A Few of my Favorite Natural History Museums

At the top of my list is the French National Museum’s Gallery of Paleontology or ( galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée)     This is the first museum I’ve ever explored where I got tired from looking before I was finished looking! There were so many fossils it would take pages to list them all.

The museum is housed in a three story building with the ground floor dedicated to comparative anatomy. It’s a brilliant arrangement because this floor lays the groundwork for understanding what you’ll see and read about on all the other floors. The Comparative Anatomy floor is filled with skeletons of all species of modern animals. I didn’t spend much time there because all of the fossils were on the upper two floors: second floor vertebrate fossils and third floor invertebrate fossils.

To touch on the highlights: TONS of infrequently displayed dinosaurs: Hadrosaur, Triceratops,  Carnotasaur, Pachycephalosaurus, a sauropod, and many skulls

Mammals: Whales, including Basilosaurus, Red Deer, gliptodonts, wooly rhino, Lucy (a replica I think), Saber tooth cat, and some elephant relatives,

Reptiles: Sarcosuchus, mosasaurs

Fish: ostracoderms, pterapsids, placoderms. Best part: more species were lined up in a display that laid out the evolution of fish from the earliest species through the modern.

There were birds as well; sadly my memory and my notebook have lost their names!

Then there are the invertebrates! In many museums, these creatures often fail to get much attention. Not so here! Trilobites, ammonites, gastropods, brachiopods, and more than 50 of each so one can examine details and variations galore! Plus crinoids, graptolites, and way to many more to get to in a single day’s visit.

While I’ve left out much of what is available, if you are ever in Paris (and you love fossils) make sure you get a multi-day pass and enjoy this museum over several days. It’s not far from Notre Dame and the subway system is easy to navigate, even if you don’t speak a lick of French!

Next on my list are two smaller and privately run museums that are mostly showcases of fossils for sale. These museums are where the big museums go when they need a t-rex or a dunkleostus or anything in between! They are both worth getting off the beaten path to see.

Dinosaur Resource Center- Woodland Park, CO
The Black Hills Institute- Hill City, SD

While these establishments lack the spit-and-polish of the large-scale and well-funded museums, they offer views of species less prominent in larger collections that center around the more famous fossils. The Dinosaur Resources Center was where we encountered our first Edmontosaurus before it was shipped off to a lareger, more popular home.

Finally, these last museums round out my top ten list, not necessarily in order of preference.

Utah Field House Of Natural History – Vernal, Ut
Dinosaur National Monument – Northwest Colorado
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History – Washington, DC
The American Museum of Natural History – NYC, NY
The Houston Museum of Natural Science – Houston, TX
LaBrea Tar Pits – Los Angeles, CA
Denver Museum of Nature and Science – Denver, CO

Yeah, I’ve also got a bucket list! This group deserves mention, because they are on the Top Ten of many other fossil reviewers, but since I can’t recommend first-hand, I can only put them on my wish list!

The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology – Alberta, Canada
The Chicago Field Museum – Chicago, IL
Harvard Museum of Natural History – Boston, MA
Peabody Museum of Natural History – New Haven, CT
Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), Vienna – Vienna, Austria

What does global warming, Siberia, and the Permian Mass extinction have in common?

What does global warming, siberia, and the Permian Mass extinction have in common?

A scientific expedition has uncovered a key ingredient: COAL!

In 2008, Planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, of Arizona State University lead an epedition into the frozen tundra of Siberia looking for the cause of the Great Dying that took place at the end of the Permian Period about 250 million years ago. At that time on earth there was massive volcanic activity in the area we now call Siberia. Through many scientists theorized that this event was the trigger for the extinction event, the evidence did not match the conditions needed to cause the extinction of 70% of life on land and 96 % of marine life. The 2008 expedition found the missing ingredient, coal! They fond explosive volcanic rocks that had both coal and charcoal imbedded in it. It is a great story. You can read all about it here

Dinosaur Fossil Hunting

Best Places in the US to Find Dinosaur Fossils

Did you know that the USA has the biggest variety of dinosaur remains in the world? Scientists and archaeologists are still regularly unearthing complete skeletons all across the Western and South-western parts of the country, and the best part is, you can join them!

So if youre feeling like channeling your inner Jeff Goldblum and heading out on a dig, heres a list of some of the very best hot spots to find a dinosaur fossil in the US.

The North Dakota Heritage Center, Bismarck, North Dakota.

This 67 million-year-old site sits inside the famous Hell Creek Formation. Back in the Mesozoic era, the area was a huge stretch of shoreline, making it a pretty unique location to study the differences between inland and coastal dwelling animals and foliage of that period.

Today the North Dakota Geological Survey invites members of the public to join them on full day digs to help unearth the many remains that still lie under the surface. Everyone can get involved, from beginners to more seasoned fossil hunters. The most commonly found bones here in Bismarck are from species like the Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, Edmontosaurus, Dromeosaurus, Didelphodon, and the Brachychampsa.

PaleoAdventures, Belle Fourche, South Dakota

This privately owned dig site in the Black Hills of South Dakota is also part of the Hell Creek Formation and sees visitors from around the world who come to unearth the bounty of dinosaur fossils.

The site is run by paleontologist Walter W. Stein who has been digging the area for over 20 years. He even has a dinosaur named after him, the  Dakotaraptor Steini, which was discovered in 2015 by a team from Palm Beach Museum of Natural History.

One of the coolest things about digging here at PaleoAdventures is that you can take home some of your discoveries, like Triceratops teeth, plant fossils and other more commonly found objects. If you find anything truly remarkable, Stein will hold it back to be studied by experts in universities and museums across the country.

These super popular digs last a whole day, from 8 am to 8 pm, and they tend to book up quickly. If you’re lucky, you might discover fossils from species like the Anzu, otherwise known as ‘The Chicken From Hell’, the Dakotaraptor, known as ‘Silky’ and  Ankylosaurus, the ‘Armed Lizard Dinosaur”.

The Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, Bynum, Montana

There are various types of digs you can get involved with here – from simple half-day sessions, perfect for beginners who want a little insight into the process of unearthing dinosaur fossils, to full-day sessions, all the way up to a 6-day camping and digging expeditions up by the Canadian border.

The longer expeditions take place in the Judith River Formation, where you can help archaeologists on their mission to uncover, reassemble and preserve two full dinosaurs.

The shorter day-long sessions usually involve a training session at an inactive/mock-up dig site in the morning, followed by a fully hands-on dig in the afternoon to find yet undiscovered remains.

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center is in the heart of the Morrison Formation which is thought to be around 155 million years old.  The center opened in the mid-’90s, and since then over 10,000 bones have been discovered here, mainly from Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Apatosaurus dinosaurs.

There are half-day and full-day packages available, but if you’re keen to get the most out of your dig, shoot for the full-day option, as you’ll also get a guided tour of the center’s museum. If you’re lucky enough to find a dinosaur fossil, you’ll be added to their official register and hall of fame, and the item will be stored on-site for further research.

Gear Up and Get Ready to Find Dinosaur Fossils Across the USA

These are just a few of the places across the US where you can practice some hands-on dinosaur fossil discovery. The best sites for finding fossils are usually in the desert, where there arent many trees and other types of plant matter to get in the way of a dig. Most sites that offer great digging potential are made up of sedimentary rock, which does an awesome job of preserving fossils of all types.

Dinosaur fossils have been found in 35 states across the country; not just in the most famous fossil sites of the West and Southwest, but also way up in Alaska and as far south as Alabama. You never know what you might find, even in your own backyard.

Sandbox fossil dig

The Excitement of Discovery in the Sandbox



When we had our school in Colorado, our students loved the boulder-rimmed sandbox.  The giant rocks were great for little bodies to begin their first bouldering escapades, there was a deep indentation that felt like a cave for pretending so many historical scenarios, and then there were the fossils. 

You see, about four times a year, my husband and I, both teachers at the school, would bring in a giant bucket of sandbox fossils and scatter them throughout the area, burying them in layers all around the giant sand area. We’d take the elementary students out to the sandbox at various times and pretend we’d taken a trip to the sand dunes in southern Colorado, or the Burgess Shale in Alberta, Canada where so many of the same early fossils had been discovered: crinoids, brachiopods, orthoceras, clams, gastropods, and even the occasional trilobite. As the students grew more sophisticated in their understanding of what it took to dig fossils, we’d sometimes layout a grid and practice the excavation in the style of the true paleontologist. 

Once the fossils were found, we had a number of activities to choose from: making plaster casts, re-burying in a sawdust/plaster mixture to be dug out and discovered by another student, and testing with acid to see if there was any organic material remaining. 

At times we made mini-digs with a material we lovingly called Fossil Pie. These were put together around the time of our big annual fundraiser Pie-a-Palooza. Most of the pies sold here were sweet and delicious, but the fossil pie often brought the highest bid at our auction because it was filled with fossils, gems, teeth, and other earthly treasures that spanned the millennia. With up to 100 specimens to be found in the space of a pie tin, these Fossil Pies, were popular among the younger set who’d searched for hours in the school sandbox to find a few treasures.  

There are so many things you can do with Sandbox Fossils to help your children experience the joy of discovery that leads to learning. This lesson plan  will connect your child to ancient sea beds and demonstrate how long-ago animals turned to modern-day stone fossils. And if you’ve got a hankerin’ for Fossil Pie, there’s a version of it for sale here:

Sandbox fossils- Just add water!

Sandbox fossils- Just add water!


Enter The Graptolites!

Miraculously, life appeared on earth nearly 3.5 billion years ago in the form of microbes.  By the time of the Cambrian explosion, life forms were highly developed.



Consider the trilobite. (If you’ve been following my blog you know it’s one of my personal favorites!) It has a chitinous covering that was made of dozens of armor-like plates that allowed it to curl into a ball when stimulated and in need of protection. Trilobites had many legs, the three lobes that inspired its name, and a clear head, thorax and “tail” known as the pygidium. Its most highly developed organ was its eye, seen here on one of our favorite giant models. Yet, on the timeline of life, it’s one of the earliest noted species, living from approximately 520 mya until they died out at the great Permian mass extinction around 250 mya.

It is generally known that the most important remnants of the Cambrian animal explosion are found in the Burgess Shale, discovered in 1909 by Charles Wolcott of the Smithsonian Institution in the Canadian province of Alberta. Here, with the presence of more than 150 species, is the evidence of the Cambrian explosion of life. The Burgess Shale is notable not only for the number of species but also for the fossil remains that include rarely fossilized soft body parts. 

But I’ve often wondered about the simplest animal forms? What did they look like? How did they relate to the Cambrian fossils of the Burgess Shale? 

Enter the graptolite! When we first encountered this early colonial species, they didn’t visually impress. But the more we learned the more we thought our personal collection would be remiss without at least a few specimens of this animal group. For amateurs like ourselves, it took a while before we stumbled upon a place where the graptolites were plentiful enough that soon they will become part of our student collections! In the meantime, we are learning all we can about this early species and I’ll share bits and pieces of this learning over the next few blog posts.

As I began my research, the graptolite got my attention when I learned that it belongs to the phylum Hemichordata. Remembering my early days with the Montessori Chinese Box of the Animal Kingdom, I was excited to now have an animal I knew as part of this phylum. Scientists place it as an extinct subclass of the class Pterobranchia, a group of worm-like animals that live in tubes on the floor of the ocean. They are filter feeders. 

So far in my studies, the most interesting fact is how they got their name. Based on Greek root words, the name literally means “written on rocks” (graptos: “written” and lithos: “rocks”), aptly chosen because the fossil remains look a lot like hieroglyphs. They were discussed, drawn and labeled by Linneaus as possibly plant fossils or crusts formed on rocks that merely resembled fossils. The new fossils we’ve found are truly beautiful “pictures” of real, simple, early animals that got their start in the middle Cambrian period. 

Stay tuned for more photos and info as I lean-in to my own learning over the next few weeks or browse our collection of graptolite fossils! (Include photo of several graptolites. )

Snail Relatives

Snail Relatives…Who knows?

It’s been a “snail-y” summer here is SoCal. I have a new appreciation for the plight faced in Big Little Farm. (If you haven’t seen it, be sure you do. It’s inspiring and hope-producing!)

I guess it was just a matter of time when we’d have one of the modern little buggers show up in a box of fossil relatives. And here it was today! My mind began to fill with questions begging for answers.

The one made of stone is from the Cretaceous Period and came to us from Morocco. That was the first question and easily answered by Doug who keeps these things in his memory better than I.

Next up: I wonder if these are related species…what species is that fossil? What species the snail? If they aren’t the same species, then are they related? Then, “Is this an analogy or homology?” You get the picture…biological questions.

Next my mind flipped to geology and history. (Big History!) Fossil snails seem pretty common, I wonder if there are any around here. If so, were Africa and North America connected at one time? How were the continents connected during the Cretaceous? How many years ago was that? How can I figure that out? And now there’s some math learning/practice potential!

In the history of biology, did any of the scientists from the early days draw pictures of these cretaceous snails? Linnaeus drew pictures of hundreds, if not thousands, of species of fossils and even things he wasn’t sure were fossils. (See my post on Graptolites.) What sort of writing did these early biologists/paleontologists do on the topic of gastropods? How did they tell the story? Maybe I could write my own story of the gastropod…

The human mind is amazing! It’s inherently human to wonder and be curious. Experiences like this drives children to form questions, seek the answers, and trust their ability to find them.

Student questions lead to a need for skill-development, which leads to learning, resulting in a hunger for more. As Dr. Maria Montessori wrote inEducation for a New World, (in response to observing a young child spelling words with the moveable alphabet in an early Montessori classroom)“There was an inner urge for more and more knowledge.”

Will you inspire that hunger in a child?

Could It Be A Trilobite’s Descendant?

Could it be? Was this “bug” walking through my living room a remnant of the trilobite species? I’d seen pill bugs before, but this bug looked to have LOBES! And three of them at that!

The child inside of me was beyond excited, thrilled…not quantifiable. I hopped onto Google (of course). There I found a TON of info and began to learn so many new things.

I started by searching with the only terms I knew: “roly-poly bug” and “pill bug”. I learned that people all over the US called them by different names. And there were a lot of different species with a wide variety of markings. It was the pale markings on my bug that made it appear to have lobes, which it really did not.

Next, my husband announced that it really couldn’t be a trilobite because all the known species were “assumed” to have lived in water. So I dug a little deeper. Lo and behold, the pillbug, roly-poly (or even sowbug) is not an insect at all…it’s a crustacean! It has gills! I will forever remember these last facts because they are unique, unexpected and the opposite of what I thought I was observing: an insect. But this guy has 7 pairs of legs…and those GILLS!

Why is this so fascinating? I believe I had a childlike moment of learning, something all us teachers hope to inspire. And brought on by a tiny little bug.

You see, this example had all the elements of what we teachers need to inspire learning:

  1. A Eureka moment in which I was driven to figure out if this could really be a unique species of trilobite.
  2. A novel learning moment in which I learned that this “bug” was no insect; rathe a crustacean with 7pairs of legs, and GILLS!
  3. Comparable/compatible information that helped me understand my curiosity: besides looking like a trilobite, they also behave like a trilobite. When they are moving, their little legs hold up the “shell” and when touched, they roll into a tight ball.

All in all, it was a perfect (personal) example of what great learning can be.

What sort of amazement will you inspire in your students today?

July 17 and 24th: A Class In Cosmic Education

Montessori’s Cosmic Education and the story of the universe grabbed hold of my heart and never let go. Learning to inspire curiosity, wonder and connection to our celestial home has been my quest throughout 30 years of teaching. This week and next, I’ll be sharing some of my ideas and strategies in two 90-minute sessions of online and hands-on learning.

I opened a book of poetry written by a class of elementary II students I worked with in 1999. Their words reflected the intertwining of academic learning, going out, and following their passions.

He was a soldier as he planned his attack.
His eyes flashed like lightning
While he wept for his prey.
(C.H., 11 years)

My memory of the year has faded too greatly to remember the details of weaving the threads of biology, ecology, language, and math, but their poetry and the drawings that graced the pages of the book they’d created brought back the vivaciousness of those students. These were children who’d gone to the Grand Canyon in the spring and, upon returning, decided to build a model of the layers into our classroom. The poem’s authoris the same child who exclaimed with great excitement that they could use the clinometer to determine the height of their model, reflecting the way they had used the instrument to calculate the heights of the distant sides of the canyon. This “proof” of meaningful learning moved my soul then as it does now.

This week, I’ll be sharing ideas for Keeping Cosmic Education at the Heart of your Classroom. We’ll explore ways of thinking about your curriculum to knit together experiences in all the skills-based subjects as well as art, music, and practical life activities. We’ll consider the whole, distill it into parts, and return to the whole to give you a template for sharing your Montessori lessons in ways that develop elementary and secondary students into adults who see themselves within the context of the cosmic plan. I hope you’ll join me!

For information on attending follow this link: Cosmic Education Class