Dinosaur taphonomy

David Varricchio
MSU - Bozeman
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Students collaboratively investigate a dinosaur site by gathering clues about the sediments and bones. The assigment provides practice in formulating hypotheses, distingushing evidence from intepretation, and some understanding of the inferences that can be made from the fossil record.

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The course is a 100-level science elective, largely taken by non-science majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students will have read a short section on taphonomy and have receieved a single lecture on taphonomy where the processes from death to discovery are covered.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand alone exercise meant as a follow up to the lecture on taphonomy and preceeding coverage of dinosaur behavior.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

> practice with taphonomic concepts
> information and limitations provided by fossil record

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

> formulation of hypotheses
> distinguishing evidence from intepretations
> weighing differing viewpoints/interpretations

Other skills goals for this activity

> working in groups

Description of the activity/assignment

In preparation for this assignment, students have read a brief section in their textbook on the fossilization process as it relates to dinosaurs. In addition they will have had one lecture on taphonomy that briefly covers the processes that transpire from the death of a dinosaur until its discovery by a paleontologist. Students work in groups. Each group is given a quarry map of a dinosaur locality and no other information. The exercise is framed as detecive work, where the "scene of the crime" is represented by the quarry map. The objective is to gather clues to make an informed intepretation. Students can obtain additional clues, but to do so, they must formulate a hypothesis that can be tested by the information they seek. However, they only get to formulate 10 hypotheses. An untestable hypothesis wastes a potential clue. Once students have gathered all their clues, they are encouraged to discuss the significance. Students write up their own interpretation and its limitations individually. The exercise gives students practice with taphonomic data and both its potential and limitations; hypothesis formulation; and examining differing viewpoints as group discussions often lead to debates about what information would be most important.

Determining whether students have met the goals

There is no formal evaluation.
However, students each write up their own final interpretation and limitations. Additionally, there is generally a lot of discussion between students and instructors about clues during the exercise.

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