opening doors, inviting amateurs, and enlightening professional paleontologists, but this conference was a step forward – a higher plane in that amateurs were not simply brought along, but rather became a part of a theme session, making valid points in a variety of diverse areas regarding amateur involvement, collaboration, and donation. The case for amateur inclusion was in fact legitimately and successfully presented in each of the seventeen oral presentations and six posters. In past conferences, such as at NAPC 2014 in Gainesville and SVP 2015 in Dallas, the amateur was a passive participant: there, but with limited involvement. For the first time at a professional conference, the amateur voice presented strong opinions – supported by irrefutable data – in an entire theme session.

Though the positive nature of our presentations sent a strong message, there was also a troubling side that demonstrates that we have much more work to do. I applaud the professionals who did come in to hear one or more of our oral presentations, but I was somewhat disappointed that more of the two thousand attendees at SEGSA did not attend our session. I feel that if professionals do not allow themselves to become involved and hear our message as to the positive aspects of amateur collaboration, then there will always remain a level of distrust with the amateur community. We, as members and supporters of the FOSSIL Project, are working tirelessly to educate all our members about best practices, professional and museum inclusion, and preservation of valuable information for research and study. I would like to see the professional paleontologists do the same among their colleagues, to learn by listening to the many divergent ways that collaboration and service is being carried out by the amateur community. One cannot become fully educated on a subject without understanding not only what you think to be true, but also what you think may not be true.

It was very nice to be a part of SEGSA 2016 and experience the openness and welcoming attitude that the organizers extended to us. It was particularly positive that SEGSA provided the FOSSIL Project with a forum to share the contributions of amateur paleontologists with the members of the Geological Society of America. It is also important to recognize the FOSSIL Project as the leader and organizer that allowed us the opportunity to express our views at this prestigious scientific meeting. A major step was achieved at SEGSA, in the direction of forming synergistic amateur-professional relationships, as well as fostering mutual respect between all paleontologists.