Fossil Identification & Classification


Fossil Identification System


This section describes the steps and aids that could be used to help visitors in the unfamiliar process of fossil identification.  Once a user has a fossil, he or she will be interested in learning more about its characteristics and environment.  It is possible to walk the user all the way through to species identification, but we recommend that the information be conveyed for broad categories of fossils.  We have developed the concept for an interactive fossil identification tool intended for computer use along with a similar paper version.  Snapshots of the computer interface are below.  These are visually appealing and quite engaging. 


The left screen shows the broad categories of fossils: brachiopods, trilobite, clam, footstamp, snail, sea-lily, and cephalopod.  This screen also includes a help button, and each box changes to a different bright color while the user’s cursor is pointing to it (a preliminary screen could be included asking “Can you see the fossil in your rock?” to make clear to the user the purpose of the interface).  The user can look at his or her own fossil and match the visual characteristics in order to move forward in the process.  For example, if the user decides the fossil is a brachiopod, the right screen comes up.  It shows a few species within the category and describes brachiopods generally.  Unless all the fossil species in the local community are known and can fit on the screen, the user will have to be coached that the exact fossil he or she is holding may not be displayed on the second screen.  This design is relatively simple for PRI staff to modify and update with new information.

There are several advantages to this identification system over one that starts by asking about characteristics of the fossil. Users can also learn from it even if they choose not to find a fossil beforehand (some users may prefer the computer because it is more comfortable, clean, and fashionable than digging in rocks).  In addition, the user has feels more control over the learning because the process is more transparent.  If the second screen does not show examples that resemble the real fossil, the user may decide that the wrong category was chosen previously and start over.  In a multi-step process, the user will have no idea why the end species does not match his or her specimen and will not be able to backtrack.  In addition, some of the more complicated description words may be too difficult for young students to relate to their specimens, and some characteristics may require a microscope to discern.  This two-step system is clearly a visual and graphical process, rather than an interrogative process, and the users do not have to read the category names on the first screen to proceed effectively.  

If you want to experience the tool, just click here!


The hardcopy version of the identification system closely follows this concept to promote consistency within the exhibit.  It is portable and increases efficiency by not requiring visitors to use the computer.  It can also be utilized at the Fossil Pit itself, if a user wants to engage in fossil finding and fossil identification simultaneously.  Advanced users can also look for a specific category of fossil and use the card as a reference.  The handout should have a magnifying glass attached to it with a cord, since the fossils are often very small.  It will then be returned when the visitor leaves the exhibit.  An example of this double-sided fossil identification card is shown here.   Like the interface, it emphasizes the boundaries between categories rather than species.  Tactile cues through raised fossil textures or Braille could be incorporated into this tool for visually impaired individuals.  Similar techniques could also be applied later to a fossil identification poster or mural on the wall where visitors could feel the variety of fossil textures and enhance their learning by receiving tactile information. 


Priming Information


Part of the identification process actually takes place before the fossil is retrieved.  We highly recommend some sort of priming effort for the users as they enter each world.  A hanging set of posters can be placed above the Fossil Pit with examples of how fossils appear when they are imbedded in rocks.  However, the figures would have to be large, so only a few would be displayed.  This gives visitors an idea of the magnitude of the fossil relative to the rock surface, but gives them few items to recognize.  Another possibility is to give visitors a handout with a picture of a large slab of rock and a specified number of fossils and fossil imprints drawn in it.  This exercise enables the user to visualize more types of fossils & imprints, and it provides redundancy to be reinforced with the fossil identification card.   With a specified number of pictures to search for (around 8-15), users will realize that the cracks or wrinkles in the rock surface are not the fossil.  They will therefore be primed for the experience and less likely to be confused by the fossil identification process.  These can also be unique for each world, since some worlds will have larger fossils than others, and these handouts can also be used to share general information about each time period.