Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.
Christie Godek 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.
Godek 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, Godek 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.
Five-gallon buckets waiting to be picked
Five years ago, Godek 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,” Godek 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.
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. Godek 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 Godek. “Dental hygiene requires a lot of patience and repetitive work, but it’s always different. Every tray is different, too.”
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 Godek, 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.
I went up to the vertebrate paleontology lab this morning to borrow some acetone to clean tape stick-um off my scissors, and caught them making fiberglass molds of a dinosaur fibula. I went back to the office (with my un-sticky scissors) and grabbed my camera to catch the process.
There are a number of reasons why the museum makes casts of fossils. Often casts are made for display purposes, so that the original fossils can be kept on hand in the collection area for study. Sometimes the fossils are so heavy, it’s impractical to mount the original (as in the case of the giant Apatosaurus on display in the Hall of Ancient Life. A single leg bone of that big guy weighs between 300 and 500 pounds!). Sometimes casts are used in museum educational programs, so that kids can handle the bones and examine them from all angles.
In this case, the fossil in question shows evidence of a bone disease, and a graduate student wants to do a study on it that will involve “sectioning” the bone: cutting a very thin slice to examine the structure under a microscope. The process will, of necessity, damage the original. So Kyle Davies, the museum’s fossil preparator, and his team are making a replica in order to preserve the record of the original shape and size of the bone.
Kyle and a pair of volunteers on duty explained the process to me.
fiberglassCasts are made of a number of different materials, depending on how the specific cast will be used. Most small casts are made of a pourable polyurethane. Sometimes plaster is used, if surface detail is not as important. For larger casts, where weight and/or volume becomes an issue, are often “hollow cast” in fiberglass resin: a combination of glass fibers and polyester resin that is pressed into the two halves of the mold to make a hollow finished form.
That’s the process they were doing today. They had the mold all prepared, and were alternately laying in little bits of fiberglass fabric and then painting on a layer of resin to seal it down. The resin is “catalyzed,” and causes a chemical reaction with the fiberglass that fuses the two together to make a material that is stronger than either material would be alone.
The molds themselves are made of silicone rubber… the same stuff dentists use to make molds of your teeth. A clay dam is built up around the fossil, then the rubber is poured over it to make the negative mold: first one side, then the other. Larger molds are then mounted on a fiberglass base to give them added rigidity.
After the casts are made, the two halves are glued together and the edges smoothed, then the cast is painted to mimic the coloration of the original fossil.
And voilá! Phony Bones!