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This activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:
Content Standard C: Life Science—Organisms and Their Environments
Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science—Properties of Earth Materials


Although the science of paleontology is progressing rapidly, most of the information we have about life of the past is derived from the fossilized body parts (bones) of ancient animals.

A dinosaur skeleton consists of around 300 separate bones, each having distinctive features. From these bones, paleontologists can identify the different types of dinosaurs and develop a picture of what they looked like (including their size, shape, and posture), how they existed, what they did, how they got along with other dinosaurs, where they lived, and how they traveled.

Pieces of Parasaurolophus skeleton

Parasaurolophus skeleton

For example, paleontologists can determine an animal's mode of locomotion by studying footprints or specialized skeletal features such as short forelimbs and long hind limbs. They can determine whether they were meat-eaters or plant-eaters by studying their tooth and jaw structures. Meat-eating dinosaurs had numerous sharp, serrated, knifelike teeth and powerful jaws. Plant-eating dinosaurs had flatter, leaf-shaped teeth. Some features of their external anatomy are difficult to predict from skeletal evidence, such as how fat or thin a particular animal was, whether it had decorative flaps of skin as do some living animals and birds, and what color it was.

As paleontologists go about their work at a bone quarry, they are usually working with scattered bones. When scientists find the bones of different dinosaurs in the same area, they must first identify the bones, closely study them or even mold them to show how they fit together, and then separate them before the bones can be assembled. Any fully mounted museum skeleton is a tribute to the enormous effort of those involved in obtaining and assembling it.

Pieces of Tyrannosaurus skeleton
Tyrannosaurus skeleton

In this activity, students will gain a sense of the effort required to unravel the mysteries of a bone site. Although the process is simplified, some of the frustrations and uncertainties of an actual site will become clear to students.

You will need photocopies of the four bone diagrams on this page (card stock works well), envelopes, tape or glue, and large sheets of paper.

Pieces of Deinonychus skeleton
Deinonychus skeleton

Cut around the parts of the skeleton on the page and place these in an envelope. Remember to keep the parts of one skeleton separate from the parts of another skeleton. Mix together the parts of three of the skeletons and place these in an envelope. Some envelopes may have duplicate skeletons. Prepare one envelope for each pair of students.

To make the activity more challenging, remove or add bones from selected envelopes, without the students' knowledge. A significant complicating factor is removal of the skull, because the students then will not know how many animal skeletons are represented.

Give each student pair an envelope containing the parts of three skeletons and explain the following instructions:
You and your partner are on a museum expedition to a foreign country that has discovered a new bone site. Not much is known about the bones. No one knows what the animals looked like, how big they were, how many animals are in the bone site, or whether they are all the same or all different. The skeletons may be complete or parts may be missing. There may be extra bones. Your museum has asked you to solve the mysteries of the bone site. How many animals are there? What did they look like? Based upon the evidence you have, what can you discover about the animals? Were they carnivores or herbivores? Did they walk on two legs or four? At the conclusion of the dig, you will prepare a detailed written report and present your findings to the board of directors of the museum (the class).

Pieces of Hypsilophodon skeleton
Hypsilophodon skeleton

Advise students that there is no correct way to assemble the skeletons. Because they are the first people to find these bones, any reasonable assembly is acceptable as long as they can defend their choices.

Have the students dump the contents of their envelope into a small pile. This is their "bone site." Distribute tape or glue and large sheets of paper to the pairs. Remind students to try different arrangements of the skeleton pieces until they are satisfied they all fit. Only then should they assemble them by taping or gluing them to the paper.

Afterward, student pairs should present their assembled dinosaur skeletons and explain the methods they used. The class, serving as the museum board of directors, should be encouraged to ask questions of the presenters.

In a smaller class, have students sit in a circle on the floor. Dump all bones from all the envelopes into the middle of the circle to create a large bone site. Divide the class into small discovery groups. Taking turns, each group can select three or four bones until all bones have been distributed. The groups will then have to assemble their dinosaurs based only upon the bones they have. Many skeletons will be incomplete, but this provides a more realistic simulation of a dig.

In lieu of a formal report, student pairs can prepare a newspaper announcement of their discoveries, distribute it to the class, and then hold a press conference to answer questions from the class.

This activity was adapted with permission from the author from Investigating Science with Dinosaurs by Craig A. Munsart (1993).

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