Thursday, September 10, 2009

Teen dinosaur hunter: Students scour the desert for prehistoric fossils to display in their school's museum.(EARTH: FOSSILS).

Holiday 2008

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Before the school year officially starts, students of The Webb Schools' incoming freshman class hop into vans and head to the California desert. It's just over an hour's drive from the school's parking lot in Claremont, California, to where the students hike two miles out to the dig site. There, they begin their hunt for fossils, or the preserved remains of a once-living organism.


For some students, what starts out as a getting-to-know-you weekend blossoms into a love for the study of prehistoric life called paleontology. All of the fossil discoveries on this trip will be taken back to Webb, cleaned, catalogued, and stored in the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology--the only accredited museum on a high school campus in the country.


Since the school's first fossil-hunting trip in 1936, students have collection, which currently boasts about 150,000 specimens ranging from tiny dinosaur teeth and prehistoric turtle shells to one of the largest collections of fossilized footprints on display. Webb students have traveled all over the Western United States and even to Mongolia's Gobi Desert in search of fossils to bring back to the museum. They also get to take paleontology classes and study the fossils they find. Some students have even made new scientific discoveries, which they have shared at conferences and in scientific papers.


"It really sets us apart from anyone else in the United States--or maybe even the world--because no one has these types of opportunities to do real science and actually get to present it as a high school student," says Lucy Herrero, who is a senior at The Webb Schools.


Any Webb student can go on the weekend fossil-hunting trips held throughout the school year. Over spring break and summer vacation, there are also longer trips to Utah and Montana where the school has ongoing projects.


There are so many fossils at the project sites that students often find teeth and small bones lying on the ground or hidden just below the surface. They also dig holes called quarries where they unearth fossils that are buried deeper in the sedimentary rock. Sedimentary rock is formed when particles from other rocks or the remains of plants and animals are compressed and cemented together over millions of years.


If a dinosaur or other animal dies and is quickly covered by a layer of sediment, such as sand, silt, or clay, its body will be trapped in this layer and preserved. The organs and other soft tissues decompose very quickly, but the harder parts like teeth and bones will turn into fossils. These fossils remain in the rock until they reach the surface through erosion or are dug up (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 12).


Webb students never know what they'll find hidden in the rocks: On a 2002 trip to Utah, a whole new species was discovered. The students helped quarry the skull of a duckbilled dinosaur that they named Gryposaurus monumentensis. This discovery made the 2008 Top Ten New Species List put out by the International Institute of Species Exploration.


Back at The Webb Schools, students in introductory paleontology and museum research classes study the fossils. "It's a pretty unique situation," says Don Lofgren, director of the Alf Museum and teacher of the paleontology classes. "It's a good introduction to science and how science works," he says.


In these classes, students perform background research on their individual topics, study the museum's fossils with high-tech equipment, and write scientific papers on their findings, just like professional paleontologists do.



Gy-Su Kim, a senior at Webb, used a scanning electron microscope to take very detailed images of the jaw and teeth of a carnivorous (meat-eating) dinosaur in the theropod group. This is the same group to which T-rex and Velociraptor belong. "There's so much more to studying the teeth than just [their] appearance," says Gy-Su. From the pictures she takes, Gy-Su is learning a lot about the dinosaur, from what it ate to the type of environment in which it lived.



Webb students Lucy Herrero and Nikki Pujji both examined the 60-million-year-old skull of a Champsosaurus, which is an aquatic vertebrate (animal with a backbone) and distant cousin to crocodiles. Lucy wanted to know how the animal held its head while in the water, and Nikki compared the Champsosaurus skull to the skull of a gharial, which is a present-day crocodilian species that lives in India.


All of the students' hard work has paid off: Last May, Gy-Su, Lucy, and Nikki presented their original research at the Cretaceous Conference for scientists in Utah.


It is the final year at Webb for all three students, so the trio is planning to go on as many trips as they can and continue their work in the museum research class. They have found that studying the fossilized bones has changed the way they look at the world. "These hills contain scientific greatness, and so you see it completely differently," says Gy-Su. "You appreciate it a lot more."

web extra

Find a link to the Alf Museum at: /scienceworld

nuts & bolts


An animal is buried by sediment, such as volcanic ash or silt, shortly after it dies. Its bones are protected from rotting by the layer of sediment.

More sediment layers accumulate above the animal's remains, and minerals, such as silica (a compound of silicon and oxygen), slowly replace the calcium phosphate in the bones.

Movement of tectonic plates, or giant rock slabs that make up Earth's surface, lifts up the sediments and pushes the fossil closer to the surface.

Erosion from rain, rivers, and wind wears away the remaining rock layers. Eventually, erosion or people digging for fossils will expose the preserved remains.


* What is a fossil?

* How is a fossil formed?

* Would you want to attend a high school with a museum on its campus and special paleontology classes? What other specialized science classes do you wish your school offered?


* The word "fossil" comes from the Latin word fossilis, which means "dug up."

* The first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in the U.S. was that of a Hadrosaurus. While on vacation in Haddonfield, New Jersey, in 1858, amateur geologist William Parker Foulke heard that workers had found a giant bone 20 years earlier. He decided to explore the site, and excavated most of the dinosaur's skeleton over the next several months.


* The fossils that the Webb students study are petrified fossils, where minerals replace an organism's bones. Amber is another type of fossil; it forms when an organism is trapped within a plant's resin and then the resin hardens into amber. Based on this knowledge of how petrified and amber fossils form, how might the information gathered by studying these two types of fossils be different?


HISTORY/MATH: Create a geologic timeline by taping together sheets of paper to make a 4.6-meter-long (15 feet) strip. The timeline's scale will be: 1 centimeter (.39 inches) = 10 million Label the left end "Earth formed" and the right end "Today." Using textbooks or other research materials, mark the length of time on the paper that represents the Cenozoic, Mesozoic, Paleozoic, and Precambrian eras. Take it further by adding major events of geologic time (e.g. K-T extinction) and illustrations of each era's organisms.


You can access these Web links at

* Check out the University of California Museum of Paleontology's Web site for teacher and student resources:

* Visit the San Diego Natural History Museum's Dinosaur Dig Web site:

* Play games, take quizzes, and more at the American Museum of Natural History's PaleontOLogy Web site:


DIRECTIONS: Match the words in the left column with the words or phrases in the right column.

1. fossil a. meat-eating

2. paleontology b. animal with a backbone

3. vertebrate c. study of prehistoric life

4. sedimentary rock d. preserved remains of a
once-living organism

5. carnivorous e. type of rock formed when particles
from other rocks are cemented
together over millions of yearsANSWERS

1. d 2. c 3. b 4. e 5. a


Dig This!


Students in "Teen Dinosaur Hunters" (p. 10) travel to the Rainbow Basin in California to collect fossils, but there are many other places around the world where fossils are found. Use the information in the table (right) of some of the world's most famous fossil dig sites. Plot the location of each site on the world map (below), then answer the questions that follow.

Location Types of Fossils Found Coordinates

Rainbow Basin, California Camels, horses, and 35[degrees]N,
mastodons 117[degrees]W

Como Bluff, Wyoming Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, 41[degrees]N,
and Apatosaurus 106[degrees]W

Valley of the Moon, Earliest dinosaur 31[degrees]S,
Argentina fossils, such as Eoraptor 68[degrees]W
and Herrerasaurus

Messel Oil Shale Pit, Various animals and 50[degrees]N,
Germany plants, including the 9[degrees]E
recent find Darwinius
masillae, or "Ida"

Lyme Regis, United Jurassic sea animals, 51[degrees]N,
Kingdom such as Ichthyosaurs and 3[degrees]W

Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania Early humans and hominids 3[degrees]S,

Chengjiang Biota, China Arthropods, sponges, and 24[degrees]N,
trilobites 103[degrees]E

Flaming Cliffs, Mongolia First dinosaur 44[degrees]N,
(Velociraptor) eggs 103[degrees]E

Edicaria Hills, South Edicaria, which are the 29[degrees]S,
Australia earliest-known 138[degrees]E
multicellular organisms[GRAPHIC OMITTED]

Answer the following in complete sentences:

1. How many sites are located in the Northern Hemisphere? Southern Hemisphere?

2. To what coordinates would you travel if you wanted to see where Darwinius masillae was discovered?

3. Which site is located closest to the equator?

4. If you were in Flaming Cliffs and wanted to go to Chengjiang Biota, in what direction would you have to travel?


1. Six of the dig sites are located in the Northern Hemisphere. The other three are located in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. If you wanted to see where Darwinius masillae was discovered, you would have to travel to 50[degrees]N, 9[degrees]E.

3. At 3[degrees]S, the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania is the dig site closest to the equator.

4. You would have to travel due south to get from the Flaming Cliffs to the Chengjiang Biota.

Source Citation:Hamalainen, Karina. "Teen dinosaur hunter: Students scour the desert for prehistoric fossils to display in their school's museum.(EARTH: FOSSILS)." Science World 66.1 (Sept 7, 2009): 10(7). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 10 Sept. 2009

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