• Curecanti National Recreation Area


    National Recreation Area Colorado

Fascinating Fossils

National Park Service Mission

...to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area Outreach Education is committed to: Creating an awareness and fostering an appreciation for the mission of the National Park Service and the natural, cultural, and historic resources of Curecanti National Recreation Area and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.


Curriculum enhancing activities designed to complement national and state content standards across a variety of disciplines.

Title: Fascinating Fossils

Grade level: Second Grade

Time length: 60 minutes

Subject areas: Science, geography

Teacher: Two NPS Education Specialists

Colorado Content Standards: Science: (3.4) Students know and understand how organisms change over time in terms of biological evolution and genetics. (4.1) Students know and understand the composition of Earth, its history, and the natural processes that shape it.

Geography: (3.1) Students know the physical processes that shape Earth's surface patterns.

Theme: Fossils are remains of ancient living organisms.

Learning about the different types of fossils and how fossilization occurs can give us insight into the past and help us understand the present.

NPS focus: Public Law 39-535 (Organic Act),

Public Law 95-250 (Redwood National Park Expansion Act),

Vail Agenda Education Committee Report (Strategic Goal #2; Action Plan 16)and (Strategic Goal #3; Action Plan 52,62),

Curecanti and Black Canyon Themes: Natural Resources/Wildlife

Environmental concepts: Everything is connected to everything else (interrelationships).

Everything must fit how and where it lives (adaptations).

Environmental learning hierarchy: Problem solving processes

Materials: Fossils; rocks (sandstone, mudstone, igneous); bones; PowerPoint projector and CD; 25' extension cord; 4"x4" sponge in bone shape; 6"x8" clear plastic container; shells; blue food coloring; worksheets for stations; aluminum foil; scissors; 4"x6" cards with NPS stamp for each student; storybook (see below); scotch tape; paleontology tool kit and field pack.

Brandenberg, Aliki. (1972). Fossils Tell of Long Ago. New York, NY: Harper Trophy.

Wahl, Jan & Chris Sheban (1997). I Met a Dinosaur. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Dugan, David. (1993). The Real Jurassic Park. [Videotape 55 minutes]. (Available from MCA Home Video, 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608).

Bureau of Land Management. (1996). Dinosaurs. [Poster]. (BLM/WY/AE-96/023+1050)


Knowledge level: Students will be able to verbally provide the definition of a fossil.

Students will be able to verbally list and give examples of different types of fossils.

Comprehension level: Students will be able to verbally explain the process of fossilization.

Application: Students will be able to explain how knowledge about the life history of past organisms may provide information about organisms for which we have little information.


We work at Curecanti National Recreation Area. Raise your hand if you think that we can find fossils at Curecanti. That’s right, there are fossils located nearby, in Curecanti NRA! Does that mean that dinosaurs used to live around here? It might, but let’s learn a little bit more about fossils before we answer that question. We’re going to hand out some rocks and some fossils, and we hope that you can help us identify the fossils. Hand every student or pair of students a rock or fossil. "Look at the items we just gave you and decide if it is a rock or a fossil. Make sure to take a good look at it. If you think you have a fossil hold up your hand." Show other students the fossils and compare to those that have rocks. “Let’s learn more about fossils!”


What is a Fossil?

"Who can tell me the definition of a fossil?" Listen to some of the students’ answers, and then put the laminated definition on the board. (Fossils are the remains of ancient life that have turned to stone). Write key words (body fossil, trace fossil, paleontologist, etc.) on the board as they are discussed. "Who are people that study fossils? Right! Paleontologists! Today, we are going to be paleontologists (have all the rangers put on paleontologist hats) because we are going to study fossils. Before we can be paleontologists we have to learn about different types of fossils. There are two kinds of fossils that I want to tell you about today. One is a body fossil. Can anyone give me an example of a body fossil?" Have students guess, encouraging them in the right direction. "Bones, teeth, shells, or wood that are fossilized are examples of body fossils. (Actual unaltered material from an organism, like frozen mammoth flesh, bones and fur could also be considered a body fossil). Usually only the hard parts of an animal, like teeth, bones and shells, become fossilized. What parts of your body do you think would most likely be preserved by fossilization? (teeth and bones)

Another kind of fossil is a trace fossil. Some trace fossils record the movements and behaviors of the dinosaurs. Who can give me an example of a trace fossil? Footprints are a good example of a trace fossil. Fossilized eggs, nests, footprints, leaf impressions, burrows, and feces, or animal poop, are examples of trace fossils. One thing all fossils have in common is that they are OLD, at least 10,000 years old. Do only dinosaurs leave fossils? NO! Plants can also leave fossils. An imprint of a leaf would be a trace fossil and a leaf that fossilized would be a body fossil. Again, what are the two types of fossils we are going to talk about today? BODY and TRACE. Trace fossils are signs that an organism was once living there, and a body fossil is an actual part of the organism that was left behind and turned into a fossil.

Wherever you are, you might be standing on a fossil. I’d like to show you some pictures to give you a better idea of what fossils look like, where they’re found, and how they form.

How Did All of This Happen?

Using slides, reintroduce what has been said, using examples of body and trace fossils. Discuss how fossils are formed, where fossils are found, and sedimentary rocks.

Slide 1: Let’s learn about fossils!

Slide 2: What are fossils? Fossils are the remains of ancient life that have turned to stone. What kind of fossils have you seen? Who remembers what a body fossil is? (fossilized body or plant part) And a trace fossil? (a fossil that records the movement or behavior of a dinosaur or appearance of a plant)

Slide 3: We can find remains of fish, (2 slides appear)

Slide 4: insects,

Slide 5: plants,

Slide 6: dinosaurs and other animals. All living things, including plants and animals, eventually die. Most of these dead organisms get eaten by other animals or they decay. But sometimes the remains of an animal or a plant are buried before they can be destroyed, and if the conditions are just right, the remains get preserved as fossils. How do you think they get buried? Does somebody go out into nature with a shovel and dirt and bury all the plants and animals that die?

Slide 7:No, but the wind or water may push sand, mud and clay on top of them. In ancient lakes and oceans, small particles of sand, mud and clay settled to the bottom, sometimes covering dead plants or animals. Over many, many years, the pressure from the water caused the particles to harden into rock. Over time, many more particles or sediments settled on top of the rock, forming layers. You can see the layers of sand, mud and clay that hardened together to form the rock in this picture. This type of rock is called sedimentary rock. Fossils are usually found in sedimentary rock.

Slide 8: At Curecanti National Recreation Area, there is lots of sedimentary rock. One type of sedimentary rock in Curecanti is called the Morrison Formation, and fossils have been discovered there! In fact, * this fossil was found at Curecanti, just above the shoreline of Blue Mesa Reservoir. It’s part of the backbone of a big dinosaur with a long neck, called a sauropod. This fossil tells us that this kind of dinosaur lived here long ago.

Slide 9: Let's go through the process of fossilization, using a dinosaur as our example. First, the dinosaur would have died, and its body would decay and be eaten by other animals.

Slide 10: Then it quickly becomes covered in sand or mud. These sediments surround and protect the animal's hard parts -- its bones and teeth. Over time, water that has lots of minerals in it percolates through the bone's tiny pores and, gradually *, the bones absorb these minerals like a sponge, and turn to stone. So, under many layers of hardened sediment or rock, the bones have turned to stone, and they are hidden from view until one day they are discovered! How are they discovered? Well...Over time, bits and pieces of the rock will be worn away by wind, water, and other weather. This is called erosion. When parts of the rock are eroded away, all of a sudden a fossil may be exposed that had been buried in the sedimentary rock for millions of years!

Slide 11: When part of a fossil becomes exposed, scientists will use delicate tools to carefully uncover the fossils. The scientist in this picture is searching for fossils. What is she called? She's a paleontologist. Can everyone say that with me? * PALEONTOLOGIST. Paleontologists search for fossils, and they study the fossils that they find. Sometimes paleontologists use geological maps, or maps that show where different kinds of rocks are located, to decide where to look for the layers of rock that might contain fossils. What kind of rock are fossils usually found in? Sedimentary rock.

Slide 12: After she has found a fossil, a crew of paleontologists must remove the fossil from the ground using special tools.

Slide 13: Once the fossil has been removed from the ground, the paleontologists take it to a laboratory to be studied. What do you think this paleontologist who works for the National Park Service will try to figure out about the fossil? (How old the fossil is, what is is, how it is related to other species, etc.)

Slide 14: Now that we’ve learned how paleontologists study fossils, let’s try to identify some ourselves. Who can identify this fossil? It's the fossil of a dinosaur bone. Is this a body fossil or a trace fossil? * It's a body fossil, because it’s part of the animal or plant that has become fossilized.

Slide 15: This is a piece of coprolite, or fossilized animal dung. It is a clue that tells us what the dinosaur ate. Is it a body fossil or a trace fossil? * It's a trace fossil.

Slide 16: Is this a body fossil or a trace fossil? * It's a body fossil because it's a fossil of part of a dinosaur, the skull.

Slide 17: These are fossilized footprints. Are these body or trace fossils? * They’re trace fossils, because they show the movement or behavior of the animal, but they’re not part of the actual animal. What do you think paleontologists can learn by studying these tracks? (how fast they walked, how big their feet were, how their feet were shaped, whether they walked on two or four legs, etc.)

* Now we know what a fossil is, the two types of fossils, and where to find fossils. I’d like to show you a demonstration of how fossils are formed.

Fossilization Demonstration

"How are fossils formed? Does anyone have any ideas? Suppose an ancient fish died and sank to the bottom of a lake or sea. The soft parts of the fish would decompose leaving only a skeleton. For a fossil to be formed, this skeleton would have to be covered with sediment such as mud or clay. Then water seeps into the bones, depositing minerals, causing the bone to fossilize." Use a sponge as an example of a bone because bones are porous, like the sponge. "This sponge is going to be our bone. What do you know about sponges? Yes, they are porous. Guess what? Our bones and the bones of dinosaurs are porous too. So, bones are like a sponge. When we place this sponge in water it sucks the water into it, right?" Place the sponge in water with food coloring so the sponge turns a different color, representing minerals filling space in the bone. "The sponge has changed color because the minerals in the water have been soaked into the bone. Some of the water will come back out of the sponge/bone, but some of the minerals will stay in the bone. Over many, many years these minerals will change the bone to stone or a fossil. What is this entire process called? FOSSILIZATION! Can everyone say this with me? FOSSILIZATION! Write fossilization on the board.


See section III, V, and VII.


Fossil Quest

"Now we'll divide into four groups for an activity." Divide students into four groups. If possible, have a ranger or teacher at each of the four stations. Each student will have a fossil quest worksheet, which they will complete at the stations. Have students put their names on their worksheets. Move students from station to station in a rotating manner. If there is extra time at a station, have the students draw the fossil at that station on their worksheet.

Station A has a piece of coprolite. Students decide if it is a fossil of a plant, animal or dung. Circle the correct answer. Coprolites yield information about the dinosaurs' diet and habitats. Coprolites up to 40 cm (16 inches) in diameter have been found.

Station B has a fish impression. Students decide whether it is an impression of a leaf, a fish or a bird. Students also determine if it’s a trace or body fossil, and circle the correct answer.

Station C has 2 objects. The students identify each item and write what it is in the blanks provided on the worksheet. The items are a bone and a fossil.

Station D Students have a chance to look through a box of small fossils and draw their favorite one in the box. Remind students to be gentle with the fossils and leave them in their bags.

Check For Student Understanding:

After the students have completed all four rotations, have them return to their seats and share ideas about the worksheet that they just completed.

Build a Fossil

"Would you like to make your own fossil? Well, we are going to get the chance right now! Each one of you is going to get a small seashell and a piece of aluminum foil. We are going to make an impression. Who can tell me what an impression is? Would an impression be a body or trace fossil? TRACE! We are not going to be able to make a real fossil and I think you know why. Can anyone tell me? We are going to make an impression for you to take home as a reminder of what you learned about fossils today." Hand every student a piece of aluminum foil, a 4"x6" card printed with the NPS logo and a small shell. Demonstrate to the children how to make an impression in the aluminum foil with the shell, and then have them tape the impression onto the card. “Be careful with your tin foil, because it will tear easily. Once you’ve created your fossil, raise your hand and a ranger will help you tape it to your card. Be careful not to squash it…”

Check For Student Understanding:

Once everyone has made their impression, ask if an impression would be a body or trace fossil? Have the students give an example of both types of fossils.


Suggest that on the way home, students look for traces of objects that might become fossils in the future: dog tracks, deer antlers, etc.


If there’s time (there usually is NOT) have children return to their seats or sit in a semi circle to read "Fossils Tell of Long Ago". After reading the story, ask a few closing questions reviewing class material. Are fossils found in Colorado? How about nearby? Ask why learning about fossils is important. "Why do we need to learn about ancient life?"


Indicate what you judge to have been the strengths of the lesson, what changes you made during the lesson and what changes you would make if you were to teach the unit again.

Did You Know?

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles winter at Curecanti, feeding on fish until the water becomes ice covered.