Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.

 

Why We Love Picky Volunteers

Christie Godec looms over a broad, L-shaped desk in a black leather chair, staring down a binocular microscope with forceps in hand. Carefully, she picks through a thin layer of soil and rock – watching, waiting. At last, she unearths something of interest, what appears to be the bone or tooth from our shared prehistoric past. Slowly, she drops the fragment into a miniature, cork-sealed vial, scribbles on a small paper chart and returns to the tray before her.

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Godec sifts through sandy soil

 Such is the work of a “micropicker”, a volunteer in the vertebrae paleontology department who tirelessly sifts through gallons of soil to find shards of prehistoric remains.  The work is slow and repetitive, but rewarding. In 30 to 60 minutes, Godec can process one coffee scooper filled with soil, typically unearthing a couple dozen fragments in that time. With no formal training in paleontology, she knows only what fossil preperator Kyle Davies has taught her – and that’s all she needs. 

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Five-gallon buckets waiting to be picked 

Five years ago, Godec moved to Norman, Okla. after retiring from her job as a dental hygienist. She decided to get involved with the museum after receiving a volunteerism flier from her daughter, who works for the University of Oklahoma’s continued education department. Right away, she was hooked.

 “It’s like an Easter egg hunt every time I come in,” Godec said.

 A lot goes into micropicking. First, professionals sanitize the incoming soil to eliminate pests, which can damage the facilities and collections. Then volunteers must sift through the soil to salvage the specimens, which are often smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen. Finally, undergraduate students mount the specimens to the head of a pin, which they drive into the cork that seals the vial. At last, the specimen is stored in collections for future use in research.

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A mounted specimen rests on top of a pin

As you might guess, many volunteers do not appreciate the tedious sifting required of micropicking, but it is vital to understanding prehistoric ecosystems. Godec believes her previous skills as a hygienist make her an ideal picker, as she is accustomed to working in microenvironments that demand a detail-oriented mindset. 

“For me, it’s fun,” said Godec. “Dental hygiene requires a lot of patience and repetitive work, but it’s always different. Every tray is different, too.” 

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One of many micropicking cabinets

 Currently, there are just two micropickers at the museum, with two more in training. The first round of spring docent training will begin this weekend on Feb. 22, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. So, if you are interested in gaining hands-on experience like Godec, check out our volunteerism page for information about upcoming opportunities or drop by on Saturday! Also, be sure and sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates on this year’s volunteer of the year award and banquet.

Inside the Treasure Box: Week Eleven

We’ve planned a “larger then life” finale for our ITTB series today. You could even say it is a story of Jurassic proportions. There’s a good chance that you’ve seen the object of today’s post if you’ve visited the museum, but before we reveal the paleontology department’s most prized specimen, here is a little backstory:

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The Sauroposeidon

In 1994, vertebrate paleontology curator Richard Cifelli and his team found four vertebrae of one Sauroposeidon in southeastern Oklahoma. Sauroposeidon fossils are common in Oklahoma, many of which come from a quarry located in Atoka.

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Each vertebra of the Sauroposeidon measured four feet or more in length. The bones were so enormous that Cifelli himself was unsure what he had uncovered at first. The name Sauroposeidon actually stems from the Greek word “saurus” (meaning lizard) and the mythological god Poseidon. The names refers to Poseidon’s nickname as “Earthshaker,” implying that the Sauroposeidon's weight and size was enough to move mountains.

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Poseidon, god of the sea and maker of earthquakes.

Sauroposeidon seems to be a relative of Brachiosaurus, and like Brachiosaurus, probably held its neck upright like a giraffe, rather than out in front of it like the Apatosaurus. Sauroposeidon would have been much larger than Brachiosaurus, however. Cifelli and former student Matt Wedel believe Sauroposeidon would have been nearly 100 feet long and stood some 60 feet tall. It could have stood flat-footed and looked into a sixth story window. In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the Sauroposeidon as the world’s tallest dinosaur.

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Sauroposeidon Scale

Unlike other items featured in the ITTB series, which are too fragile for public display, the Sauroposeidon can be seen from just inside the Great Hall, peeking out from the Noble Corporation and Noble Energy Orientation Gallery. When it comes to fossils, go big or go home, right? We enjoyed sharing a glimpse into our collections and exhibits with you and hope this series has inspired you to visit and discover for yourself the specimens and artifacts featured in this series.

We look forward to seeing you soon!

Worn to the Bone

Thanks to several Hollywood blockbusters, we are familiar with the image of paleontologists digging in the field, but what happens after the big discovery when the end credits roll? What occurs between the field and museum in the life of a prehistoric bone?

According to Mr. Kyle Davies, Museum Preparator for the vertebrate paleontology department, once a fossil is discovered in the field, paleontologists dig a trench around it and surrounding rock. They then cover the piece with thin tissue paper, which serves as a protective barrier, before coating the artifact in a mixture of plaster and burlap. Once the plaster has set up, they undermine the specimen, cautiously remove it from the ground and wrap the exposed side in plaster and burlap. Paleontologists refer to this completed object as a field jacket.

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An unopened field jacket.

Field jackets, like the one above, are then sent to museums for further preparation. The above field jacket contains Tenontosaurus bone from a dig at the McLeod Correctional Facility near Atoka, Oklahoma on May 2, 2002. The Tenontosaurus, a fairly common herbivore from the Cretaceous Period, roamed much of North America approximately 110 million years ago. This particular field jacket remains unopened, but will be examined by the 2013 Paleo Expedition ExplorOlogy team this summer.

When ready for preparation, the field jacket is opened using a cast-cutter, the same tool used by medical doctors. Then, paleontologists begin the tedious process of slowly chipping away at unwanted rock to expose the bone.

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A typical tool-kit

Due the extreme level of caution required, removing bone from a field jacket may take several thousand hours. In the case of the Sam Noble Museum’s Pentaceratops skull, the largest found in the world, the removal process required roughly 3,000 hours. For this reason, the vertebrate paleontology department utilizes a large number of trained volunteers

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A pin vise chips away at unwanted rock.

Of course, common practices have evolved over many years to determine the most efficient means of specimen removal.

“Everything we do is done under the lessons from the past about what does and doesn’t work,” explained Mr. Davies.

Once enough bone becomes visible, paleontologists seek to identify the species. But how do scientists identify an entire dinosaur from simply bone?

“How do you know what model car you have?” asked Mr. Davies in reply. “You know by looking at it. An expert could tell you a model and make just by looking at a tail light.” He explained that in this way, identification of species relies heavily on specialized knowledge and previous training in comparative anatomy.

Occasionally bone fragments require repair, which calls for specialized forms of adhesive glues. Once the pieces are glued together, paleontologists use the help of a sandbox and gravity to hold the bone together as it dries over several minutes to hours. In the video below, Mr. Davies explains this process.

From here, paleontologists prepare the bone for study, display or storage. For display, bones are reconstructed before use. Sometimes, but not always, they are replaced with precision castings made by molding and casting the actual bones or reconstructions in the lab. Staff members in either vertebrate paleontology or exhibit departments then paint the castings to resemble the actual bone. Finally, staff workers assemble the bones to form full skeletons inside the one of the museum’s exhibit dioramas. Museums are most likely to showcase dinosaurs for which they possess many of the actual skeletal pieces, such as the Sam Noble Museum’s Tenontosaurus.

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Our Tenontosaurus display

The original bones rest inside the highly organized walls of a massive collection facility. Here they are protected and available for scientific study, or further replication.

Extreme Makeover Filming

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The Oklahoma City Metro area is abuzz this week with the Extreme Home Makeover being done for a family in Lexington. Normally, this would not involve the museum in any way. But it just so happens that this project involves a dinosaur-themed room design for a three-year-old boy. And of course… we’ve got the dinosaurs.

I got a call last week from one of the show’s producers asking if they could come film in the museum, and the crew arrived late Tuesday afternoon.

Now, we do a fair amount of filming for national television programs in our museum. We’ve hosted the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the History Channel, and the Today Show. But this crew was something unlike any filming we had done before.

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Michael Moloney was the talent. He’s one of the designers for the show. And they brought along a woman and her eight-year-old son who had won a national contest to have a chance to appear on the show. They were from up north (Michigan??? Minnesota??) and were a bit disappointed to see that Oklahoma was under several inches of ice and snow. I think they were hoping for warmer weather!

Michael was perfectly charming, and the young man was quite self-assured and at ease in front of the cameras. But what was unusual was the crew’s filming style.

These guys came in like a swarm. They arrived straight from the construction site, so they were bundled in layers of coats and jackets… red-cheeked and rugged. And all with mud-caked boots. The site must be a swampy mess in this thaw. The nice cozy museum must have been a welcome respite from the cold.

There were four, maybe five cameras filming from every possible angle simultaneously — all hand-held, no tripods. The only lighting was a single hand-held job. It was something of a challenge to stay out of their way and to keep the curious onlookers — mostly staff and volunteers this late in the afternoon — out of the shots.

They were all over the place all the time. One minute you’d be tripping over four cameramen, the next… whisk! Where’d they all go? Oh, now they’re in the elevator. Now they’re upstairs filming over the Natural Wonders balcony into Ancient Life. None of these long tripod shots, no elaborate lighting set-ups. Just this scurry of guys filming everything at once. I was grateful to our security guards, volunteers, and other staff members who chipped in to assist various individual crew-members. I heard second-hand that they got a real kick out of the dinovators.

img_65211It’s always a pleasure to host out-of-state crews, whatever their technique. I think a lot of people from the coasts come to our museum expecting some rinky dink storefront set-up. It’s nice to see them being impressed. Yes. We have a really great natural history museum out here in Oklahoma. We have great dinosaurs, beautiful exhibits and a really terrific building to put them in. Thanks for noticing.

Discovery Channel

Vertebrate Paleontology curator Richard Cifelli sits under the lights during a Discovery Channel shoot in the collection

Last Friday the museum hosted a film crew working on a new program for the Discovery Channel. The show will focus on Prehistoric Predators, and one of the predators being showcased is Deinonychus, the little “kick-boxing” raptor showcased in our Coastal Cretaceous diorama.

Deinonychus was not a big dinosaur, but seems to have packed a powerful “punch.” Its name means “terrible claw,” after the wicked-looking cocked-back claw on its feet. Scientists think it likely hunted in packs, based on teeth and other remains of Deinonychus found among the remains of tenontosaurs. A grouping like that was found by our curator of vertebrate paleontology Rich Cifelli and his team down in southeastern Oklahoma: tenontosaurs with teeth of Deinonychus scattered among the remains and even embedded in the bone, plus the broken remains of one unfortunate Deinonychus that looks like it had an unfortunate encounter with a Tenontosaurus' powerful tail. It looks like they likely came at in groups and attacked feet-first, ripping with those mighty hind claws.

The crew interviewed Dr. Cifelli in the vert. paleo collection during the afternoon, and then spent hours Friday night lighting and shooting the exhibit.

This is a dim iPhone photo, but you get the idea.  You can see Marc and the camera in the foreground.  Brian, the lighting guy, is in the back, adjusting the pipe and drape backdrop behind the tenontosaur.  On Marc's screen you can sort of see the shot.

The shoot turned out to be quite a to-do. The director wanted the mounted specimens to appear in a black-box type of environment, with no visible murals or diorama details. This meant that the crew, assisted by our own fossil preparator, Kyle Davies, had to climb into the diorama and use a pipe and drape set-up to mask off the entire back of the exhibit, then lay black fabric (okay, they were really table cloths lent to us by the events department) over every visible bit of ground form under the critters’ feet. The results were stunning. With help from some very dramatic lighting, the fossils take on a wonderful eerie and dangerous aspect. Kudos to Marc Miller, who was handling the lighting and camera work.

I’m not sure when the program will air. “Sometime next year” is the closest guess the crew could give me at this juncture, but we’ll keep you updated.

Meanwhile, I’m also working with another Discovery Channel team, providing images of Sauroposeidon proteles (the world’s tallest dinosaur and also an Oklahoma critter) for possible inclusion in yet another program on extreme dinosaurs. More about that in the future, as well.