Dino Idol and the Story of our Plaster Field Jackets

Starting February 16, take part in Dino Idol when you visit the museum. Vote for a new dinosaur research project by choosing your favourite among five field jackets that encase dinosaur bones—we have some idea what’s in these hidden treasures, but we won’t know for sure until the winner gets cracked open and the bones are prepared for study. But where do these come from? And why are they sealed up? Curator Kieran Shepherd explains.

Most of us have something on our ‘to do’ list that that we never seem to get around to completing. A museum is no exception. As Curator of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s large fossil collection, I have a few fossils that were collected a century ago and still have yet to see the light of day. Welcome to our dinosaur field jacket collection!

Man pointing to shelves holding plaster field jackets.

Kieran Shepherd stands among the rows of plaster field jackets stored in the museum’s collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec. There are about 120 large jackets and 100 smaller ones that could have individual elements. Image: Peter Frank © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Anytime I give a tour of our collection, these field jackets generate a lot of interest. So what are they, what do they contain and how did we end up with this collection? Simply, a field jacket is made of burlap and plaster and is what a palaeontologist uses to protect a dinosaur fossil for transportation from the field to the laboratory.

Once the fossil is safe in the lab, the field jacket is carefully removed prior to preparation. Preparation is the mechanical process in which the rock is removed to expose the dinosaur fossil.

During the first 25 years of the last century, there was what I like to call a “dinosaur rush” during which many of the major natural history museums in North America and Europe sent field parties to collect dinosaur fossils in western North America.

A plaster field jacket on shelf.

One of the oldest field jackets in the museum’s collection, collected in summer 1912 from a site in Alberta. Image: Kieran Shepherd © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Sometimes only the most interesting field jackets were prepared, while others were left on the shelves to gather dust. Often, only the skull was prepared and the skeleton was left for another time.

Why only prepare the skull? The skull is the most diagnostic element of a dinosaur. The skull is used to determine if what was found in the field could be a new species of dinosaur. Dinosaur palaeontologists loved to establish new dinosaur species. In fact, they still do!

So why do we not open them up now? It certainly is very tempting, but preparation is a time-consuming process. We only open these historic field jackets if we believe they will assist us with our current research.

Fortunately, we have some idea what may be inside these jackets. We have the field notebooks—much like diaries—written by the palaeontologists that collected these fossils decades ago.

Are these old field jackets worth keeping? Absolutely! I have curated the collection for almost 25 years and have been involved in two research projects in which a few of these jackets were opened. The result: two new dinosaur species. Vagaceratops and Xenoceratops were hiding in these jackets just waiting to be discovered! These are time capsules from the past. Who knows what we will find the next time we open one of these historic field jackets?

Now that I have told you something about this special collection, we need your help deciding on our next big field jacket adventure. Be sure to visit the museum starting February 16 and vote for the one you would like to see the Canadian Museum of Nature open next!

An opened plaster field jacket in lab, showing the rock and fossils contained within.

A field jacket being prepared in the fossil prep lab at the museum’s collections facility. Image: Kieran Shepherd © Canadian Museum of Nature.

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9 Responses to Dino Idol and the Story of our Plaster Field Jackets

  1. Jason says:

    Wow! This was a real eye-opener. I didn’t realize there were so many unopened jackets in the collections! I’m really looking forward to hearing more about this from Kieran…

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