A Paleontological Kaleidoscope: Talking Fossils at Soquel High School

By Sean Moran.

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3D printed horse teeth. Photo by Claudia Grant.

I had the immense privilege of spending three full days at Soquel High School during my most recent trip to Santa Cruz, CA. On the first two days of the visit I spoke to seven classes taught by Laura Beach and Gail Alaimo about my journey in paleontology. In fifth grade I was inspired to pursue this science because of a guest speech by a University of Pennsylvania archaeologist. I wanted to convey to the students the wonderful opportunities associated with sciences such as paleontology that so intrigued me back in 1999. Instead of just regaling them with stories of some of the beautiful places I have had the good fortune of doing field work, however, I tried to give the students some deeper insight into how scientific research works and the projects I have worked on over the past decade. Most of the questions hurled my way throughout the talk were quite insightful and showed a deep underlying interest in science in many of the students. It was my great pleasure to see the students light up when talking about the dinosaurs of the Hell Creek Formation or the horses of Thomas Farm. As with nearly all of my classroom visits, these talks reinforced my decision to further pursue high school science education.

The following Friday I spent the day with Laura Taylor’s animal science classes talking horse evolution and watching button quail chicks hatch (but that’s a different story)! In these two classes I handed each group a set of fifteen horse teeth ranging temporally from the early Eocene horse, (Sifrhippus sandrae) to the late Pleistocene (Equus sp.). The students were instructed to sketch a tooth from each epoch from the Eocene to Pleistocene and then measure crown height and anterior-posterior length to calculate hypsodonty indices (HI). After graphing HI and the age of each specimen they were able to infer a lengthening of horse teeth over time in response to the evolution of widespread grasslands and increased grazing tendencies in Miocene horses. I have implemented this curriculum with actual fossils and casts of fossil teeth a number of times, but this was the first instance of using 3D printouts of our recently CT scanned teeth. With the lone exception of the very smallest tooth, which is exceedingly small, the detail on the other teeth was near the quality of the casts. The most exciting part of this is how widely we can distribute this great lesson on the interconnectedness of evolution and climate change due to the access of these 3D files.

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