For students to recognize the kind of information that can be accumulated by studying dinosaur fossils, as well as understand that some fossil facts are made based on comparisons with living organisms.
This lesson is the second in a two-part series on fossils. Many children today can name a dinosaur on sight regardless of how lengthy the name. Students are extremely interested in the topic. These lessons will go beyond naming dinosaurs and give students a broad understanding of how we know about the great beasts. They will start to acquire knowledge of the fossil record in preparation for learning about evolution and natural selection–concepts they will study in high school.
Fossils 1: Fossils and Dinosaurs focuses on what we have learned and can learn from fossils.
Fossils 2: Uncovering the Facts explores what information can be discerned by comparing fossils to living organisms. Students continue their exploration of fossils and are responsible for using what they have learned to do their own extrapolating. This lesson allows students to go through an "interview" with the remains of a Protoceratops. In preparation for the interview, students first brainstorm the questions for which they would like answers and then narrow their questions to those that can really be answered by studying the Protoceratops fossils.
In this lesson, you will describe the story about Roy Chapman Andrews which can be found at the Virtual Exploration Society website. You may want to read this ahead of time. Also, you will be more prepared to guide your class in the second part of the Development if you read Face to Fossil ahead of time.
This activity will be a guided discovery. Visit Zoom Dinosaur's Tyrannosaurus rex page. Explain to students that they will be T. rex fact finders, but that they have to find details that support the facts. They will add their imaginations to the facts and create ideas based on the facts. This exercise can be done as a whole group, or individually once students understand what they are looking for.
As a model, find the first few facts with students and discuss the support. Then, further the discussion with well-thought-out ideas. For example, on the Introduction page, under the Anatomy section (scroll down to find it), students will find the following:
- Fact: T. rex had tiny arms, each with two fingers. Ask students how paleontologists know about T. rex's arms.
- Support: By studying the fossil bone structure of the T. rex, paleontologists can see what the different parts of the body looked like.
- Idea: T. rex may have used its short arms to hold prey while biting it. However, this would depend on whether T. rex is a hunter or a scavenger. If he were a scavenger, the prey would not be struggling.
The following facts can be found on that same Introduction page:
- Fact: T. rex had a slim, stiff, pointed tail.
- Support: The fossil bones show the tail and its shape. The way the bones are structured show that it was stiff.
- Idea: The tail was probably used for balance and allowed quick turns while running. The tail can be compared to that of a living animal's tail to learn about balance, but this is not necessarily a fact. Even though the theory seems sound, it is an idea about how they might have used their tails. We cannot know for certain because there is not even proof that T. rex ran. Consider this: if T. rex didn't run very fast, it wouldn't have needed steering.
- Fact: Tyrannosaurus rex was up to 40 feet (12.4 m) long, about 15 to 20 feet (4.6 to 6 m) tall.
- Support: When the fossil bone structure is assembled, the height and width can be measured.
- Natural ideas may not flow from all facts. Or they can be more open-ended: The ground must have shaken when T. rex walked because it was so large.
As a class or individually, have students continue going through the T. rex pages looking for facts and support. If students do this individually, they can use the Uncovering the Facts student esheet to go to Zoom Dinosaur's Tyrannosaurus rex page. However you choose to have students do this exercise, many facts with support can be found within the following headings:
- What T. rex Ate
- Hunting, Fighting
- Intelligence, Care of Young
- Disease in T. rex
- T. rex Myths
It is not necessary to hit every fact on all of the pages, but try to do at least a couple from each heading. This activity will allow students to gain an understanding of the type of information that can be concluded from fossils, as well as discover that not all facts are believed to be 100% accurate by everyone. Sometimes, paleontologists do not agree on dinosaur findings and what information they tell.
Distribute pictures of the Protoceratops Andrewsi. Let students know that Protoceratops is a ceratopsian dinosaur, which means "horned faced." Students can use their esheet to find some good pictures available at these sites:
For color photos, encyclopedias or other references are a possibility. The photobiography entitled Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs—A Photobiography of Explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, by Ann Bausum, may also be a useful reference.
Once students have had a chance to look at the pictures, explain to them that the remains of this type of dinosaur were first discovered in 1923, in Mongolia. Roy Chapman Andrews (the real life Indiana Jones) made the discovery during the Central Asiatic Expedition. The Roy Chapman Andrews site offers a good explanation of the expedition and discovery. Explain that a replica of this dinosaur is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Divide students into groups of 4 to 6 and tell each group to assign itself a recorder.
- If you could interview a Protoceratops or even the Protoceratops Andrewsi that was discovered in Mongolia, what information would you want to know?
- What questions would you ask?
Give students a few minutes to brainstorm a list of questions. Once groups have had time to compile their lists, have the recorder write the questions on the board, or on large poster paper. You may want to compile a master list as a class. Guide students to come up with any questions they may have forgotten.
A list of Interview with a Protoceratops questions has been provided. This worksheet can be used as is, or used as a guide to make your own. Give each group the sheet and have them review it. It should look a lot like the list on the board. All the questions on this worksheet are answered in the interview.
Remind students that we can't actually speak with a Protoceratops, and ask them how the questions get answered. Students may say "books, research, ask a paleontologist, or the Internet." Tell students their responses are accurate, then ask them how those resources (books, Internet, etc.) got their facts. Where did the information originate? Guide students to understand that the original information came from studying fossils.
As a class, decide which questions could be answered by studying the Protoceratop fossils and put check marks next to them. Have students explain their decisions.
Have each group (or divide the groups into threes or pairs if you have enough computers) go to the American Museum of Natural History's page entitled Face to Fossil. Students should read the interview between Deena Soris and Protoceratops Andrewsi, a.k.a. Proto Andy. While reading the interview, students should be responding to interview questions.
When students have finished that task, give them the From Fossils to Facts activity sheet. This worksheet lists seven facts that were concluded from studying the Protoceratops Andrewsi remains. The students are to read the facts and list the findings that support them. Older students may be able to find both the fact and support on their own. (Modify as needed.) Teachers can use the From Fossils to Facts answer key as a guide for this part of the investigation.
Questions to discuss:
- What kind of information can scientists find out by studying animal fossils?
- What can the skeletal structure tell? (For example, the way the animal moved, how the bones fit together.)
- How can paleontologists group together certain dinosaurs? (For instance, Protoceratops all have horns on their head. How else might they group dinos?)
- Why is it important to group the animals?
- What sort of current knowledge helps us learn about extinct fossils? (By looking at animals today, we can make comparisons, like the kangaroo tail.)
- What do you think is needed for ideas to become fact?
Students should use the information to construct a Protoceratops trading card. This card can be designed on the computer or by hand. On the front—a picture of a Protoceratops. On the back—facts about the Protoceratops. Cards should also include explanations for why the facts are believed to be true.
To take this assessment further, students can look for other facts about Protoceratops and use those facts as well, as long as support can be given for the fact.
Resources do not have to be limited to the Internet, but some good sites include:
The Great Fossil Find, from Evolution and the Nature of Science Institutes, provides an activity to do as a class. It involves finding fossils one by one and trying to solve the puzzle of the dinosaur. The main idea is to show how ideas can change throughout a discovery.
Going Gobi: The Hunt for Fossils in Mongolia takes at scientists studying fossils in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.