(Editor's note: This story has been updated to include location of pre-unpacking presentation at 130 Hahn Hall North.)

The Virginia Tech Paleobiology Research Group is bringing back its annual fossil unpacking party to the Museum of Geosciences in Derring Hall after a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event, open to all campus and community members, takes place at 7 p.m.  Aug. 30 in 2062 Derring Hall, longtime home of the Virginia Tech Museum of Geosciences. Hosted by Michelle Stocker, an assistant professor, and Sterling Nesbitt, an associate professor, both in the Department of Geosciences, the event will feature the unpacking of fossils discovered this past summer in digs in Arizona and Texas.

Children older than 7 are welcome to attend the unpacking if accompanied by an adult. Pre-registration is appreciated. Please email mogs@vt.edu with name, email contact, number of people, and ages of children. (Derring Hall is located at 926 West Campus Drive in Blacksburg.) 

The evening will begin with a presentation by Stocker, Nesbitt, and geosciences students at 130 Hahn Hall North before moving to the museum at Derring Hall. “We are trying to get confirmation of how many people will be attending from those who RSVP for the event,” said Mariah Green, museum and collections manager at the Museum of Geosciences.

A man and woman look at a possible fossil at Petrified National Forest in Arizona.

A man and women look at a possible fossil at Petrified National Forest in Arizona.
(From left) Sterling Nesbitt and Michelle Stocker out in the field at Petrified National Forest in Arizona this past summer. Photo by Rommelyn Coffren for Virginia Tech.

In years past, the unpacking party has brought in as more than a 150 people, Stocker said. “We’ve really missed sharing what we do with our community through in-person events,” she added.

Not only is this the return of the annual tradition with the Virginia Tech College of Science, but 2022 also marks the first time since 2019 that Stocker and Nesbitt, along with undergraduate and graduate students, were able to go out into the field and dig for fossils. The paleontology team ventured to Arizona and Texas during the summer for several weeks of work. Fossils from these digs will be unpacked Aug. 30.

“It was so exciting to get back out to the field and share this aspect of our science with our students,” said Stocker, who is an affiliated member of Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center, an arm of the Fralin Life Science Institute, as is Nesbitt. “Some had never been out with us despite being several years into the program, so we relished the chance to show them where the fossils they’d been working on came from. We were also excited to see what new fossils may have been weathering out from our repeat localities with two years of wind and rain, and we had new localities to survey with our partners at Texas Tech.”

This summer’s fieldwork – completed in May and June - involved found fossils from the Late Triassic age, roughly 228 million to 210 million years old. “We have a range of localities within that age range, and our detailed excavations are allowing us to track small changes in the species that coexisted together through time,” said Stocker.

A young woman uses a pick-ax and hammer to break into rock bed at Petrified National Forest.

A young woman uses a pick-ax and hammer to break into rock bed at Petrified National Forest.
Geosciences major Megan Sodano works in the field at Petrified National Forest in Arizona. Sodano will talk about her research at the Aug. 30 event. Photo by Rommelyn Coffren for Virginia Tech.

The team, which included former Virginia Tech Department of Chemistry staff member Geno Iannacone as a volunteer, found mostly fossils of reptiles, amphibians, and fish. In Arizona, the team focused on rocks in and around Petrified Forest National Park, working aside park scientists to excavate bone beds. In Texas, the team concentrated on rocks near the town of Post, where Stocker said many Upper Triassic rocks are exposed.

One of the undergraduate students who accompanied Stocker and Nesbitt was Megan Sodano, whose time in the field was funded by the David B. Jones Foundation. Sodano also will be part of the pre-unwrapping presentation.

“I’ll mostly talk about the research that I worked on during the trip which involves looking at the internal and external structures of the unguals of a group of reptiles called Drepanosaurs,” Sodano said. “They’re a very strange clade of reptiles that lived in the Late-Triassic and had a bird-like head, prehensile claw-tipped tail, and what I'm looking at, a large claw at the end of a strange forelimb.”

Steve Holbrook, head of the geosciences department, said, “I'm thrilled that the Paleo Unwrapping Party is returning after its pandemic hiatus. In one fun-filled evening, volunteers of all ages learn about the science of paleontology and get to unwrap and help catalog real paleontological samples, fresh from the field. It's a wonderful event.”

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