On Nov. 10, Dr. Michael Rischbieter and Mrs. Diane Rischbieter of PC’s Biology department took Dr. Rischbieter’s Paleontology class on a fossil-hunting expedition to Alabama. The group visited several geologic sites throughout the state, all of which were rich with fossils from millions and millions of years ago. When they weren’t carefully searching for fossils of tiny invertebrate animals or picking at rocks in hopes of finding ancient plants, they stayed in a cabin and visited the home of renowned paleontologist Dr. Jim Lacefield, author of Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks.
“I have been taking Paleontology students to Alabama since 2002, and this group turned out to be the most amazing yet,” Michael Rischbieter said of the trip. “We traveled through Geologic Time starting in the Cambrian Period near Hammondsville Alabama collecting rare stromatolites, and ended up in the Pennsylvanian Period collecting plant fossils near Birmingham; all told, we covered about 200 million years of time in three days!”
Rischbieter’s class first visited a dolomite quarry in Hammondville, AL. where they searched for intricately layered formations called stromatolites– rocks formed from communities of ancient blue-green algae, the life forms that created the abundance of oxygen on Earth that allows most of its life to thrive today. Next they stopped at a roadcut formation, the Chickamagua limestone to observe cephalopod fossils preserved in the remains of an Ordovocian sea floor.
After that, they visited a formation of limestone in Fort Payne, which dated back to the Silurian period, more than 400 million years ago. This site yielded many fossilized marine invertebrate creatures such as brachiopods, gastropods, and cephalopods. The next formation also contained a great concentration of invertebrates; the Mississippian Bangor Limestone, located near Florence in Colbert County, which contained ancient animals such as Archimedes, crinoids, fenestrella, bivalves, and other mollusks and bryozoans.
The final site that the group hunted for fossils in was the Narley coal mine, a former coal swamp of the Carboniferous period. It was here that they split open pieces of shale to find prehistoric seed ferns, tree bark, roots, branches, and seeds. During their time at the mine, the class got to spend time with members of the Alabama Paleontological Society, and to experience what paleontologists’ work is truly like.
“I find that the trip is a great learning experience in that it allows students to see the fossils in their geological place, to have a hands-on learning activity, and to have book learning come to life,” Diane Rischbieter said. “It gives students the chance to adapt to unexpected situations […] and to meet people from different backgrounds. My favorite part of the trip is the moment when the group of students “jell” into a closely bonded band of merry paleontologists!”
Not only did the students have an educational and unique experience, they also got to keep all of the fossils that they collected on their expedition.“Of course none of this would have been possible without the continuing support of my good friend and colleague Dr. Jim Lacefield and his wife Faye in Alabama, and the hard work of our provisioning and planning officer, Diane Rischbieter,” Michael Rischbieter mentioned.
Rischbieter invites anyone interested in taking a trip like this to enroll in his Paleontology course, BIOL 3200, next Fall semester.