Fossils under your Feet: Using the Paleobiology Database to explore local fossils

Rowan Lockwood
The College of William and Mary
Author Profile


In this activity, students will explore what types of fossils have been found in their local area, where they were discovered, and how old they are, using the Paleobiology Database (PBDB).

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



o be used in an introductory or intermediate undergraduate course, including (but not limited to) physical geology, historical geology, and paleontology.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Before starting this activity, the student should be able to:
- Define what a fossil is (Part 1)
- Find their local county or province on a map of the world (Part 2)
- Estimate an area as a percent (i.e., estimate percentage of a state is covered by dots)(Part 2)
- Define a body versus trace fossil (Part 3)
- Define the term extinct (Part 3)

How the activity is situated in the course

Presented during unit focusing on local geology or as part of an exploration of fossil types and preservation modes.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Information on local fossils, including:
- fossil organisms
- what they looked like
- when they lived
- the environment in which they lived

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

After completing these activities, students will be able to:
- Estimate what percentage of their state/province is represented by data in the PBDB
- Describe where fossil organisms have been found in their local county
- List which fossil phyla (plural of phylum) have been found in their local county
- Research the common names of organisms classified in those phyla
- Research when and where one particular species (their choice) lived in the fossil record
- Determine whether that species was a body or trace fossil
- Figure out whether that species is extinct or still living today
- Research what that species looked like, how it fed (if applicable), and its habitat, etc.
- Determine the geologic age of a fossil locality in their local county

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

In this activity, students will explore what types of fossils have been found in their local area, where they were discovered, and how old they are, using the Paleobiology Database.

This activity is designed to be flexible and can be used as a lecture, lab, or homework activity. It is divided into four parts and can be modified by picking and choosing which parts (and which questions within parts) to include. It can also be modified by asking all of your students to choose the same town, collection, phyla, or species to focus on. The duration of the activity ranges from 10 minutes to two hours, depending on which parts are assigned.

Students can work as individuals or in pairs and class size can range from a small seminar (< 10 students) to a large lecture (> 100), as long as sufficient computer facilities are available.

Each student or student pair will need access to a laptop or desktop computer connected to the internet, running both Microsoft Word and an internet browser.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Note that assessment for this activity is much easier if instructors choose a specific county, collection, and organism on which all students focus.

Formative assessment

Can be accomplished in lecture or lab by observing student progress and trouble-shooting challenges. Can also double-check that the major tasks (i.e., choosing a county/province, choosing a collection, listing phyla, choosing a species, finding a image of the species or genus, determining geologic age) are accomplished in a timely manner and are accurate.

Summative assessment
Key summative assessment points include: listing phyla, listing common names, finding a image of the species or genus, describing the species, and determining geologic age. Summative assessment can also be included as midterm and final exam questions focusing on the key summative assessment points listed above.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs