Few people turned out for Danielle Ricklefs’ recent program on being an amateur paleontologist, coming as it did after a series of snow days. But Ricklefs, the new education coordinator at Great Bend’s Brit Spaugh Zoo, promised she’ll be repeating the program this spring. She also introduces paleontology, the study of fossils and the science of prehistoric life, to teach kids about extinction events, past and future.
Natural events led to the extinction of dinosaurs, but man-made events may lead to the extinction of present-day species, such as orangutans, Ricklefs said.
“Every kid you talk to is excited about dinosaurs,” she commented, and hunting for fossils can be almost like a treasure hunt. While there are many tools available to paleontologists, all it really takes to get started is a rock hammer, a good place to dig and the landowner’s permission.
Ricklefs said her own interest in becoming an amateur paleontologist began when she was working at the Museum of World Treasures in Wichita. “We had a T-Rex,” she said, and that drew a lot of paleontologists to the museum. A couple of those visitors invited her to join the Burpee Museum of Natural History’s 2009 project at a quarry near Hanksville, Utah. On this federally protected land, the Burpee team and volunteers from across the United States hoped to find sauropods – long-necked dinosaurs.
They were working in a layer of rock known as the Morrison Formation – which represents a small portion of the late Jurassic period, 145 to 150 million years old. “It’s easily recognized,” Ricklefs said during her slide presentation, showing a formation with a “melted ice cream” appearance. To find the exact place to begin, they searched for “bone float,” a geographic tell of fossils that have come to the surface. In Utah the ground was littered with fossilized oysters that look like rocks but are easily spotted by a trained eye.
The quarry, which was discovered in 2007, continues to yield dinosaur bones. Ricklefs said one of her most exciting finds was an ulna and vertebra, connected like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.