Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Teaching Activities > Fossil Identification and Classification Lab

Fossil Identification and Classification Lab

Ralph Willoughby
University of South Carolina - Aiken
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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 activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Jun 4, 2009


In four lab sessions, students pick fossils from Pleistocene bulk sediment, identify taxa, compile a faunal list, and interpret environments. Strength of the exercise is hands-on experience with fossils, directly tied to making and evaluating paleogeographic models.

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Paleontontology, AGLY 311 is an optional, upper-level undergraduate biology majors, geology minors, and other interested students. Physical and historical geology are preferred and helpful background courses, but are not required. The instructor reviews basic geology and sedimentary geology.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students use hand lenses, binocular microscopes, separate fossils, and use references to identify fossils. The lab involves a whole metazoan fauna, so students should have studied all the major fossil groups (mostlyl mollusks, bryozoa, arthropods, cnidaria, and vertebrates).

How the activity is situated in the course

This exercise is the culminating lab project for the semester. Four lab periods are assigned to the project.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Goals are for students to use their acquired skills to: identify fossil taxa; make paleoecological inferences; and evaluate the bases (strengths, weaknesses) for their conclusions.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

In this lab students create and analyze their own data, formulate paleoecological models by comparing fossil taxa with known environments to modern taxa, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different models, and question the quality of the available background information.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students work in teams.
Teams submit a written report (oral if time runs short).
A spreadsheet would be useful for compiling and presenting the data.

Description of the activity/assignment

Students pick, sort, box, and identify fossils (mostly mollusks but also bryozoa, arthropods, cnidaria, and annelids) from richly fossiliferous, clastic marine sediment, compile a faunal list,compare the fauna with modern taxa, and make evaluate a paleogeographic model for the taxa found.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Most of the grade will be given for participation and completion. High-end or extra-credit points will be given for recognizing difficulties in working with "transferred ecology," perhaps inadequate taxonomic identifications, limited stratigraphic information, and other limitations.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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