Ever think about discovering artifacts à la Indiana Jones? You have one final chance to be a fossil hunter this semester: on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, when Jenny L. McGuire opens her lab to all comers to search for fossils in rock samples.
Although you will not have to flee from massive boulders or fight off Nazis, you can still become an explorer of the past. At 3-5 PM, amid the electronic white noise that washes over Georgia Tech, you will be transported to a faraway dig site and engage in simple but enthralling discovery.
An independent research scientist in the School of Biological Sciences, McGuire has hosted Fossil Wednesdays all semester. To see what goes on, I visited the lab and got my hands dirty. I grabbed a pair of tweezers, scooped a pile of light-colored gravel, and searched for fossils.
Fortunately for amateurs, the fossils were distinctly darker than gravel, and I could see bone fragments. Some were easy to identify: Vertebrae were pointy; intact lizard bones looked like they fell out of a game of Operation. Others were bone shards, unidentifiable bits and bobs.
During the two hours, people popped in, sifted through a few handfuls of gravel, and grabbed a snack on the way out. Small conversations bubbled throughout the room, but most of the fossil hunters were quietly focused on the work as McGuire helped participants identify specimens.
In attendance that week was School of Biological Sciences Associate Professor Sam Brown. He came with his daughters Chloe, 8, and Lily, 5. The two showed remarkable flair for finding fossils, some of which were so small they looked like specks of dust unless viewed under a microscope. “They loved the whole adventure and keep asking me when we can come back” Brown said.
“I told my class that I found an arm bone and a spine bone,” Lily said.
“It was really cool to look through the microscope and see all the details, like the teeth in the jaw of a lizard,” Chloe said. “There were some super tiny bones that were hard to find, but it was cool when you found them.”
As a child, McGuire loved rock collecting. While pursuing this interest in college, she landed in South Africa looking for human or human-like fossils. The field study yielded lots of fossils from other animals, which got McGuire, as she said, “really excited about the idea of change through time, about morphological microevolution and what that can tell us about how species change through time.”
McGuire collected the material for Fossil Wednesdays from Natural Trap Cave, in Wyoming. The site is exquisite, she said: “Inside the cave, it’s 40 degrees year-round, so everything preserves beautifully; it’s a refrigerator.” Because the cave has layers of fossils that span from 30,000 years old to 4,000 years old, McGuire can look at how a community changes across a vast time period.
The McGuire lab is asking what types of species filled ecological niches after extinction events and how long it took population structures to normalize after a major transition. Similar extinctions of large mammals are occurring today in Africa and South Asia, she said. McGuire is using the data to determine what to expect not only from specific extinctions, but also from major ecological disruptions occurring worldwide.
This miniature fossil hunt is both relaxing and engaging, a puzzle with a higher purpose. If you’re around this Wednesday and want to have a unique science experience, head to the Cherry Emerson Building, room 326, and get digging for some bones.
College of Sciences