We know that the Earth is between 4-5 billion years old. Its vast life history recorded in the ground. Paleontologists use evidence of past life on Earth from fossils (of plants and animals) to understand the many changes in climates and environments that took place.
Professor Mikael Fortelius arrived, and we began our lessons in Paleontology. Prof. Fortelius specializes in mammalian communities in early human environments, evolution of land mammals and their environments during the late Cenozoic, ecometrics of fossil and living mammals, computation approaches to paleobiology, all things about mammalian teeth and issues with scaling. It is an incredible opportunity for TBI students to learn from a leader in this field.
The students were very eager to get out into the field to search for fossils – but first they had to assess their skills in fossil identification. We placed a random assortment of fossils (and non-fossils!) into trays and asked students to do their best at describing and identifying them. They learned from each other in groups and excelled at the assignment.
Following this initial attempt at fossil identification, and realizing there is a lot to learn, the TBI students had the opportunity to learn vertebrate anatomy hands-on. Prof. Fortelius and his fossil expert assistant, Martin, laid out the full skeletons of many different modern species of vertebrates. The students were able to lay out the skeletons to see their anatomy, compare features of different species, and get an overall stronger feel for the many shapes and sizes of bones. Seeing complete modern skeletons makes identifying very old, fragmented fossil bones a bit easier in the field. Everything that we know about the fossils of extinct animals is based on what we can learn from the modern record. This is why is it important to understand both the past and the present in understanding the evolution of life on Earth.
You can tell a lot about animals’ lives by looking at their teeth. A huge body of research investigates the mechanics of jaws and teeth, and the impact on these mechanics and different food items on tooth wear. Studies of modern animal teeth and jaws helps inform about wear patterns on fossils. We can then reconstruct the diets of ancient animals who have long been extinct.
Beyond wear, the mechanics of different shapes and sizes of jaw and teeth structures indicate adaptations for different diets. For example, browsers (who eat the vegetation on bushes, shrubs and trees) have sharper teeth with more shearing crests than grazers (animals who eat grasses) that have flatter, rounder teeth for repetitive wearing down of tough plant materials. So, you can use the shapes of animal teeth to tell what they probably ate. The students looked first-hand at different jaws and teeth from different herbivores to tell the difference between browsers and grazers.
After the students became familiar with vertebrate anatomy and fossils, it was time to take them out to the field to search for fossils. We took a half-day trip to Area 8 (about 30min from TBI Ileret), which is an area rich in fossil remains. The students scoured the surface of this area for fossils, finding the remains of hippo, elephant, crocodiles, and more. The most important part of this field excursion was learning the standardized protocol for recording fossil finds (initiated and designed by Meave Leakey and others).
Students rounded off the end of Paleontology week 1 with a lecture on the history of life on Earth. The students took part in a fun activity to understand just how vast the timespan of Earth’s history extends – the toilet paper timeline! Students were given a few rolls of toilet paper, masking tape and some markers. Two groups were asked to roll out the toilet paper and map out, to scale, the age of the Earth. Then, students were asked to mark on the toilet paper when certain events in Earth’s history, such as snowball earth, occurred. FYI: it takes a lot of toilet paper to complete the task.
Stay tuned for more on Paleontology next week….