Fossil Systematic Description Project
This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection
This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are
- Scientific Accuracy
- Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
- Pedagogic Effectiveness
- Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
- Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page
For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.
This page first made public: Jun 9, 2014
Students describe an unknown vertebrate fossil (or fossils, if multiple specimens are necessary for identification). This exercise is the culmination of their lab studies in the morphology of the vertebrate skeleton and requires them to integrate their ability to describe the morphology with research into the literature on their assigned animal. Students also become familiar with presentation of research through writing a formal scientific paper in the style of a particular journal.
Undergraduate/graduate course in vertebrate paleontology
Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
morphology of the vertebrate skeleton (this can be ongoing as the term project proceeds), basics of scientific writing style
How the activity is situated in the course
This is the term-long project for the course, integrating the lecture content (which is about processes of vertebrate evolution) with the morphology of a fossil vertebrate.
Content/concepts goals for this activity
Description of morphology, animal systematics and taxonomy
Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Evaluating variation in morphology to discern taxonomically important differences from those that represent within-species variation, Synthesis of existing systematic knowledge, inferring paleoecology and natural history from fossil specimens
Other skills goals for this activity
Writing a scientific paper, following journal format instructions, searching the taxonomic literature
Description and Teaching Materials
The handout describes the assignment for students; The formatting instructions for the paper are available at http://vertpaleo.org/Publications/Journal-of-Vertebrate-Paleontology/Information-for-Authors.aspx. The instructor must provide the specimens that the students describe; each student is assigned a specimen relevant to their research interests (if they have any), but is not told what the instructors know about the identity of what they have been given to study. The scoring rubric below is used to grade students' papers.
Fossil vertebrate description project (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Jun9 14)
Taxonomy paper grading rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 10kB Jun9 14)
Teaching Notes and Tips
Depending on the material students are given to describe, this project can require a certain amount of gentle guidance to get students to find the right answer. This project would be easily adaptable to fossil invertebrates, plants, or microfossils, as well. One of the larger issues is getting students secure access to the fossils; this requires instructor time to get them to the fossils at a time and place where they can be supervised. The instructor need not know what the specimens are before they are assigned to the students, so this project can be a good way to get new field collections identified, as long as you can separate taxa from one another.
The paper is graded on the accuracy of the taxonomic identification, as well as the quality of the writing and the descriptive work. The figures are also graded on whether they adequately communicate the morphology of the specimen.
References and Resources