Fossil-hunting university students really dig Paleon

Courtesy photo
Canaan Hodges lays next to a tyrannosaur trackway which is part of an ongoing project he’s working on.

RJ Morgan

Growing up watching the Land of the Lost and the Jurassic Park series is one thing, but getting the chance to actually dig for – and find – the fossils of creatures who once roamed and grew on earth is a life-changing opportunity.
For a dozen geology students from the College of Charleston, South Carolina, the chance to go on a fossil-hunting trip with an educator is akin to what the Super Bowl is to football. After their first attempt was reduced to online due to Covid-19, the first dig for prehistoric bones and plants finally happened in Glenrock last month.
The 112 students applied for the hands-on education in Glenrock. Led by Scott Persons, assistant professor and museum curator at the College of Charleston, the group spent every day learning, digging and discovering which dinosaurs once roamed Converse County.
While most of the discoveries will remain at the Paleon Museum, the students were able to keep some smaller ones as keepsakes.
The trip was an eye-opening experience for the students, but it was also a reunion of sorts for Persons. Though he teaches on the East Coast, it’s not his first time in Glenrock. He visited the museum and went on his first dig at age 12 while attending elementary school in Glenrock some 23 years ago.
That’s what gave him the idea to see about a partnership with the Paleon Museum. Now that the first official class and fossil hunt have came to a successful finish, he said he is excited about bringing students to town every summer to dig.
“Future students will have the experience of working in the museum, in the preparation lab, and then head out to what amounts to the museum’s backyard, where there are multiple different digs going on,” he said. “The digs will give them exposure to a lot of different kinds of fossil hunting.”
Persons, who said he wanted to be a geologist since he learned how to walk, is eager to share his passion through eduction.
“I’m told I’ve wanted to be a paleontologist since I was two-and-a-half years old. The story goes that my father was on a business trip,” Persons recalled. “He wanted to bring me back something. Well, on his trip he happened to visit a little natural history museum. He exited through the gift shop where he saw a book that he got me, a dinosaur book. I had him read it to me all the time.” Three decades later, Persons still has that childhood book.
Cultivating a passion for paleontology in others is what Persons does.
“This has been absolutely fantastic. One of the things that’s so great about the exposures out here is not just that we’ve got a lot of dinosaur bone, but also being really close to a working museum. The students can go out there, collect stuff, bring it back, and then work on it here, where we’ve got a whole bunch of different kinds of fossils,” he said. 
“We’ve got the big bone beds right now. We’re excavating a triceratops skeleton, but we’ve also got microcytes places where you find a lot of really small fossils preserved. (They) are really good for giving you a sense for the ecology of the whole area. We’ve also got dinosaur footprints. We’ve also now got a plant side as well or we’ve got fossilized leaves,” he said.
Just how much how much of the specimens have they been able to bring back to Glenrock to work on?
“They’ve been able to bring back a great deal. In the preparation lab, you can see a triceratops tibia that was pulled out the other day and a very large prehistoric turtle shell,” he said.
Rebecca Starkey was one of the students participating in the dig. She first received her degree in film production, but her love for paleontology has her on a much different course as she is closing in on a double major in biology and geology.
“Plants and animals of all types have always been a big interest of mine. But the first time I was in college, I was very scared of math and science, because I was terrible at that in high school. It’s been going fine so far,” she said.
“I really wasn’t too interested in – or aware of – paleontology or dinosaurs until about a year ago, when I took a class with Dr. Persons. It was called Dinosaurs and Mass Extinction. I was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole field I could go into.’ I think I’m a bit of an oddity compared to some of the students here who have been interested in dinosaurs since they were kids.”
Starkey’s first real dig was a huge success – she found a raptor tooth.
“I enjoy learning the evolutionary processes and how nature builds on itself, with things like the dinosaurs. Things kept evolving out of, you know, one group, and then suddenly, there were five groups, and it continued,” she said.
Canaan Hodges’ educational trip to Glenrock was a much different path. Unlike Starkey, he was born with a passion of our prehistoric past. It’s only grown stronger over the years.
“It’s been a long passion for me since I was super young, since out came out of the womb,” Hodges said, laughing. “I got pictures when I was a baby playing with dinosaurs and stuff.”
Growing up in a family with limited finances, the 21-year-old geology major mostly grew up learning about dinosaurs on television.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so I wasn’t able to go a lot of places, but the museums that I did get to go to were unbelievable. Most of my education came from media, you know, Land Before Time. Jurassic Park. Dinosaur shows like on A&E,” he explained.
Canaan said his time in Glenrock and digging for items that will be displayed at the Paleon Museum has been “nothing short of amazing.” Knowing that his work will be seen by generations to come is one of the many small rewards he will walk away with when returning to South Carolina.
“It’s been awesome – really immersive in the field.  With the nitty-gritty . . . being out there in the field, just digging up the bones and whatnot,” he said. “I love giant monsters, animals and stuff like that. It’s awesome to see a basically fully-constructed dinosaur in front of me, even if it’s just a skeleton.”
He said his time digging for the Paleon Museum just solidified his future in the field. He can’t wait to see what the future holds for him after his Converse County journey.
“I kind of realized that paleontology is just a bunch of young adults or kids-at-heart, showing each other their cool finds and discoveries,” he said. 
“The work we did, the first group to come here, is going to stand the test of time.” 



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