Citizen Scientists Explore New York’s Ice Age Past

The fifth graders in Junior Innovation Lab @Ross donned their paleontologist hats recently and sifted through soil samples from an excavation site in upstate New York that date back to the late Pleistocene era, 10,000–14,000 years ago. They are helping researchers form a clear picture of the ecology and environment where the mastodon, an extinct relative of modern elephants, roamed. Up until about 10,000 years ago, mastodons were widespread in North America. They became extinct, along with many other species, at the end of the last glacial period.

Organized by the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI), the Mastodon Project is an example of “citizen science,” a rapidly growing phenomenon in which amateur researchers can partake in scientific studies, often through outsourcing some of the data collection. Such projects “allow scientists to make use of the eyes and hands of thousands of participants to help them sort and analyze huge amounts of data,” explained Innovation Lab Director Dr. Dave Morgan.

Ross’s citizen scientists sorted through samples to find shells, bones, hair, pieces of plants, and rocks. Everything the students handled was at least 9,000 years old and had been well preserved by being buried in an acidic bog since the Pleistocene.

Along with leaves, bark, feathers, shells, and many, many rocks, “we think we found some hairs and a fragment of a tooth,” said Quentin Bazar. After sifting and categorizing everything, they counted and measured each item and uploaded their information to the PRI website. Once the students complete their assigned tasks, they will mail back all the samples.

In tandem with this project, the young researchers will also compare the anatomies of the mastodon with those of the mammoth, which also roamed North America during the Pleistocene, and the modern-day elephant. They will then create small-scale models to show the differences in weight, height, and color between the elephant and the mastodon.

Fifth grader Ian Morgan summed up the experience by saying, “It’s cool to be working like paleontologists.”