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Paleontology at NHM

Ever wondered how the bones of extinct animals make their way into our exhibit halls?

Fossil - Paleontology up close
Suggested for Elementary school Students 

Paleontology at NHM

Scroll to the bottom, to find definitions for words printed in bold.

From Bone to Stone

Fossils are the evidence that paleontologists use to learn about life in the past. Fossils form only under very special conditions. Most animals and plants that die do not become fossils!

open drawers containing fossils

Fossils can form in many ways. Most dinosaur fossils were preserved through a process where bits of minerals in sediment fill in tiny open spaces in bone (or other organic tissue), slowly replacing the original material. Eventually, it becomes a rock in the shape of the bone!

A Fossil’s Journey to the Museum: Fieldwork

Each year, staff from the Museum’s Dinosaur Institute go out into the field in search of fossils...

A site in the desert of Utah where excavations occur

Being out in the field is hard work!

excavator uses hand tools on a fossil in rock

When a fossil is found, excavators use both hand tools and power tools to carefully remove the surrounding rock. 

Excavators use plaster to create a protective "jacket" for a fossil

Fossils are then wrapped in a “jacket” made of toilet paper, gauze, and plaster for safe transport to the Museum.

carrying jacketed fossil on a dolly

Fossils are heavy– safely loading large one into a vehicle can be quite the challenge!

1 of 1

Being out in the field is hard work!

When a fossil is found, excavators use both hand tools and power tools to carefully remove the surrounding rock. 

Fossils are then wrapped in a “jacket” made of toilet paper, gauze, and plaster for safe transport to the Museum.

Fossils are heavy– safely loading large one into a vehicle can be quite the challenge!

Fossil Deposit: Morrison Formation

 

two women using tools to excavate a fossil out of the rock

Our more recent fieldwork has explored the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation in Utah, primarily at a location known as the Gnatalie Quarry. The Late Jurassic is an important time period as it documents some of the earliest known birds! Many important fossil discoveries have come out of the Gnatalie Quarry.

Back at the Museum...

 

After being excavated, fossils are brought back to the Museum, where they arrive in protective plaster jackets. When it’s time to start preparing a fossil the plaster jacket is carefully opened on one side, and the preparator goes to work.

jacketed fossil on forklift

After being excavated, fossils are brought back to the Museum, where they arrive in protective plaster jackets.

student preparators work on a fossil

When it’s time to start preparing a fossil the plaster jacket is carefully opened on one side, and the preparator goes to work.

Dino Lab  preparators working on a fossil

Careful preparation is an important part of protecting fossils for research today and for work by future paleontologists.

Fossil preparator uses brush on large fossil

The amount of time it takes to prepare a fossil (which includes cleaning, stabilizing, and preserving the fossil), depends on several factors: how large the fossil is, the condition of the fossil, and the type of matrix the fossil is in.

preparators at work in the Dino Lab

The Dino Lab is a busy place– our preparators are never working on just a one fossil!

1 of 1

After being excavated, fossils are brought back to the Museum, where they arrive in protective plaster jackets.

When it’s time to start preparing a fossil the plaster jacket is carefully opened on one side, and the preparator goes to work.

Careful preparation is an important part of protecting fossils for research today and for work by future paleontologists.

The amount of time it takes to prepare a fossil (which includes cleaning, stabilizing, and preserving the fossil), depends on several factors: how large the fossil is, the condition of the fossil, and the type of matrix the fossil is in.

The Dino Lab is a busy place– our preparators are never working on just a one fossil!

Careful preparation is an important part of protecting fossils for research today and for work by future paleontologists.

The amount of time it takes to prepare a fossil (which includes cleaning, stabilizing, and preserving the fossil), depends on several factors: how large the fossil is, the condition of the fossil, and the type of matrix the fossil is in.

The Dino Lab is a busy place– our preparators are never working on just a one fossil!

Fossils in Los Angeles?

The land that is now California was largely underwater during much of the Mesozoic Era. Since dinosaurs lived only on land, finding dinosaurs fossils in California is rare! Those that have been found are believed to be coastal species, whose bodies had washed to sea after they died.

invertebrate paleontology trace fossils

Many large marine reptiles, as well as invertebrates that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs have also been found in California!

Vocabulary

  • Paleontologist: A type of scientist who studies the history of life on Earth by examining fossil evidence.
  • Fossil: Any preserved evidence of ancient life. Can be everything from a skeleton, to a footprint, or even a leaf! Ancient is usually defined as older than 10,000 years.
  • Fossil preparator: A person whose job is to prepare fossils for research; this includes removing matrix (rock surrounding fossil), cleaning, and repairing or stabilizing the fossils.
  • Mesozoic Era: The period of time when dinosaurs lived, from 250 million to 65.5 million years ago
  • Dinosaur: A diverse group of land-dwelling reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic Era. Over 700 species have been described!
  • Vertebrate: An animal with a vertebral column (or spine)
  • Invertebrate: An animal lacking a vertebral column (or spine)

Suggested Reading

  • How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum, by Jessie Hartland
  • Fossils Tell of Long Ago, by Aliki
  • Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-Mile Paleo Road Trip, by Kirk Johnson