What do we do with fossils after we dig them up?

Summer is coming soon, and that means we will be heading back into the desert to dig up some more fossils. We’ve blogged about the process of prospecting, unearthing our discoveries, wrapping them in plaster and hauling them back, but what next? What do we do with the fossils once we get them back to the lab?

Pile o' fossils
The fruits of our labor after a successful field season.
Now What?

Another question might be why do we need to bring the fossils back at all? The short answer is that we bring them back so that we can study them. This means taking measurements, looking very closely at the features of the bones, and comparing them to similar bones from different species. It is our job as scientists to identify what bones we have, what species they come from, and how they’re related to other species. It would not be possible to do this without studying the bones very closely in the lab. As paleontologists, when we try to understand the past and extinct life, most of the information we use comes from fossils, and so we try to learn every single detail that they can teach us. If it is a new species, we have to describe the specimen fully and publish a scientific article on it before it can be given a name.

Destructive Sampling

Occasionally we do what is called bone histology. That means slicing thin sections out of the bone and looking at them under a microscope. From this we are able to tell things like the age of an animal when it died and how fast it was growing. This can help us determine if a specimen is a new species, or just a juvenile form of another species. It can also tell us a lot about the actual biology of an animal and what it was like when it was alive.

Thin Section (tooth)
Histology slide of a dinosaur tooth under 4000X magnification
The Fate of Fossils

Once we are finished describing a specimen, it usually goes into the museum collections. In the basement beneath the museum, we literally have drawers and shelves full of thousands and thousands of different specimens. Only between 1 and 5% of those specimens will be put on display, and it is usually only the biggest, the rarest, or the most special fossils that get shown to the public. The rest are usually kept down in the collections, out of public view. So what is the point, why do we collect fossils if no one from the public gets to look at them? It turns out that some of the greatest discoveries in paleontology were made by scientists looking through museum collections at fossils that nobody knew were important at the time they were collected. We can’t always correctly identify the fossils we dig up, and it is sometimes up to later scientists to go back through and determine the identity and significance of some finds. Additionally, when we describe new specimens, it is important to compare them to material that has already been collected. So in a sense, the previously collected material is like an encyclopedia. It is a reference that scientists can use, and the more fossils we have in our collections, the better they are as a resource.

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