Thursday, November 1, 2007

Teachers rock

In 2006, the HMNS paleo dig team launched a new program that puts educators on the front-lines of natural science. Called "Petrified CSI," the program brings teachers to excavate the oldest land ecosystem known to develop geology, biology and paleontology curriculum for their classrooms.

Museum expeditions have targeted the largest Dimetrodon cemetery in the world, a bone-bed near Seymour, TX. The teachers have already located six skeletons of the largest Dimetrodon species, as well as babies and teenage Finbacks, representing an entire growth series.

Dig team teachers point to a fabulous find - a piece of Diplocaulus skull.

Participants use crime-scene clues to figure out who ate whom 290 million years ago. After four trips in 2006, under the direction of Dr. Bob Bakker and David Temple, teachers have already scored key clues - including a fossil rarity that flummoxed the PhD’s.

The Teachers' Expeditions are employing modern techniques to answer the questions:

Why did so many Dimetrodons gather in single spots, like the bonebed near Seymour?

What were the Texas Finbacks eating?

What were the enemies of Finbacks?

How did Dimetrodon ecosystems differ from those of today?

To find the answers, teachers map each bone bit found in three dimensions. Then rock samples are dissolved and put through fine mesh screens to check for even tinier fragments. Especially exciting finds are the “fossilized bullets” – or teeth shed by Dimetrodon while it was feeding. The dental “ballistics” show where Dimetrodon was feeding and who its victims were.

In a Red Beds shocker, teacher Nancy Lauletta-Bowen discovered a fossil remnant of the notorious “Fox-Faced Finback,” known technically as Secodontosaurus. This close kin of Dimetrodon had a slender skull without enlarged killing fangs - and no such fossils had been found here for over 70 years. This fossil is so rare that Bakker said of the find, “I’d studied Seco’s while a grad student – but I never hoped to see one.”

Lauletta Bowen holds her Secodontosaurus find.

On another recent trip, teacher David Henderson discovered a fossilized Dimetrodon hip that Dr. Bakker believes to be larger and in better shape than the one on display at the Smithsonian. This teacher's find is currently on display at The Houston Museum of Natural Science.

David Henderson with hip fossil, as it was found.

Dr. Bakker is overjoyed with the results so far. “The teachers are GREAT! They spend ten hours a day down in the red dust, scraping the ancient soil spoonful by spoonful. And they’ve gotten lots of chewed-up victim carcasses….with Dimetrodon bullets! At last we have hard CSI data for the Red Beds.”

Even more important than the fossil finds is the teachers’ first-hand experience. As David Temple puts it, "Teachers go back to the classroom with unforgettable experiences – vivid memories of digging the Past and connecting it to the Present. Their students share the excitement and discipline of discovery. Solving science mysteries won’t be something they see only on TV specials. It’ll be right there, up front and personal.”