Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Just another mosasaur dig?

Few things are more rewarding for an educator than the opportunity to work with a group of excited, engaged students - whether the students are children, teens, young adults, or mature adults. Having the opportunity to take a hands-on approach to education in the field is the cherry on top.  Over the past few weeks, Sternberg Museum staff have had the wonderful opportunity to work with local high school students on a mosasaur dig in Western Kansas.  Two students from the Quinter High School advanced biology class contacted me for instructions on how to safely and properly excavate a mosasaur fossil. They were working on a capstone research project for their class. After some discussion of techniques and equipment, we decided to join forces and dig together.  This way, we could provide hands-on instruction on proper collection techniques, and continue discussions on the importance of data collection and scientific research.  After contacting the landowners for permission to excavate and arrange for the specimen to be donated to the Museum, Museum staff - including myself (Sternberg paleontologist), David Levering (Sternberg education director), and Dr. Reese Barrick (Sternberg director) - joined a group of high school biology students and their teacher to begin field work.

Through the months of April and May, professionals, educators, high school students, graduate students, and local land owners all pitched in to excavate a partial Tylosaurus skeleton from the lower Smoky Hill Chalk of Gove County, Kansas. It didn't take long for the quarry to turn into an outdoor classroom as we talked about everything from the geologic history of Western Kansas to the skeletal anatomy of mosasaurs to different excavation techniques (including a few impromptu physics lessons as we figured out how to get a 1000 lb jacket into a truck bed). Ultimately, our classroom provided first dig experiences, a science project for two advanced biology students, a gathering point for ranchers around the area to drop by and see what was going on (lawn chairs and grills included!), and a launch pad for future student research and community collaborations.  Local media outlets also helped spread our story.

The jacket containing the fossil mosasaur getting fork lifted
to its new home in our prep lab at the Sternberg Museum.
Despite holiday weekends, exam schedules, a very heavy jacket, and a very old truck, the mosasaur skeleton was safely removed from the ground and transported to its new home at the Sternberg Museum.  Where our story continues into the future. Thanks to new connections and sparked interest, we have the opportunity to continue to use this fossil to work with local students. Through the course of the summer (and however long it takes after that), students will be volunteering at the Museum as we teach them how to prep, curate, and study fossils. This mosasaur specimen will be the first fossil used to teach a new generation of students interested in paleontology and natural history.

Of course, not all students are looking to build a career in the field of paleontology (talk about a flooded job market!), but it is the core mission of natural history museums to instill an interest in and understanding of science.  We strive to encourage people to ask and answer questions about the world around them and figure out ways to solve problems. We aim to build a respect for the knowledge and advancements that scientific research, engineering, and technology can provide. I like to think that by giving students of all ages hands-on experiences exploring what science is and why it's important, we are leaving them better equipped to shoulder the responsibility for our future.
A crew including Sternberg Museum paleontologist, Sternberg Museum education director, Fort Hays State graduate students, Quinter High School biology teacher, Quinter High School biology students, and our fantastic land owners! May 2014

-- Dr. Laura E. Wilson
   Curator of Paleontology
   Sternberg Museum of Natural History




And all with only one truck snafu (this is par for the course for me...)
video

Monday, May 5, 2014

FHSU Paleontology Student Scholars

On April 30, 2014, Fort Hays State University students and faculty participated in the 10th annual Scholarly and Creative Activity Day (SACAD) held on campus. This event showcases research undertaken by members of the FHSU community across all colleges and departments. The FHSU Department of Geosciences has a very strong history of participation and award-winning at this event. The 2014 SACAD was particularly special, as it marks a change in the name of the event to the John Heinrichs Scholarly and Creative Activity Day. It was renamed in remembrance of the late chair of the Department of Geosciences, who passed away in January of this year.  
Kelsie Abrams, second place for "Preparation of
Teleoceras fossiger teeth for dental microware analysis".

Over a dozen and a half undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Geosciences presented posters at SACAD on original research, highlighting a variety of geology and geography topics. Five of these students are currently studying paleontology at FHSU. First year graduate student Melissa Macias is studying sloth migration across the Caribbean from South America and North America using a cool GIS application (PaleoGIS). First year graduate student Tom Buskuskie described new Niobrarasaurus dinosaur material from the Smoky Hill Chalk of the Niobrara Formation recently donated to the Sternberg Museum. First year graduate student Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith presented her finding on sexual dimorphism on the tarsometatarsi in pheasants using 3D geometric morphometrics (and the 3D scanner at Forsyth Library). Second year graduate student Kelsie Abrams presented her preliminary results on a microwear study of Teleoceras rhinoceros teeth from Kansas housed at the Sternberg Museum. Representing some undergraduate research, senior Jason Hughes showcased his project looking at comparative taphonomy between two Teleoceras quarries from Western Kansas (also based on specimens at the Sternberg Museum). As Jason is blind, his project focused on the application of using tactile markers to characterize the taphonomy of individual bones. 
Tom Buskuskie, second place for "New dinosaur material
from the Niobrara Formation assigned to Niobrarasaurus
coleii (Thyreophora, Ankylosauria)".
Overall, SACAD was a great day for creativity at FHSU, scholarship in Geosciences, and continuing excellence in paleontology research. To cap the day, Kelsie and Tom tied for second place for best graduate student presentations. These undergraduate and graduate students are setting the bar high for research at FHSU!  Congratuations to all who participated!