Monday, October 13, 2014

National Fossil Day...why?

Wednesday, October 15th is National Fossil Day. And in case you didn't know it, this is the 5th annual National Fossil Day. In 2010, The National Park service joined together with museums, institutions, organizations, and other educational and natural history groups to initiate a nation-wide celebration of our fossil resources. This day is held annually on the Wednesday of Earth Science Week.

As a paleontologist, I think that having a National Fossil Day is pretty darn cool.  But justifying the need for a "National Fossil Day" is much like justifying the need for paleontologists in today's society - the need is very clear to us in the profession or with a passion for Earth's history, but often not as obvious to the average citizen.  Paleontology has historically been described as a "pure science" or "fundamental science", meaning that the focus is knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This is different from applied sciences like engineering, biomedical sciences, and behavioral sciences. The need for cancer researchers is clear to anyone who has watched a loved one fight cancer, but the need for someone who studies the anatomy and behavior of an organism that went extinct 80 million years ago is a little less obvious. When I was a student just breaking into the field, I often felt the need to justify my passion and career path.

Over the years, I've found that there are many reasons why studying past life on Earth is important. Most basically, it's important to understand our planet's past and where we, as a species that evolved on this Earth, came from. Additionally, fossils are not renewable resources. Much like we talk about fossil fuels running out, there is also a limited number of fossils. Less than 1% of all living organisms are fossilized to begin with, so we already start at a huge disadvantage when trying to understand past ecosystems and evolutionary history. Preserving what IS left in the fossil record is very important for saving these resources for future generations of citizens, students, and scholars. There are also applied uses for fossils that are important, such as the the fact that dead organisms form oil and gas resources (our fossil fuels); we can also use fossils to find these resources.  Understanding earth processes can also help with engineering and building safe structures. There's also the personal passion and thrill. Knowing that when you dig up a fossil you are the first person EVER to see that fossil is a pretty incredible thing.  There are so many questions, answers, mysteries, and adventures ahead just with that one fossil - not to mention what questions may be asked and answered when you add the new fossil to our growing datasets available for research and education.

I generally emphasize two reasons for why understanding and protecting fossil resources is important: understanding Earth's future and education. There is a reigning paradigm in the earth sciences called Uniformitarianism or Actualism: The Present is the Key to the Past. This means that the processes that shape Earth today are the same that operated in the past. Thus, to understand the events and sequences preserved in the rocks and fossils, we need to understand how different environments work today. Understanding how rivers and streams erode and deposit sediments, understanding how environmental and genetic pressures affect the evolution of a bird's beak, understanding how the decay of organic carbon produces oil, etc. I think that the concept of Uniformitarianism is reversible, too: The Past is the Key to the Present and Future. This means that by studying changes in Earth's past, we can understand where we are now AND we can begin to predict the future. Understanding how organisms responded to climate change, sea level rises, habitat changes, invasive species, etc. in the past is the only way to realistically predict how plants and animals will respond to current changes into the future. This understanding comes from studying fossils. Consequently, paleontology is becoming more and more relevant in discussions of global climate change (including climate modelling) and conservation biology. These discussions may often seem esoteric or politically-driven, but they are essential to the future of the human race.

Unfortunately, the discussion of education - and especially science education (and especially science education related to evolution) - can be just as politically charged as talking about climate change and endangered species. But the role of fossils in education can be distilled to the simple fact that at some point, most children are fascinated by dinosaurs. The success of Dinosaur Train speaks to this. Extinct animals are big, foreign, sometime terrifying, and utterly cool.  To this end, I often refer to fossils as a "gateway drug" to science. This awe and fascination is a great way to get kids engaged in science and interested in the world around them.  Not every kid is going to grow up to be a scientist (which is a good thing - I've been to enough professional conferences to know that a world of scientists would be completely dysfunctional); but just because you aren't a scientist, doesn't mean that you should stop asking questions. People of all ages should spend their lives as students of science - asking questions about nature and forming logical answers by making observations and gathering evidence. The more people interested in science and technology and engaged in becoming life-long learners, the better the world will be.

Essentially, National Fossil Day is a wonderful opportunity to provide engaging educational programming using fossils as a vessel to inspire an interest in science. Although how and why we study fossils is the focus of the day, the real lessons are how science works, to explore the mysteries of the natural world, the importance of preserving and protecting limited resources, and to inspire the next generation of question-askers and answerers. It's wonderful to see so many museums, organizations, agencies, and institutions embrace the opportunity to immerse children, students, adults, and families in innovative programs. And it's wonderful to see the public get excited about it. So contact your local museum to find out how you can participate in National Fossil Day 2014!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

National Fossil Day 2014

On Wednesday, October 15th, the United States is celebrating National Fossil Day. And the Sternberg Museum is joining in the fun! 

National Fossil Day is a day museums, organizations, institutions, government agencies, and other groups dedicate to educating the public on the importance of preserving and understanding fossils.  To this end, the Sternberg is extending their hours and opening their doors free of charge to offer special fossil-focused programs from 9:00am to 9:00pm. We invite kids, adults, families, and students of all ages to come celebrate and learn about the fossil resources of Kansas! Including our two newly appointed State Fossils: Tylosaurus and Pteranodon!

The day's events include:
  •        All Day: Free admission to our exhibits and special programming

  •        9:00am – 2:30pm: K-12 school groups touring special exhibits** (see note at bottom of post) 

o   Student groups will visit special exhibits set up around the Museum focusing on how and why we study fossils. Topics include how we dig up and clean fossils, how bones and animals grow, how we can tells males from females in the fossil record, and how skeletons relate to how animals lived their lives.
  •      4:00pm – 6:00pm: Fossil ID, Gallery Tours, Post Rock Carving 
o   Post Rock quarrying demo (in Museum parking lot)
o   “Post Rock Country” book signing by author Brad Penka
o   Guided tours of fossil gallery (tours at 4pm and 5pm)
o  Guided tours of zoology and paleontology collections (tours at 4pm and 5pm)
o   Bring in your rocks and fossils for identification by Museum scientists

  •       7:00pm – 9:00pm: Scientific Presentations and Discovery Room Activities 

o   These talks will be given by Fort Hays State University graduate students studying fossils in the Sternberg Museum paleontology collections.
§  7:00pm: Ian Trevethan, Mosasaur thermoregulation
§  7:30pm: Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith, Hesperornis and diving bird foot morphology
§  8:00pm: Thomas Buskuskie, Dinosaurs of Kansas
§  8:30pm: Kelsie Abrams, Teleoceras rhinoceros ecology and diet

o   The Discovery Room will be open for kids and families so patrons of all ages can enjoy the Museum!

As always, the overarching theme of National Fossil Day is education. This year, we are not only providing a variety of educational experiences to the public, but are showcasing several educational partnerships within our community. Students from Quinter High School will be talking about their experience digging up a Mosasaur with the Museum. Post Rock Country events will get the community involved exploring the bridge between Kansas's natural history and cultural history. FHSU Department of Geoscience graduate students are presenting their research on Museum fossils. And we are celebrating the newly named State Fossils of Kansas, legislature that results from the work of Kansas museums, patrons, and fossil hunters

Come join in the fun as we learn about Kansas natural history!

**If you are interested in your child’s class attending National Fossil Day events, have his/her teacher contact Education Director David Levering (**