The Paleo Primer Series: Bringing Local Prehistory to the Public

By Becky Barnes, North Dakota Geological Survey

Editor’s note: Becky Barnes was hired by the North Dakota Geological Survey in 2008 as the Johnsrud Paleontology Laboratory manager.  Her summers are spent working at various fossil sites across North Dakota.  Her winters are split between restoring fossils in the lab, managing the volunteer program, illustrating, and creating new outreach programs.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, and her Master’s degree from North Dakota State University, in Fargo, ND.

Fossils and dinosaurs are unique in how they interest people from a wide range of ages and backgrounds.  They can bring together grandparents and children, educators, scientists, and the public.  In the paleontology program of the North Dakota Geological Survey (NDGS), we continuously heard the same request year after year:  we want more books on paleontology!  Many states have had books created that feature their specific paleontological prehistory, but North Dakota was lacking.  In 2006, Dr. John Hoganson created a book titled “Dinosaurs, Sharks, and Woolly Mammoths: Glimpses of Life in North Dakota’s Prehistoric Past” which provided an overview of the state’s prehistory.  This quieted the public for a while, but in the end it only made people hungry for MORE information.  This was a fantastic problem to have.

After seasons of writing and designing, we came up with a series we dubbed the “Paleo Primer.”  It needed to be an introduction to paleontology for those that were new, while still being informative to those who had a basic understanding.  It had to be useful for teachers and educators, and have relevant topics and comparisons to keep people engaged.  We broke it down into sections, with each book encompassing a general time period in North Dakota.  The first book, “Paleo Primer:  An Introduction to Paleontology Concepts” includes some general history of paleontology, terms, definitions, and a number of experiments to tie everything together.

As the main author, and illustrator, I wanted a uniform feel to each of the books.  A problem with paleontology is it is difficult to go back in time to photograph the plants and animals.  Instead, we resort to drawings of creatures and photographs of fossils.  So rather than having a hodgepodge assortment of modern photography, drawings, and illustrations, we settled on a block-color style for everything.  Following this color theme, text containing terms or ideas was isolated with color backgrounds.

The publication starts off by explaining what paleontology is, as well as the sciences that help support it.  Geology and Biology, the building-blocks of paleontology, are explored briefly.  Common ideas and principles are explained for each, including the Law of Superposition, the Principle of Original Horizontality, homologous and analogous structures, and again, plenty of experiments that make the concepts easier to understand.

It continues with how things can become a fossil, what the fossil may be made out of, and the people who dig them up:  paleontologists!  The goal is not to answer every question out there, but to offer a resource to help guide people on their quest for more information.  They can use the terms found within the book to search elsewhere online or in other books.

Introduction to geology

Introduction to Biology

Exploring the geologic principle of Superposition.

An example of an explanatory page on how fossils preserve in the geologic record.
Paleo Primer 2: North Dakota’s Cretaceous Underwater World

The publication needed to be available to as many people as possible, which is one of the reasons we chose a digital format.  The size and quality of the pages work wonderfully on tablets or iPads, and the PDF can be accessed or downloaded from any computer with internet access for free.

The remaining Paleo Primers will each focus on a main period of time in North Dakota’s history – specifically what we can learn from fossils at the surface.  We will not be exploring sub-surface history at this time.  Starting with our oldest surface rocks that once lined the bottom of the Western Interior Seaway, the books include:  Cretaceous Underwater World (available now), Time of Dinosaurs, ND Everglades, ND Savanna, and Ice Age.  Titles of the last four may be subject to change.

To learn more:

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Download the Paleo Primers here:  https://www.dmr.nd.gov/ndfossil/paleo_primer/