Field Exercise in Stratigraphy/Paleoecology

David Sunderlin
Geology & Environmental Geosciences - Lafayette College
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This field activity for GEOL 320 "Paleobiology" is designed to turn what could have been a "look-and-see" fossil collecting trip into one where genuinely interesting hypotheses/questions are addressed by field data collection and subsequent data analysis. The project involves gathering primary data from fossil assemblages at classic sites in the Calvert Cliffs region of Maryland Miocene strata. Students learn how to pose testable scientific hypotheses and then gather the appropriate data necessary build a more complete understanding of paleoecological associations and interactions in the fossil record.

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This activity is designed for an upper (300) level course in paleontology/paleobiology at a small liberal arts college. The course size is typically 12 students from both geology and biology backgrounds. The course is not required for either the geology or the biology major.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should have practice posing testable scientific hypotheses prior to beginning the activity. Students should also have a basic understanding of ecology, stratigraphy, and processes of fossilization before beginning the project. Good computer spreadsheet skills are desirable as well. Because good field guides to fossils of the area are readily available, no taxonomic experience is required.

How the activity is situated in the course

As it is now situated in my course, this activity is conducted over one lecture module and two "lab" meetings and is early in the course. The lecture module is an introduction to the strata of the field site and a guided practice in posing paleontological research questions and hypotheses. Fieldwork is conducted on a weekend field trip to the Calvert Cliffs area along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. A full lab time is devoted to data analysis and beginning write up upon return to campus the following week with data in hand.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Stratigraphic principles in shallow marine units
  • Paleoecology (community structure, predator-prey)
  • Taphonomy & time averaging

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Spatiotemporal sampling to address hypotheses
  • Data analysis on computer applications
  • A sense of what questions may be asked of a fossil/stratigraphic record

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Oral presentation of findings
  • Working in groups
  • Scientific writing (hypothesis driven)

Description of the activity/assignment

Sed/Paleo field studies seek to understand the evolution of depositional environments and their life/ecology through time. Students develop paleoecological hypotheses of community paleoecology in the Miocene Choptank Formation and test hypotheses through field data gathering and computer-based analysis. By measuring morphological characters, gathering paleo-community assemblage data, and recording predator-prey and colonization occurrences, students gain collaborative research experience toward defined research goals. Computer applications of data analysis techniques and reports of findings complete the project as a full practice of how field-based science may be conducted in the discipline.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students are evaluated on the testability of their hypotheses, the appropriateness of the proposed field methods, the efficiency with which they use field time, and the quality of their final oral and written reports on the study's findings.
A grading rubric is used and presented to students at the start of the activity.

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