Case File: 20 Questions

Mission

I've always kept a few of my Grandpa's 'dinosaur seeds' in my desk drawer. But when a guy at work asked what they were, I started wondering. - G. Mason, Portland, OR

Briefing

Kids sometimes play a guessing game called "20 questions," and it starts by asking if a mystery object is "animal, vegetable, or mineral." But when I looked at my Grandpa's dinosaur seeds, I couldn't even answer that simple problem. The seeds feel alive, and not. Dense but organic. They were a complete puzzle.

I got them years ago, when I spent summers on my grandparents' farm in Ohio. From time to time, Grandpa would slip one into my pocket, and tell me to go grow a dinosaur with it. Well, there had to be a more sensible explanation. So I decided to do some digging.

I started by taking a digital photo, and sending it down via e-mail to the research staff at the Museum of Natural History in Eugene. They said they couldn't give a definite answer because the photo was too blurry. But they told me to try asking the State Archeologist. (I didn't even know we had one!) Dr. Griffin works out of the State Historic Preservation Office in Salem, about an hour from Portland. So I drove down one day. Unfortunately, he was out dealing with some sort of looting at a historic site. The visit wasn't a total loss, because his assistant said that if I needed an archeologist, I should talk to the Park Service rangers at the John Day Fossil Beds.

I didn't think they could really help, but I didn't have a better idea, so I sent another e-mail to the Monument's interpretation staff over in Eastern Oregon.

They wrote back and said they thought they could tell me exactly what I had (!) but they would need to look at my seeds in person to be sure.

The next Saturday I drove over to Kimberly and found the museum. I arrived in the middle of a ranger talk about fossils. Afterwards I introduced myself and handed over my seeds for inspection. Almost instantly, Park Ranger Tom Jordan looked up at me and said, "You've got some nice looking bugs."

It turns out that 'bugs' is the aficionado's nickname for trilobites. These little fellows had rolled up into defensive balls before they died - and eventually turned into fossils. I also learned that my little bugs have a very big name: Arthropoda, Trilobita, Phacopida, Flexicalymene meeki.

Ranger Jordan said my fossils were probably found near the Great Lakes (it was actually Ohio). And he showed me some examples of close relatives, both 'enrolled' and flat. But the most surprising thing he told me was that prehistoric people liked trilobites too. French archeologists recently found a fossil trilobite that someone had worn as an amulet 15,000 years ago!

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