BITBURG, Germany — If it was a human hair, it certainly wasn’t hers, determined 11-year-old Lauryn Freeman.
“One end has a bump on it, so it’s probably been attached to someone recently,” said Freeman’s science teacher, Tom Oliver, referring to the likely bulb of a hair follicle root.
“OK, I do not have a gray hair,” Lauryn declared.
Speculation turned to Lauryn’s science partner, 12-year-old Isaac Rocha. Perhaps he shed an arm hair.
The hope, however, was that the hair wasn’t human at all. After days spent sifting through piles of dirt, Lauryn and her classmates were eager for the ultimate find: a prehistoric mastodon hair.
Oliver’s fifth- and sixth-graders at Bitburg Middle School are participating in the Mastodon Matrix Project, joining thousands of students and other volunteers worldwide to help paleontologists comb through sediment unearthed with mastodon bones at several excavation sites in the state of New York. The mastodon remains are an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 years old, according to Oliver.
Oliver said he signed up his four classes of fifth- and sixth-graders for the project because it fits with President Barack Obama’s nationwide initiative to encourage students to excel in science, technology, engineering and math. Obama announced the STEM program two years ago, and the Department of Defense Education Activity this year launched a pilot program to offer more STEM-based courses and projects in its schools.
The mastodon project isn’t a part of the DODEA pilot, but something Oliver found and decided to use to provide a more intriguing way to introduce students to the concepts of inquiry in science. The unit was to last about two weeks, teaching students, among other scientific skills, how to collect data and develop a hypothesis.
They all have theories about an unusual item found in the dirt by one of Oliver’s fifth-graders. Most thought the clay-like object, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, was a piece of pottery. But the project’s researchers, when told about the piece, said pottery “shouldn’t be at that depth,” Oliver said. Scientists think instead it could be part of an ammonite, a fossil from an extinct group of marine invertebrates upwards of 3 million years old.
“This is the thing they are most excited about” among the items the students have found, Oliver said of the researchers.
So far, the nearly nine pounds of dirt sent in Ziploc bags to the school from New York have yielded mostly tiny shells, rocks, twigs and a few hairs. Students also found what appeared to be a seed pod, a piece of grass, and crystal fragments.
Paleontologists already retrieved the big mastodon pieces. One set of the prehistoric elephant bones was found 11 years ago in a backyard in Hyde Park, N.Y., during a project to dredge and deepen a pond. From that site alone, excavators carted off about 48,000 pounds of dirt, said Carlyn Buckler, an education and outreach associate for the Paleontological Research Institution and its Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, N.Y.
“We don’t have anywhere near enough graduate students to sort through that much dirt,” Buckler said in an email to Stars and Stripes. It’s hoped the data gleaned by students and other volunteers will help scientists paint a picture of the mastodon’s environment, Buckler said.
Whether any of the hairs Oliver’s students found turn out to be mastodon, won’t be known for some time. Buckler could not say how long the process might take. She said she recently applied for a National Science Foundation grant to fund an online, interactive database and specimen repository that would give participants the chance not only to see what they have found, but also allow them to blog and share resources, pictures and ideas.
Oliver’s students sorted items into plant, animal, rock, and “mystery” categories. They weighed and bagged the materials and were to send the samples, along with the dirt, back to Ithaca this week.
A mastodon hair is certainly possible, researchers said. Buckler said there have been several “putative hairs found.” But the finds need to be confirmed by experts who do research on Paleolithic mammalian hair and “could identify a specimen that has been sitting at the bottom of a bog for 14,000 years.”
As a molecular plant biologist, Buckler is excited by other finds, such as pollen specimens and fragments of flower, tree bark, stems and leaves, “that tell us so much about what the environment was like during the late Pleistocene in New York.”
Oliver’s students said sifting through the same pile of dirt again and again was tedious. “My eyes hurt,” complained one student. “All you’re doing is looking through dirt,” sighed another student. But most didn’t mind the painstaking work, in awe of being able to handle something so old.
“I think it’s awesome how we’re looking through 11,000-year old dirt,” said 11-year-old Jerry Cooper.