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!

Inside the Treasure Box: Week Nine

Some 455 million years ago, long before the wind came sweeping down the plains, Oklahoma was nothing more than a fragment of the ocean floor. A diverse array of marine life inhabited the waters above the future United States and left behind a rich prehistoric past. How do invertebrate paleontolgoists know all of this? Though these early sooners may be long gone, their skeletons remain.

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Trilobites embedded in limestone

This specimen, from the invertebrate paleontology department, is one of several slabs of limestone crowded with complete skeletons of the trilobite Homotelus. Trilobites are extinct marine arthropods that disappeared roughly 250 million years ago. In case you need a refresher, arthropods are a classification of animals with segmented bodies and external skeletons, like scorpions, crabs and butterflies.

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The Asian forest scorpion is an example of an arthropod.

The trilobite specimen shown above is important to scientists because it provides a snapshot into the behavior of these arthropods. Complete skeletons of trilobites are rare, as they would normally fall apart quickly after death. It is highly unusual to find hundreds of skeletons clustered together this way, as a result. Invertebrate paleontolgoists believe that the trilobites may have gathered in large numbers to spawn, much like modern horseshoe crabs along the east coast of the United States. 

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Horseshoe crabs

It’s also important to note that geography played a prominant role in the recovery of this specimen. Geological evidence indicates that the embedded trilobites were buried very quickly by mud, possibly by a storm close to shore that would have stirred up the sea floor and carried mud-laden waters offshore. After the storm waned, this mud was likely dumped on the sea bottom, burying the trilobites. Nearly 455 million years later, scientists discovered their skeletons, still intact, buried in the Ordovician rocks of the Criner Hills in southern Oklahoma.

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The Criner Hills are in Carter County, Okla.

Thanks to this discovery, invertebrate paleontologists now have a unique glimpse into the life of extinct animals. They also know that the reproductive behavior of trilobites resembles modern marine arthropods. Of course, you don’t have to look 455 millions years into the past to see Oklahoma’s astounding contributions to history. In fact, next week we’ll be looking at a more recent group of Oklahomans. Can you guess who?

So, You Want to be a Paleontologist?

After reading stories like “Digging Deep for Leadership” and “Step Outside Ordinary,” we know that you’re itching to sink your hands into the red dirt for a fossil hunt of your own. We also know that you’ve secretly dreamed of being a paleontologist since seeing Jurassic Park in 1993. Well, we have good news for you, Mom and Dad: Fossil field trips aren’t just for kids.

 Now, it’s your turn.

 Join the Sam Noble Museum’s invertebrate paleontology curator, Steve Westrop, and museum staff on Friday, Sept. 20 and Saturday, Sept. 21 for an unforgettable journey into Oklahoma’s Paleozoic past. Explore life in Oklahoma’s ancient oceans through an informative talk on Friday evening and close-up look at some of the museum’s finest invertebrate specimens.

 Participants discover a Trilobite

 On Saturday morning, we will depart from the museum at 9 a.m. and travel in university vans to Whitemound, where you will find a variety of marine fossils that you can take home. That’s right, finder’s keepers. Don’t worry about the tools, because we’ve got you covered. Just bring a sack lunch, snacks, comfortable shoes and plenty of water.

 Participants gather at Whitemound

 Advanced registration is required, and the deadline to enroll is Friday, Sept. 13. The trip costs $60 for museum members and $70 for non-members, though ultimately the experience is priceless. Because, really, how many opportunities will you have in your lifetime to unearth a prehistoric fossil with your bare hands? 

Don’t wait. Enroll today.

Step Outside Ordinary

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The 2013 OSA campers

Summertime: lazy days by the pool, sleeping until noon and all the video games your controller can handle. It’s the overworked student’s paradise. In the summer of 2013, however, 14 Oklahoma middle school students left ordinary behind to take part in a most amazing adventure. The Oklahoma Science Adventure (OSA) camp, a weeklong educational endeavor operated by the Sam Noble Museum’s ExplorOlogy® program, allows students to discover alongside professional scientists, without paying a cent.

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Campers at the ropes course 

That’s right, without paying a cent. Thanks to partial funding by the Whitten-Newman Foundationthe program is free for participants. During OSA, students have the opportunity to conduct field research, conquer the University of Oklahoma’s ropes course, canoe down the Illinois River and sleep beneath the world’s largest Apatosaurus in the museum’s Hall of Ancient Life. What more could you ask for? 

Last summer, students also investigated a unique Oklahoma fossil site known as White Mound, an ancient shallow ocean where, more than 400 million years ago, an assortment of animals, including trilobites, crinoids, brachiopods and corals, lived. Nick Czaplewski, the staff curator of vertebrate paleontology, assisted students in collecting a variety of fossils. Based on their understanding of modern animals and fossil evidence, they constructed an example of what an ancient ecosystem might have looked like.

 

Fossils at White Mound

Although OSA promises new friends and fun-filled memories, it’s about much more than that. The program affords budding scientists a chance to gain hands-on experience, awarding them awareness and confidence in their own abilities. For many, this revelation generates the initial spark of a lifelong passion.

“It really surprised me how hands-on it was. It was a good surprise,” recalled Abby Holden, of Claremore, Okla. Holden explained that science used to be a sore subject for her in the classroom, but after OSA she feels enthusiastic and confident.

Holden conducts ecology research

 According to Holden and several other students, field experience ranks high above classroom learning when it comes to both education and enthusiasm. According to Clay Dominy of Shawnee, Okla., there is no comparison.

 “If you want to be in paleontology, learning in a classroom does not prepare you. They don’t teach you about geographical maps. Out in the field, though, you can see everything you need to know,” Dominy said.

 

Moxley gets up close and personal with nature

Another camper, Ella Moxley, a seventh-grader from Norman, Okla., said she never realized how hands-on science could be until spending a few days in the field, where she learned to overcome her squeamishness towards insects. Moxley learned first-hand that to be a scientists, you’ve got to be willing to get down in the trenches of nature.

“I would recommend OSA to any science enthusiasts who are definitely not afraid to get dirty,” Moxley said.

Of course, OSA isn’t all work. Moxley and Holden both described their canoe trip down the Illinois River as the pinnacle of their journey. According to Dominy, however, jumping into the ponds and scooping up tadpoles proved to be the most fun.

Dominy hunts for tadpoles

So whether you’re hoping to have the time of your life, explore an interest or escape the mundane routine of long summer days, OSA is for you. Don’t let this summer be just another series of wasted days by the television. Applications will be available in the winter of 2013, and we hope you’re ready to take the plunge. Join us, and step outside ordinary.

Digging Deep for Leadership

Twelve high school students and a handful of scientists huddle beneath the shade of a pitched canopy on a June afternoon. With paintbrush and chisel in hand, team members of the ExplorOlogy® program meticulously sift through the ground until, at last, a gray, rigid structure emerges: dinosaur bone.

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 These are the students, paleontologists and crew of the ExplorOlogy® Paleo Expedition program. Each summer, twelve Oklahoma high school students in 9th-through 11th-grade get the opportunity to gain hands-on paleontology and fieldwork experience by working on-site with professionals. Students can participate in the program a second year as a peer mentor. Peer mentors return to share their experience and assist a new team of students.

 The 2013 site, located in Black Mesa, Okla., operates as the first professional, paleontological quarry in that area since World War II and provides educational opportunities to students via the ExplorOlogy® program, which has served over 53,000 students since 2007. Thanks to supplemental funding by the Whitten-Newman Foundation, the fourteen-day adventure is free for students.

 Life-long paleontology-lover Gray McCutchen, a second-year participant and peer mentor from Edmond, Okla., said the program steered him towards a future in paleontology. In the video below, McCutchen recalls some of his most astonishing finds from his two years with the program.

 Another peer mentor, Laura Gray from Tulsa, Okla., said that her favorite aspect of the Paleo Expedition was the feeling of unity that accompanied the fieldwork, the “inclusiveness of learning together with others who are also enthused to learn.” Gray also said being a peer mentor has helped her to become a more relatable leader.

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Laura Gray uncovers sauropod bone.

 However, it’s not all fun and games. First-year participant Morgan Miller of Buffalo, Okla. claimed she never realized how tedious and difficult paleontology and field work could be until the expedition.

 For Miller, however, the excitement that accompanies fieldwork unquestionably outweighs the intensive nature of the job and has instilled in her a desire to further pursue science in future educational endeavors.

 “I know it’s cliché, but there is nothing like actually doing something to get the best feeling for what it is like,” confirms Kyle Davies, museum preperator for the vertebrate paleontology department and Paleo Expedition participant since 2009.

 Although the program ends after fourteen days, the experiences resonate long-term with many students. Ernesto Vargas of Oklahoma City, Okla., an ExplorOlogy veteran, was recently named a Gates Millennium Scholar and will receive a full scholarship to attend the University of Chicago. Vargas intends to pursue a degree in geology with postgraduate work in invertebrate paleontology.

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Vargas conducting field work with the Paleo Expedition program.

“Because of ExplorOlogy®, I have a foundation for what I want to do and where I want to go. As a future scientist, I really look forward to one day sharing my knowledge and experience with others, just like this program has done for me,” said Vargas. “[It] has influenced my next steps more than anything else.”

 Vargas is the second ExplorOlogy student to receive this prestigious award in the past two years, the other being Nancy Ha of Muskogee, Okla.

 “Clearly the future holds immense promise for Explorology® students, those who just returned from the field and those already moving on to bigger dreams. While all of the ExplorOlogy® participants may not pursue a career in science, the skills acquired through the Paleo Expedition program, such as leadership, responsibility, ability to ask questions and find an answers through science, as well as teamwork and self confidence, will undoubtedly benefit students in whatever discipline they pursue,” said museum director Dr. Michael Mares. “As proven by ExplorOlogy® veterans like Vargas and Ha, today’s ExplorOlogy® students will be the leaders of tomorrow.”

 The ExplorOlogy® program would like to thank the University of Oklahoma, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History vertebrae paleontology department, the Collection of Recent Invertebrates Oklahoma State University, Native Explorers and the Whitten-Newman Foundation for making Paleo Expedition possible.

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.