I teach a weekly hands-on laboratory as part of my evolution course each Spring at Saint Michael's College in Vermont. Fossils are essential components of the evolutionary biologist's toolbox and I wanted an engaging way to look at fossils that would generate quantitative data for student lab reports. I'm lucky to to have access to the college's modest fossil collection. The collection includes some fascinating examples but does not lend itself to a particularly quantitative laboratory exercise.
Show-and-tell with fossils has it's place but I had a more comparative laboratory in mind. I wanted students to experience the sense of discovery of a fossil dig, generate quantitative data, and have a comparative question to answer using real data. Microfossils turned out to be the answer!
Where ever marine sediments accumulate, the hard parts of microscopic organisms also accumulate. These microfossils tend to be drawn from diverse and unrelated groups but are studied as a single category because they are all small, and are extracted from mixed sediments using the same techniques.
There certainly are abundant marine sediments right under our campus in the Champlain Valley, but they are from a limited number of time periods. My interest in working in sediments of diverse ages brought me to one of my favorite sources of specimens: Ebay! A fossil dealer in England offered a collection of pre-sifted fossiliferous sediments in labeled vials. The samples come from sediments spanning a more than 200 million years of deposition.
I purchased vials that came from before and after the KT boundary that marks the time in Earth's history when the dinosaurs disappeared in a geological blink of the eye. While various hypotheses regarding dinosaur extinction have been tested, an asteroid strike near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is supported by the overwhelming force of evidence.
Dinosaurs capture the imagination and the headlines, but most other groups of organisms on the planet suffered severe declines at the time the non-avian dinosaurs vanished. Conveniently, microfossils are drawn from several groups of organisms and so we can reasonably expect a reduction in the number of species found in microfossil samples following the KT boundary.
My students picked through the small vials of sand to isolate and count microfossils using techniques developed by Charlie Drewes. They then counted the number of distinct types of fossil in each sample and measured a diversity index. After repeating this procedure for each vial, they ran statistical analyses to determine whether there was, as predicted, a fall in the number of species and diversity detected following the KT boundary.
I'm happy to say that the new laboratory was a success and will become part of the regularly scheduled labs in the Evolution course.
Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mikrofossils_hg.jpg