Dinosaur Poop

Over the end of last week we powered down and finished most of the smaller samples that we had to get through. During my last week, we’re finally going to break into the specimens that got the “dinosaurs and oversize” department its name. There are some things that I’m still not really experienced enough to do much with, like these brachiosaur vertebrae:

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…but I did get to attempt to fix about half of a rib and the lower quarter or so of a femur, which was cool.

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We also found what we thought may have been an egg until my manager informed me that it was a coprolite which added a little, uh, excitement to the morning.

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(Coprolite = fossilized poop, for those of you who don’t know. That there? That’s a turd.)

We spent the entire afternoon on Friday and today cleaning this massive pelvis. It hasn’t been identified yet, but my manager seems pretty sure that it’s a brontothere, which is a mammal from the Eocene that looks quite a bit like a modern rhino despite being a much closer relative of a horse. We’ve had a lot of scattered pieces of brontothere teeth, ribs, and even a few reasonably intact leg bones, so it’s definitely a possibility.

I talked about cleaning fossils in my last post, but apparently that sort of cleaning is reserved for the weaker bones. In this case, you wash it as usual in the big industrial sink, but for bigger, sturdier fossils, especially ones that are as caked in mud and sandstone as this one was, that’s only step one. While the matrix around it is still wet, you scrape off everything you can with a dental pick, and then let it dry overnight (or, in this case, over the weekend). Then you squirt it with acetone to dissolve any glue that might have been sprayed on it on-site to keep the fossil in one piece.

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(Acetone is really intense and you have to spray it in the industrial sink because it will destroy the paint, the floors, your nail polish, and your soul)

Then you go at it with the dental pick again. Once everything that can be removed has been removed, there’s a chisel and a high-powered hose that you attack it with. We didn’t have to use the hose–since it’s so aggressive, it’s something of a last resort. After it’s at its best state, you rinse it in water, then in acetone again, then in water again. Then it has to sit for an hour or so (time for lunch break) and then we have to glue all the pieces back together that fell apart during cleaning. You end up with something like this:

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(That’s the rib in front, for some scale)

Anyway, going into my last week here. The second of the two cousins that I’m staying with just started his spring break, so we’re going to a local ice cream place as a welcome home. Adieu,

xx

liicranberry

Party Time (Members Only)

Tonight is the much-anticipated weekly Members’ Night at the Field Museum! What that entails is the museum staying open late so that members can tour the usually behind-the-scenes parts. I think there may also be free food involved, but I’m not sure on that one.

Anyway, we spent the last few hours today setting up for that. We’ll be displaying an Uinathere (if you want a good laugh try to pronounce that) jaw and a cast of a full head…

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…as well as a few other things showing steps in the fossil prep process, including an example display assembled by your humble narrator! I couldn’t stay late enough to be at the event itself, but having one of my displays shown was definitely the highlight of my day.

The last couple days have been a bit crazy. Now that my newbie training’s over, I’ve still been doing a lot of cataloging and numbering and making displays, but I’ve also been washing and repairing fossils which is super rad and much more hands-on. Basically, when fossils come in, they’re not the neat little (or huge) bones that you see behind glass. They’re almost always in these weird plaster bags that are full of dried mud and rocks (and maybe a tooth somewhere in there). You have to put this chunk of stuff in a sieve and run water over it. Most of the silt comes off pretty quickly, and as it goes from one big thing to a lot of little things, you have to decrease the water pressure so as not to damage anything. Eventually you wind up with a sieve full of rocks and fossil bits, which you have to separate, and then the fossils get another rinse before being set out to dry. It beats dinner wash any day.

Repair, which was actually the part of my internship I was most excited about, is a total pain in the you-know-what. After all the bone bits are clean and dry, they get organized into boxes by site and then you have to repair them. This translates to: sit and stare at a box of bits of things and try to figure out how they fit together, if they were even from the same animal to begin with. It’s like the most frustrating jigsaw puzzle ever, except there are three different puzzles mixed together and half of the pieces are missing and there’s no picture on the front of the box. If the three of us working down there can get more than five or six matches in a day, it’s pretty successful. We got a whole rib (about two feet long) pretty successfully fixed up on Wednesday, and my manager bought everyone lunch.

xx

liicranberry

Not Very Old Turtles

After a flight up on Saturday and a Sunday filled with grocery shopping, I got up at 5:45 this morning to get in to the Field Museum early so as to fill out my HR paperwork on my first day. The hour-long train ride in was delayed a further twenty minutes due to negative temperatures and snow (the weather in Chicago is not my favorite part of the city) but I somehow made it in by 9. After sitting in an office and signing a bunch of forms, I met my supervisor and was led through the basement of the museum, which was clearly designed with intent to restrain a minotaur. I’m definitely going to get lost every day this week. Finally, though, we made it to a door which displayed the following sign:Image

It looked promising, to say the least. Full disclosure; I abandoned all pretenses of maturity and was grinning like an idiot and looking around at femurs twice my height so fast that I think I may have given myself mild whiplash. 

Of course, I wasn’t put in charge of anything that important on my first day. For now I’m labeling a new shipment of fossils and making and organizing display trays, which is actually sort of fun if you’re the type of person who gets very excited about hot glue and Xacto knives. 

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These are my very scientific supplies. 

Basically, what you do to make a display tray is you take a piece of styrofoam and a template and cut it out. There are approximately 11,000 sizes of templates (probably closer to 15, but math has never been my forte) so you have to do a bit of eyeballing to figure out the size you’ll need. Then, you cut off a square inch from each corner, take an appropriately sized box, and squish the styrofoam in as a lining.

The fun part comes after that, all of which takes about 15 minutes to do your first time and maybe 30 seconds by the end of your first day. The fossils themselves are in little boxes, organized by animal, and you have to arrange them in the trays, label and number them, and make little dividers around them. You end up with something like this:

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Incidentally, I asked my supervisor how old these fossilized turtle legs and claws were. His casual reply was, “Oh, not very. Only from fifty or sixty million years ago.” 

So, yeah. Welcome to paleontology time, where sixty million years is barely vintage.

xx

liicranberry