A dozen geology students dug up thousands of Devonian era fossils—and made an especially exciting find.
“You never know exactly what you might find.” Therein lies the excitement of geology professor Ray Rogers’s annual class field trip to an unlikely fossil treasure trove in North Central Iowa.
Rogers and 12 students from his Paleobiology class spent a weekend at the Floyd County Fossil and Prairie Park Center outside Rockford, Iowa, just east of Mason City. Built on a brick and tile company’s abandoned clay pit, this Iowa park—just three hours from Macalester— is one of the few geological preserves in the United States that allows fossils to be collected for private use.
Rogers annually takes his geology students to dig among the Devonian strata in this world-class fossil-collecting locale. The area is rare because the calcareous ocean-bottom sediment deposited here never turned to hard stone as it has nearly everywhere else in the world. This has allowed the fossils to weather out as discrete, often complete, museum-grade specimens.
This fall students came home with the usual spectacular assortment of Devonian age fossils, including brachiopods, corals, clams, snails, and others, but for the first time ever, they also found a “few chunks of fossil bone from a Devonian fish, possibly a placoderm,” says Rogers.
The Paleobiology students will study their collected specimens all semester, and at the end of the term will take part in a mini-symposium during which they’ll present their research findings while dining on modern-day representatives of the some of the phyla they’ve explored in class, including mussels, squid, shrimp, and jellyfish. “They all taste better once you know their evolutionary history,” Rogers promises.
Although the trip—involving six hours of driving, more than a dozen people, camping gear, meal planning, and two college vans— is a major time commitment, the chance to work in the field is irreplaceable, says Rogers. “We can talk all we want about rocks and fossils and surface processes and show many wonderful images, but only in the field does it all come alive. Students get to experience geological processes and phenomena firsthand, and there’s always a sense of discovery.”