Teaching overview

Learning points

  • The remains of prehistoric life are called fossils.
  • Scientists who study fossils are called palaeontologists.
  • Fossils – and everything around them – can give us lots of information about what life was like thousands or even millions of years ago.

Curriculum keywords

  • Palaeontology
  • Evolution
  • Fossils
  • Bones
  • STEM

Multimedia toolbox

Excavation site video loop

Play the video loop of an excavation site as students come into class to spark their interest and get them curious about palaeontology.

Ice age animals visual

Show the visual before the video to support a discussion about the last ice age. Press for more details about unusual body parts of animals, and the functions of those parts.

Palaeontologists toolkit

Show the visual after the film and ask what some of the dig tools might be used for. Expect answers that relate directly to the video, and brainstorm possible uses for tools students didn’t see.

Growth rings visual

Show the visual after the film to reinforce the terminology and student understanding that palaeontologists can learn a mammoth’s age by looking at growth rings inside their tusks.

Ammonites were marine molluscs that lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. They became extinct over 60 million years ago, around the same time as the dinosaurs.

Ammonite slideshow visual 1

Ammonites were marine molluscs that lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. They became extinct over 60 million years ago, around the same time as the dinosaurs.

Most ammonite shells had a distinctive whorl shape, but they grew to different shapes and sizes. Some ammonites were as small as 20 mm in diameter. One ammonite, found in Germany, would have had a diameter of 2.55 metres!

Ammonite slideshow visual 2

Most ammonite shells had a distinctive whorl shape, but they grew to different shapes and sizes. Some ammonites were as small as 20 mm in diameter. One ammonite, found in Germany, would have had a diameter of 2.55 metres!

Ammonite shells were divided into different chambers, separated by internal walls. These walls had intricate edges, called sutures.

Ammonite slideshow visual 3

Ammonite shells were divided into different chambers, separated by internal walls. These walls had intricate edges, called sutures.

Ammonite fossils are important for palaeontologists and geologists, who can use them to precisely identify the ages of different rock layers. This is because ammonite fossils are commonly found worldwide, they are easy to recognise and they are found in many kinds of rocks.

Ammonite slideshow visual 4

Ammonite fossils are important for palaeontologists and geologists, who can use them to precisely identify the ages of different rock layers. This is because ammonite fossils are commonly found worldwide, they are easy to recognise and they are found in many kinds of rocks.

Spark a discussion

Before the film:

  • Can you think of examples of animals that are extinct?
  • How do we know that these animals once lived on Earth?
  • What is a fossil? How do fossils form?
  • Have you ever seen a fossil? What did it look like?
  • What do you know about mammoths?
  • What do you know about the last ice age?
  • Why did mammoths have unusual features? How do they relate to the environment in which the mammoth lived?
  • Why do scientists study fossils?

After the film:

  • What did the palaeontologists do to learn the mammoth’s age?
  • If you didn’t know what a fossilised animal ate, how would you study its fossil to find out?
  • How do palaeontologists handle items like fossils or bones? What skills do they need?
  • What do palaeontologists study apart from fossils, and why?
  • Why do you think it’s important to learn about what life on Earth was like tens of thousands of years ago?
  • What caused mammoths to go extinct?
  • What else would you like to learn about prehistoric times? How can you learn about it?

Activities

Modelling ammonite fossils

INVESTIGATE ammonites and make models of ammonite fossils with salt dough.

Open detailed instructions

Other activity ideas

  • WRITE a diary entry from the day in the life of a palaeontologist.
  • RESEARCH real-life fossils that led to groundbreaking discoveries by palaeontologists.
  • MAKE an informational poster showing different mammoth features and their functions.
  • EXPLAIN how fossils are formed.
Print this sheet

Modelling ammonite fossils

Duration: 40 minutes

Resources:

  • 1.5 kg flour
  • 1.5 kg table salt
  • 1 L warm water
  • Craft tools, to make fossil imprints

Key Learning:

This activity supports students’ understanding of fossil formation and palaeontology by having them explore and then model ammonite fossils.

Activity preparation:

Before the activity, prepare the salt dough.

  1. In a large bowl, mix together the flour and salt.
  2. Slowly add the warm water, mixing as you do.
  3. When the mixture comes together in a dough, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. If the dough is too dry, add more water. If it is too wet, add more flour.
  4. Knead the dough for five to ten minutes, or until it is smooth and elastic.
  5. You may now store the dough for up to two weeks in an airtight container, or use the dough immediately.

Explore ammonites:

  1. Explain that today, students will make their own ammonite fossil model. Display and read aloud the Ammonite slideshow visuals, which show different ammonite fossils.
  2. After you display the visuals, ask some discussion questions.
    • Why do you think the ammonites’ shells had so many different chambers?
    • Why do you think there are so many ammonite fossils in the world?
    • Why might scientists use ammonite fossils to date rock layers?
  3. Divide the dough into equal pieces, each roughly the size of a golf ball. Distribute one piece of dough to each student.
  4. Hand out the craft tools and ask students to begin making their ammonite fossil models.
  5. Instruct students to flatten their dough into a disc, about 2 cm thick. Students can then model their ammonite fossil using the tools you distributed. Note: You may keep the Ammonite slideshow visuals displayed, so students can refer to them for inspiration as they work.
  6. When students finish, collect their fossil models and set them out in a cool, dry place to set. Note: It will take at least 24 hours for the fossil models to dry out completely. If desired, you can bake the models in a 150°C oven for one hour, or until dry.

Research ammonites:

  1. When students finish their models, prompt them to research one question they have about ammonite fossils. If needed, encourage them to use one of the discussion questions, or to elaborate on the information in the slideshow.
  2. You can either let students research the topic in class, if you have computer access, or assign this as homework. Explain that students should use two reputable sources to research their question, record three to five facts they discovered and be ready to share their learning with the class.

Safety note:

This activity involves working with salt dough. Ensure students do not taste the salt dough.

Optional extra:

  1. Once the fossil models have dried, distribute these to students.
  2. You can either allow students to take the models home, or keep them in the classroom for use in a future activity (e.g., distributing acrylic paints and paintbrushes so students can decorate their fossils, or creating your own “fossil dig” using the fossil models, palaeontology “tools” and so on).

Background information

  • Palaeontologists are scientists who study fossils. They use tools to get through soil and rock to find fossils. When they get close, they have to be careful, as fossils are very fragile. Palaeontologists use brushes to get rid of small rocks and dust that are in the way. When they find a fossil, they make detailed notes about its location, position in the ground and all that surrounds it. They take samples around the fossil, so they can study them later and learn about the plants and animals that lived in the past.
  • Fossils are the preserved remains of organisms (like bones), imprints they’ve left behind (like footprints) or other preserved traces (like nests and egg shells). Fossilised remains are known as body fossils. Body fossils only form if an organism is buried in sediment or frozen in permafrost. If the animal dies in sand or mud, the soft parts rot away. The skeleton remains and is covered by layers of sedimentary rock. Water gets into and dissolves the bones leaving a bone imprint. If the animal is frozen in permafrost, some of its soft tissue survives. The permafrost prevents the dead animal from decomposing completely.
  • The last ice age was at its peak around 20,000 years ago, and ended about 11,000 years ago. During this time, animals like mammoths, giant beavers and sabre-toothed cats lived in many parts of the world. Most of what is now North America, Europe and Asia was covered in ice, sometimes over 1.5 km thick! The ground was frozen, making it hard for plants to grow. Around 12,000 years ago, Earth started to warm up. As ice and glaciers melted, they created valleys and lakes. The warming of Earth made it hard for some species to survive. They went extinct.
  • Much like modern elephant tusks, mammoth tusks grew layer by layer during the animal’s life – this means that palaeontologists can learn a mammoth’s age by looking at these annual growth rings. They can even work out what time of year the mammoth died and how healthy it was when it was alive, based on how much its tusks grew. If there is little growth in a year, it means the mammoth was sick or malnourished. If there is a lot of growth, it means the mammoth was healthy and well-fed.
  • We don’t know for sure what caused mammoths to die out. Most scientists say that rising temperatures on Earth changed the environment so much that mammoths, who are herbivores, could no longer find enough food. Humans also likely contributed to their extinction.

Glossary

Palaeontologist
A scientist who studies fossils
Fossils
The preserved remains or traces of an ancient living thing – for example, a mammoth tusk preserved in rock
Growth ring
A layer of wood, shell or bone that forms during a period of time
Vegetation
A term used to describe plants, especially those found in a particular area
Ice age
A geologic period of time where large parts of the Earth are covered in thick ice sheets
Extinction
Disappearance, death of all organisms of a species

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