September 10, 2012

Drawing conclusions: One geologist's glimpse into ancient marine life

A fossil found at the Metaline Falls quarry.
Fossils are an important key to understanding life on our planet. They can tell us a lot about creatures who inhabited the Earth millions of years before us. Finding a fossil is one thing. Figuring out what the fossil once was, is another. That’s where geologists like Ed East come in.

Ed is a retired geologist and longtime Burke Museum volunteer and donor with a keen eye for identifying fossils. But when he recently was stuck while trying to identify rare fossils, he looked for a creative approach to discovering what they were and started drawing.

I sat down with Ed on his last day as a volunteer at the Burke Museum. After more than 30 years he had a lot of memories and research to sort through. He pulled out a file folder and spread dozens of fossil drawings across his desk, but before he could start describing them, a photograph caught his eye. Ed gently unpinned the old photo of a clean-shaven young man on his graduation day. "This is me when I attended school here," he said with a smile.

Ed's geology career began while he was a student at the University of Washington. He spent a lot of time doing field work and research at the Burke, until he graduated and went to work as an exploration geologist for Union Oil Company. After 35 years of what Ed called "good work" and worldwide travel with Union Oil, he retired and returned to the place that had inspired him as a young man. 

Ed East and Ron Eng at the
Metaline Falls fossil site.
In the fall of 2004, Ed joined a team of Burke researchers, including paleontology curator Liz Nesbitt and geology collections manager Ron Eng, on a trip to the Metaline Falls area in the northeastern corner of Washington State. A quarry near Metaline Falls boasted fine-grained limestone that was once the ocean floor, 510 million years ago, during the Cambrian period.

Inside the quarry were fossils – some of the oldest in the world. These fossilized marine invertebrates (without a backbone) are the ancestors of all animal life today, even animals with backbones such as fish, reptiles and mammals.

Finding fossils is extremely rare in itself, but these fossils were particularly unusual because they contained impressions of soft-bodied marine animals. Most often the remains of soft-bodied animals naturally decayed, leaving very little behind. But in rare cases, if all of the conditions were right, sediment covered the animal (completely flattening it) and developed an impression of the animal's remains in rock.

Many of these soft-bodied fossils are difficult for researchers to place in modern animal categories or match up with any modern descendants. The Burke collection contained many of these unidentified specimens. That's when Ed turned to a pencil and tracing paper.

Ed starts his drawings
with a photo of the fossil and enlarges it 2, 3 even 8 times. He then places tracing paper over the photo and gently sketches highlights of the fossil's shape.

A soft-bodied fossil and Ed's drawing.
Ed picked up a drawing of a gangly-looking organism and stared closely at it for a minute,"Some of these things we still don’t have a name for,” he said while gently tracing his finger over the pencil markings. “This one - it’s not too sexy," he said with a smile.

Only a handful of people use similar techniques to try and identify fossils. Some of the strange looking creatures appear as if they could have been life from another planet, but they provide insight into the past life of these ancient marine organisms.

Beautiful or not, the abstract details in Ed's drawings have already helped narrow down the identifications of several soft-bodied fossils, and will continue to aide Burke researchers for years to come.

After walking me through several of his fossil drawings, Ed carefully placed them in a pile on the corner of his desk for the geology team. Though Ed no longer volunteers at the Burke, his tremendous impact in the field of geology as well as his work in our collection continues on.

Thanks, Ed!

Visit our website for more information about Paleontology at the Burke Museum.

By Cathy Britt, Digital Communications
Siri Lanz contributed to this geology project as part of her work with the Graduate Program in Museum Studies.