Thursday, 14 April 2011

Wanted: Vertebrate fossils with a full documented history. Scientific value: Excellent.

This pachycephalosaur vertebra is fresh from the field and is a really nice example. But what is its history up to this point? And what will its history be in the future? Will it become a valuable addition that helps in our understanding of these bizarre dinosaurs? Or will it end up as just another bone of no particular scientific consequence?

One of the first things I came to realise when entering the realm of the preparator is that information is king. Years ago, I didn’t always appreciate this but, as I learnt more, the more I realised how essential all data is in the bigger scheme of things, whether you are dealing with a complete skeleton or an individual element.

Data gathering begins the moment a specimen is found in the field. Locality is recorded and GPS makes accurate recording a quantum leap better than it was previously. Recording of stratigraphic and taphonomic detail is essential. At time of collection the specimen acquires an identity and basic details which are more often or not recorded in ones trusty field notebook.

Details such as county, state or province, the locality name or description are added to the notes whilst huge plaster jackets, that contain the bones, may have the information written directly on the plaster and I know other workers who have included an extra label inside the cast for added security. Some jackets have added detail such as a simple sketch demonstrating the position of the bone(s) inside the jacket and also to tip off the preparators that there is also a data label inside.

Sounds fairly elementary but even then questions have to be continually asked. Where are the casts to be stored? Will they get damp? Does the pen used to mark the jackets have waterproof ink? Eventually the specimen arrives at the museum and is stored awaiting preparation and, at this point, the field data is usually recorded into a database where the specimen takes on its new identity which will remain with it for the rest of its curated days.

Here the specimen acquires its institutional identity which usually contains an abbreviation for the institution followed by a series of numbers such as MOR 555 (Museum of the Rockies) or AMNH 5664 (American Museum of Natural History). The numbers may have some other significance such as year of collection and others may be sequential, especially when various elements are associated, but not always. It is also given a specific identity (if possible), and then all of the previously mentioned field data is included, as well as date of collection, what the specimen actually is i.e. vertebra, humerus, etc and any other relevant data that may be of significance for the preparator and/or the researcher.

It is worth pointing out that not all material can be positively identified and, in these instances, there is usually just a brief descriptive phrase pertaining to what the specimen might be. Comments such as “possible hadrosaur quadrate” or even “unknown element” are not unusual.

From this moment on the specimens every movement will be recorded. Its identification number is usually recorded directly onto the bone in a nondescript spot and there is nearly always an ID label with the specimen that accompanies it on its institutional travels.

When the specimen is selected for preparation there is often a release form to be produced to enable preparation to commence and this often doubles up as a record of the preparation process and every detail is recorded accordingly. Everything is and should be recorded and includes details of the processes, the tool used, what consolidants and adhesives were utilised, what repairs were made and anything else involved in the ultimate preparation of the specimen. Even hours spent by the preparator working on a specimen are often recorded.

The above is an extremely simplified description of the recording process that should be attached to any specimen that is recovered by a professional institution. Of course, every institution and prep laboratory will have their own means and methodologies but the essential and fundamental principles are the same no matter where you go.

There are a couple of points here that I’d like to mention. Firstly, every specimen should have a complete recorded detail for it to be of any scientific value. Even if you are an amateur collector and do your own prep work, it is still good practice to record the details. There are many fine collections in private hands that have been collected legally and prepared well but there are a few collections that do not have a single specimen with any historical documentation whatsoever.

This is extremely unfortunate since these same collectors are leaving their collections to museums and other teaching institutions in the belief that they are leaving a legacy to the nation so to speak. Well I suppose they are, in a very limited way, since the specimens may be extremely complete, well preserved and important. But without the proper documentation they are scientifically worthless. Nice to look at perhaps but worthless none the less. So I appeal to all amateur collectors and preparators to at least keep some records, even if it is just for your most important specimens so that at least they will have some scientific value for future generations.

Secondly, whether professional or amateur, it is safe to assume that your database of fossil specimens and their preparatory history, is most likely kept on a computer and rightly so. Computers have revolutionised the documenting of specimen data making it easier to assimilate the detail and be able to present this information in different ways, to make comparisons with other specimens on the database and also with other institutions via a network.

And yet it never ceases to amaze me how so many databases are not backed up in case of computer failure. I’m not suggesting that there are professional institutions out there that don’t have proper back ups but there will be a number of individuals out there, both professional and amateur, who don’t. I implore you now – BACK UP! I do and I’m still a little paranoid even now and I’m now looking at backing up the back ups! The data amassed can take years to gather together so don’t lose it all because you never had the time or couldn’t be bothered. Do it now!

So it can be seen from all this that a properly documented specimen is essential if it is to have any scientific significance and this is all before any researcher gets to study it. But because this work has been done, the researcher’s task becomes a little easier and he is able to put all the clues together from the field and prep lab in conjunction with his own and we should end up with a properly described and scientifically valid specimen.

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