Fossil collecting 1,000 miles away from home

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Clay Carkin (USA)

Thirteen, 11-year-old students in the Freeport Middle School’s sixth grade science class had an opportunity to collect fossils in the state of Alabama, 1,000 miles away from their home state of Maine. Their collecting excursion was one component of an ultimate field trip involving spelunking at Cumberland Caverns, astronaut training at Space Camp, and flying at the Decatur – Athens Airport.

Fig. 1. A thousand-mile fossil collecting trip.
Fig. 2. Alabama.

The trip was the result of nine months of planning. Our fossil collecting day began at the Vulcan Materials Company quarry in Lacon, Alabama. Many months before the trip, I had contacted Dr Julie Bartley about guiding our group; and she ‘delightfully’ accepted.

Dr. Bartley, from the State University of West Georgia, met our group at the quarry at 9:00 am and we were introduced to Alan Lawson, plant manager, and Marsha Andrews, the geologist for Vulcan Materials. The warm and dry Alabama spring day was ideal for fossil collecting. We were directed to a picnic area where our hosts led a presentation on the geology, minerals and fossils of the Vulcan Quarry.

Fig. 3. Marsha Andrews shows Alabama minerals and specimens to Free Port Middle School students.
Fig. 4. Marsha Andrews presenting to the Free Port Middle School and chaperones.
Fig. 5. Crinoid stem.

Specimens that could be found at the quarry were discussed and examined, and off we went to collect Mississippian Age (Lower Carboniferous) fossils (AKA the ‘Age of Crinoids’). Incidentally, Alabama has been known for its Mississippian fossils for almost 200 years. We drove to several collecting areas within the quarry. Safety rules were explained by Alan and Marsha, and then the students charged off the bus like a swarm of locusts ready to devour everything in sight.

With a surplus of adults, geologists and palaeontologists, my students had help in not only finding, but also in identifying the fossils. The kids could not believe how easy it was to find brachiopods, crinoids, blastoids and Archimedes bryozoa (a plant-like animal). To top that off, the students could hardly believe that they could keep everything they found. Their only problem was how much they were willing to carry home, and what their suitcases could hold.

Fig. 6. Layers of limestone and shale at the Vulcan Quarry.

It was my second fossil collecting trip, and I was intent on hitting the mother lode of fossils too, but it was going to be difficult. Before I could bend over to look at a fossil, there were multiple cries of: “Mr Carkin, come here quickly!”

“What kind of fossil is this?”

“Mr. Carkin, you’ve got to see this great fossil I found!”

Fig. 7. Ben Reeder proudly displays his find of a horn coral.
Fig. 7. Matt Creasy finds a perfect Archimedes bryozoan.
Fig. 9. Olivia Brantnergistening with a big smile after finding a nice slab with crinoid stems and Archimedes bryozoan.

For students, it was not a case of trying to find a fossil, it was a case of which one(s) shall I take? The Bangor Limestone beds (upper Mississippian) at Lacon are composed of layers of limestone (quarried for aggregate) and layers of shale. The shale cannot be used, so it is removed and piled up for fossil collecting. So this barren moonscaped area was far from being barren of fossils. After an hour of collecting, our hosts moved our group onto a second collecting area. Here, finding individual Archimedes bryozoans or Pentremites blastoid calyxs was as easy as a walk in the park. One student was lucky enough to find a Cladodus shark tooth.

Fig. 10. Free Port Middle School students checking out the Alabama minerals and fossils.
Fig. 11. Michaele Morris is fascinated with the perfection of the Vulcan Quarry’s bryozoa.

Just as we noticed the heat of the day, a company pick-up truck arrived with an ice chest of soda and water. Kudos to the Vulcan Corporation for the southern hospitality.

We made our last visit to a collecting area that boasted a panoramic view, illustrating the enormity of the Lacon Quarry. It was then time to leave our new Southern friends, have lunch and try our luck at finding fossils elsewhere.

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