Citizen science and the DIG Field School

As many of our friends and colleagues know, one of the primary research endeavors of the Wilson Lab is the Hell Creek Project, which is focused on understanding the biotic and abiotic patterns and processes surrounding the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event. An important aspect of this project is that it relies on mass quantities of vertebrate microfossils—mammal teeth, salamander vertebrae, and lizard jaws, just to name a few. These specimens are primarily obtained by sorting through bulk samples of sediment collected from fossil sites in our study area in northeastern Montana. Our lab currently has over 5,500 kg of unsorted sediment, and we collect more every year.

Above: students hunt for Hell Creek Project fossils in class

One of the primary ways we connect with teachers and students is by sending them samples of sediment from our lab. Teachers who have been through the DIG program can request sediment samples at any point in the school year; students then sort out microfossils from these samples and assign preliminary identifications. The student-collected specimens are then mailed back to our research team, where they become bona fide data points in the Hell Creek project. Not only do these students get an authentic, hands-on learning experience, they directly contribute to our understanding of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and rise of mammals.

Above: students point to a collection of fossils they identified

Although it’s barely March, the DIG has experienced a record-breaking year for student-based citizen science. To date, over 50 classrooms from 10 states have sorted through more than 50 kg of sediment and collected over 300 vertebrate microfossils. Stay tuned for updates on these numbers at the end of the year!

Above: students examine sediment for vertebrate microfossils

In addition to involving classrooms in our research, we host monthly fossil sorting parties at the Burke Museum. Click here to read more about these events and get a complete list of the dates!

 

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