The inaugural National Fossil Day is one week away. It's a date Vincent Santucci, former paleontology program coordinator for the National Park Service, has been waiting years to finally arrive.
"This is celebration has been a long time coming," Santucci says.
National Fossil Day, Oct. 13, is a new component of Earth Science Week (Oct. 10-16), an educational outreach sponsored by the nonprofit American Geological Institute, which represents more than 120,000 geologists, geophysicists, and other earth scientists. Santucci was part of a group of National Park Service scientists who approached AGI with the idea of using fossils to get kids fired up about science.
"One of the first ways that children get interested in science and learning is through their fascination with dinosaurs," says Santucci. "I've taught college pre-med students (at the University of Pittsburgh and Slippery Rock University), and all they wanted to know is what was going to be on the test.
"But if you have a group of third-graders and start talking about fossils, oh my gosh, you have got the most engaged audience imaginable. To be able to inspire young people to be interested in science is a wonderful opportunity. A lot of children already know complicated names like Tyrannosaurus Rex. If we can promote an excitement for science within them, maybe they'll grow up to become a paleontologist (one who studies fossils) or a scientist or a teacher."
Close to 100 NFD events are occurring throughout the country, many at major museums -- the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian and the Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley are 4 Santucci mentioned.
Two major events are scheduled:
• The National Fossil Day Celebration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Here participants can excavate fossils from chunks of sediment at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, watch lab workers clean fossils, and identify fossils with the help of paleontologists.
• In Arizona, NFD coincides with the opening of the Trail of Time at Grand Canyon National Park. As visitors walk the trail, they can read about the geology, human history of the Grand Canyon and recent climate change. To better help hikers gauge geologic time, as each meter (3.28 feet) on the 4.56-km (2.8-mile) trail represents a million years.
"We were originally given a list in the late 1990s from our Washington office that said there were 12 parks that have fossils," Santucci recalled. "Some of us started chuckling a little bit at that. We thought, there has to be more than that.
"As we began to do inventories across the country, reviewing scientific literature, looking at museum collections, and talking to scientists and USGS (U.S Geological Survey) mappers, we have been able to establish at least 230 national park service units have fossils in some capacity -- some in places you might not even think of.
"If you're talking about the Petrified Forest or John Day Fossil Beds, you can anticipate that there would be fossils in those places," he said. "But Yellowstone has these beautiful fossil forests. Even Gettysburg has dinosaur tracks. Long before Union and Confederate soldiers walked across that battlefield, dinosaurs left their footprints in mud and today are preserved on the battlefield.
"If we only studied fossils at the Petrified Forest, we would know a piece of the story," Santucci said. "But if you combine them all together, you get a fuller story of the history of life."
Now you know: The countdown to National Fossil Day is on.