Laelaps

The joys of paleontology

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I’ll be the first to admit it; the specimen was not much to look at. Seventy years after being dug out of the ground much of it had crumbled into four-foot-long Y, and the curved teeth that once stood upright in that jaw had slumped out of their sockets into the sulfur-smelling debris. All the same, it was an impressive sight.

During the past four years I have spent much of my free time reading about evolution and paleontology. Popular summaries, symposium volumes, technical papers; the numerous books that clutter my office and the disorganized mess of PDFs on my hard drive have taught me much about the life of the past. Yet there is no substitute for hands-on experience. It is one thing to see a diagram of a fossil with each bone clearly distinguished by stark lines and with a little annotation telling you what it is, but it is quite another to try and find the edges of the frontal bone on a fragmented fossil skull.

That was one of the challenges I faced today in the lab at the New Jersey State Museum. I loved every minute of it. I am going to keep my exact plans to myself for now, but with any luck I will be able to explain the work I plan to do through publications and presentations in the coming months and years. I love paleontology, and I am elated that I will have the ability to start contributing significantly to the field.

Comments

  1. #1 Nick Gardner
    March 25, 2010

    If you can arrange for the specimen to be CAT scanned at no cost for you (sometimes hospitals will do this service for researchers), you should do it, especially if the specimen is crumbling apart. It would be better to get some kind of digitized version than to keep waiting and then have nothing left at all…

    Also take a ton of pictures and collage them back together in your image editing software of choice…

    That’s my 2 cents,
    Nick

  2. #2 Nick Gardner
    March 25, 2010

    Depending on how heavy the presence of pyrites are though, this could affect the resulting scan quality, as a heads up.

  3. #3 darwinsdog
    March 25, 2010

    I prepared fossils as part of my research assistantship in grad school. At first, I was awed by the responsibility of handling & working on these priceless delicate artifacts of past life. I endeavored to be very careful with my work and became quite skilled at it. After two years of preparing fossils, unfortunately, I was about ready to throw the damned things against the wall. Decided that I didn’t want to spend my career doing paleo- stuff. Besides, at the time, I didn’t think there was much chance of ever doing molecular phylogenetics on fossil materials. That assumption is being proven wrong!

  4. #4 Jason
    March 25, 2010

    Brian,
    You’v finally written sommething I have to take issue with – you’ve contributed significantly to the field for some time now. You’re contributions are only diversifying. We’re excited to have you and to work with you.
    Jason

  5. #5 Doog
    March 25, 2010

    Good post Brian. I hope to do one like this on my blog someday.

    Working on fossils sure is great huh? I got that privilege a couple years ago working on a mammoth. Needless to say, it was quite possibly one of the best summers i have ever had.

  6. #6 Rosel
    March 26, 2010

    HEy Brian, have you had any chance to see Museum of Life? Its a BBC series about the natural history museum in london and the behind the scenes work they do, last night it was about the fossils and they were laser cleaning a hippo skull among other interesting things.
    this is the programme website
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rp1w0
    not sure if it’ll be shown in the US but it might come on DVD or be on Youtube.

  7. #7 Rosel
    March 26, 2010

    Hey Brian you might be interested in the BBC series Museum of Life, its about behind the scenes at The natural History musem in Londo, and lst night was about fossils, there were the fossil conservators,woolly mammoths, Mary Anning and piltdown man.
    Definetely worth catching on DVD ( unless you have sneaky ways of accessing iplayer)
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rp1w0

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