Piece-work

fish fossil preparation

fish fossil preparation

Somewhere between dental surgery and sculptural art is the work of the fossil preparator. Fossil preparation is what happens after the challenges of finding and removing specimens from the earth during field work. The field season lasts weeks, while specimen preparations go on for much longer. The critical bits that tell a researcher what the fossil is (for example a skull) are usually prepared as a first priority, but the other less diagnostic pieces can wait a long time. If you search our collection shelves you will find many field jackets containing these secondary specimens from the early 20th century still waiting for the caring chisel of a preparator.

When Paleobiologists find fossils they are rarely sitting on the surface, nicely cleaned and ready for study. They are more likely poking out of a rock face in an awkward location, far from civilization. Through dedicated efforts, at times semi-heroic, the fossil (and the rock) are removed, packaged and transported to a preparation lab. Sometimes the discoverer and the preparator are the same person, but usually the special skill of liberating a fossil from a rocky matrix is a dedicated task that is not taught in school.

fossil fish bones

fossil fish bones

The preparation process can happen in many ways. Some are direct and interactive, others are longer-term and mysterious. At the research facility of the Canadian Museum of Nature we have a lab dedicated to acid baths. While that sounds like a James Bond sort of thing, this is where rocks containing many fossils are soaked in grocery store vinegar (3% acetic acid) for weeks or months. The rock is slowly dissolved and the fossils remain. The collection of teeth and bones give researchers a sense of the community of species that lived (and died) together. This knowledge of communities also provides information about the physical environment of a time in history, including the climate. These museum collections build a more complete natural history of the past and present for Canada.

tools

tools

In another lab fossils are removed from rocks with power tools. This is a special area where we expect to have noise, dust and pieces of stone fly through the air. Much of the fine work is done with the help of a dissecting microscope and involves healthy measures of glue, cameras, note taking and sketches. The preparator pays close attention to textures, colours, shapes, patterns and the hardness of materials. Pneumatic hand tools have made work faster and easier, but it is still a long process to remove fossils from rock. The training for this job may be provided in a cursory fashion in school, but that is like saying you learn how to play hockey in gym class. You might learn the basics in school, but to be trusted with valuable specimens you have to practice this trade.

The abilities to recognize the fossil from the rocky matrix, to know how hard to press and chip and pry are all learned by watching others, listening to the masters and trying, over and over again.

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