Guest Blogger: Trip to UI Paleontology Collection

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Working in the Repository.

Coralee has been busy since {home}school began (post-Labor Day) working on her project for the Homeschool Assistance Program’s Science & Social Studies Fair at the end of October.  She initially planned to study the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.  Over the summer, however, her interest in the fossils Merritt and her have been collecting from our creek was greatly renewed due to some massive flooding & resulting changes in the creek bed.  Her project idea changed & I instantly invested some late-night/early-morning hours searching for local resources to shape her science curriculum during the first trimester.  I love that aspect of homeschooling–the ability to alter the coursework to match the child’s interests, while still following the standards & benchmarks.  I wish all children could experience learning in this manner.

As part of her Social Studies work, we use the New York Time’s Learning Network’s 6 Q’s About the News to keep up on current events, further critical thinking skills, broaden vocabulary & geographical knowledge…the list of benefits goes on & on.  A wonderful resource.  In the past I’ve had her choose an article herself from one of her many birding magazines & create a ‘6 Q’s’ for me to answer, but I’ve never required her to take on the task of reporter & journalist.  She wrote an article following our visit to the University of Iowa’s Paleontology Repository on Friday, September 19th.  The Collections Manager is in the process of reorganizing the entire million+ specimen collection–moving everything from the decades-old, wooden cabinets into state of the art specimen cabinets to provide better protection against dust and environmental fluctuations.  A staggering project.  I took photos (lighting was not great–no windows in the repository) while Coralee worked.  The Collections Manager is the mother of a young son herself & set up a tub of sand filled with small fossils for Merritt & June to dig through for treasures–so sweet of her.  Below the photos find Coralee’s article in full–hope you enjoy my “guest blogger.” 🙂

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I found the backstory behind each fossil fascinating. This particular Brachiopod specimen was found by a “Junior Paleontologist” just a few miles from our home in 1943!

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Coralee’s fossil on the bottom.

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New cabinets.

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Over the course of the last five years, my brother and I have been pulling up strange fossils from our creek bed in Benton County, Iowa with little idea as to what creatures the fossils represented. A visit to Trowbridge Hall at the University of Iowa changed my initial guesses of shells, beehives, and mushrooms to something much, much older and completely out of place on the fields and prairies of Iowa today.

Approximately 375 million years ago, during the Devonian Period, Iowa was much like the Bahamas, covered by a shallow sea. Iowa lay below the equator at this time and was absolutely swarming with life. It wasn’t until I began my 7th grade science project that I discovered all our fossils were from the Devonian. Following two weeks of research at the library and online I still could not identify the fossils with absolute certainty. I had to talk to a professional about my collection. I made a trip to Iowa City to consult with Tiffany Adrain.

Tiffany Adrain is the Collections Manager at the University of Iowa’s Paleontology Collection. Ms. Adrain started working at museums in London when she was 15 years old. As we enter the collection room, she tells us the collection has fossils from all over the world. The room is crammed with rows upon rows of floor-to-ceiling cabinets full of fossils (mostly procured from private collections). “I’ve been here for ten years and I still haven’t opened all the drawers,” she tells me with a laugh.

After introductions we get right down to business. First Ms. Adrain and I pick a fossil from my collection and hypothesize what type of Devonian creature it might represent. Then we start the fun part. Ms. Adrain opens a marked cabinet that has potential. We search for a fossil match or as close as we can manage. It isn’t as simple as it seems. The drawers are organized by scientific name, sometimes down to specific species and those are pretty tricky to figure out. Spirifera cedarensis, for example, is the scientific name for the brachiopods I found. A brachiopod is a shelled filter feeder much like a mollusk today, but not related. The word Spirifera is the genus (or group) that this shelled creature belongs to and cedarensis is the name for its species. There can be a lot of different species belonging to a genus. For about an hour we search through drawers and label most of my fossils with a genus and some with a genus and species designation.

As my visit came to a close, we packed the now-labeled fossils into my shoe boxes, signed the Paleontology Collections guest book, said our farewells, and headed for the elevator.  Weaving our way back to the North Parking Ramp, through the student-saturated campus, I had time to reflect. I’ve heard it said many times “you can have an adventure even in your own backyard”. This literally proved true for me. This adventure of mine started with a single coral fossil pulled from a creek bed six years ago this November. A fossil I thought was some sort of beehive. My visit to Tiffany Adrain and her amazing collection took me far from that creek bed to below the equator and back 500 million years. And I didn’t even leave Iowa.

–BY CORALEE D. BODEKER

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3 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Trip to UI Paleontology Collection

  1. This is so special- what a wonderful to educate as well as learn. Great resource for homeschoolers and parents. How fun and exciting too to find fossils- my kids would love that( I would love that)
    Great post.

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  2. Wonderful post Ruby & Coralee! I learned a whole lot about what all those fossils are doing on your back porch shelf! What a great adventure – and Coralee is a very informative writer – I could see all she wrote about in my mind’s eye – good pics too Ruby. Good job both of you. Love Nana Hammond

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