by Alan McDonald and Kathlyn Stewart

As Canadian Museum of Nature palaeontologists, there’s one question we get asked more than any other: “How do you get dinosaur bones out of the rock?”

In 2013, one of us (Kathlyn Stewart, museum palaeonotogist and co-author of this blog post) concluded that the best way to respond to this question would be to show, rather than tell, the answer.

Thus was born what’s become the hugely popular fossil preparation station in the Fossil Gallery.

A woman standing over fossils on a table talking with museum visitors.
Museum palaeontologist Kathlyn Stewart explaining the process of fossil preparation to visitors in the Fossil Gallery. Image: Hanna Stewart, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Here, every Saturday afternoon, museum visitors can watch and talk with a palaeontologist who’s preparing, or prepping out, a real dinosaur fossil at the demonstration table. The scientist is often the other half of this blogging duo, collections technician and head of our fossil preparation laboratory, Alan McDonald.

We work on real dinosaur specimens from our collections, some of which were collected more than 100 years ago. The specimens are still in their historic, unopened field jackets, the protective plaster cast that’s put on a fossil when it’s collected. Visitors see the tools and techniques involved in the often-intricate process of prepping out a real fossil.

A man poses before plaster jackets containing dinosaur fossils.
Museum Collections Technician Alan McDonald with some of the unopened plaster jackets stored in the museum’s collections facility. The field numbers written on the jackets reveal the date that the fossils they contain were found. Dozens of these field jackets await opening, so many more cleaned dinosaur fossils will be added to our collections in the future by our busy Saturday afternoon preparators. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.
A man, seated at a work table, cleans a fossil specimen.
Museum Collections Technician Shyong En Pan prepares dinosaur bones in a plaster jacket at the demonstration table of the fossil preparation station. This specimen, part of a duck-billed dinosaur’s skull, was originally collected in Alberta by a museum field crew in 1954. Catalogue number: CMNFV 57072. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

However, soon after starting the demonstration table, we realized that even better than demonstrating fossil preparation would be to allow visitors to participate.

Left: A man and woman assist children at a museum activity station. Right: A young woman supervises children cleaning dinosaur fossils at a museum activity station.
Volunteers Peter Sawyer and Hanna Stewart with young visitors at the children’s activity table. Here, eager kids, big and small, gear up with safety glasses, dental picks, and brushes to tackle prepping out a real dinosaur bone. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, the next year, we added an interactive component, the children’s activity station.

Here, visitors of all ages can take part in hands-on preparation of actual dinosaur fossils. The specimens, fossils of horned dinosaurs (ceratopsians) and duck-billed dinosaurs (hadrosaurs) from our teaching collection, are embedded in a simulated matrix and dressed in plaster like an authentic field jacket. Then visitors use similar tools to the ones we use to prep out the fossils.

A woman and a boy examine dinosaur fossils at a museum activity station.
Two visitors at the children’s activity table discussing their strategy for removing a dinosaur vertebra from a simulated rock. Throughout the year, new field jacket replicas are made to replace the ones prepared by our hundreds of palaeontologist-for-a-day visitors. Image: Alan McDonald, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

While aspiring palaeontologists diligently work to free the dinosaur bones, museum palaeontology staff, or our dedicated and indispensable volunteers, explain the many steps required to remove fossilized specimens from the ground, cover them with plaster field jackets, transport them to the lab, and prepare them for study.

Since 2013, numerous museum specimens have received professional treatment at the demonstration table, making the museum’s scientific collection more accessible and contributing to some very interesting research projects. This includes a recently completed study concerning why armoured dinosaurs (ankylosaurs) are usually fossilized upside down.

A man uses a pneumatic tool to remove rock from a dinosaur fossil.
Research Assistant Scott Rufolo working on the tail club from an armoured dinosaur, or ankylosaur. He is using an air scribe, a pneumatic tool akin to a mini-jackhammer, to carefully remove rock from the surface of the fossilized bone. This specimen contributed data to a study organized by museum palaeontologist Jordan Mallon. Catalogue number: CMNFV 31074. Image: Jonathan Huyer, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The fossil preparation station has been enormously popular. We average around 330 visitors to the fossil preparation station every Saturday afternoon, and we hit a record number of more than 900 people during the 2017 Canada Day weekend.

As the station begins its fifth year of operation, we look forward to further engaging our visitors and inspiring future scientists.

And, together, we all anxiously wait to see what new fossil discoveries lie buried beneath the plaster!