Thursday, 12 November 2009

NHM - Into the Catacombs

You may remember that during my last field trip to the Bluff, Mark had invited me to a behind-the-scenes look at the preparatory labs at the Natural History Museum in London. I had a day’s holiday owing and during December, only a couple of weeks before Christmas, I called Mark and arranged the trip. To say I was keen is an understatement, but I was equally aware that I would certainly try to curb my tongue and concentrate on listening, because although I consider myself knowledgeable with regards to dinosaurian palaeontology, I was going to a place where I would be surrounded by experts. I was determined not to make a fool of myself!

On the approach to the museum I felt a little nervous. This was probably a combination of a stomach bug that I had been suffering, as well as my own apprehension of visiting a place where the general public are rarely allowed. I had 45 minutes to spare before I was to be met, and decided to stroll around both the dinosaur and marine reptile galleries since there were a couple of bones that I needed to identify and I was especially interested in hadrosaurid quadrates and coracoids. The NHM is really exceptional these days, truly a world class attraction, but the amount of children and noise makes quiet study impossible. If I have one tiny criticism regarding the skeletons, it is that they are absolutely covered in dust. I appreciate that it must be difficult to dust a skeleton, but it is to be hoped that a means to do this is found soon, as all the fancy lighting they have focussed upon the exhibits tends to highlight the problem!

Soon enough it was time for me to meet Mark, and after exchanging pleasantries he ushered me away, back past the marine reptile gallery, and towards a door at the back of the corridor. Passing through the secure doorway, there were a few exhibits on display. Mark explained that these changed frequently to suit the particular visitor who was due. At this moment they contained a varied selection of British ammonites and a magnificent copy of the London specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica. Incidentally, I can exclusively reveal that the actual specimen of this fossil is to be removed from its safe house for more preparation, not necessarily to reveal more fossil bone, but to actually reduce the size of the slab that encases the fossil to make it easier to handle for study, to make it thinner. I’m not too sure who will be doing this but he would have to be the best in his field to be allowed to work on the most valuable fossil in the world. I imagine that this will be kept secret as well because of the security aspect. After all, this is the fossil equivalent of the Mona Lisa.

We passed through a couple more doors, down some flights of steps and entered the renowned Palaeontological Conservation Unit (PCU). I must admit it looked much as I’d expected, lots of nooks and crannies full of different preparatory aids, all sorts of fossils in various states of preparation and not a lot of room to manoeuvre! There were staff present at various work stations and others who were passing through from department to department. It was at this point that I was introduced to Scott Moore-Fay, the only preparator in the NHM. I was surprised by this and Scott explained that all other members of staff in the PCU were conservators, who were exclusively preserving the massive collection of fossils – essential work to preserve our natural heritage. But I got the impression from Scott that another preparator would be very much appreciated.

We slowly strolled around the PCU, pausing at different areas where I was shown various preparatory techniques and, of course, the wonderful fossils being worked on. The first fossils I came upon were labelled Trachodon (today a nomen dubium and is actually Edmontosaurus). Nobody was really sure what the bones were, but I was particularly interested in them because they were dated 1912 and collected by one of the Sternberg brothers, which means they are almost certainly from the Red Deer River in Alberta, Canada.

The next piece of interest was the actual specimen of Hylaeosaurus that Mantell collected in the 1850’s. Scott was preparing this particular fossil and showed me some of the exposed bones, including a partial jaw, and I was surprised at how small the tooth sockets were. The surrounding matrix is incredibly tough and exposing the bone is a slow process, but Scott is pleased with the results so far although there is still a lot of work to do.

The highlight of the day for me, however, was the unexpected opportunity to look at the skull and type specimen of Proceratosaurus bradleyi, an animal of some scientific importance in the dinosaur world. Proceratosaurus is considered one of the most basal of coelurosaurs (actually now regarded as the earliest known tyrannosauroid), but I was struck by how similar it was to Ceratosaurus itself, but on a much smaller scale. Although the specimen is missing the top part of the skull, it is in superb condition but still needs consolidating to maintain its current state of preservation. But it is a stunning skull and so well defined.

It was about this time that Mark and Scott decided to go to the IMAX cinema situated in the Science Museum to see a film entitled “Sea Monsters” and they very kindly invited me along. We had barely sat down when the film began and, if you can forgive the amount of inaccurate scientific information and blatant story telling, then the film is great entertainment, especially for three palaeontologists such as ourselves. Highly recommended.

Returning to the museum, we sat down in Scott’s office and discussed all things Palaeontological, and eventually the Weald came to the fore since we all have field experience in this most British of formations. It was at this point that I showed Scott three of my bones recovered from the Bluff, two vertebrae and an unidentified but very hollow bone suggesting that it may be theropod in origin. Almost immediately Scott said he thought they were crocodilian. I could understand that with the vertebrae but I was unsure about the other bone. Scott said he would go into the collections and recover some fossils for comparison.

While Scott was gone, Mark took me down another level into the acid preparation laboratory. I was well aware of the technique but this was the first time I had had the opportunity to see a set up of this magnitude. You may remember David Attenborough’s television series “Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives”, where the acid preparation technique was shown on a fish fossil from Australia. That very same fossil is still in the laboratory and used for demonstration purposes. The acid baths today were empty, and Mark revealed that the technique is currently under review because some fossils have undergone a little too much preparation and have suffered damage.

We returned to Scott’s office and found him waiting for us with boxes from the Beckles’ collection. Samuel Beckles is a collector I am familiar with. A contemporary of Mantell, he too recovered much fossil bone from both the Weald clay and the Hastings beds. One box was particularly revealing in that it contained various bones and vertebrae from Goniopholis, that well known Wealden crocodile. This left me in no doubt that my material was indeed crocodilian, albeit better preserved than the museum’s specimens.

The small bone was harder to identify but another specimen containing various crocodile bones in matrix seemed to show a very similar bone to my specimen. Crocodile they are then! Oh well, maybe on the next trip to the Bluff I’ll be luckier and on consideration, size is probably the defining factor since all the skeletal remains from the Bluff are of big animals and my bones are small by comparison. I felt a lesson had been learnt. I had always known it was difficult to find dinosaur fossils and this proved it was even more difficult than I’d realised. Still, I’m patient and determined – my day will come!

We went back into the PCU and looked at a few more specimens, including a magnificent woolly mammoth skull that was being preserved, but time was moving on and I was very conscious that I did not want to overstay my welcome. My hosts had been extremely generous with their time and I was hoping that I might get another invitation to return in the future.

I wasn’t permitted to see the collections on this occasion but if I was “vetted” by the head of collections, a lady by the name of Sarah, then next time I would be able to see more. This isn’t as straightforward as it may sound and it appears I will have to prove my worth! Scott cordially invited me for a further visit and I left the museum on a high and hope to cultivate my friendship there in the future.

Having now met Angela Milner and visited the PCU, I feel a little closer to what I hope to achieve. I’ve offered my services informally to help out to both Angela and Scott and if I can be in the right place at the right time, then I may be closer to the ultimate dream of either helping out on a field trip or maybe doing some voluntary work at the museum, especially if I could help out in the PCU, very similar to what Mark does now.

My thanks go to Mark for the invitation and to Scott for being so gracious a host. I will be seeing them soon!


Since this visit, a couple of things have moved on. Firstly, the reduction in size of the Archaeopteryx slab was successfully completed and by Lorraine Cornish of the NHM as well. I understand that the specimen is now much more “user” friendly and will aid in ongoing studies.

The acid preparation lab is in use again after a stringent review. A number of improvements have been made and it was interesting to note that after acid prepping, specimens must be rinsed for a significant amount of time but in agitated water. Originally, specimens were simply washed in water for the right amount of time but without any agitation other than water changes. This meant that some specimens continued to be affected by the acid solution, even after washing, and some specimens became damaged. But this has now been addressed and, in combination with other refinements, the technique is being utilised again.

A year is a long time in palaeontology. I was fortunate to be able to examine the Proceratosaurus skull in some detail as it was being conserved and photographs simply do not do it any justice – it is a magnificent skull. And now it is in the news again – see here. The actual announcement regarding Proceratosaurus and its tyrannosauroid affinities came during SVP 2008 in Cleveland and the paper has now been published. It’s nice to see that Scott is a credited author and I’m really pleased for him.


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