Step into the PalAss time machine, a one way ticket to fun, facts, and learning!
In May this year, the Palaeontological Association ran an outreach stall at the 10th annual Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. This wasn’t the first time that PalAss had attended the event, but it was my first time as a PalAss outreach volunteer at the Festival, and what a wonderful celebration of fossils and palaeontology it is! The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival operates as a completely free, and opento- all, outreach festival. Numerous Earth and life science departments from universities across the UK, as well as natural history museums and scientific associations, had representatives ready to engage with the public about palaeontology. The Natural History Museum, London, had the largest presence at the Festival, with an impressive number of stalls showcasing everything from a huge Baryonyx skull, to sifting sand for tiny shark teeth. Plymouth University were getting kids to ‘walk like a dinosaur’ with paint covered dino-wellies, the University of Southampton were offering a ‘dig for fossils’ activity, and Oxford University Museum of Natural History were showcasing local Lyme Regis fossils from their collections. Along the back of the marquee situated on the Lyme Regis beach, local collectors were displaying and selling their impressive fossil finds, just as Mary Anning once did along that very beach more than 150 years before them. It is a festival of passion, discovery and intrigue for everyone involved; volunteer and visitor alike.
The PalAss outreach activity was designed as a voyage back in time. Four time periods were chosen to represent different environments and ecosystems through time; the Silurian, the Carboniferous, the Jurassic, and the Pleistocene. Each of these time periods had an associated reconstruction, painted by the talented
palaeoartist James McKay. Also displayed were a selection of each period’s most iconic and abundant fossil fauna and flora. The oldest time period represented was the Silurian and the diorama depicted a warm, shallow sea, with reef-building corals, trilobites, eurypterids, orthoceras, and crinoids, all of which were present as fossil specimens. The Carboniferous focused on the plant life that dominated during this time period, as well as the large insects and creepy crawlies; Carboniferous fern fossils were also displayed. The Jurassic section dove into a 150 million year old marine setting, when ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs ruled the oceans, and ammonites were abundant. Many of the ichthyosaur, fish, and ammonite fossils on display for the Jurassic were found in local Lower Lias rocks. The final and youngest time period represented on the PalAss stall was the Last Glacial Maximum, or ‘Ice Age’. This diorama showed classic Ice Age animals such as mammoths and cave lions against a snowy backdrop. A fossil mammoth tooth and an ox skull were among the fossils displayed.
The Festival kicked off for PalAss with Caroline Butler and Lucy McCobb from Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales visiting Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester. Although the activities took place in this school, groups of pupils from other schools in the area also attended, meaning their activities reached a large number of students in one day. The second day was similar to the first in that our outreach was aimed at school groups, but by now the whole team had arrived in Lyme Regis, and we had set up in the festival marquee. We ran the activity several times for different schools, starting with a discussion about what a fossil is and what a palaeontologist does. We then told them that we were going to take them in a time machine, back to four different periods in Earth’s history. We took them around the different sections of the stall, and described what Earth may have been like during each different time period. We asked them if they could identify any of the fossils displayed, and encouraged them to handle and explore them, before explaining what they were. Finally, we rounded off the activity by asking the students which time period they would most like to visit; the Ice Age was the clear winner!
Over the weekend, the Festival opened to members of the public, and the PalAss team was joined by James McKay. James spent his time at the Festival painting ‘mix and match’ prehistoric beasts for children, and giving these creatures scientific names. These paintings drew a lot of attention, and while the children waited for them, we were able to engage with them about palaeontology and real extinct animals, as well as showing them round our stall. On the Sunday, James Witts was interviewed by a local radio station, Abbey 104, for their ‘Local World’ programme. He spoke about the activities that we were doing at the Festival, and the importance of fossils when trying to understand Earth history.
Outreach is a crucial part of science. As an academic community, we owe it to the public, as well as to future generations of scientists, to communicate our ongoing research clearly and effectively. Fiona Gill, the PalAss outreach officer, Caroline Butler, the education officer, and Liam Herringshaw, the publicity officer, do an excellent and extremely important job in organising outreach activities such as this at various festivals and events across the country on behalf of PalAss. I hope that events such as the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival can go some way toward encouraging the next generation of palaeontologists and spreading enthusiasm for natural sciences in general. So whether you are in a position to volunteer, or you are passionate about palaeontology and want to find out more, get yourselves down to future Lyme Regis Fossil Festivals; I can guarantee a fantastic, fun-filled and highly educational weekend.