Last Saturday, Dinosaur Park visitor Anitha T. made a very
exciting discovery. The fossil pictured above appears to be a cervical
vertebra (neck bone) of a dinosaur, but don’t take that as sure thing
just yet. This bone has a long journey ahead of it before we can
confidently establish its identity.
Lots of the fossils at
Dinosaur Park can be identified right away. We’ve seen a lot of
crocodile teeth and bald cypress cones, so we can usually tell right
away when a visitor finds one of these more common fossils. That’s not
to say these fossils aren’t important, of course – the most abundant
fossils provide the best evidence about what the ancient environment was
like. For example, the crocodile teeth demonstrate that Cretaceous
Maryland was warm throughout the year, because crocodiles cannot survive
for long in freezing temperatures.
Still, we get particularly
excited when sharp-eyed visitors discover fossils that we don’t
immediately recognize. Most fossils from the park stay in the Dinosaur
Park collection. We clean them, catalog them, and store them in
perpetuity so that they can be accessed by students and researchers.
However, rare fossils, like the possible vertebra Anitha found, are
transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
accessioned into the national collection receive the very best possible
care. First, the fossil will be prepared by specialist technicians.
This involves carefully removing the encrusting rock, and stabilizing
the fossil with special consolidants and adhesives if it is at risk of
falling apart. Fossil preparation is a time consuming process – a
single bone can sometimes take months to prepare. It’s important for
preparators to work slowly and deliberately, because we only get one
chance with each fossil we find.
Once a fossil has been prepared
and stabilized, it becomes a permanent part of the museum’s collection.
Smithsonian paleontologists carefully study new specimens, taking
precise measurements and comparing them to similar bones in order to
make the most precise possible identification. We can’t wait to find out
more about Anitha’s fossil, and we’ll report it here when we do!