Monday, January 26, 2015

Sparks in a Plastic Container

A fossil has the exceptional power of sparking to life enthusiasm and imagination.  In that remnant of ancient life is something vibrant which often resonates deeply with a viewer, or, perhaps better yet, with a finder.  Good things may follow such an encounter.  As eminent biologist Keith Thomson has written:
Fossils provide a highly accessible kind of science.  Many a serious scholar had his first interest in science triggered by an enthusiasm for fossils.  (Fossils:  A Very Short Introduction, 2005, p. 4)
It’s not necessary to be a child, but it helps.

Seven years ago, when one of my children married, we hosted a breakfast on the morning after the wedding.  Expecting that a few middle-school-aged children from the extended family would need some entertaining, I turned to fossils.  I filled each of several plastic containers with about a cup of matrix from the Lee Creek Mine, in Aurora, North Carolina.  This mid-Miocene material from the Pungo River Formation, roughly 14-16 million years old, is awash with fossils.  I also had at hand a supply of magnifying glasses, tweezers, plastic baggies (for the certain finds), and copies of the Aurora Fossil Museum’s fossil identification sheets.  To be frank, I not only thought this little activity might keep these children occupied and happy, but, I actually hoped, some connection with paleontology might be made.

Sadly, the kids didn’t come, and the plastic containers sat forgotten on the bottom shelf of a cabinet in the intervening years, until now.  One appears below.

I thought of them again after reading an article about the SharkFinder citizen science project in the Odyssey, the magazine of the University of Maryland’ College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences.  It turns out, little, self-contained fossil hunts may not only be a sure-fire way to excite children about science, but also a neat way to do real science.

Young Scientists, Ancient Discoveries, by Irene Ying, which appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of the Odyssey (and online on December 19, 2014), describes the SharkFinder project which is sponsored by Paleo Quest, and hosted by University of Maryland paleontologist and entomologist Bretton Kent.  The project involves thousands of elementary and secondary students across the country who are examining unsorted matrix extracted from the Calvert Formation (early to middle Miocene Epoch) in Maryland and Virginia, and sent to schools in small vials.  Participating students closely examine the matrix, looking for tiny fossils (primarily, fish teeth, and, more specifically, shark teeth); their finds are returned to Kent’s lab where his undergraduate students make more formal identification.

Each kit sent to an elementary or secondary student is complete with matrix, and such other items as a Petri dish for sorting, tweezers, a magnifying lens, a tube for safe storage of finds, envelope for mailing all of the material back to Kent, and a fossil identification card.

Objectives of this project?  As described in Ying’s article,
A lack of information on shark species' fossils in Maryland led Kent to launch the program. Though he knew the Calvert Cliffs area potentially contained tens of thousands of fossil samples, he did not have enough time or manpower to excavate and identify them himself. An experienced citizen science organizer—SharkFinder is his third such project—Kent believed this project was a prime opportunity to involve the public in science, engage students in research and gather new paleontological data.  (p. 15)  
So, I clearly wasn’t off base with my plastic containers of fossil-filled matrix.  In a testimonial about the impact of the SharkFinder project on a group of students in a high school oceanography course, instructor Cathy Lane reported, “I saw students who were normally indifferent about learning become excited.  When they found a fossil, I saw their body language change.  They were very proud of their discoveries. It is difficult to keep student interest in anything for a 90-minute class, but this project held their attention and they were actively engaged the entire time.”  She added that this enthusiasm carried over into subsequent classes.

Is there learning about science in this venture?  As Kent has noted, “We hope to show students how science is done by giving them the chance to participate in the real thing.”  (Young Scientists, Ancient Discoveries, p. 15.)  There is the hope that being engaged in the process may instill an interest in science and influence future decisions about courses of study and careers.  Still, as a former school teacher, I was a bit troubled that curricular materials designed around the SharkFinder model and an online way of connecting the participating students to the scientific process are apparently still just in the development stage.  I always fear that a captivating event at school can end up being a one-off.

Finally, what about the actual paleontological research objective that apparently undergirds Kent’s involvement?  To be candid, at first I was truly skeptical about the proposition that having students go through vials of Calvert matrix would expand the scientific knowledge of the Miocene fauna from the Calvert Formation.  Fossils have been collected from the Calvert Formation for a couple of centuries, so what’s been missed that could be found by kids with magnifying glasses and tweezers?

Turns out, the key here is that Kent is pursuing tiny fossil teeth, the ones that collectors have overlooked in their fevered pursuit of the really big fossils that capture their eye and imagination.  The picture of a vial of matrix that accompanies a SharkFinder kit makes it clear, it’s very fine-grained material that the students are poring through (not the coarse material I set aside several years ago).

In this regard, I was reminded of a study by paleontologists Christy C. Visaggi and Stephen J. Godfrey in which they analyzed the diversity of shark teeth from the Calvert Formation, relying on specimens housed in museum collections and over 20,000 collected in the wash on the shoreline principally by amateurs.  They were careful to note that among the issues affecting whether, and how, such teeth might reflect the actual shark diversity during the Miocene were payoff bias and size and prize bias.  The first influences where collectors hunt for the teeth (there’s clearly a logic to heading to parts of the formation likely to easily yield many teeth) and the second has already been alluded to – it’s the large fossils, such as Megalodon teeth, that are most highly sought after and most likely to be collected.  So, indeed, there may be a gap in what we know.  Kent's interest is in the little stuff that most collectors just ignore or simply don't see.  (The Visaggi and Godfrey study, Variation in Composition and Abundance of Miocene Shark Teeth From Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in January 2010.  I wrote a post on this study and conducted my own "scientific analysis" of the Miocene shark diversity of this area.)

Reportedly, there are research papers in the works based on the SharkFinder finds.  Kent’s pursuit apparently is not for new shark species per se, but for, as Paleo Quest cofounder Jason Osborne described them, “new occurrences,” that is, “the first occurrence of a species in a geographical area in a geological period of time.”  (As quoted by writer Jim Barnes in Loudoun Country Day School Students Get Hands-On Experience in Hunting for Fossils, Washington Post, June 11, 2014.)  To the disappointment of some participating students, they are decidedly unlikely to be naming new shark species.

SharkFinder is a good example of citizen science at work, plus it confirms in my mind that hunting for fossils, even in little containers, excites the child in all of us, and, perhaps, also connects us to science.

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