On a rock challenge in Perry County, Pa., students see just how paleontology is done

Photograph and text by Tony MooreOutside of Newport, Pa., a white Dickinchild van bangs and also thumps up the rutted dirt road leading from the bottom of the quarry to the height. It"s just started its climb, and also the view from the bottom is outstanding enough that everyone in the van gasps a little: The rock face is massive, extending straight upward toward the clear blue October skies. A formation of turvital buzzards wheels in the skies, their shadows moving across the shale surconfront of the cliff.Finally reaching the optimal, wbelow the check out is even more superior, Joseph Priestley Professor of Natural Philosophy Marcus Key, Visiting Instructor in Biology Gene Wingert and also their 10 students climb out of the van, all set to hunt for fossils."We"re searching for crinoids and also brachiopods," Key says. Both, he notes, are marine pets. But take a quick look at a map of landlocked Newport and also a question can conveniently concerned mind: Why is Key taking his students below to look for the fossilized remains of marine pets, to a site that is even more than 190 miles from the Atlantic Ocean?"When Africa collided through North America, throughout the Upper Devonian duration, all these rocks were folded up right into the Appalachian Mountains and also finished up here—around 375 million years earlier," Key defines. "So these rocks at this elevation were not actually formed below."

How paleontology is done

Standing at the height of a quarry overlooking the expanse of Perry County fits in well through what Eller Mallchok "15 was looking for in her Mosaic suffer."The facet of doing hands-on fieldjob-related external the classroom was exceptionally cool and also unique to me," she claims. "It was, as adobjectives would love to hear me say, distinctly Dickinboy." She laughs, yet the truth in her statement comes via. "To me, it really is. It"s a regime and an opportunity that is distinctive to the college and also one that I wouldn"t desire to provide up."The students break-up up and collection to researching rocks, breaking them acomponent via rock hammers or ssuggest crushing them, layer by layer, through their bare hands. They then identify the pieces, either telling or asking Key what they"ve uncovered, down to the phylum level. Wingert videotapes whatever they find for a DVD he"s compiling. "King Phillip Came Over for Good Soup," Key claims, reminding the students of among the more prevalent mnemonics for remembering the classification device for Linnaean taxonomy."This is just how paleontology is done," Key tells the students, each of them holding dusty rocks. "What were we"re focusing on is paleoecology: trying to understand also the environment these creatures lived in. If we were going to do an evolutionary research, how would certainly we strike this outcrop differently?"And the impromptu lesboy, at the peak of this vertigo-inducing cliff, turns into a question-and-answer exercise on the scientific procedure and also a lesboy in how to settle paleontological mysteries. The session ends through a truth check of sorts."Do you think any of these specimens would make it right into the Smithsonian?" Key asks.

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The gathered students answer as one: "No."But a voice comes out of the crowd: "Do you have actually anypoint in the Smithsonian, Professor?""Do I?" Key transforms gradually and smiles. "Yeah."