Tuesday 14 April 2009

Lost In Spain #2 (suppl.): Parlilofograptus gen. et sp. nov.

It occurred to me soon after my arrival in Spain that this was the first field trip I had been on over 1st April, and as such I had an unusual and exciting opportunity: to play an April Fool's Day joke on the students. I checked with the leaders of the trip, who were more than happy for a prank to be played. I asked on Twitter for a couple of suggestions, but in the end decided that sometimes the oldies are the best, and they don't get much older than this:

Yes folks, it was the old draw-the-graptolites-on-the-rock trick. Now, the legend of Cambridge University goes that a certain Respected Pillar Of The Scientific Community was sufficiently fooled by this prank to seriously consider a manuscript, so I was sure it would be bought wholeheartedly by the undergrads. This was reinforced when I showed it to the palaeontology staff members, who thought it was hilarious, and then showed it to the sedimentology staff member, who said "Oh cool, graptolites".

I handed it round, and frankly the moment the poor souls started sketching the rock in their notebooks I nearly lost it. There is no career for me in sitcoms - I was corpsing all over the outcrop. I didn't even need to outright lie to them: I just said "Here, what do you think of this?" and they all said "Oh cool, graptolites". It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

And they all took it in turns to note it - I even came up with a name, Parlilofograptus, which you would have thought might start to give the game away. Some of them were starting to second-guess themselves, muttering "I thought graptolites were extinct" or "It looks like someone's just drawn them on in pencil", but STILL THEY WROTE IT DOWN!

So I was not popular at midday when I confessed that it was all an April Fool. There were groans, shouts of "I knew it!" and one "Well, well, well - it's STILL going in the notebook so there!". It is quite possible that the students will never trust anything I say ever again (although some of them had a sufficiently short memory to ask me about a fossil leaf they found - don't worry kids, I wasn't pulling your leg about that; I do genuinely think it was a beech). However, it was, as well as being bloody hilarious, a useful exercise for them in learning how to trust their own judgment:
  1. They knew that graptolites were extinct by 350Ma, the lower Carboniferous.
  2. They knew we were looking at rocks of Eocene age, at 56-34Ma.
  3. They knew that graptolites were most frequently found in black shales, from low-energy, low-oxygen environments.
  4. They were standing in front of a turbidite (pretty much the complete opposite of a black shale in terms of energy!) on that rock face behind them.
  5. They reckoned it looked as though someone had drawn the "fossils" on in pencil.
Some of the students are still a bit pissed off with me, but they needn't worry as the overall trip leaders were in on the joke and thought it was hilarious - no notebooks will be marked down for the presence of graptolites (although they might win some gullibility points). And if it makes them stop and critically analyse what they're being told rather than blindly writing everything down, then there has been a useful lesson in and around the pranking.

I have absolutely zero authority as far as they're concerned, but it was a sacrifice worth making, and I can't wait to go back and victimise another year group of students.

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