Category Archives: Lab Blog

There’s more to records than B-Sides


It goes without saying that documentation is an integral aspect of any science, but I’m going to say it anyway.  DOCUMENTATION IS AN INTEGRAL ASPECT OF ANY SCIENCE!  Without the proper records and record-keeping procedures, the context of the specimen is completely lost.

This is going to be my first real in-field experience and the concept of following proper methods has been drilled into my head from both hypothetical and practical perspectives.  Case in point:  this bucket of matrix that came from…….wait…….we don’t know where this came from!  Take a wild guess why  🙂

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.

See What’s Going On!

Special thanks to museum volunteer Dick Webb! Visitors can now see the specimens as they are being prepared in the air abrasion chamber.  The previous commercial-grade unit kept workers from breathing the harmful dust created by the process, but it also kept visitors from seeing what we were doing in there.  That’s because the box was all metal except for the glass viewing window on the technician’s side.  With a collaborative design effort by Dick Webb, Lisa Herzog and the folks in the Exhibits department  here at the museum (who also built the box) we now have a fantastic custom built unit that allows viewing from both sides of the abrasion chamber.

Stop by and see what’s going on in the lab!  And see what’s going on INSIDE the micro-abrasion chamber for a change.

Abrasion box

Scorpion Hunting

A favorite evening pastime around camp, hunting for scorpions with a black light.  Apparently, my tent was a hot spot, much to my chagrin.  Emily found a cutie inside her tent one morning (first time I’ve woken up to screaming at field camp) and another crawling up her chair a few days earlier.  After week 2, the crew went a bit feral and it was scorpions for breakfast (sautéed with onions and peppers of course… what do you take us for?)


Gigantic T. rex! at Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium

Me with Matt Brown (Chief Preparator, UT Austin) and Mike Eklund (Vehement Pioneer of Methods & Materials in Paleontology) at the base of the world’s largest T. rex in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada

FPCS2013The 6th annual FPCS in Drumheller Canada was a wonderful trip to the Royal Tyrrell Museum and Dinosaur Provincial Park.  Had a chance to meet and socialize with colleagues from many institutions.  This conference has doubled in size in the six years since the first meeting in 2008 at Petrified Forest National Park.

The mornings were filled with talks on how collections storage and preparation techniques have changed over the history of paleontology.  As collections grow and age proper care is required to maintain what has already been collected, as well as how to care for newly acquired specimens.  In the afternoons we were able to tour the museum, collections, laboratories and offices as well as participate in hands on workshops relating to methods on preparation and collections.  This is the best part for me.  I love to see how other institutions operate, talk to others about problems  and often get great tips on how to improve methods in the care of specimens in my own institution.

Storage for unopened and unprepared field jackets. Each field jacket is marked with specimen information, collection data, as well as the weight of the jacket. Some of the field jackets are over 1000lbs!
The storage space where finished specimens live. These are all cataloged and documented. The “type” specimens are locked in a separate room. The Tyrrell has many large specimens stored on open shelving like this, but also a lot of smaller things in cabinets with drawers.

The Collections at the Tyrrell are filled with many specimens that still require preparation, and many that have been beautifully prepared in their enormous lab space.  The space is equipped with rolling tables and mobile dust collection units.  So much of what they work on in here is large blocks filled with dinosaur bones or marine reptiles that open, modular space is essential.  A 3 ton hoist is located at one end of the lab for moving the large jacket from pallets onto the worktables.  There is another, smaller lab space equipped with microscope workstations for more detailed, finer preparation.

This window looks out into the exhibit space. The preparator’s call their lab the “fish bowl”. A common nick-name for public labs. Always on display, like fish in a bowl…
Another view of the main preparation lab. A lot of big dinosaurs and marine reptiles get worked on in here. They need lots of space, and can have several work stations with large specimens going at a time.

Untamed Paleontology

Last month the awesome folks at Untamed Science came to visit us at the Paleontology Lab.  They wanted to know how we dig up dinosaur bones and we were happy to oblige.  Have you ever wondered?  Check out the video for a crash lesson in digging dinos.


Finished the molding of the two claws with success.  Was kind of a nail biter when the Vinac did not initially appear to be working as a separator between the two halves of the mold, but with a little bit of coaxing, the two halves opened up and the claws were perfectly in tact on the in inside.  Casting went quickly with 7 casts of each claw finished in one day.  See below for the final steps in this process and a little bit of art at the end.

First side done. Ready to pour second side after a coating of Vinac (B15) as a separator between the two sides. Wouldn’t want the next pour of rubber to adhere to the first pour. The claws would then be trapped inside.
Mold is complete and specimens are undamaged. Success.
Plaster is in and the cast is curing. Using a little light bulb heat to help promote the curing process.
Just like the original but in albino form. First of seven casts. Still a few more to make, but definitely a good start.
Getting crafty with the final products. Next step is painting then we will be sending them out to our generous sponsors. Thanks everyone for helping to make a successful 2012 collecting season at the Crystal Geyser Quarry!