PALEONTOLOGY ON THE WORLD-WIDE WEB
STEVEN H. SCHIMMRICH
INTRODUCTIONTHE EXPLOSIVE growth of the world-wide web, a vast network of interconnected computers which allows you to seamlessly access multimedia information (text, images, and binary files) from servers anywhere in the world, has resulted in a large amount of information useful to K-16 teachers. The problem is finding this information and being sure it's correct (almost anyone can create a web page). This paper is an attempt to bring some order to the chaos and lists many paleontology resources on the web which may be of interest to K-16 students and instructors along with some tips on how these resources may be used in a classroom setting.
If you're still unfamiliar with the world-wide web, the jargon used in speaking about the Internet, or netbrowser programs required to "surf" the web (I strongly recommend the program Netscape), a visit to any library or bookstore will uncover dozens of books and tutorials appropriate for your particular computer system. Once you have the appropriate software set up, surfing the web is simply a matter of using your computer's mouse to point and click your way around the world.
LEARNING FROM FOSSILSMany fossils are aesthetically pleasing and some, such as dinosaurs, easily excite our imaginations but why should we study fossils? What can we learn from them?
Paleontology is a multidisciplinary science incorporating biology, geology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Learning about how paleontologists practice the science of paleontology teaches students about the science in general. Paleontologists routinely utilize field methods, laboratory techniques, computers analyses, mathematics, and theoretical models in their research.
The mass media often reports on the latest ideas regarding global warming or global cooling. Such climatic shifts will have a great effect on our future but how do we know if the earth is warming up or cooling down? What can tell us about the climate in the past? Paleontologists study several types of plant and animal microfossils to provide answers to these questions.
Microfossils are also of great interest to oil companies since they're used to determine the
temperature to which subsurface rocks were "cooked" in order to assess the likelihood of
petroleum occurring in that particular rock formation. Rock formations are also correlated
over great distances by the distinctive microfossils occurring within the cores brought up
from oil wells.
Geologists, in creating geologic maps, also routinely use invertebrate fossils to correlate rock formations which are only exposed in isolated outcrops across their map area. Certain types of fossils tell them the depositional environment of the rock strata as well. For example, a large number of broken and crushed brachiopod shells within a limestone would indicate a high-energy marine environment.
Tiny microfossils called radiolarians may even be used to constrain the evolutionary history of a large mountain belt and provide insight into the movements of large crustal plates on the surface of the earth.
Everyone knows that dinosaurs are extinct. Not everyone knows that virtually all species of organisms that ever existed are now extinct and that there are many large scale extinction events represented in the fossil record. It may be appropriate to ask why organisms become extinct since the answer may affect our own survival as a species. Many of the dinosaur sites on the web discuss the latest ideas regarding the impact of a large asteroid at the K-T boundary as resulting in their demise. Have such events occurred more than once? Can it occur again? The answer may lie buried within the fossil record.
Many people harbor misconceptions about the theory of evolution. Fossils are ideal vehicles for introducing ideas and concepts in evolution and for providing tentative answers to the question of how life arose and developed through time on earth.
Finally, paleontology is interesting because it allows us to visualize worlds which no longer exist. Worlds just as real as our own with sunshine and rain, with plants and animals, and which existed for millions upon millions of years before humans came onto the scene. Paleontology teaches students how scientists can study rocks, and the strange things found within rocks, and from this extract an entire ecosystem which existed at a particular locality at some time in the past.
LEARNING FROM THE WORLD WIDE WEBAll of the topics discussed above are addressed on the world-wide web. A listing of paleontology resources is accessible from a single web page I've created at URL: http://hercules.geology.uiuc.edu/~schimmri/geology/paleontology.html
The sites are somewhat arbitrarily subdivided into those featuring on-line virtual museum exhibits, information about microfossils, specific invertebrate fossil organisms, dinosaurs, vertebrate fossils other than dinosaurs, macroscopic plant fossils, paleoecology, resources for paleontology in general, and discussions of various aspects of evolutionary theory. This web page will be updated and maintained and will allow you to connect to everything with a minimum of typing.
How may these World Wide Web resources be used for teaching paleontology and science in general?
The virtual exhibits at the University of California Museum of Paleontology and the Royal
Tyrrell Museum have enough information to keep students busy for a long time. Tours of
these museums and others can easily be assigned along with a set of questions which
encourage students to read and think about the ideas presented in addition to looking at the
pretty pictures. Students may be asked, for example, to write a short essay on the Cambrian
explosion, the differences between brachiopods and mollusks, the origin of flight, the skeletal
differences between Ornithiscian and Saurischian dinosaurs, or the evolutionary development
of the horse. By visiting these sites, an instructor can easily be come up with lists of
questions appropriate for various educational levels and interests.
An example of a larger scale project might be to present the students with pictures of various dinosaurs (perhaps printed from the Web) and have the students devise a dinosaur classification scheme. Then students could visit several of the dinosaur web sites, learn about cladistics and cladograms, and compare the different classification schemes presented. Students can think about why there are differences of opinion in the classification of organisms. This can easily lead into a detailed discussion on the problems of classification in science in general.
It's difficult to do paleontology without looking at fossils in the laboratory and in the field. Unfortunately, not all classes have the resources to do this, but it may be possible for many to examine fossils on the computer screen. A limited number of fossils are available as three-dimensional images which may be manipulated using freely-available virtual reality software. There are also some virtual field trips, such as those offered by the Paleontological Research Institution, which allow students to visit localities they may never see in person. I predict that such images and field trips will become more common in the future as more people have access to the hardware and software needed to create them.
Many of the paleontology web sites listed provide useful information about the science of paleontology and how it is practiced. Contrary to popular opinion, most paleontologists do not spend all of their time digging up dinosaurs. Many spend years of their lives in a laboratory measuring thousands of mollusk shells or examining and cataloging microscopic bits of Cretaceous pollen. Paleontology, and science in general, is not merely a collection of facts to be memorized, but an active process involving real people doing interesting things. Given the way scientists are represented in popular culture, some students may be surprised to see how normal scientists look in the pictures on their web pages!
Many of the museum exhibits and paleoecology sites are interesting because they stress the multidisciplinary nature of paleontology and present a holistic view of the past. It's easy to study a particular fossil and forget that this was a real organism which was born, lived, and died in a world far different from our own. A trilobite fossil may be interesting to look at, but far more fascinating is to realize that such creatures swarmed in the Paleozoic seas long before there were humans to note their comings and goings. To awaken a sense of wonder in students about such organisms is to implant a desire within them to learn more on their own.
The various paleontology databases and bibliographies listed may be used to teach the basics of scientific research by having the students study a particular fossil species. How many specimens of this organism are found in the various databases? Where were they collected from? Who collected them? What papers have been published on this species? After reading about the Mazon Creek flora, for example, it may be interesting to see how many Mazon Creek specimens are found in museums like the Smithsonian.
Finally, several resources are included specifically for the benefit of instructors. Most K-12
students would not learn much from the on-line scientific journals or professional
paleontology organization web pages, but instructors may wish to keep up on the latest
research trends in paleontology by perusing these sites.
FINAL THOUGHTSMy listing of World Wide Web resources for paleontology is not meant to be exhaustive. I have tried to include only those sites which have fairly high-quality information and images which would be of interest to K-12 teachers. Most of these sites contain sections entitled "WWW Resources" or "Additional Links" which list many more locations, of varying quality, which are also available on-line. One can never compile a truly exhaustive list of resources due to the volatility of the World Wide Web. Many sites are privately maintained and literally appear and disappear overnight or simply move to new locations with different URL addresses.
Locating additional resources on the Web is possible by using one of the various search engines which allow you to search for web sites containing one or more key words. One of the better search engines is the MetaCrawler located at URL: http://metacrawler.cs.washington.edu:8080/index.html Above all, have fun and remember to get the students off the computers once in a while to look at real rocks and fossils as well as virtual ones!