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Priory Students Join Paleontology Dig

FossilsThis summer, Mr. William Bander took five Priory students out to the Montana badlands for the first annual paleontology field trip. Peter Onder ’23, Alex Bahr ’23, Hayden Dierker ’21, Peter Conard ’23, and Will Azrak ’22 spent seven days learning about the study of prehistoric creatures, in addition to receiving valuable hands-on experience in field science.

The trip started with the group flying out to Billings, Montana from St. Louis Lambert International Airport. There, they met up with the Paleo-X Field School director, Ron Giesler, and program manager Greg Soloman. Mr. Bander had twice participated in the Paleo-X program with Ron and Greg and knew that it would be a great opportunity for the Priory boys. After a 2.5-hour drive from Billings to Jordan, the group had dinner and settled in.

Each day started with a hearty breakfast out on the Garfield Motel’s porch, followed by making sack lunches to take out in the field. About an hour’s drive outside of Jordan was public land owned by either the state or federal government. To get permission to dig on government land, the group was accompanied by a certified paleontologist. Dr. Mike Morales of Emporia State University and his grad student, Erin, helped to teach the Priory students how to find, excavate, and preserve fossils found out in the field.

Typical field work was divided into three parts. First, the group would go prospecting, which means looking for fossil finds. It took a little while for students to differentiate between fossilized bone fragments and plain old rocks. But once they got accustomed at looking for porous bone tissue and other telltale signs, the boys could barely walk ten feet without spotting a fossil. Most of the fossils were fragmented pieces of dinosaur bone that were so small and so errored that they were not even worth picking up. However, the occasional fossil sticking out of the ground would sometimes turn out to be the tip of a large fossil buried in the dirt. When this happened, it became a fossil find.

dino dig 1 dino dig 2 dino dig 3

The second part was the slow excavation of the fossil find. This could last anywhere from a couple of hours to several weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the find. One find pictured here was “Braylen,” and it consisted of so many large bones jumbled together that the Paleo-X program could only excavate some of the find, leaving the rest for next year’s group. Excavation sometimes required the use of rock hammers and shovels, but it mostly utilized flathead screwdrivers and toothbrushes to slowly remove dirt and rock without damaging the fossil.

The final part was preserving the fossil for transportation out of the Montana badlands to the Museum of the Rockies for further study. This process involved coating the fossil in polyvinyl acetate (a.k.a. vinac), which filled in the cracks and kept the fossil in one piece. Then, the fossil was wrapped in foil to give it a smooth shape. Finally, the fossil was jacketed using strips of burlap soaked in plaster. The plaster would harden and make the fossil safe for transportation.

Two Priory students, Peter Conard ’23 and Will Azrak ’22, were able to do all three of these steps when they discovered the fossilized shell of a prehistoric turtle during their prospecting. They successfully excavated and preserved the shell, naming it after Abbot Thomas who retired from his position as Abbot this past summer. The Abbot Thomas turtle shell was sent to the Museum of the Rockies, but it is very possible that the museum will allow the shell to be put on display at Priory once it is done examining it.

fossil 1 fossil 2 fossil 3

While students were not allowed to keep any of the fossils they collected, they were allowed to make plastic casts of smaller fossils known as microfossils.  Microfossils include teeth, claws, scales, vertebrae, and, on the rare occasion, fossilized pine cones.  Pictured are students holding plastic casts made of a theropod claw likely to have belonged to some species of dromaeosaurid (a.k.a. raptor).

The paleontology field trip will be offered again to any interested Priory student for the summer of 2019. Interested students/parents should contact Mr. Bander to receive more details about the trip.

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