Burpee’s 23rd PaleoFest Goes Virtual

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

What hasn’t changed in this year’s 23rd annual event is the impressive lineup of guest speakers and researchers.

“We’re excited that PaleoFest fans can attend from around the world without having to travel this year, while networking with scientists and researchers, listening to great talks and having fun despite the pandemic,” says Anne Weerda, Burpee Museum’s executive director. “The talks are designed for the public and for dinosaur and fossil enthusiasts of all ages.”

The event begins Friday, March 5, with a symposium for students age kindergarten through high school. Teachers can bring their students face-to-face with world-famous paleontologists through classroom or remote access. The first 1,000 registrants are free.

A simple, no-software-needed login will allow students to connect with worldwide teams of scientists from Argentina to Australia. 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 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.

A virtual museum opens at 10 a.m.; the Mighty T. Rex Workshop is at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; a 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, Jane. During PaleoFest, people can learn about the history of the carnivore and the tiny animals who ran about under her feet. Viewers will “travel” back to the Cretaceous era and learn how recent discoveries are helping today’s scientists to understand it.

The Ice Age was marked by many amazing animals, some that have descendants living today. At PaleoFest, people learn about animals and other living things that roamed around 2.8 million years ago during the Pleistocene era in what’s now Illinois.

“The event attracts people who are curious about what the world was like before we walked this earth,” says Weerda. “The new platform Burpee is using creates new ways to interact and exciting ways to learn.”

One of PaleoFest’s 12 keynote speakers is Associate Professor Dr. Julie Meachen, a vertebrate paleontologist from Des Moines University. Her research focuses on how climate change and the extinction events at the end of the Ice Age (11,500 years ago) have affected the morphology and ecology of living and ice age species. She studies the ecology 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 native language where she was found, is the oldest and best-preserved late Pleistocene wolf specimen known. Radioactive dating revealed the pup died more than 50,000 years ago. 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 that are alive today in the region.

PaleoFest also draws 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.

“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 have accomplished this year and expect virtual learning to be a permanent part of our offerings even after the pandemic.

“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. We should all be very proud that Burpee is an intellectual center in our community,” Weerda says.

Find a complete schedule, learn about admission costs and register at burpeemuseum.org, or call (815) 965-3433 or email burpee@burpee.org. ❚