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Mar 28

A Fossil's Journey

Posted on March 28, 2018 at 3:11 PM by Bonnie Man

fossilLast 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.

Fossils 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!