July 18, 2011

Volunteer Spotlight: Paleontology Edition

This month's Volunteer Spotlight features the work of Don, a volunteer in the Burke Museum's Paleontology division.

Jessica, volunteer coordinator: Hi Don! Tell me a little bit about the volunteer work you do at the Burke.

Don: I volunteer in Paleontology in the basement at the Burke, but I get to spend a lot of time outdoors in the field collecting specimens, which I’ve been doing on and off since 1983.

Jessica: How did you end up volunteering at the Burke Museum?

Don: Originally I received my MFA from UW and worked in the gardens on campus, and I got involved after I found a fossil out at the Swauk Formation in Kittitas County in 1983. I didn’t know what it was, so I brought it in to the Burke and Bev Witte, one of the long time volunteers here, immediately identified it as part of a turtle from the Middle Eocene. Since then I have continued to hunt for fossils, volunteer at the Burke and learn about paleontology. I volunteered from 1983-95 and then moved across the country, but continued to come back and volunteer for short periods before finally moving back to the area in 2009 and volunteering regularly since then.

Jessica: What do you like most about volunteering at the Burke?

Don: I like field work the most. Usually I do field work locally, but most recently I went to Colorado for a week to work at the Denver Museum Snowmastodon Project with several other volunteers and paleontologists Kirk Johnson and Ian Miller. We found bones from mastodons, sloths and tiger salamanders.

Jessica: What is the funniest thing that has happened while volunteering?

Don: Usually I collect by myself, so there aren’t too many funny stories to tell! I collected for a week at the Snowmastodon Site for the Denver Museum in June. Paleontologist Kirk Johnson was very loud and encouraging to the volunteers, and was working hard while digging for bones right alongside us. At one point he yelled out to motivate the volunteers, “Bring me the head of a sloth!” and not too long after, someone found one!

Jessica: What would surprise people about what you do?

Don: I think people would be surprised about the size a collection can reach over a period of time. I volunteer at the Burke about 50 hours per week, plus field work. I have worked on developing the collection related to the Tertiary period, primarily at the Swauk Formation where I found the partial turtle, but I have collected throughout Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia.

Before modern technology, we used to heave fossils onto the photocopier and send the copies to researchers around the country. This helped identify the Burke Museum among researchers, and bring graduate students and academic interest to the museum. The Burke Museum has come a long way, and now we have three curators in paleontology – paleobotany, vertebrate paleontology, and invertebrate paleontology.

Jessica: Briefly describe your most memorable project.

Don: One of the biggest finds I have made was one of my first – the partial turtle found at the Swauk Formation. Since then I have continued to focus my collecting on that area, collecting on Chuckanut Drive at first and then moving inland. We are accumulating a collection of animal footprints including the Terror bird from the foothills around Mt. Baker, similar to one found in the Burke Museum lobby right now.

Thanks, Don, for all of your contributions to the Burke Museum and for sharing your wonderful stories with us!

Posted By: Jessica Newkirk, Volunteer Coordinator