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Jul. 27, 2011

Citizen Paleontologists

by Lisa Gardiner

Click to enlarge images

This year's Snowmastodon Project got citizen scientists and researchers working together to uncover a wealth of fossils near Aspen, CO.

During the last Ice Age, mammoths and mastodons roamed Florida. Today, fossil hunters like James Kennedy of Vero Beach, Florida find their bones.

“I'm not a scientist,” said James in a recent interview for National Public Radio. “I just go out and dig up bones good. I'm good at finding them."

But I’d contend that James is a scientist – a citizen scientist.

Many people collect fossils. I like to think of these fossil hunters as “citizen paleontologists” and they can play important roles in scientific discovery.

For example, one of the bones James collected is more than just a fossil. It’s also prehistoric art. An image of a mammoth is engraved on the bone. Scientists estimate that the engraving was made at least 13,000 years ago. It’s an important clue to how humans lived at the time.

Several research projects are combining the skills and interests of citizen paleontologists with those of scientists in order to help us understand more about earth’s history and evolution. Here are a few examples of projects that are getting citizens and researchers working together and leading to scientific discoveries.

The Snowmastodon Project:
This summer, high in the Rocky Mountains, not far from the town of Aspen, Colorado, local teachers and college students worked side-by-side dozens of scientists and museum staff to uncover a multitude of fossils of Ice Age animals like mastodons out of the rock. The project scientists got much needed help with the dig. The volunteers got real‐world experience with the science happening right in their own backyard.

The fossil dig site, chock full of mastodons and other Ice Age animal bones, got the whole community involved too. While most people could not participate in this project first hand, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science made great efforts to keep people involved with dig. Tweets from curator Dr. Ian Miller and web updates were a great way to stay up to speed on the progress. Thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students learned about the discoveries through school presentations. And a festival gave the local community a chance to see the fossils firsthand.

Mastodon Matrix Project:
If you found a hair in your dinner, you might get upset. But when, earlier this year, a fourth grade class from Pennsylvania found a hair in the box of dirt they were sent by the Mastodon Matrix Project, they got excited.

This wasn’t just any hair – it was an eight-inch long hair from an extinct mastodon that lived during the last Ice Age.

And this wasn’t just any dirt – it’s called “matrix” and it is the rock and sediment that fossil mastodons were found within. The Mastodon Matrix Project has 22,000 pounds of matrix. That’s a huge amount to sort through, so scientists turned to citizen paleontologists for help.

The project gets schools, fossil hunters, families and others to volunteer their time to look through the matrix collected during mastodon digs. By sorting through matrix and documenting what they find, these citizen paleontologists are helping to develop a better picture of what the environment was like when the mastodons were alive.

Volunteers get their hands dirty sifting through their matrix sample and looking for tiny fossil finds. Some people find shells. Others find plant roots or twigs. It’s unusual to find a mastodon hair. The volunteers send their finds to the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI), which operates the Mastodon Matrix Project. There, the items are identified by scientists and cataloged.

Fossil Finders:
New York State was underwater more than 350 million years ago during the Devonian Period. It was a warm shallow sea filled with prehistoric marine life like corals, brachiopods, and trilobites.

Some of that marine life is, today, found as fossils. And a project called Fossil Finders is getting 5th -9th grade students across the country investigating those fossils.

Run by the Paleontological Research Institution and Cornell University, Fossil Finders provides a way for students to help researchers understand how prehistoric marine life changed as the environment changed. The idea is that, with help from the students, we can paint a picture of what life was like millions of years ago.

Participating classrooms receive a box in the mail filled with fossils and rocks from several different locations in New York. Students collect data about the color of the rocks. They locate fossils within the samples, measure their size, and help identify them. Then students enter their data online at the Fossil Finders Web site and can compare their data to the data collected in other classrooms.

On the Fossil Finders Web site there are resources to help educators and students become citizen paleontologists. If you are a teacher who would like your class to get involved, add your name to the registration form. Currently, Fossil Finders is exploring ways to expand the project and would like to hear from teachers and classes that would like to be involved.

 

About Lisa Gardiner

Dr. Lisa Gardiner is a writer and content creator at Spark: Science Education at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She likes how citizen science and social media get people involved in science and is a contributing editor at SciStarter.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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