Sunday, July 3, 2011

Teaching the Past, Cretaceous and Other Times



It’s a safe generalization to say that academic paleontologists devote much of their time and energy to educating non-paleontologists about the wonders of past lives. This lofty goal might be accomplished in an official capacity as a university professor or a museum researcher, or unofficially through public speaking, publishing popular-outreach books, or – to be totally modern, hip, and self-referential – writing a blog. In this instance, I am mixing official and unofficial duties by sharing a few of my experiences with teaching paleontology to undergraduate students at my university (Emory) during a study-abroad program in Queensland, Australia.

A happy group of American university students, which is as they should be, because they are in Queensland, Australia learning about its paleontology. Little do they know their state of fossil-induced bliss is about to be interrupted by a lurking Early Cretaceous pliosaur, Kronosaurus, inexplicably occupying an aerial environment and in the present. (I’ve been trying to tell them all along that some things are worse than a failing grade.) Photo taken by me at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville.


This Emory study-abroad program has been around on-and-off since 2006, but this year’s is the first where I’ve had the opportunity to teach paleontology as its featured attraction. The two courses we are teaching concurrently in the program are environmental geology and paleoecology, the latter course advertised under the rather swishy title, “Ecosystems through Time.” Because I am also a geologist and have taught environmental geology many times (not to be too much of a tall poppy about it), it has been both fun and challenging to retrofit that course to better emphasize all of the fantastic case studies in Australia pertinent to this subject. Think about it, but not for too long. Shoreline processes and cyclones in an island-continent-nation that has most of its population living in big cities along the coast, soon to be affected more so by accelerated sea-level rise? Check. Catastrophic flooding that takes away precious lives and wipes out expensive property? Check. Earth resources that, once exploited through mining, set off all sorts of environmental problems and controversies? Check. Indigenous perspectives and how those views synch perfectly with modern ecological thinking, that is, what affects the landscape also affects the Great Barrier Reef? Check, check, and check.

A plume of sediment caused by flooding in Queensland in January 2011, on its way to the Great Barrier Reef, an example of how the terrestrial and marine environments are connected in Australia, and why environmental geology is a good means for exploring this concept. Photo from EarthSky.

And as yet another example of why plate tectonics rules our lives (whether we like it or not), we talked about how a Chilean volcanic eruption and its andesitic ash cloud drifting across the Pacific Ocean disrupted flights into and out of southern Australia during the past several weeks, overlapping with the start of this program. So scratch what I said earlier about how “challenging” it has been to incorporate Australia examples, as it was all too easy. Australia is all about geology and how its affects people’s lives here.

But what about paleontology, you ask? Perhaps an attentive reader (that is, all of you) noticed I used the plural pronoun “we” when describing who is teaching the program, and I am fortunate to be accompanied by my friend and paleontological-geological-educational colleague, Stephen Henderson in this program. The way we arranged the program is that I teach both classes (environmental geology in the morning, paleoecology in the afternoon) in a classroom setting the first two weeks.

This is not my colleague Steve Henderson, although it could be, depending on his mood. It’s actually a wonderfully rendered large theropod dinosaur, made so that it appears to be bursting out of the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville, Queensland. As if a huge predatory dinosaur is not enough for some people to get a clue, there’s a sign warning everyone to stay out of the garden, too.

After Steve arrives in Australia (which he already did, two days ago), we will co-teach the third week on an Outback field trip with the students (more on that later). At the end of that five-day trip, I wave goodbye, and Steve teaches the last two weeks of the program. That’s five weeks total for the students, held together (like duct tape, only better) by our graduate teaching assistant, Justine Garcia, who is here for the entire duration of the program and lives on the James Cook University campus in Townsville, Queensland with the students. So the students are getting paleontology for the full five weeks they are here in Australia. Best of all, they have an intensive exposure to this topic in the middle of the program, in which we give them both barrels, chock-a-block with paleontological musings and insights inspired by real fossils from Australia.

Wow, real Cretaceous fossils from Australia! These are what you hold up when someone questions what paleontologists know about the life of the ancient past. Specimens in the Flinders Discovery Centre of Hughenden, Queensland, which my students will get to see tomorrow.

And oh what fossils Australia has! Just in the first two weeks of the program, we read and discussed articles about: the world-famous Ediacaran fossil assemblage of South Australia; the evidence (thus far) for the early evolution of four-limbed vertebrates (otherwise known as tetrapods) in Australia; the well-known dinosaurs, crayfish, and other biota of the formerly polar environments of Victoria, Australia; the world-famous Riversleigh fossil assemblage from western Queensland; and the newly discovered Pleistocene megafauna tracksite from western Victoria, recording the movements of the largest marsupials that ever lived.

Megafaunal tracks from the Volcanic Plains of western Victoria, made by the largest marsupials known – diprotodontids – during the Pleistocene Epoch. These and other mammal tracks were described and interpreted in a recent paper titled “A Diverse Pleistocene Marsupial Trackway Assemblage from the Victorian Volcanic Plains, Australia” by Stephen Carey and many others (2011), Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 30, p. 591-610. And my students learned about this just this past week while we were in Australia.

This next week, our field trip into the outback will then focus on the Cretaceous of Queensland, with fossils of both the terrestrial and marine realms of that time. Loyal readers can now live vicariously through our students, as they learn about the past lives of the area around Winton, the Cretaceous Lark Quarry tracksite, the newly documented (and totally cool) Cretaceous dinosaurs of this area; the Cretaceous marine invertebrates (ammonites, belmnites, and bivalves, oh my!) and marine reptiles (ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and turtles, oh my!) of the former inland sea that covered this part of Australia about 100 million years ago.

So I feel very privileged to share that educational experience for the first time with our students this next week. It’s not all about the discoveries we make as paleontologists – you know, the ones that result in headlines, invitations to talk shows, and dancing with Hollywood stars (OK I made up that last one, but it could happen). Instead, it’s about those inward discoveries others can make with us paleontologists as they learn about what preceded us on and in the earth’s land, sea, and sky. Welcome to the Cretaceous of Australia, my students, and may you love it as much as I do.

One of my favorite dinosaur recreations, which is of an unspecific hypsilophodontid dinosaur, a common inhabitant of the formerly polar Cretaceous environments of Victoria, Australia. Display in the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville, Queensland, and me (wearing Ray Troll t-shirt, of course) for scale. 

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