PaleoPortal Lessons  

The Life Story of a Fossil

Author: Deb Farkas

Overview: In this lesson, students choose an organism that existed during a specific geologic period in a specific state in the United States. Students then imagine themselves as that organism and use their prior knowledge of fossils and the geologic history of the Earth to write a story that describes their life, death, and entry into the fossil record. The Paleontology Portal will be used as the entry point for student research of a specific organism and the geography, climate and associated species in the area where the organism lived.

Lesson Concepts:

Grade Span: 6–8


Advance Preparation:

— Gather books, maps and other earth and life history resources
— Reserve computer lab.
— Have a variety of art materials on hand for students to create a booklet, poster, or other presentation of their work.

Time: Two class periods and additional outside research

Grouping: Individual assignment

Teacher Background:

The age of the Earth is estimated at 4.5 billion years. From the beginning of our planet's history until the present, the surface has been shaped and reshaped by advancing and retreating ice sheets, variations in temperature and climate, plate tectonics and related geologic forces such as mountain building and earthquakes. Changes on the surface have influenced the type and diversity of organisms that have inhabited the Earth during any given period of time. A thorough investigation of the fossil record for a particular place provides a snapshot of the geography and climate of that area during a period of the past.

Two interactive web-based modules that may help you and your students prepare for this activity are:

Vocabulary: Since this activity may be used as a culminating project, the vocabulary used should already be familiar to the students.


  1. Give each student the handout titled Life Story of a Fossil and the accompanying worksheet where information found during research will be entered. Review the story guidelines and expectations with students. Inform students that they will be filling in their worksheet and taking notes while visiting The PaleoPortal.
  2. Students will log on to The Paleontology Portal website at Students may click on the "site tour" at the bottom of the home page for a brief introduction to the site. Once there, students are encouraged to review the first two stops along the tour, Exploring Time and Space and Fossil Gallery, as these will likely be the two primary locations they visit for this assignment. It is important that students familiarize themselves with the type of information that can be gathered in each of these locations and how one navigates through each location.
  3. There are a number of ways a student can enter this project. They can do so by starting with Exploring Time and Space and then going from a chosen state to a specific fossil, or students may begin in the Fossil Gallery and pick a specific fossil and backtrack to the state.
  4. A) Entry Point: Exploring Time and Space
    Direct students to go to Exploring Time and Space and select a state by clicking on it. The student can then read general information about the geology and paleontology of that state through geologic time. Notes should be taken as needed.

    Students should use the interactive time line to explore each time period. Specific information on the geology and paleontology of that period will appear with images of fossils from that period, if available.
    NOTE: Students should be directed to pick a period that shows at least one image when "search fossil gallery" is clicked in the slide area on the right of the page. If no images are available that lead to more information, then students should pick another period.

    After exploring all of the options, each student should pick a fossil from the gallery that will become the topic of her/his story. If an image is clicked, it will show an enlargement and will also have a bar at the top of the page indicating what type of organism is represented in the slide.

    FOR EXAMPLE: If one chooses "Utah" in the "Triassic" and then clicks "search fossil gallery," a multi-part image will come up of a phytosaur tooth. Clicking on this image will give an enlarged version and at the top of the page, one will see Vertebrates > Reptiles > Crocodiles and Relatives. If "Crocodiles and Relatives" is then clicked, one will see a page that gives more information about crocodiles and their relatives and provides links to other sources of information about the organism.

    Students should be taking notes that are necessary for their stories as they proceed.

    B) Entry Point: Fossil Gallery
    Direct students to go to the Fossil Gallery. There are two ways that students may arrive at pictures of fossils. They can use either the circle diagram at the top left of the page or the drop down menu at the bottom.

    To use the circle diagram, a student should pick a group of fossils, such as Invertebrates, by scrolling over it. Click on the "Invertebrates," for example, and one will see a page about invertebrates with a menu at the top listing different groups of invertebrates. If one then clicks on "Arthropods," for example, then the page displays information about this group with a menu at the top with subgroups, such as "Trilobites." Finally, if "Trilobites" is clicked, then one will see a few examples of trilobite fossil images and if more images are available, it will indicate how many more images there are. The student may select the fossil of his or her choice.

    A student may also use the drop down menu of choices at the bottom of the initial Fossil Gallery page, immediately selecting the taxonomic group of interest and leaving the other dropdowns on "Any State" and "Any Period." Once a group of fossils is picked, the student can read general information about that group of fossils and find more images of that fossil group, as well as links to more information about the group, on The PaleoPortal.

    Either way, students should then click on the image of their choice for a larger view.
    (NOTE: When the larger view appears, the caption under the image gives the geologic time period and the state where that fossil was found. That information should then be noted and used as in the Exploring Time and Space entry described in "A" above.)

    Before investigating the state and geologic time period, click on the group designated at the top left of the page with the larger image to get even more information about the fossil type chosen. Notes should be taken as needed.

    FOR EXAMPLE: If one chooses "Trace Fossils" and then clicks on the image of Arthrophycus, an enlarged version of the image will appear and the caption will read "From the Silurian in West Virginia." At the top of the page, one will see Trace Fossils > Invertebrate Traces. If "Invertebrate Traces" is then clicked, one will see a page that gives more information about invertebrate trace fossils and provides links to other sources of information about that group of fossils.

    When finished finding information about the type of fossil chosen, students will return to the Exploring Time and Space page and then go through the same steps as described in "A) Entry Point: Exploring Time and Space" above.

    NOTE: Whichever entry point a student chooses, whenever she or he gets to the small fossil image, a clickable source name and date are given. If the student clicks on the name, she or he will be given an option to contact the source. This can provide an opportunity to gather direct information from the individual who found the fossil/created the image, and/or the museum that currently houses it. (There is no guarantee that a reply will be received).

  5. Once the student has explored all of these resources, they should have gathered much of the information needed to write their stories. Students should use other web-based and/or print resources as needed to complete the project. Many of these resources can be found within The PaleoPortal.
  6. Have art supplies and paper available so that a booklet, poster or other type of display can be used to present the story. Encourage students to provide a drawing of their fossil and what they looked like when alive and if possible, its closest living relative.

Posted September 21, 2006

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