Fossils, Paleontologists, and Students! Oh My!

The cool, crisp morning of October 17, 2012, started off like any other fall morning, but this one was different – it was National Fossil Day! And what an opportunity we had to talk about fossils! The Bosque Conservation Day was held at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Socorro Nature Area (SNA), and BLM’s Andi Sullivan and Sara Stebbins had a paleontology station set up where students could learn what types of fossils there are, how fossils are made, and how paleontologists do their jobs.

This annual event includes fifth graders from several elementary schools in the Socorro area. This year there were over 130 students in attendance, along with multiple teachers and accompanying adults. Each session had a different number of students, and was approximately 15 minutes long – there were a total of 11 sessions throughout the morning and early afternoon.

The best way to learn about fossils is to become one! So, the students played a game in which they became the animals of the ice age that roam what is now considered the Bosque area. Mammoths, camels, sloths, horses - you name it, they played the part. In the game, they became the animal and then they were given slips of paper which held their fate – did their animal die and get eaten by scavengers? Did its body rot away? Was it washed away in a flood? Did it leave an imprint or a track? Or did it get covered by sediment and the hard parts, such as the skeleton, get preserved in the fossil record? The students learned that the probability is that most things were NOT turned into fossils, but something else happened to them, that only a few of the population were actually fossilized as tracks or bones. The students were actually amazed when they were standing there in two groups, facing one another – the “survivors” on one side, and the “forgotten” on the other. We had great discussions on how the fossil record is helpful, but maybe there’s more to the story that we’ll never know.

Then, the students got to learn what it was like to be a paleontologist. Some of those interested in a career in fossils were chosen to become our “future paleontologists.” These students were taken aside and instructed on what paleontologists look for, and how to ask questions to determine what type of fossil they might be looking at. The rest of the group played a similar game to the initial one where they choose an animal, but now it’s in a mystery environment that the instructors have chosen - in this case, a current day underwater ocean setting. Once they had chosen an animal and acted the part, some were fossilized, while others weren’t. The “future paleontologists” wandered in to the geologic record and found the  "fossils” and started learning about them. Their objective? To figure out, through questioning the “fossilized students,” what environment the fossils used to live in. Paleontologists are fossil detectives - questioning, and looking for details and answers - and we proved that through our game play during the day. The kids did a great job!

Being that it was National Fossil Day, it wouldn’t be complete without a few fossils too! We had tables set up with fossil specimens, such as the ever favorite ammonite, the brachiopod, nautiloids, and much more, so the students could touch, feel and ask questions. We also had books available and the students got to peruse the new BLM Junior Explorer Geology and Fossils Activity Book and the Traces of a Permian Seacoast – Prehistoric Trackways National Monument book. The book, If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today, which Sara Stebbins brought in for the station, was a huge hit! The day was a ton of fun! Fossils, Paleontologists, and Students! Oh my! 

Thank you for the donated items by Dave Love, of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology, Sara Stebbins, of the BLM, and Andi Sullivan, of the BLM. Without these items, these table presentations would not have been possible. Thank you also to Phil Gensler, BLM Regional Paleontologist, as an inspiration to expand the Socorro Field Office Paleontology Program, and the Management Team of the Socorro Field Office in this effort. 

By: Andi Sullivan, Paleontological Coordinator, BLM Socorro Field Office

Socorro Field Office National Fossil Day

Socorro Field Office National Fossil Day