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Students dig for 10,000-year-old clues
Statesboro High participates in national paleontology project
Fredi Paredes and Jamel Smith use tweezers and magnifying glasses to search for specimens. - photo by Special

    Students in Richard McCombs’ 11th grade environmental science classes at Statesboro High School traveled back more than 10,000 years in time recently as they took part in the Paleontology Research Institute’s nationwide Mastodon Matrix Project. Students painstakingly examined soil contents from a former residential construction site in Dutchess County, New York, where an intact American Mastodon specimen was found in the 1990s.
    Dr. Kathlyn Smith, an assistant professor of geology at Georgia Southern University, brought a one kilogram bag of soil contents, known as “matrix,” to the school and led students in the project.
    “We’re doing this for real scientific research,” Smith said.
    She made McCombs’ students paleontologists for the day as she taught them how to properly explore, handle and sort specimens in order to keep their discoveries organized. 
    Each student received a sample of matrix on a small paper plate. Smith tasked them with looking for five categories of specimens: wood/cones/leaves, seeds, rocks, shells and other remains.
    “They’re digging through 10,000-year-old matrix,” Smith said. “They may find specimens like twigs that were eaten by the Mastodon.  The gnawed ones are cool.”
    The students’ discoveries will be sent to the Paleontology Research Institute and entered into the institute’s database.
    “What the students are doing is part of both a larger GSU and PRI project,” Smith said. 
    The Research Institute’s Mastodon Matrix Project includes matrix from several mastodon excavations. This particular mastodon, known as the Hyde Park Mastodon, was found by Larry and Sheryl Lozier in what might have been a prehistoric freshwater pond. 
    “The homeowners decided to deepen their pond and got a mastodon instead,” Smith said.
    The Loziers contacted professional paleontologists, and the excavation to extract the skeleton lasted six weeks.
    “It was a great find and a great specimen,” Smith said. 
    With volunteers from five major universities and three museums, 95 percent of the mastodon’s remains were recovered including both tusk, the skull and all major limb bones.  The skeleton is now on display at the Research Institute’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, N.Y.    
    As part of the original excavation, researchers gathered more than 22,000 pounds of matrix.  Limited by time and staff, scientists turned to volunteers. More than 10 years later, professionals, volunteers and elementary and secondary school children are still sifting through the powdery treasure.
    GSU received three kilograms of matrix from the Paleontology Research Institute.
    “At GSU, it takes 60 geology students more than three hours to thoroughly search through 1.5 kilograms of matrix,” Smith said. “We were happy to have the help of Mr. McCombs’ students.” 
    Kindergarten through 12th grade students around the nation have played a major role in the project. Fourth-grade students in Pennsylvania received national attention when they discovered an 8-inch long mastodon hair in their matrix samples.
    “When I was in college, I didn’t know what geology was until I happened to take a class,” said McCombs, a geologist and educator. “Activities like these give students exposure to science careers and allow them to use skills they’ve learned in class.”

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