Striking it big with ancient fossil finds

‘Stones and Bones’ students spend two weeks digging in Kemmerer

Lilja Carden and Rohan Narayanan of the Stones and Bones course show off their fossil of a fish track, the markings of a fish fin left in the sand while swimming close the bottom of the ancient Fossil Lake. (GAZETTE PHOTO / Michelle Tibbetts)

KEMMERER — As the wind and dust cleared to reveal the dry alpine desert landscape, one could see the activity of several excavators scattered about the limestone slab. Individuals wore wide-rim hats and covered their faces with bandanas to block out the dust. They swung their pickaxes, and sounds of crashing metal and stone filled the air. It was just like a scene out of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark when Dr. Lance Grande arrived with his students to dig for fossils as part of the Stones and Bones course.

The University of Chicago’s summer course Stones and Bones is designed for advanced-placement high school students who aspire to become paleontologists. Grande has been teaching this course for over 14 years, and it has drawn the attention of students from all over the world.

“It’s an amazing group of students (this year),” Grande said. “I have had graduate students out here before, and they just don’t compare to the enthusiasm generated from these students.”

Students of the course have to be pretty determined, explained Grande, as they pay college tuition rates to participate. The four-week course earns each student eight college credits. They spend two weeks in Chicago, IL, and two weeks in the field in Kemmerer.

The students worked at a quarry located just west of Kemmerer and operated by Tynsky’s Fossil Fish Shop. The quarry is part of the Green River Formation and is adjacent to Fossil Butte National Monument. This area contains an extraordinary record of what life was like 52 million years ago. The group observed and classified their fossil finds to learn more about what the Earth was like in the past and how the environments have changed over time.

Grande studies fossil fish and ancient environments at the Field Museum in Chicago. He said he is fascinated by how much is learned from an experience like this.

“There is no better picture of the early recovery of North America’s cretaceous extinction than this place,” Grande said. “Most importantly it has international importance in the scientific community, in addition to the commercial attraction.”

The group of 14 students and seven staff members came prepared to battle the elements as they set up camp on the edge of the quarry rim, an altitude of just over 7000 feet.

Students slept in tents for the two weeks, and got quite a taste of Wyoming’s ever-changing weather. The group was hit with some bad weather the first night.

“It was a good thing, since it put the fear of death in all the students,” Grande joked. No sense in starting off too easy, he explained.

But the inclement weather just fueled the students’ energy more.  Emerging from their tents each morning eager to begin chiseling their way through the limestone layers, the group found hundreds of fossils.

After fourteen years collecting, students of the course have acquired a lot of specimens, and have learned to be pretty selective about what they keep.

Typically, the group takes back approximately a half-ton of stone to Chicago every year. They were pretty pleased with their findings this time around.

The students began each day digging at sunrise to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. They worked together in small groups, dissecting segments of the 18-inch stone layer, hoping to make a discovery.

At one point all eyes were on one student as she jumped into the air and shouted repeatedly, “We found a lotus, we found a lotus!” Sixteen-year-old Chloe Harper of Nashville, Tenn., and her group, were astounded when they revealed a nearly-perfect fossil specimen of a lotus leaf.

Looking at the leaf in amazement, 11-year-old Astoria Morrill of Dallas, Texas, said, “It’s so cool.” Astoria was sure glad her father, Brian Morrill, a high school science teacher, brought her along on his sixteenth trip as a volunteer with the expedition. Their smiles could be seen for miles as they meticulously prepared the fossil for extraction.

Grande carefully cut the slab with a power saw and set it aside. Shortly after, another group removed a rather large slab, which required a few adults to maneuver the piece.

Upon splitting the piece, they revealed the largest fossil fish find of the day. Whoever said splitting wasn’t worth the while would stand corrected on this piece, explained Grande.

Each day, the group retreated to town in the peak hours of the midday sun to grocery shop and find some reprieve from the heat.

After returning to the quarry to finish digging for the day, the students logged field notes in their journals and reflected on their experiences. The students then took turns rotating cooking and cleaning duties. Simple meals were viewed as gourmet feasts, as the crew built up quite the appetite in the course of the day.

The students enjoyed a special treat one night, as they helped one student celebrate his birthday by eating cake and making him a crown created from glow sticks.

The team took full advantage of the Fourth of July holiday celebrations, and drove into town to experience the spectacular firework display and enjoy freshly-made pizza from Scroungy Moose in Frontier. “That guy makes a good pizza,” said Jim Holstein, a teacher’s assistant at the Field Museum.

He recalled how the tradition started many years ago and how they appreciate the fact that Scroungy Moose opens up just for them every Independence Day.

The students’ passion for digging never depleted, although their bodies felt the effects of the dry climate as their final days approached.

The group packed up camp and relaxed at the Best Western Fossil Country Inn for their last night in Kemmerer.

Students took home souvenirs of their expedition and a considerable quantity of paleontological knowledge, something Grande says will hopefully remain stick with them for a long time.

Kemmerer is a fossil treasure trove. This experience taught students not only about Earth’s history but about today’s evolving diversity. 

Paleontology allows us to discover what changes occurred in the past.

We learn how species evolve and how environments recover after catastrophic events.

By discovering these patterns, we can utilize this information to better prepare for what can possibly happen in our future.

And of course, discovering cool fossils as part of another successful Stones and Bones expedition is pretty fun, too.

University of Chicago students and Field Museum staff prepare to split a large section of rock cut from the local quarry during the field expedition segment of the Stones and Bones course in Lewis Ranch quarry near Fossil Butte National Monument. (GAZETTE PHOTO / Michelle Tibbetts)

Walter Stackler, Chloe Harper, and Astoria Morrill shown just after they made their lotus leaf find. (GAZETTE (PHOTO / Michelle Tibbetts)

We found a lotus! Students were filled with excitement as they revealed an almost perfect specimen of a lotus leaf. (GAZETTE PHOTO / Michelle Tibbetts)

Students discuss their finds with Lance Grande as they make daily journal entries. (GAZETTE PHOTO / Michelle Tibbetts)

Stones and Bones students expose the fossil layers with  paleontologist Dr. Lance Grande. (GAZETTE PHOTO / Michelle Tibbetts)

Living on the edge! Base camp for these students was thrilling as they spent two weeks living on the rim of the quarry just south of Fossil Butte National Monument. With views like this, it’s no wonder it was an experience of a lifetime. (GAZETTE PHOTO / Michelle Tibbetts)

Michaela Paugh and Rohan Narayanan hike the rim of the quarry back to camp after a full day of digging for fossils with fellow students participating in the Stones and Bones course in Kemmerer. (GAZETTE PHOTO / Michelle Tibbetts)