A Problematic Fossil Brings Paleontology to the Classroom and the World

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

A problematic fossil discovered in 1998 by an amateur collector in central New York proved to be a valuable tool for teaching paleontology to people of diverse age and background. Highlighting its problematic status and including the public in the search for additional specimens as well as an investigation of affinities, allowed us to engage students and non-students alike in the most basic process of paleontology- reconstructing an organism from fossil remains.

Use of a web site, http://www.geo.cornell.edu/ glasssponge.html, which displayed the mystery fossil and invited comparison and comment, gained and held public attention. The story was widely covered by the media.

The fossil appears to be a previously undescribed Devonian siliceous sponge. What attracted public and media attention, however, was interest in solving a scientific puzzle. The episode suggests that the discovery of problematic fossils can open opportunities for educational outreach.

Keywords: Education- geoscience, education -undergraduate, paleontology-invertebrate

INTRODUCTION

The process of inquiry is fundamental to all science education. "What is it?" is usually the first question we ask when confronted with an unfamiliar object. In paleontology our first step is to determine if an object was once alive, and, if so, to which taxon does it belong (Rudwick, 1985)? This may be accomplished by comparing the fossil to other objects, both fossil and Recent. A once-living organism that preserves traces of its biologic structure, but not enough to assign it to a known taxon, is designated "problematica" (Hantzschel, 1966).

Problematica are not rare. In a recent compilation of marine genera, for example, 1489 out of 37000 are problematic; that is, about one in 25 (Sepkoski, 2002). Problematica are sometimes the sources of some of the most interesting fossils, e.g. the Burgess Shale (Briggs & Morris, 1986), and the Ediacara (Fedonkin, 1986). Even in relatively well-explored areas and well-described fossil faunas, unidentifiable specimens may be common, and may include undescribed taxa (Provencio & Polyak, 2001), variants of known taxa (Rigby et al., 1998; Maisey & Moody, 2001), unknown modes of preservation (Narbonne et al., 1997), or interesting inorganic phenomena (Spincer 1998).

Members of the general public frequently discover objects that appear to be fossils, but that are not readily identifiable. Often, however, when they bring their specimen to a museum, the professional response is "I don't know", I'll work on it" or simply "thanks", and the interaction ends there. In such cases valuable opportunities for education and involvement are lost. Although it is not always possible to involve the public in paleontological research, we recently had such an opportunity, and it benefited all concerned.

THE PEOPLE

In the fall of 1998 service station manager Mike Potts of Interlaken, New York found something unusual (Figure 1) when digging to replace an underground gasoline tank. At about four meters below the surface, he uncovered a layer of limestone boulders ranging from a few centimeters up to 30 centimeters in diameter. He noticed a dark object protruding from one of the larger rocks and smashed it open on his driveway for a better look. He thought the exposed object resembled fossilized bone, and took the broken rock across the road to show to his neighbor, goat farmer and Cornell Professor Richard Feldman. Feldman, who takes the bus to work every morning, mentioned the object to John Chiment, fellow bus rider and vertebrate paleontologist at Cornell.

Chiment could tell Potts and Feldman immediately that it wasn't bone, but couldn't tell them what it was. We now believe that this specimen is a fossil sponge, but not one that had been previously described from the Devonian rocks of New York.

Shortly after Potts' discovery, Brandon Green, a first-grader in Cathy Bair's class at nearby Trumansburg Elementary School, brought a rock to school for show-and-tell. …