The Bishop Museum has partnered with the Toomey Foundation for the Natural Sciences to create a week-long fossil-finding expedition.
SRQ Review | September 2022
In Science + Technology
“It’s great fun going from rock to solid stone with your friends or people you’ve just met – it creates a great connection,” says Constance Mae Castro, a 14-year-old student from Manatee County. Sometimes all you need to do is dig up the past to make new friends. The Earth’s past, which is more specifically the fossilized remains of dinosaurs that walked on this planet around 30 million years ago. That’s what eight Manatee County students and their parents found themselves doing last June, when they set out for the Nebraska Badlands as part of the annual Bishop Museum of Science and Nature Fossil Expedition. .
Over the past decade, the trip, funded by the Toomey Foundation for the Natural Sciences, has taken Manatee County teachers to Bradenton entrepreneur Jim Toomey’s ranch in the Nebraska Badlands for an expedition a week in search of fossils. Although a businessman by trade, Toomey grew up searching for fossils in the old Apac mine – now known as Benderson Park – and transferred his love for paleontology into a career benefitting the natural sciences. .
In recent years, the excursion has focused on students, aged 11-14, hoping for an emerging interest in paleontology and the natural sciences. “We focused on 11 to 14 year olds, children entering the last year of primary or middle school. At this age, they still have a passion for learning and trying new things, but they are blossoming a bit and figuring out what they want to do with their lives,” says Christine Michael, co-curator of the apprenticeship at the Bishop and one of the tour guides. Instead of a week spent working in the scorching sun, the expedition was split into two parts: three days spent in the field with Toomey, Roger Portell, director of the invertebrate paleontology and micropaleontology collections at the University of Florida/Florida Museum of Natural History, and Aaron Bokelmann, a science teacher at Manatee High School and Jim’s close friend, and three days spent visiting local attractions such as Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse National Monument, and the Mammoth Site.
“As a child, all we are exposed to is what our parents know, what our teachers know, and that’s about it. This trip was so awesome because we also brought the parents. Some of them admitted they would never sign up for this stuff, but their kid was interested and boom, here they are sitting in the dirt and digging up a fossil with a rock hammer,” says Michael. “The first day we had lunch and got to know Aaron, Jim and Rodger, then we went mountain biking to the field. We started in a quieter, less hilly area where we saw lots of turtle teeth, bones and shell fragments. Everyone at least found something that day, which was really great,” says Constance.
The Badland’s distant past as a marshy, temperate water source for mammals has turned its unique geological formations into a graveyard of prehistoric animals. Most of the fossilized remains found by the students were from the Oligocene epoch, around 33 to 23 million years ago. This was the age of mammals, where the earliest ancestors of our modern animals such as Mesohippus, saber-toothed cats and oreodonts roamed the continent.
“I wanted to take the trip because I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up and I was really interested in learning more about some of the ancestors of some of our modern mammals,” Constance says.
While finding the fossils was one thing, extracting them from layers of solid earth and rock was another endeavor in itself. The multi-step process involved students using different tools such as paint brushes, stone hammers and screwdrivers to dig around the fossil and create a sort of pedestal for it to sit on. “The point is to try to figure out how big a piece you have without digging it all up. It’s kind of a slow exploration,” says Michael. Once the fossil comes out of the ground, the dirt pedestal and all, a plaster sheath is cast around the entire piece to prevent erosion.These plaster casts or field jackets are sent back to a Toomey associate who loosens the dirt and reconstructs the fossil for the student who found.
“The biggest fossil I found was an entire turtle shell, about 30cm from neck to back,” says 11-year-old student Jacob Farrington. “We’ll get it back in about a year,” he adds, referring to Fossil Christmas, the event where students receive their reconstructed fossils in about a year.
For a process as arduous as fossil mining has been and as excruciating as the wait for students to see their fossils, it was a journey well worth the time and effort. “In our group, we were just all connected. From the start we were great friends, even now we went to Jacobs and we still talk to them after the trip,” says Constance.