Geology Paleontology

Hi everyone, we are Beatriz Gomes, Sara Cruz, Sara Serra and Sofia Picão and we're in our last year of high school. We live in the home country of the best football player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo. Here in Portugal we have lots of beautiful monuments, breathtaking beaches and the most important thing: a unique gastronomy. Each of us actively takes part in cultural and leisure activities (including volunteering), some of which we've had the oportunity to participate in thanks to our school. For example, we've been to the European Parliament through the Euroscola contest and every year around Christmas we donate food to our fellow students

December 2016

We were introduced to the project by our teacher, who suggested a number of subjects inserted in Geology. These were randomly assigned to the previously formed groups. This didn't allow us to get the one that had caught our eye and made us lose a bit of the initial excitement. The subject we got was paleontology. Our main goal with this project is to raise awareness of the impact paleontology has on our knowledge and perception of the world and consequently on our lives, which is often overlooked. Also, we intend to enhance our understanding of the link between Geology and Biology in this field.

(left to right) Beatriz, Sara Serra, Sofia and Sara Cruz.

January 2017

We gathered to do some research on the subject, as well as decide how we want to approach paleontology in a fun and interactive way. Sofia suggested we recreated an excavation site using a sand box. The rest of the group was on board and immediately started listing the necessary material and sketching what it would be like. We also agreed that it would be fun for the children to take home a mold of a fossil which they had made themselves out of play dough, but soon gave up on the idea since it would require a lot of plasticine.

We thought it was only fit for us to do our research the old fashioned way!

February 2017

We met up in our school's library, to continue researching. A Biology teacher noticed what we were doing and offered to help. We told her our plan and she advised us to try something else, since the sandbox idea would be really difficult to execute. We we're a little discouraged by this, but had to acknowledge she was right. So we decided to keep it simple, and dig an actual hole on the ground. We chose a location in the premises and then headed to the school's Biology and Geology lab to see what material we had at our disposal. Around it, we divided work in order to make our presentation: Sara Cruz will do further research on how to recreate an excavation site and the procedures the bones undergo once they arrive at the lab, Sara Serra will focus on the difference between paleontology and archeology, the duties of a paleontologist and the basic steps to conducting a scientific archaeological excavation. Sofia and Beatriz will learn more about how paleontology contributes to the field of evolutionary biology focusing on human evolution, while searching for curiosities about the Ardipithecus, the Australopitecos, the Homo Erectus and the Homo neanderthalensis. We discussed these ideas with our teacher, who gave us the green light.

Working hard!

Here's a summary of what we learnt:

  1. While Paleontology is the science that studies fossils and the species that have inhabited the earth, Archeology studies humanity only, being sometimes classified as a social science.
  2. There’s a bit of a misconception around the duties of a paleontologist. Most people assume they only do field work, and yet that is only a small part of what they do. Most paleontologists spend most of their time at labs and museums, not at the excavation sites. A big part of their jobs consists of identifying bones and the species they belong to, and it’s them who reconstruct the skeletons we can see in museums.
  3. Paleontologists and archeologists have plenty of methods to determine whether there can be fossils in a certain area, like examining the type of rocks and soil there. Nevertheless, it is impossible to know with certainty if fossils exist in that area without digging. The problem with this is that the process requires a lot of time and pacience, since the scientists can only remove small pieces of dirt at a time, so they don't risk damaging the artefacts that may or may not be there.
  4. Once they find the ideal spot, they use sticks and rope to divide the area to be studied in quadrants (with about 1 square meter) which are then numbered so if anything is found, later they will know exactly where it was. Each paleontologist works in their own quadrant.
  5. What someone does first if they find anything (besides screaming)? Take a photo. The whole process must be documented and this will be specially helpful if the bones are damaged. Then, they proceed to clean the bones with a brush with soft bristles and remove them carefully, wrapping them in plaster so they are safe on their way to the lab.
  6. Once in the lab, the bones are cleaned with a xylol solution or (carefully!) boiled. There, paleontologists investigate whether they belong to any known species or a new species have been discovered. Sometimes to do this, it is necessary to see fragments of the bones through the microscope. If a new species is discovered, the scientist has to write a scientific article on it, and only afterwards can it be named.
  7. Paleontology is key to the study of evolution because fossils provide the only direct evidence of the history of evolution.
  8. The most complete fossilized skeleton of a female Ardipithecus ramidus ever found was baptized Ardi by the paleontologists that found it. Ardi lived approximately 4,4 million years ago and although she is a biped, she had both opposable big toes and thumbs in order to climb trees. Her big toe, spreads out quite a bit from her foot to better grasp tree limbs and her palms were short and flexible. Ardi was a hominid, and her diet consisted mainly of fruit and nuts.
  9. Lucy is perhaps the most famous of our ancestors. She belonged to the Australopithecus afarensis species and inhabited the planet 3,2 million years ago. She moved mainly on two feet, which compromised her ability to climb trees. She was considerably old when she died, from a fall. She was short and resembled a chimpanzee. Lucy was baptized after the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the sky with diamonds”, which was in vogue at the time of the discovery of her remains. Her diet consisted mainly of meat and food that was high in fiber.

March 2017

We went to a Geology Congress! It took place in the University of Coimbra, the oldest university in the country. It was an extremely enriching experience which allowed us to learn more about our topic.

Our class.

We have prepared our presentation. We started by filling a tray with plaster and bones, for that is the way paleontologists transport the findings to the lab. Simultaneously, we mixed cement and water in a tray to recreate stone and threw a couple of bones in there too, so the children could dig them out. Then we started digging, using spades and shovels. Afterwards, we placed the sticks and rope in order to make the squares and buried some big bones we had previously cleaned. With the help of the military of our city, we set up a tent in which we put a cork board with informative posters, tables and a genealogical tree that showed human evolution, that was made with the help of an arts teacher. Finally we proceeded to ceil the tables. On two of them we layed the necessary material for the excavation, along with the trays. On another one we recreated a lab and on the final two we put some plastic bones (painted with the intention of making them look more authentic) so the children can try and solve the "puzzle" that paleontologists face since very rarely is a skeleton found whole. It was quite a handful of work but we were extremely happy with the final result.

Today we started presenting our work. It was only the first of three days and so far we are loving the experience. Not only do we get to present our work to the community (our audiences ranged from kindergarten children to fully-grown adults), but also we are obligated to work as a team, which can be challenging sometimes, but ultimately pays off. This project is definitely testing our ability to work as a team! Fortunately, this is a skill we will most likely need in the future.

Finally, the third day! We spent all day in the tent/excavation site. Then, we proceeded to clean everything up and take down the tent. Our project is finally over... We would like to thank our teacher for providing most of the materials we used.l. Also, for the unique opportunity to expose our work to the entire Entroncamento School Group. Hopefully, we were able to change some people's perspective on Geology, as we had originally set out to do.

Beatriz Gomes, Sara Cruz, Sara Serra, Sofia Picão

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