Monthly Archives: September 2019

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: https://www.fossilicious.com/fossil-pie-12-specimen-fossil-hunt.html

Sandbox fossils- Just add water!

Sandbox fossils- Just add water!

graptolites

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.

graptolites

graptolites

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! . (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?