Camels in the Cambrian? A Geology Mnemonic

Sitting camel

Sitting camel. Indian ink on paper. Copyright Leila Battison 2012

How did you learn the geological timescale?

Geology is not a standard subject in the UK Curriculum, so those few students who arrive at university having done it at GCSE or A-Level, have usually been taught it by non-tradtitional means.  They are more exposed to the whim and wit of their teacher than they would be in any other subject.

In fact, it was partly the charisma and enthusiasm of my A-Level Geology teacher that prompted me to apply to Geology at university, and…well, the rest is history.  Initially planning to take science subjects and apply for biochemistry, I chose Geology at A-Level on a bit of a whim – having always enjoyed physical geography.  Imperceptibly, as the weeks passed, all thoughts of biochemistry slipped away, and I realised I’d been a geologist all along.  Starting it at university was a bit of a shock to the system, and it was only then I realised my love affair was not entirely with the subject, but also with the teaching (not the teacher, I know how that sounds), and I was suddenly deprived of it.

Amongst the physical memories: Shap granite on the front desk, the poster about petroleum play (tee hee) and the river delta tank – some lessons still remain.  By far the most useful was a handy mnemonic for remembering the order of the geological time periods.  I was surprised to find later that not everyone learnt this, and I admit I have rather come to depend on it, reciting it inside my head whenever I need to pluck a series of periods out of the air.  It goes like this:

Camels Often Sit Down Carefully, Perhaps Their Joints Creak – reciting upwards from the base of the Phanerozoic goes through Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.  In fact, this only really covers the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic, but they are always the trickiest ones to remember. Nevertheless, my choice to research the Palaeozoic and Precambrian is in part due to the fact that I have no idea of the order of the things in the Tertiary.  Perhaps it is possible to become too reliant on a mnemonic…

Let me tell you one of my favourite things about this little phrase.  It is clever when it come to C’s.  You have three periods beginning with C – the Cambrian, the Carboniferous, and the Cretaceous.  Now if you didn’t know and you were given an acrostic-style mnemonic that dealt only with the first letter, you would be left in the dark while you were guessing whether the Cretaceous or the Carboniferous came first.  But this is great in that the C’s are padded out – CAMels for the CAMbrian; CARefully for the CARboniferous, and CREak for the CREtaceous.  Neat, huh?

So no, it won’t help with your Vendians or Ripheans, or with your Palaeogene or Pleistocene, but it is a super little phrase which played a big part in shaping my career.

I’d love to hear any other suggestions, especially something that can help ease my distrust of the Cenozoic…?

 

The Pinnacle of Cake Evolution

Each year, our Earth Science Department in Oxford has a Christmas party which incorporates, amongst other things, a cake competition.  Each research group makes a cake that is in some way related to their work. The palaeontologists have always been something of a diminutive group, and have been considered the underdogs in the department, but with the arrival of three new members this year we are growing strong.  We decided to take on a mammoth task with our cake – to represent the evolution of all life, from the first cells to humans, on a gigantic spiral cake.  This was the inspiration:

And, after 30 hours, 32 eggs, and 3kg of marzipan, this was the outcome:

Evolution cake by the Oxford Palaleobiology Group

This photo isn’t really the best, and there are lots of things I would like to draw your attention to, so I have made a lovely video for your watching pleasure. You can find it *here*.

Anyway, we were all supremely happy with what we produced, which was just as well because we didn’t even win the competition.  Not that I’m bitter about that at all….  It would seem that when a cake is being judged on both style and taste, you can’t rely on a thoroughly manhandled multi-bake cake and marzipan to clinch the deal.  Never mind.

I plan to hand in a less edible version as a diorama alongside my thesis.  Pretty sure it will boost my approval?