Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Tiny Fossils, Big Picture

A Deep Time Lineages Activity

Activity Description


Students will learn how to use microscopic fossil pollen — evidence of past plant life — to reconstruct a plant community that thrived millions of years ago.

  • Designed for groups of up to 5 students
  • Grades 3-8 or Ages 8-13
  • Activity should take 15-20 minutes to complete


Students work together to help solve a mystery: What did the Hell Creek, North Dakota, landscape (pictured below) look like during the time of the dinosaurs? Students are assigned roles of paleoartists and field scientists. The field scientists describe the fossil pollen they see in a microscope slide. The paleoartists match the description to a key of plants we know from modern pollen. Each time they identify a plant, they place it in the reconstructed landscape for the Cretaceous Period. Once they have completed the picture based on the evidence at hand, they are presented with reconstructions of other time periods for that same location. They observe what has changed, make hypotheses about the causes of those changes, and ask questions.

Landscape of striped, sedimentary rock formations sticking up out of grassland.
Hell Creek, North Dakota

Students will:

  • Understand that pollen is part of a plant and fossilizes, which means it can be used as evidence of the presence of plants in a past ecosystem 
  • Understand that fossil evidence is laid down in layers, allowing you to compare evidence from one layer, or time period, with evidence from another layer, or time period, and infer change over time
  • Describe what they see, drawing on close observation, use of strong descriptive language, and comparison of features, patterns, and detail 
  • Compare the reconstructed ecosystems of the same location at different times and discuss and hypothesize why those changes occurred. 
  • Feel like they’re doing science 

Science Standards (NGSS)

Life Science

3rd Grade

  • 3-LS4-1: Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and the environments in which they lived long ago.
  • 3-LS4-3: Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.

4th Grade

  • 4-LS1-1: Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.

5th Grade

  • 5-LS2-1: Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.
    • Disciplinary Core Idea, LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems. The food of almost any kind of animal can be traced back to plants. Organisms are related in food webs in which some animals eat plants for food and other animals eat the animals that eat plants.

Grades 6-8

Life Science

MS-LS4 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity

  • MS-LS4-1: Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.

Earth Science

4th Grade

  • 4-ESS1-1: Identify evidence from patterns in rock formations and fossils in rock layers to support an explanation for changes in a landscape over time.

Grades 6-8

  • MS-ESS1-4: Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence from rock strata for how the geologic time scale is used to organize Earth’s 4.6-billion-year-old history.

Download Materials to Use in Your Classroom

You can print and play this activity using a basic color printer and a laminator, or you can choose to produce something a bit more durable and high fidelity with off-the-shelf purchases, a 3D printer, and a custom print shop. Find instructions for each option below.

We recommend no more than 5 students engage in the activity at a time. Multiple copies may be necessary to have an entire classroom divide into groups to do the activity at the same time. 

  • Printable Magnet Paper - 8.5x11 and 11x17
  • Magnetic tabletop easel
  • 3D Printer



Print on printable magnet paper and cut out:


Print on 11x17 or letter paper and laminate, or print on game board:

Print on magnet paper – 11x17, attach to one side of tabletop easel:

Print on letter paper and laminate, attach to opposite side of tabletop easel:

Print on letter paper and laminate:

Print on 11x17 or letter paper and laminate, or print on game board, or put on foam core:

Print on 11x17 or letter paper and laminate:



Resource Type
Hands-On Activities
Grade Level
3-5, 6-8
Learning Standards
Next Generation Science Standards
Earth Science, Paleontology