- A palaeontologist is a scientist who studies fossils.
- Fossils can give us information about the past.
Spark a discussion
- Can you think of any plants or animals that existed many years ago but which don’t exist today?
- What do you know about dinosaurs and other types of prehistoric life?
- Why do you think the dinosaurs became extinct?
- How do we know that dinosaurs existed? What evidence do we have?
- What is a fossil? How do they form? Where are they found?
- What name do we give to scientists who study fossils?
- What tools do you think palaeontologists need to dig fossils out of the ground?
- What skills do you think a palaeontologist needs?
- What can we learn from fossils? How can we use fossils to discover information about the past?
- How does Dr Mary Schweitzer’s research into dinosaur fossils differ from the work of other palaeontologists?
- Why did scientists believe that fossilised bone would no longer contain any soft tissue?
- Why is the discovery of dinosaur soft tissue important? How might it allow us to discover more about dinosaurs?
Show this visual before the film and ask the children what they know about dinosaurs, and what evidence we have of their existence.
Show this visual before the film and discuss what fossils can tell us about prehistoric life, and what this particular animal might have looked like.
Show this visual after the film, pointing out when the dinosaurs first appeared and comparing it with the first appearance of other living things.
Show the visual after the film to reinforce scientific terminology.
MAKE models of fossils using clay and plaster of Paris.
Other activity ideas
- RESEARCH what palaeontologists do, where they work, and what kinds of training and qualifications they need.
- INVESTIGATE the difference between body fossils and trace fossils, and write a description of how each type forms.
- OBSERVE what happens to chicken bones when they are placed in vinegar for a week. The vinegar will dissolve the calcium (the mineral which makes bones hard) and the bones will become bendy!
- CREATE a series of diagrams to show how a dinosaur becomes a fossil. Annotate the diagrams to provide more information.
Duration: 60 minutes
- Fossil images
- A ball of clay
- A plastic cup containing a very small amount of plaster of Paris
- Disposable gloves
- A selection of small objects that could be used to make “fossils” (for example, leaves, shells, dinosaur figures)
- A selection of excavation tools (for example, spoons, toothpicks, paintbrushes, toothbrushes, craft sticks)
- Safety goggles
- Washing-up liquid (optional)
This activity supports students’ understanding of fossil formation and palaeontology, by getting them to create and excavate model fossils.
Safety note: This activity includes plaster of Paris. Gloves and safety goggles must be worn at all times. If contact occurs, wash the skin immediately with warm water.
Activity preparation: Before the activity, you can prepare the plaster of Paris by mixing 2 parts powder with 1 part water. Transfer very small quantities of the plaster of Paris into individual pots for the students to use. Plaster of Paris will set in around 20–30 minutes.
- Explain to the class that they are going to create their own fossils and then excavate them as a palaeontologist would.
- Direct students’ attention to the Fossil images, and discuss what they know about dinosaurs, fossils and the process of fossilisation. You can ask the following discussion questions:
- How do we know what dinosaurs looked like?
- What information can be gathered by looking at fossils?
- How do fossils form?
- Do all fossils form in the same way?
- Organise students into pairs and give each pair the ball of clay, a container of plaster of Paris, disposable gloves, safety glasses, and a selection of small objects that can be used to make fossils. Safety note: Remind students that they must wear gloves and safety goggles throughout the investigation.
- Explain that fossils form when the remains or traces of living things become trapped or buried. Tell them that they are going to demonstrate this process now.
- Ask pairs to shape the ball of clay into a disc. They should then select one of the small objects, press it into the clay, and then remove carefully to create a mould. Note: You can use a very small amount of washing-up liquid on the outside of the object to stop it sticking to the clay.
- Ask pairs to make small holes around the rest of the clay disc, as this will help the drying process later.
- Ask pairs to carefully pour the plaster of Paris into the fossil mould, and then sprinkle a layer of sand on top. Safety note: Plaster of Paris can get hotter as it solidifies, so the students must be careful not to touch it. Wash the skin immediately with water if contact does occur.
- Once the plaster of Paris has hardened, place the clay discs somewhere warm and leave to dry for a minimum of 24 hours.
- Once the clay has dried completely, ask pairs to swap fossils with another pair.
- Explain that palaeontologists have to be very careful during excavation, as fossils are delicate. Give each pair a selection of excavation tools, and challenge them to excavate the fossil using the tools provided, without causing any damage. They should then try and identify the fossil. Note: Remind students to wear their safety goggles throughout excavation process.
- Ask students to continue working like palaeontologists and write a short report about how fossils are formed, the tools needed to excavate a fossil from rock, and what kind of clues a fossil can provide about the thing that made it.
- Fossils are the preserved remains of organisms (such as bones), imprints they have left behind (such as footprints), or other preserved traces (such as nests and egg shells). Scientists that study fossils are called palaeontologists.
- Fossilised remains are known as body fossils. Body fossils can only form if an organism is quickly buried in sediment, or rapidly frozen in permafrost. This prevents the dead organism from being disturbed or broken down quickly by decomposers.
- Fossils are often found in sedimentary rock, which forms when layers of sediment compress into solid rock. Some fossils form when minerals fill the spaces within bones and other hard tissues. Others form when minerals completely replace all of the organic material over millions of years.
- Fossils provide a record of life that existed on Earth millions of years ago, including the dinosaurs. Studying and comparing fossils of different ages helps us to understand how organisms evolved.
- A group of cells that perform a shared, specific function is known as tissue. Muscle, skin and fat are all types of soft tissue. Bone and tooth enamel are types of hard tissue. Bones also contain soft tissues, such as blood vessels, connective tissues and bone marrow.
- The preserved remains or traces of an ancient living thing – for example, a dinosaur bone preserved in rock.
- Soft tissue
- Body tissue that is not hardened, such as muscle, skin, fat and blood vessels.
- A scientist who studies fossils.