Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 30, 2004

Fossil hunters

While I know Kansas was once covered by an inland sea, it's not something I normally think about. Some weeks just wading the waters of life from Monday through Friday is enough of a sea for me.

But this last week the Riley County sixth graders, their teachers and a few of us parents traveled back in time to the Permian Period at the tail end of the Paleozoic Era.

Our first stop after a trip down several miles of dusty country roads was a pasture. The school bus, filled with excited youngsters, pulled over to the side of the road and stopped, with those of us following in our vehicles right behind. The sky was blue and the sun was warm - a perfect combination for the "Sea to Prairie" field trip just a few days after the autumnal equinox.

The kids poured out of the bus, talking animatedly about what they were going to see. After applying sun screen and insect repellent, we walked into the pasture along a barbed wire fence, carefully avoiding artifacts left by the current residents of the inland sea.

We walked through the knee-high prairie grasses until we came to one of the objects of the day's lesson - a volcano plug. A plug is a vertical column of rock called kimberlite that rose from deep molten rock reservoirs. Apparently there was never an active volcano at this location. Later, researching on the Web, I learned that name came from Kimberley, South Africa.

The circular bluish-gray stones held tiny fragments of red and black garnets, which the students eagerly gathered into the plastic sandwich bags provided by their teachers. The word garnet comes from the Latin "granatus" - meaning grain - and those tiny stones certainly seemed like grains to my middle-aged eyes!

On the return trip to the bus, one of the teachers asked the students to check out the skeleton of a cow. She explained how its bone structure was similar to that of a mouse, which the class will be studying in an upcoming science class. She said she didn't realize she was going to have a bonus science lesson in the day's activities!

The next stop was a quarry to look for fossils. The students immediately began searching for the five types of fossils they have been studying in class - derbya, a ridged, shell; neochonetes, a smooth shell; bryozoa, a small branch-like one; crinoid or Indian bead, a circular one; and trilobite, one that looks like a flattened roly-poly.

I was amazed at how knowledgeable they were about fossils. My daughter Katie pointed out to me what each looked like. Many rocks contained three or four fossils close together. I felt like I'd discovered treasure when I picked up one such specimen.

The trilobite was the most sought-after fossil since it was the rarest of the bunch. The teacher whistled for the others to gather around when a student was lucky enough to find one. In some cases, she asked the students to clean the rocks carefully with vinegar when they got home so she can determine later if the specimens are, indeed, trilobites.

The group's adventures continued after a picnic lunch at Anneberg Park, but I decided it was time for me to get back to the sea awaiting me on my desk at work. Katie filled me in later about how they drove along a country road and stopped to identify several Flint Hills grasses - Indian grass, big bluestem and switch foot. They had to write down what they saw and heard before they were allowed to walk up a hill to see the prairie expanse.

It was fun to explore part of the inland sea - particularly so since it gave me a chance to catch my breath before plunging back into the sea at work.

Katie and friend Jamiee look for garnets.

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