Hiking endless miles, prospecting, digging and camping in the badlands of Utah
may not sound like the ideal summer trip to everyone, but those few who have
had the chance to experience a real fossil-collecting expedition know theres
no substitute. This past summer marked my fifth such trip. Californias
Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontologys fossil collecting
program has given me the opportunity to try something unusual and enjoy it.
Last year, our group traveled to the North Horn Formation in central Utah. Every day we hiked through rugged terrain to prospect for 63-million-year-old vertebrate fossils. On one memorable day, another student and I joined Don Lofgren, the Alf museums director and curator, at an outcrop of large, jagged sandstone boulders. We soon discovered that some of these sandstone blocks contained fossils, and we began inspecting every one, finding crocodile teeth and fragments of turtle shell. This went on for at least an hour, until suddenly I flipped over a block and there was a beautiful mammal jaw with teeth! I was very excited to find a very rare Paleocene mammal jaw. The jaw was too fragile to remove from the block in the field, so we decided to take the whole block back to our vehicle. We had to carry this large, 50-pound chunk of rock over 150 meters back to our truck (luckily we parked nearby)! The thrill of making this discovery is one that I will never forget.
That field trip was just a small part of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontologys unrivaled high school geoscience program for students of The Webb Schools, a private college preparatory school I attend in Claremont, Calif. Founded by teacher Raymond Alf, it is the only large museum in the world devoted to paleontology that is located on a high school campus.
Alf first took students on fossil-collecting trips in the 1930s. In 1936 they found a new species of Miocene peccary, and from then on, Alf was hooked. The following year, he earned a masters degree in geology and then returned to Webb and incorporated paleontology into his biology curriculum. Alf and his fossil-collecting students called themselves the Peccary Society, and their trips, peccary trips both in reference to that first major discovery. After 35 years of collecting, the Peccary Society had amassed a large collection of fossils, far exceeding available storage and exhibit space. Thus, in 1968 they built the current museum facility dedicated to Alf. He retired in the early 1970s and passed away in 1999, but his legacy lives on.
Students enjoy a range of peccary trips, to nearby Barstow, Calif., or as far away as Montana, where they can prospect and collect museum-quality fossils. Freshmen must take a semester-long course in geology and paleontology, which includes an overnight peccary trip. The museum staff invites more experienced students to join them and their colleagues on field projects. A few assist studying scientifically significant specimens found on trips on which they were members of the crew, as part of their coursework. Some of these projects also involve attending conferences to help present research.
A key elective course offering is Honors Advanced Study in Paleontology, where students have the opportunity to use the museums facilities to learn how a museum operates and what paleontologists do on a daily basis, from collecting, preparing and curating fossils, to exhibiting and studying them. This past year I took the class, where I learned all the proper techniques used in collecting fossils while out in the field and how to identify individual bones in a skeleton, even from fragments. I took my own field notes and curated all the fossils I found, which then became part of the museums permanent collections. Our class also studied the proposed legislation to protect fossils on public lands and the controversial Sue T. rex case. By the end of the course we were reading and critiquing research journal articles. For our final assignment, we worked on independent study projects of our choice (mine was this article).
The museum also offers an afternoon activity where students can work in the fossil preparation lab, which fulfills a sports requirement. Students prepare and curate fossils and also complete other important tasks, such as picking through screen-washed matrix, or looking for tiny fossils of mammals and other vertebrates. Its a great tradeoff: The staff gets a team of enthusiastic, experienced and dedicated student curators to assist them, and students get a unique opportunity to do important work in a paleontology museum.
The Alf Museum houses over 70,000 specimens, 95 percent of which students and staff found on peccary trips. One of its most important collections is 650 specimens of fossil tracks and trackways from various sites in the western United States. A scientifically important collection, it includes many unique specimens, such as the only Amphycion trackway known from North America. Some of our trackways are so large that they had to be cut up in the field and reassembled back at the museum. Alf and students found virtually all of these specimens on peccary trips in the 1950s and 1960s. Many are on display in the museums Hall of Footprints, a recently renovated exhibit devoted entirely to the display of fossil tracks.
The museums other large exhibit hall is the Hall of Life, a display area that showcases the history of life, from Precambrian prokaryotes to Tertiary mammals. Tours of the museums two large exhibit halls are the main focus of public outreach. Other outreach programs include paleontology classes for kids and adults, family fossil digs and science discovery days.
The Webb Schools and Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology have a long history of providing a unique geoscience experience for high school students. Very few Webb students pursue paleontology or geology as a career, but all gain a keen appreciation and understanding of science through their work as teen paleontologists at the Alf Museum. I know I have.