Forensic Paleontology

Katherine McCarville
Upper Iowa University
Author Profile


Students examine and sketch a dead animal, discovering as much as possible about it.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This activity was designed for use in a lower-division undergraduate dinosaurs course. Most students take the course to meet the general education requirements in natural science, but it also attracts pre-service elementary teachers.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

There are no specific prerequisite skills or concepts. However, some work with understanding scale and using a grid may be helpful.

How the activity is situated in the course

Standalone activity.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Locating and naming skeletal elements of the vertebrate body. Examining bone and tissue for evidence of cause of death. Detailed observation of taphonomy, including stomach or gut contents, type of bone breaks, evidence of insect activity, evidence of decay.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Comparing the recently dead animal to an animal that has been fossilized. Reconstructing the sequence of events between death and fossilization.

Other skills goals for this activity

Scientific documentation through field notes and sketching.

Description of the activity/assignment

The activity should begin with a brief review of scale, maps, how to use a grid in sketching, and the importance of field notes in science. Students are provided with a dead animal (roadkill) and some means of determining scale (meter sticks laid next to the animal). They sketch the animal, locating and labeling the major bones and bone groups. Students answer a series of questions designed to help them notice taphonomic features of the carcass. They are challenged to come up with the series of steps from death to burial to fossilization for the animal.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The student's sketches and answers to the questions can be assessed to determine their achievement of the goals.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials