My daughter, age 8, wants to do her science fair project in paleontology. For the fair, we need to come up with a question that can lead to a hypothesis, then apply the scientific method to test this hypothesis. The wall we are hitting is that we don't know what kinds of tests paleontologists use in their work. Can anyone offer suggestions of where we can start to come up with our question, and what sort of tests would be useful in the process? I do not want the project spelled out for us, just a place to start so that we can learn along the way. Thanks.

I just wanted to address the comment about science fair participation. We are homeschoolers. When I refer to us as we concerning my daughter's project, it is not because I am going to be doing her work for her, but because I am a part of the process. Also, I find that in homeschooling, I learn a lot, too. The work and ideas will be hers. Thank you for your concern.

Further information: She is interested in prehistoric sharks. We have joined the Dallas (TX) Paleontology Society and will be going out to hunt fossils with them soon (and will continue well after the science fair). We traveled to UTA to talk to a micropaleontologist and learn about his work, and get ideas. He offered use of a high powered microscope (with enough notice), so that is a resource available to us. We have met Roger Farrish, who wrote a book of prehistoric sharks and rays of Texas. He is a resource. Homeschooling is more adventure than not. I keep asking, everywhere I can, for input from others int he paleo- fields as my background is in cultural anthropology, and culinary. We do appreciate your help.

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    $\begingroup$ That is a great question really. Would you provide a broad summary to orient us, such as which kind of equipment, facilities, resources and time you would have at hand so we could 'structure' something within your area of interest, budget and skill (and most of all, to her liking). Also the broad geographical area that would be the target, in the case where someone would have a suggestion specific for a given area. This would provide some background for fellows to get something going $\endgroup$
    – marsisalie
    Mar 9 '15 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with @fre0n, this is a very good question - specifically about what tests palaeontologists use to establish a hypothesis. As fre0n suggests, please provide a broad outline as to which part of palaeontology interest you the most. $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Mar 9 '15 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ To add to Matt's great answer below: And there are lots of things that a palaeontologist might be interested in: palaeo-climate, -ecology, -botany.... In fact, you can put nearly any extant zoology/botany/environmental science subfield down with "palaeo-" in front and find something worth looking at. Narrowing things down for us will be really helpful. $\endgroup$
    – mtb-za
    Mar 9 '15 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ Having judged a few regional science fairs, the score guide we used had a heavy bias towards independent work and thinking. If you daughter can come up with her own hypothesis then those are good easy points - help from you would be middling, and taken from a book minimal (gawd not another vitamin C experiment!). We don't like parental help (and it is usually pretty obvious) but we're also reasonable: something like help welding is perfectly acceptable, but really she should be the one to realize she needs something welding! $\endgroup$
    – winwaed
    Mar 10 '15 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ Whilst I'm on the subject, other easy points are: As well as proving/disproving the hypothesis, at the end get your daughter to think about how she would expand the project if she had time. What else would she investigate? Perhaps the initial experiment revealed something that should be investigated further. Not sure how they do it at school, but at the regional level, those really are easy points and it is surprising how many kids say "there is nothing I would do". $\endgroup$
    – winwaed
    Mar 10 '15 at 12:54

To give you a quick overlook of the range of hypotheses one can test in modern paleontology you can have a look at the public database of project financed by the DFG (german science foundation). Here is a query on paleontology. Some of them are in german but some others are in english and are usually written in a way understandable by non-paleontologists (since grant reviewers are not necessarily paleontologists) and (normally) the hypotheses are spelled out in the abstract (having written such a grant proposal last month I can confirm it is even supposed to be mandatory). Of course, they might be a bit complex for 8 years old but it might give you ideas on the kind of questions paleontologists try to answer.

As @HelderVelez mentioned one of the big question in modern paleontology is to determine to which extent speciations and extinctions are caused by interactions with the environment, interactions with other living beings (the so-called Red Queen Hypothesis) or randomness. One aspect of modern paleontology which has not been mentioned so far in the other answers and that come handy to answer such questions is quantitative paleontology. Many subdisciplines of paleontology (invertebrate paleontology, micropaleontology, palynology) have a very rich fossil record allowing statistically meaningful quantification. The Paleobiology database (found here or here) is a great resource for quantitative data on vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology and can help testing hypotheses on fossil biogeography ("Have the tropics always been a hotspot of diversity"), on mass extinctions ("Did the end-Permian events affected only marine-based organisms or land-based organisms as well"), etc.

Quantification can also come from measurements and the hypotheses tested have then to do with the organisms evolution ("is organism X more closely related to organism Y or Z"), ontogeny (one of the big challenge in vertebrate paleontology nowadays being to differentiate what part of the observed morphological variations is due to speciation or ontogeny, i.e. are two specimens from different species or from the same species but one is a juvenile and the other an adult) or ecology ("was organism X herbivore or carnivore", "how was organism X walking" etc).

Finally, identifying the environment at the time of deposition of the outcrop where the fossil was found have always been the most straight-forward test done using fossils. It is also probably the easiest and most obvious hypothesis to test for an 8 years-old: go to a local fossiliferous outcrop (a geological map of your area will be necessary for this), make her look for fossils and answer whether or not the studied area was underwater at the moment this outcrop was deposited, or how deep it was, etc., based on the fossils she found.

Similarly fossils can be used to test hypotheses on the age of the outcrop but unless your local outcrop happen to contain trilobites, ammonites or mammals, it might be too technical for an 8 years-old.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for that great information. We have joined the Dallas Paleontology Society and will be going on a fossil hunting trip this Saturday. My daughter is actually wanting to focus on prehistoric sharks. We were thinking it would be cool to compare shark teeth from a modern shark to a fossil tooth. $\endgroup$
    – Joseph
    Mar 10 '15 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Joseph that sounds like a great field trip and a great way to approach the project. $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Mar 11 '15 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ The fossil hunt was postponed due to heavy rain, so we traveled 100 miles in the other direction to a great location for Pennsylvanian period fossils. You couldn't put your hand down without it resting on a crinoid. We found tons of crinoids, bivalves, and some we haven't figured out yet. I found a nice Ditomopyge scitula, trilobite, partly enclosed. We did not find the shark teeth we were wanting at this site, but we will keep looking. $\endgroup$
    – Joseph
    Mar 23 '15 at 17:34

An important branch of experimental palaeontology is studying the effects of natural processes on plant and animal remains. With that in mind, I would suggest trying to replicate the results of the 2013 (ig) nobel prize winners in archeology. Not only will you be testing a scientific hypothesis, you will be testing whether or not your daughter has what it takes to be a REAL scientist.

2013 ARCHAEOLOGY PRIZE: Brian Crandall [USA] and Peter Stahl [CANADA, USA], for parboiling a dead shrew, and then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days — all so they could see which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system, and which bones would not.

REFERENCE: "Human Digestive Effects on a Micromammalian Skeleton," Peter W. Stahl and Brian D. Crandall, Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 22, November 1995, pp. 789–97.

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    $\begingroup$ Kids, don't try this at home... $\endgroup$ Mar 10 '15 at 2:37
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sure you know this, but archaeology is not the same science as paleontology. $\endgroup$ Mar 22 '15 at 15:43

Palaeontologists use lots of methods to investigate past life.

Like most sciences these day, palaeontology is a growing field. More scientists are applying more methods in more sophisticated ways. The literature — what we 'know' — grows and grows. So palaeontologists use hundreds of different methods and tools today; indeed there's a whole journal dedicated to the subject!

But like a lot of other geological disciplines, it's more or less impossible to test a hypothesis rigorously, because there are no actual dinosaurs, they died out ages ago, and so we cannot know everything about them. So we have to get creative.

For example, a palaeontologist interested in how dinosaurs or early insects walked might...

  • Make detailed drawings of some fossils of the organism.
  • Use X-ray tomography to see through a specimen and look at a fossil in 3D.
  • Make a 3D computer model to look at how the animal might have walked.
  • Examine museum collections to look for evidence of a hypothesized gait, eg in field photos or in casts from actual outcrops — perhaps there's a track out there somewhere!
  • Look at the chromosomes of similar modern animals to determine lineages and 'shared DNA', and compare walking styles.
  • Build or 3D-print an actual model and see if it actually does what the scientist thinks.
  • Dress up like a dinosaur or dragonfly and walk around on a beach or mudflat to study the footprints. (I'm sort of but not really joking.)

(Google around dinosaur locomotion for more!)

I realize you can't do all of this sort of thing for a science fair, but hopefully it illustrates that, when it comes to hypothesizing about the past, we have to come at problems from a few different angles, using high and low technology.

Hope this helps a bit, good luck with the project!!


Looking the cladogram tree at WP - Paleontology :

Make her validate/deny (True/False) the following statements:

  1. Mammals and birds are the most recent inventions of Life (introduce her to Classification)
  2. Mammals and birds are the only to have a protective 'coat': feathers and fur
  3. Mammals and birds are the only hotblooded (my comfortable temp is 37 ºC) and use a lot of energy to keep warm
  4. Life evolves in response to environmental changes
  5. When the ambient get colder its is time to wear a coat
  6. The ambient temperature aprox. 225 million years ago (beginning of mammals) was hotter than now (equatorial present temp: 29ºC )
  7. It is possible that the dinosaurs became extinct because they froze to death?
    (between Triassic/Jurassic extinction and Cretaceous/Paleogene extinction )

Ask the opinion of your daughter about the points above. Paradoxically there is no consensus on the points 6 and 7. I wonder why.
In my profile there is a link to my lengthy and formal argumentation.


A small preface, my day job is as a school science teacher - and I have to say, I am thrilled to read of you and your daughter's intention of pursuing palaeontology using the scientific method for the Science Fair.

There are some great (non-Wikipedia) resources online, one in particular is The Palaeontology Portal, which has a K-12 link, as well as links to interviews with palaeontologists as well. But, a gem in the website is the Resources page. On the 'PalaeoPeople' page, they state:

Paleontology goes well beyond dinosaurs! It is a dynamic science that seeks to uncover the history of all life on Earth. Paleontologists examine multiple lines of evidence that provide clues to that history, including fossils and how they are formed and preserved, stratigraphy, biogeography, histology, and chemistry.

Reading the biographies of palaeontologists will give some insights as to how palaeontologists approach solving hypotheses.

Another website that uses art to conceptualise palaeontological concepts is found in the Palaeontology Online webpage Patterns in Palaeontology: Palaeoart – fossil fantasies or recreating lost reality? - where hypotheses could be testing by careful visual reconstruction of their form (e.g. dinosaurs to birds), in particular:

Palaeoart attempts to model the appearance and habits of extinct animals by blending artistry with contemporary palaeontological thinking. Wherever possible, palaeoart relies on scientific evidence rather than artistic preference.

and crucially, and could be of help to your and your daughter's project:

When executed well, such restorations accurately reflect how much is known about the subject species.

A series of diagrams showing the evolution of a particular species could be an option.

Edited to add: With regards to prehistoric sharks, some inspiration could be drawn from the Shark World Prehistoric Shark page.

  • $\begingroup$ You are more than welcome! $\endgroup$
    – user889
    Mar 11 '15 at 0:55

Paleontologists do test hypotheses, and often the test is field work to collect fossils of ancient life as evidence of past environments.

For example, if a geologist finds a sandstone it may not be clear whether that rock formed in a marine or desert environment. The geologist might search for fossil clams to disprove that the rock formed in a desert. (Because we know clams are animals that live in aquatic environments.)

A paleontologist, with knowledge of clam biology, might need to be consulted to determine whether the fossil clam is a freshwater or marine specie of clam. The same specie might exist today, living in marine environments. This can provide information about other species, fossilized and found in the same rock formation, for which we do have not present day example - for example a specie of fish that is extinct today.

I have seen some good classroom lessons about paleontology that focus on how fossilized life provides information about ancient environments. Activities suitable for elementary students focus upon contrasting the environments which are likely to preserve fossils of familiar plants and animals: ferns, palm leaves, willow leaves, clams, fish etc. The great result of paleontology is that there is abundant evidence for plants and animals, no longer living on the planet, that were very different but clearly related to present day life. Dinosaurs and trilobites are different than animals that live today, but also self-evidently animals.

To introduce Paleontology to third-grade students without pointing out that it provides some of the best evidence in support of the evolution of species is, at best a disservice, and at worse a crime against their education.


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