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How Fossilization Creates Fossils

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Fossil Poker Face
Teacher Contributed

A Fossil’s Poker Face

Why It Matters

Do fossils have good poker faces?

What can we learn from a fossil? The amateur observer hiking through the mountains can observe a fossil and make inferences regarding the three-dimensional look of the organism that once lived. Some could even begin to extrapolate from the fossil’s size and shape particular roles that it might have held in its ecosystem. Take a look at the fossil below. What do you think that this organism looked like when it was alive? What do you think its diet was? Can you determine what type of environment it lived in?

Do fossils share more than a simple first impression? How much of their poker hand can scientists see?

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  1. The worst poker face would have to be awarded to the Burgess Shale fossils that were discovered in the early 1900s. Scientists have learned an incredible amount about the previous location of North America, the past environments on Earth, and the evolution of life from single cell to multicellular organisms. Check it out:
    1. http://www.burgess-shale.bc.ca/discover-burgess-shale/burgess-shale-fossils-and-their-importance
    2. http://paleobiology.si.edu/burgess/ How have these fossils allowed scientists to learn more about the former location of the North American continent? What have they shared about the environment in which they lived? How have these fossils shared information on the explosion of life in the Cambrian?
  2. Preservation was a key factor in the Burgess Shale showing scientists their poke hand (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/cambrian/burgess.html). Why? What are we able to see in this fossil record than in most fossils? What conditions allowed this to happen? How do they know that these conditions were present 500 million years ago? The method of preservation is still be studied by scientists. Here is work that was published in March 2012:
    1. http://www.physicstoday.org/daily_edition/down_to_earth/burgess_shale-type_fossil_preservation
    2. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/02/29/1111784109.abstract
  3. What do you think some of these organisms looked like? What do you think their role was? Pick a fossil from the Burgess Shale collection (http://www.geo.ucalgary.ca/~macrae/Burgess_Shale/) and make a sketch reconstructing what you think that it looked like when it was exploring the ocean. Are there any clues in the fossil that hint at what its role in the ecosystem was? Check out a few of these artist renderings to help you visualize: http://paleobiology.si.edu/burgess/burgessSpecimens.html
  4. Create the environment that you feel the organisms of the Burgess Shale would have lived in (if you want, use Educreations, iMovie, etc.). Here are some fun animations showing how scientists interpret the past environment of the Burgess Shale: Virtual Sumarine (http://www.burgess-shale.rom.on.ca/en/sea-odyssey/index.php)

Resources Cited

The Burgess Shale. The Royal Ontario Museum. http://www.burgess-shale.rom.on.ca/en/sea-odyssey/index.php

The Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation. http://www.burgess-shale.bc.ca/discover-burgess-shale/burgess-shale-fossils-and-their-importance

National Museum of Natural History. The Smithsonian. http://paleobiology.si.edu/burgess/

http://paleobiology.si.edu/burgess/burgessSpecimens.html

University of California Museum of Paleontology. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/cambrian/burgess.html

Physics Today. http://www.physicstoday.org/daily_edition/down_to_earth/burgess_shale-type_fossil_preservation

Robert R. Gaines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/02/29/1111784109.abstract

Andrew MacRae. University of Calgary. http://www.geo.ucalgary.ca/~macrae/Burgess_Shale/

Daniel Arndt. Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ubermoogle/3937896950/

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