Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.
You, your friends, your grandparents, your neighbor, your coworkers, your dog (okay, not your dog) and anyone else you can think to bring along.
Museums all across the country are gearing up for Museum Day Live!, a program sponsored by the Smithsonian magazine. In the spirit of Smithsonian Museums, which offer free admission to the public every day, participating museums will offer complimentary admission with a Museum Day ticket.
Museum Day Live! at the Sam Noble Museum is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, September 28, 2013.
The Sam Noble Museum
2401 Chautauqua Ave.
Norman, Okla. 73072
Museum Day Tickets can be obtained online from the Smithsonian magazine website and cover the admission cost for two people. Although there’s a one ticket per household limit, remember that children under 5 always receive free admission!
No need to R.S.V.P. We know you’ll be coming!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What is citizen science?
When you hear the phrase “scientific research” you may call to mind images of scientists in lab coats, but have you ever pictured yourself as a research tool? Now you can, thanks to the merging of technology and research.
Katrina Menard, head of the insect department at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, has been tracking Velvet Ants in Oklahoma with student Jacob Mitchell as part of a research project with the University of Oklahoma Honors Research Assistantship Program. The program allows students to work alongside professionals for hands-on experience.
How does it work?
First, participants download the free iNaturalist app at the App Store or Android Market on their cell phone. Then, they simply snap a picture of the Velvet Ant and upload it to the app, which will record the user’s location. Menard then collects the results and archives them as part of her research. Contributors even have the chance to get credit for photos published in scientific journals.
Note: the photo above is of a scientific specimen. No Velvet Ants should be harmed in this project.
To watch Menard’s brief tutorial on how to submit a photo to iNaturalist, simply click below.
Menard’s project, called “Mutillidae of Oklahoma,” has only been active on iNaturalist for about two weeks and is still considered to be in a trial stage. If successful, Menard said that citizen science tools like iNaturalist could be used in a greater educational context in the future.
Why citizen science?
“Citizen science allows us to integrate everyone’s natural ability to observe, make hypotheses and contribute information about their experiences of the world around us,” said Menard. “This allows us to gather more information and observations than we can do alone as dedicated professional scientists.”
In addition to her work with iNaturalist, Menard will also be participating this April in Entoblitz, another citizen science project hosted by the Texas A&M Entomology Graduate Student Association. Entoblitz is open to anyone interested in entomology and will give participants the opportunity to hunt for bugs in the name of science.
So whether you’re an amateur entomologist, a stay-at-home mom or a middle school student, you can become part of the scientific process. By simply using your smartphone, you can lend a helping hand to the scientific community. So what are you waiting for? Science wants you!