October 21, 2011

Science Behind-the-Scenes: Paleontology Edition (Part 1)

 Oligocene fossils fill this cabinet.
Have you ever been to the Burke and wondered what's in the rest of the building? Behind the exhibits (actually, under them, around them, and above them!) are offices, the exhibit workshop, and enough cabinets full of wonder to make Indiana Jones jealous.

In this edition of the new feature Science Behind-the-Scenes, meet the Burke's fossil collection and find out the secret of our ugly fossils!
Our gorgeous Xiphactinus guards the ugly palm.

As a paleontologist (someone who studies dinosaurs and other prehistoric life), my favorite cabinets are, of course, the ones filled with fossils. And the Burke has a lot of fossils over 3 million including plants, animals, invertebrates (like snails), and even fossilized pollen. Only a few of the Burke's fossils are on display because there's just not enough room to show them all. You can visit dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts in the Life and Times exhibit or see fossilized plants and pollen in the Estella Leopold display under the giant Xiphactinus.

The Ugly Palm
One secret about the fossils that you do get to see on display they're usually the pretty ones, but not necessarily the most important. Many of the fossils in the cabinets are pretty ugly  but ugly fossils are important! It's not common for living things to fossilize when they die conditions have to be just right and every fossil can tell us something about the past.

A great example of this is the fossilized palm plant in the Estella Leopold display. The palm looks like a dark brown bug splat on a grey rock, and it's covered in glue and surrounded by plaster. But this is the first and only palm fossil from the area it was found and it tells us a lot about what that area was like millions of years ago because palm plants need a warm and wet environment to live. Without this ugly fossil, we might not know as much as we do about how the climate in North American has changed over millions of years.

A drawer full of oreodont teeth.
Another fossil treasure that might look like trash is this drawer full of teeth. What good is a drawer full of teeth if you don't have the skull that goes with them? As it turns out, teeth even without the rest of their bodies are great for paleontologists to study. Teeth are really hard and preserve better in the fossil record than other bones. Teeth can even tell us whose skull they came from. A mammal paleontologist can tell the teeth of different mammals apart just by looking at them (and maybe using a few reference books). So a drawer full of teeth can tell us what kinds of animals lived in an area and how many of them there were.

And that can tell us all sorts of other things, like how animal communities change, so stay tuned for the Paleoecology edition of Science Behind-the-Scenes! And look for more Science Behind-the-Scenes at the Burke to learn about the mammal, bird, fish, and DNA collections, the collection managers who make research at the Burke possible, and the scientists who use the collections    and what they've discovered.

Posted by: Winifred Kehl, Communications