National Fossil Day 2014

On Wednesday, October 15th, the United States is celebrating National Fossil Day. And the Sternberg Museum is joining in the fun! 

National Fossil Day is a day museums, organizations, institutions, government agencies, and other groups dedicate to educating the public on the importance of preserving and understanding fossils.  To this end, the Sternberg is extending their hours and opening their doors free of charge to offer special fossil-focused programs from 9:00am to 9:00pm. We invite kids, adults, families, and students of all ages to come celebrate and learn about the fossil resources of Kansas! Including our two newly appointed State Fossils: Tylosaurus and Pteranodon!

The day’s events include:

  •        All Day: Free admission to our exhibits and special programming

  •        9:00am – 2:30pm: K-12 school groups touring special exhibits** (see note at bottom of post) 

o   Student groups will visit special exhibits set up around the Museum focusing on how and why we study fossils. Topics include how we dig up and clean fossils, how bones and animals grow, how we can tells males from females in the fossil record, and how skeletons relate to how animals lived their lives.
  •      4:00pm – 6:00pm: Fossil ID, Gallery Tours, Post Rock Carving 
o   Post Rock quarrying demo (in Museum parking lot)
o   “Post Rock Country” book signing by author Brad Penka
o   Guided tours of fossil gallery (tours at 4pm and 5pm)
o  Guided tours of zoology and paleontology collections (tours at 4pm and 5pm)
o   Bring in your rocks and fossils for identification by Museum scientists
  •       7:00pm – 9:00pm: Scientific Presentations and Discovery Room Activities 

o   These talks will be given by Fort Hays State University graduate students studying fossils in the Sternberg Museum paleontology collections.
§  7:00pm: Ian Trevethan, Mosasaur thermoregulation
§  7:30pm: Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith, Hesperornis and diving bird foot morphology
§  8:00pm: Thomas Buskuskie, Dinosaurs of Kansas
§  8:30pm: Kelsie Abrams, Teleoceras rhinoceros ecology and diet
o   The Discovery Room will be open for kids and families so patrons of all ages can enjoy the Museum!
As always, the overarching theme of National Fossil Day is education. This year, we are not only providing a variety of educational experiences to the public, but are showcasing several educational partnerships within our community. Students from Quinter High School will be talking about their experience digging up a Mosasaur with the Museum. Post Rock Country events will get the community involved exploring the bridge between Kansas’s natural history and cultural history. FHSU Department of Geoscience graduate students are presenting their research on Museum fossils. And we are celebrating the newly named State Fossils of Kansas, legislature that results from the work of Kansas museums, patrons, and fossil hunters

Come join in the fun as we learn about Kansas natural history!

**If you are interested in your child’s class attending National Fossil Day events, have his/her teacher contact Education Director David Levering (**

Just another mosasaur dig?

Few things are more rewarding for an educator than the opportunity to work with a group of excited, engaged students – whether the students are children, teens, young adults, or mature adults. Having the opportunity to take a hands-on approach to education in the field is the cherry on top.  Over the past few weeks, Sternberg Museum staff have had the wonderful opportunity to work with local high school students on a mosasaur dig in Western Kansas.  Two students from the Quinter High School advanced biology class contacted me for instructions on how to safely and properly excavate a mosasaur fossil. They were working on a capstone research project for their class. After some discussion of techniques and equipment, we decided to join forces and dig together.  This way, we could provide hands-on instruction on proper collection techniques, and continue discussions on the importance of data collection and scientific research.  After contacting the landowners for permission to excavate and arrange for the specimen to be donated to the Museum, Museum staff – including myself (Sternberg paleontologist), David Levering (Sternberg education director), and Dr. Reese Barrick (Sternberg director) – joined a group of high school biology students and their teacher to begin field work.

Through the months of April and May, professionals, educators, high school students, graduate students, and local land owners all pitched in to excavate a partial Tylosaurus skeleton from the lower Smoky Hill Chalk of Gove County, Kansas. It didn’t take long for the quarry to turn into an outdoor classroom as we talked about everything from the geologic history of Western Kansas to the skeletal anatomy of mosasaurs to different excavation techniques (including a few impromptu physics lessons as we figured out how to get a 1000 lb jacket into a truck bed). Ultimately, our classroom provided first dig experiences, a science project for two advanced biology students, a gathering point for ranchers around the area to drop by and see what was going on (lawn chairs and grills included!), and a launch pad for future student research and community collaborations.  Local media outlets also helped spread our story.

The jacket containing the fossil mosasaur getting fork lifted
to its new home in our prep lab at the Sternberg Museum.

Despite holiday weekends, exam schedules, a very heavy jacket, and a very old truck, the mosasaur skeleton was safely removed from the ground and transported to its new home at the Sternberg Museum.  Where our story continues into the future. Thanks to new connections and sparked interest, we have the opportunity to continue to use this fossil to work with local students. Through the course of the summer (and however long it takes after that), students will be volunteering at the Museum as we teach them how to prep, curate, and study fossils. This mosasaur specimen will be the first fossil used to teach a new generation of students interested in paleontology and natural history.

Of course, not all students are looking to build a career in the field of paleontology (talk about a flooded job market!), but it is the core mission of natural history museums to instill an interest in and understanding of science.  We strive to encourage people to ask and answer questions about the world around them and figure out ways to solve problems. We aim to build a respect for the knowledge and advancements that scientific research, engineering, and technology can provide. I like to think that by giving students of all ages hands-on experiences exploring what science is and why it’s important, we are leaving them better equipped to shoulder the responsibility for our future.

A crew including Sternberg Museum paleontologist, Sternberg Museum education director, Fort Hays State graduate students, Quinter High School biology teacher, Quinter High School biology students, and our fantastic land owners! May 2014
— Dr. Laura E. Wilson
   Curator of Paleontology
   Sternberg Museum of Natural History
And all with only one truck snafu (this is par for the course for me…)

National Fossil Day: Heading To A Museum Near You

In 2010, that National Park Service and over 270 supporting museums, institutions, and organizations celebrated the first National Fossil Day. National Fossil Day was established to promote the educational and scientific value of fossils, while celebrating this country’s fossil resources. It falls on the third Wednesday in October during Earth Science Week – this year it is on Wednesday October 16, 2013. The Sternberg Museum of Natural History is putting on a day of activities and special programming for visitors of all ages in celebration.

On National Fossil Day – Wednesday, October 16, 2013 – the Sternberg Museum will be free of charge to all visitors.  We also have extended hours and will be open from 9 AM until 8 PM with a day packed full of special activities:

  • 9:00 AM – 1:30 PM
    • During the morning, we will be opening our doors to K-12 school groups from Hays and the surrounding area to come to the museum for special presentations.  Students will be able to explore the world of paleontology through a series of special exhibits set up around the museum paring fossil and live organisms.
    • The museum will be open to the public at this time, but presentations will be geared towards the visiting school groups. 

  • 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM
    • Join us for a special presentation by Adjunct Curator Mike Everhart on the new Cretaceous sea turtle fossil recently donated to the Museum. After Mike’s presentation, we will have a small reception as we thank the Bird family who donated the fossil. 
  • 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM
    • Doors are open to visitors of all ages to explore the Sternberg Museum.  We will have special exhibits and presentations set up around the museum.  These special exhibits will feature live and fossil animals to explain how paleontologists study how extinct animals evolved, moved, interacted with other animals, and interacted with their environment.
  • 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM
    • We will be featuring a series of talks and panel discussions by Museum paleontologists and educators exploring different aspects of paleontology.
      • 6:30 PM – Mike Everhart (Adjunct Curator of Paleontology), “The Sternberg Family Legacy”
      • 7:00 PM – Dr. Laura Wilson (Curator of Paleontology), “A Bird’s Eye View of the Western Interior Seaway”
      • 7:30 PM – David Levering (Education Director), “Walking, Running, and Pouncing…”
    • During this time, the Discovery Room will be open to kids of all ages with special fossil-related activities.
So join the Sternberg Museum on October 16th for National Fossil Day – and bring your friends and family!  Hope to see you there!

September Outreach with PBS

In the middle of September, the Sternberg Museum joined Smoky Hill Public Television (our local Western Kansas PBS station) in their Family Fun Day.  Amid the children dragging their parents to booths to play games for prizes and have their pictures taken with beloved PBS characters, the Museum was able to set up a table showcasing extinct and extant animals from Kansas. The live animals are always a hit, and our Hognose snake (Chubs), Great Plains Ratsnake (Buddy), Common Snapping Turtle (Jeffery – don’t worry, kiddos, he doesn’t snap!), and mice with pinkies were no exception. Snakes will always stir up a mixed reaction from people, but by bringing mice and explaining how fast mice can reproduce (every 30 days!), we can present a convincing argument for the importance of snakes in the ecosystem. Overall, I think most kids were more scared of Clifford the Big Red Dog than of Buddy and Chubs.

The fossils may not always take center stage when live reptiles and mammals are involved, but our smorgasbord of Kansas fossils demanded attention and raised excitement. Perhaps most impressively, we took a life-size skull cast of Megacephalosaurus – a pliosaur plesiosaur from the Carlile Shale of Western Kansas. (Of note, this fossil is also the Sternberg Museum’s most recent holotype.  Check out the JVP article by Schumacher et al. from earlier this year.) With a name that means “big headed lizard”, our skull cast was quite an attention-grabber. We also had skull casts of a nodosaur dinosaur from Kansas, as well as mammoth and mastodon fossils. The look on a child’s face when you tell them they are touching a really fossil is inspiring.

Museum outreach and education is one of the most rewarding parts of being associated with a natural history museum. It is also one of the tenants justifying continued funding of museums. With educational programming geared at children, youth, and adults, the world is truly a student of science.  An informal set-up at a Family Day featuring glimpses into Kansas’ past and present ecology and the chance to discuss science with people of all ages is just as important of an educational opportunity as more traditional classroom instruction. Having undergraduate and graduate students excited to help and educate out makes the experience even more valuable and educational.