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Prehistoric Climate Change

Source Institutions

    Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies

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Prehistoric Climate Change

In this online interactive, learners use fossils to infer temperatures 55 million years ago, at the sites where the fossils were found. Using their observation skills, learners examine fossils of tree leaves and sort them into "smooth" and "toothed" leaves. Learners follow the process founded by Smithsonian paleontologist Scott Wing (featured in a video) to determine the temperature at the site where the fossils were found. Learners are challenged to: distinguish between smooth and toothed leaves using a scientific method called "leaf-margin analysis"; calculate the smooth-leaf percentage; calculate average annual temperature at two fossil sites; compare calculations between sites; and consider how prehistoric climate change matters today.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
10 to 30 minutes

Estimated Materials Cost:

Age Range:
Ages 11 - 18

Resource Type:


Materials List (per student)

  • computer (flash enabled) with Internet access
  • calculator (optional)


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Earth Processes
      • Weather and Climate
    • Earth's History
      • Archeology
      • Geologic Time
      • Fossils
      • History of Life
      • Ecology
  • Life Sciences
    • Diversity of Life
      • Plants
    • Evolution
      • History of Life
  • Mathematics
    • Algebra
      • Equations and Inequalities
      • Variables and Expressions
    • Data Analysis and Probability
      • Data Analysis
      • Data Collection
      • Data Representation
    • Measurement
      • Units of Measurement
      • Rate
    • Number and Operations
      • Decimals
      • Multiples and Factors
      • Operations
    • Problem Solving
    • Reasoning and Proof
  • The Nature of Science
    • The Scientific Process
      • Gathering Data
      • Formulating Explanations
    • Science as a Career

Informal Categories

  • Nature and Environment


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • read
  • hear
  • use keyboard
  • use mouse

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access



  • All Rights Reserved, Smithsonian Institution, ©2009


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