Teach the Earth > Sedimentary Geology > Sedimentology, Geomorphology, and Paleontology 2014 > Teaching Activities > Paleoecology of the Penn-Dixie Quarry

Paleoecology of the Penn-Dixie Quarry

Lisa Whitenack, Allegheny College
Author Profile

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review 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 page first made public: May 27, 2014


Students work in groups to collect fossils and sediments from the Hamilton Group (Devonian), process their samples, and determine the paleocology and diversity metrics for each formation in the Hamilton Group. Analysis also includes comparing collection techniques (bulk vs. targeted) and diversity of each formation. Each student individually writes a paper summarizing their work.



This will be part of the laboratory portion of an upper-level undergraduate paleobiology course elective. I have used this activity previously in a junior seminar called "The Evolution of Shape" in a biology department, as students are using the shape of the organisms to help interpret their ecology

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students need to know some very basic information about the fossils (e.g. what a trilobite is) and basic geological concepts. Everything else is learn as we go, as that is the purpose of the project.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a lab project that takes place over several weeks. We do this early in the semester due to weather constraints.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Fossil identification, paleoecological interpretation, quantitative analysis, specimen curation,

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Quantitative reasoning, thinking and evaluating data collection techniques, collecting data, analyzing data, interpreting results

Other skills goals for this activity

Scientific writing, engaging the primary literature, data analysis, working in groups

Description and Teaching Materials

This lab project combines field work, museum curation, taxonomy, paleoecology, and scientific writing. Students begin with a field trip to the Penn-Dixie Quarry (Devonian Hamilton Group, just outside Buffalo, NY), where they collect 2 different sized bulk samples (filling bags with scoops of sediment that we know have fossils in them) and a targeted sample (actively seeking and collecting fossils). As there are a few different parts of the Hamilton Group present at the site, each group samples a different rock layer.

In the following few weeks, students process the samples in lab. This includes sorting the bulk and target samples, identifying the fossils to species if possible, and curating each fossil for the lab collections. Students then run diversity metrics on their samples (such as Shannon-Weaver's H) and statistics to compare their sample techniques. They also must interpret the ecology of the sample they took. Students write a lab report in the style of a paleontology journal. We then pool all of the data so that students can compare ecology and diversity across the different formations, which then allows us to employ rarefaction techniques.
Student handout for fieldtip (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Jun19 14)
Sample processing handout for lab (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Jun19 14)
Analysis & lab report guidelines (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB Jun19 14)
Diveristy homework (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 155kB Jun19 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The length of time needed for this project is at least a few weeks, though I imagine that will vary with student experience. When I did this last, it was with biology majors with no geology experience, so there was a steep learning curve. My paleobiology course is about half geology / half biology, so I suspect it will go smoother as they will be able to teach each other.


I grade students on their participation in the project (are they working together? are they sitting back and letting others carry them?), as well as assessing their knowledge in the form of the lab report.

References and Resources

Website for PAST statistics software and foram data used in homework: http://folk.uio.no/ohammer/past
Website for Analytical Rarefaction software: http://strata.uga.edu/software/anRareReadme.html
New TTE Logo Small

Teaching in the Field resources from across Teach the Earth »

Teaching in the Field resources from Teach the Earth include:

Specialized collections including

or search