December 02, 2011

Science Behind-the-Scenes: Paleontology Edition (Part 2)

Do you want to work in the fossil collection of a museum and be surrounded by fossils all day? In this edition of Science Behind-the-Scenes, meet the people who work in the paleontology (fossil) collection, learn about what they study, and meet some of our favorite fossils!

A Leptauchenia skull.
The Burke's paleontology collection houses over 3 millions fossils (as you'll know if you've read Part 1) and quite a few people (live, not fossilized), too!

We've got curators of vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants, a fossil preparator, a handful of graduate students doing research and collection work, a legion of volunteers, scientists from the University of Washington and elsewhere doing research, and one collection manager to rule them all.

There's a lot going on! One of the most important jobs is keeping the fossils safe and organized. With this many fossils, if you put something in the wrong drawer it might be lost for years! (This is no exaggeration!) With good care and attention, the Burke's fossils will be available for research and exhibits forever. That's the goal of paleontology collection manager Ron Eng

Caroline's favorite fossil: grass silica.
The Burke's curators are scientists and specialists in their field - for example Caroline Strรถmberg, curator of plant fossils, is a paleobotanist. She studies the evolution of grasslands (technically speaking, grass-dominated vegetation) during the last 70 million years and how it affected animals. Curators help the collection by being experts - they identify fossils, help interpret fossils for exhibits, and help manage the fossil collection. Caroline's favorite fossil? Microscopic minerals left over from prehistoric plants: "My favorite fossil in the Burke collection is early Miocene microscopic silica from grasses that reflect the earliest grasslands that spread in North America."

Fossil preparator Burce Crowley prepares fossils, which means removing them from rock and gluing them if necessary. His job fascinates just about everyone who visits Burke's Behind-the-Scenes tours and really deserves its own blog post (stay tuned!).

Jonathan's favorite: Geomyid skull and skeleton.
Graduate students from the University of Washington help with collection work (like organizing or numbering fossils) and use the collection for research. Graduate student Jonathan Calede from Dr. Greg Wilson's paleontology lab uses fossils in the Burke's collection to study the evolution of mammals. He looks at the teeth of fossil mammals and compares them to the teeth of mammals in the Mammalogy collection to figure out what extinct animals ate. Jonathan's favorite fossil at the Burke is a skeleton of a prehistoric pocket gopher, a Geomyid.

Bradon's favorite: an Antarctic crocodile femur.
Brandon Peecook from Dr. Chris Sidor's paleontology lab recently returned from fossil-hunting trips to Antarctica and Africa. He looks for fossils there to bring back to the Burke. He studies how different groups of animals are related to each other and how they evolved. This helps him understand the diversity of extinct ecosystems that we have no other way of reconstructing: "Currently my favorite fossil at the Burke is the half femur brought back from Antractica that may actually belong to an early relative of crocodilians - something totally unknown from Antarctica before our recovery of the specimen."

Stay tuned for more from Science Behind-the-Scenes! We'll take a look at Bruce Crowley's job and find out how you get fossils from the field (like in Antarctica!) to the museum.

Posted By: Winifred Kehl, Communications