Burpee’s 23rd PaleoFest Goes Virtual

This Rockford museum’s major event will draw people from around the world for a unique look at all things paleontology. As it goes all-digital this year, find out what surprises await.

For the first time, Burpee Museum of Natural History’s annual PaleoFest will be all-virtual, allowing scientists, families and students everywhere to learn from and interact with scientists around the globe.

What hasn’t changed in this year’s 23rd annual event is the impressive lineup of guest speakers and researchers who’ll share their knowledge, findings and research through special activities, videos and workshops with other scientists, researchers, students and the general public.

Participants will get the latest paleontology news, network with each other and be part of online discussions.
“We’re excited that PaleoFest fans can attend from around the world without having to travel this year, while networking with scientists, researchers and other experts, listening to great talks and having fun despite the pandemic,” says Anne Weerda, Burpee Museum’s executive director. “PaleoFest is an opportunity to celebrate the ongoing research and specimens at Burpee and other museums. The talks are designed for the general public and for dinosaur and fossil enthusiasts of all ages.”

The event begins Friday, March 5, with a student symposium for children in kindergarten through high school. Research, science adventures and discoveries will be presented. Teachers have an opportunity to bring their students face-to-face with world-famous paleontologists through the classroom or remote learning access. The first 1,000 registrants are free.

From discovering an amazing ice age wolf puppy to uncovering secrets of the mighty T. rex, scientists will share their research and photographs while engaging students in real-world scientific discussion.

A simple, no-software-needed login will allow students to connect with worldwide teams of scientists from Argentina to Australia and California to Iowa. The talks are pre-recorded but scientists will answer questions live. Burpee Museum staff will moderate the discussions and keep the audience engaged.

More research talks and family activities happen Saturday and Sunday, March 6-7, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Families can enjoy hands-on workshops, lectures and activities through an easy-to-use online platform, Weerda says.
A virtual museum opens at 10 a.m.; the Mighty T. Rex Workshop is at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; Wolf Puppies & Ice Age Workshop is at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; and a research lecture begins at 3:30 p.m.

Burpee Museum is most famous for its juvenile T. Rex, affectionately named Jane. During PaleoFest, people can learn about this carnivore and the tiny animals who ran about under her feet. Viewers will “travel” to the Cretaceous era and learn what recent discoveries are helping scientists to understand this period of the earth’s history.

The Ice Age was marked by many amazing animals, some of which have descendants living today. At PaleoFest, learn about animals and other living things that roamed around 2.8 million years ago during the Pleistocene era in what’s now Illinois. Topics range from animals of the era to anthropology and the most recent discovery: a seven-week-old wolf puppy preserved in ice.

“The event attracts people who want to learn about history and are curious about what the world was like before we walked this Earth,” says Weerda. “They are literally seeing another world and piecing together stories to see how plants and animals lived millions of years ago.”

Kids at home can enter contests, learn about prehistoric animals and explore the museum halls with Burpee staff. Those who enjoy drawing dinosaurs can learn from the experts in both the lectures and paleoart workshops. Once in the virtual environment, audiences can search for “secret” clickable hot spots and Paleo Stations to learn more about dinosaurs, current research and all things prehistoric.

“The new platform Burpee is using creates new ways to interact and exciting ways to learn,” Weerda says.
One of PaleoFest’s 12 keynote speakers is Associate Professor Dr. Julie Meachen, a vertebrate paleontologist from Des Moines University. She researches how climate change and the extinction events at the end of the Ice Age (11,500 years ago) have affected the ecology of living and Ice Age species. Her work focuses on carnivores, and she has studied the ecology and evolution of species such as coyotes, dire wolves and saber-tooth cats.
Her talk centers around the discovery of Zhur. In 2016, a gold miner named Neil Loveless uncovered an ancient wolf pup from the permafrost in the Klondike goldfields near Dawson City, Yukon, Canada. It’s among the most complete and best-preserved fossil mummified carcasses ever found in the region. Zhur, which means “wolf” in the language native to where she was found, is also the oldest and best-preserved late Pleistocene wolf specimen known at this time.

Radioactive dating revealed the pup died more than 50,000 years ago, and other techniques suggest her geological age is between 56,000 and 58,000 years. When found, she was a nearly completely intact specimen of a seven-week-old pup, complete with fur, skin, soft tissue and a digestive system.

Ancient DNA analyses confirm she was a gray wolf and closely related to other wolves that lived in Siberia, Alaska and Northern Canada during the Ice Age. More importantly, her relatives are not closely related to the wolves alive today in the region.

PaleoFest also draws in keynote speakers like Steve Salisbury of Queensland University at Brisbane, Australia. He’s a vertebrate paleontologist who studies dinosaurs and crocodilians from Gondwana.

Caitlin Colleary, of Cleveland Museum of Natural History, studies molecular taphonomy. Vertebrate paleontologist Thomas Holtz, from the University of Maryland, studies theropod dinosaurs. Vertebrate paleontologist Diego Pol Museo, of Argentina, studies the evolution of dinosaurs and crocodilians of Patagonia.
Paleobiologist Lauren Salla, of the University of Pennsylvania, studies macroevolutionary processes in early vertebrates and marine ecosystems. Paleontologist Heidi Allen, of the Geological Survey of Western Australia in Perth, Australia, studies microbialites of western Australia and how they shaped the Earth. Paleontologist Eric Scott, of Cogstone Resource Management in California, studies Ice Age mammals.

Weerda says this year’s online opportunity offers the audience more flexibility in when they view talks and brings unlimited exposure to more international speakers than ever before.

“Even before COVID-19, we explored online learning and hosting virtual events, so it was a natural progression since the pandemic changed how we do things,” Weerda says. “We’re very happy with what we’ve accomplished this year and expect virtual learning to be a permanent part of our offerings even after the pandemic. This year, we’re excited about reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend the event because they’re so far away. This is especially important for university students.”

Admission for family activities ranges from $5 to $75, depending on the number of workshops and activities attended. Weekend VIP pricing is $150 for the general public and $100 for members & students. It includes all 12 research lectures (six per day), a question/answer session with one of the speakers, the Burpee collections tour, a PaleoFest T-shirt and a PaleoFest poster.

Tickets for only the Saturday and Sunday lecture series are $75 for the general public and $65 for members and students. One-day-only lecture series access is $60 for the public and $45 for members & students. All talks are available 60 days after the event, for tickets purchased by March 6.

“This is a do-not-miss event and an opportunity to see some of the greatest minds of our time coming together to talk about science, and we should all be very proud that Burpee is an intellectual center in our community,” Weerda says.

For questions or assistance with registration, go to burpeemuseum.org, call (815) 965-3433 or email [email protected].