Brief update

ID me, please!?

Been working some in the lab over the last month or so along with giving a couple of tours and getting some details worked out for our fossil lab class at Franklin College for the fall semester. While preparing a long rib from the Clarence specimen (a hadrosaur) I fumbled across this strange piece in the matrix next to the rib bone. I don’t know what it is? Not classic wood nor leaf impression nor other plant known to me. It could just be a random piece of rock with a very weird shape – but I think not. If you zoom in on the photo above you can see the elongated spherical shapes that form this sample and the surrounding rock matrix fairly easily was cleaned away leaving this small piece. The rock cleaned away but not what was left above – makes me think it’s fossilized something? A penny for your thoughts if you have any idea what it could be. Found in the Hell Creek Formation in Fallon Co., Montana in sediments dated from the very late Cretaceous (@66-67 million years old).

A few tours of the workshop recently and some planning for teaching at the college again this fall and doing some pre-planning for our field work in Mont. & S. Dakota starting in early July. We got the pop-up camper repaired after it was really bruised from a tremendous hail storm it braved last year in Montana. The hard top was repaired, the tent canvas removed and patched, top seal replaced, leaks fixed, exterior lights replaced, air conditioning cover replaced and an improved faucet installed in the little kitchen area. Hope it holds up for another field season!

It’s time to take inventory & order some supplies like moulding plaster and burlap strip rolls for making of field jackets (the hard “casts” we apply to bones before they can be handled), camp supplies, tool inventory, gathering of all the supplies needed for eating & sleeping & digging & cooking & driving a few thousand miles…

Looking forward to the trip as we don’t have an established dig to return to this season; we completed the excavation and removed all the fossil bones of the triceratops, Olivia, last year. So it’s time to prospect and look for new things. It’s fun and challenging and can be soul-crushing when you go 3 or 4 or 5 days in a row without finding anything. A person may start to question their own abilities to do this crazy work – I sure have in the past. And … we usually find something and/or have a good time trying. We have 5+ people scheduled to come out this year. Most are veterans of past digs and are just silly enough to want to come out again!

More updates to follow soon. I plan to leave Indiana shortly after the July 4th holiday and will be out west for @5 weeks.

Here’s the @33 inch long rib that the unknown sample pictured above came from. Just “flipped” this specimen over so we’re now working on the other side.

FFF = Flat Fossil Fish!

When I was in Tucson, AZ for the annual huge fossil, gem and mineral show in January I picked up five small “plates” of limestone each having a fossil fish encased in the stone. I bought these unprepared so I’d be able to practice new methods of fossil preparation. These thin (varying from 1/4” to 1/2” thick) plates of limestone are quarried from a famous area called the Green River Formation near Kemmerer, Wyoming. The fossils found in this ancient lake bed deposit are dated to be @50 million years old.

The specimens I picked up are from a part of the sea bed referred to as the “sandwich layer.” It’s a layer between where more rare and special finds are often located. Hence, they weren’t expensive to acquire and I could feel okay with myself for practicing on them. I’ve seen wonderful specimens from this Green River Formation for a long time in books and museums and at fossil shows like Tucson, talked to dealers who prepare them to ask about techniques to do so but had never touched one myself before. The five plates I picked up were from this sandwich layer which only seems to show a couple of the most common fish found in the formation: Knightia alta and Diplomystus dentatus. Therefore they were inexpensive and sold for just this purpose – for dummies like me to practice on! These small fish are kind of, distantly, related to modern herring.

I’ve prepared four of the five fish so far and been learning as I go. I’m getting a little better at my technique and figuring out the best ways to go about it. The first one isn’t as well prepared as the fourth one I just finished but I’m learning and that’s what it’s about. I’ve learned my air scribe tools (compressed air mini “jack hammer” type tools) are too much, the micro blaster (a type of sand blaster to remove rock from fossils) is generally too aggressive as well and that picking off one small spot of stone at a time from the surface with sharp pin vises, needles and other pointy tools is the way to go. Very slow and gives the best results. The work is pain staking as we do our best to pick away thin layers & grains of stone to expose the flattened impression of the fish scales, fins, vertebral column, eye socket, mouth parts, tail and general outline of the body of the fish. They were buried under layers of fine sediment which hardened and became limestone leaving just this thin impression in the rock. It’s like trying to pick away stone from a fragile piece of paper and not disturb the paper; not a chore for the impatient!

I didn’t do any video recording on these first four but will try to do a time-lapse video of the preparation, or at least some of the prep, on the last one I work on. Time lapse would show the process and show the fish being exposed little by little as we go. I’ll post that in a future entry here.

In the meantime, here’s a set of still photos from the most recent little fish we cleaned up. In order from the beginning of exploring to find out where is what, to the final product. Enjoy

Here’s a sample of the tools we use to hand pick the rock away from the surface of the stone. This is almost a “before” photo but note where I started to clear away some where the bumps of vertebrae were showing through.
After the first session of preparation just a little is exposed. I hold the plate up to the light, sunlight is best, to pick up the faint bumps on the surface that show where something is hidden below.
After another clean up session; more is exposed and the natural dark fossil is showing up.
More! Head is to the left and tail to the right. Look closely at the head and you can start to make out the mouth parts showing through where stone has been gently picked away.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The void to the left is the eye socket and you can pick out the open mouth posture. Still more to go…
And here’s the final result fully exposed and outlined using an air scribe to make deeper indentations surrounding the fish.

More workshop tours

We had several tours of the shop in March. Had a couple groups of families with young children, some adult friends came by and had a fun larger group tour from the city of Mooresville Public Library. I did a talk at this library several months ago and they asked about doing a “field trip” to the shop. It was a pretty good sized group of about 25 people, parents and young children as well as some older students and other adults. I think the day went well for all.

Lots of questions were asked and most answered; along with a warning to listen carefully and definitely question everything I said for outside confirmation and validity. We do enjoy doing these tours and are glad to provide this mini educational opportunity for the general public. We ask that folks reach out in advance and schedule dates and times then we meet up and go full Dino!

It’s Florida shark teeth time!

Just got back from a visit with my good friend Jared in southern Florida. He and I have enjoyed learning about the fossil shark teeth and other bone being found in various places around the state. He’s gone all in and is learning lots about where and how to find these buried treasures.

This time I didn’t wade in a river with active alligators; instead we searched through exposed sandy matrix that came from a known deposit called the Bone Valley Formation. This formation is famous for the vibrant colors and variety of shark teeth it is hiding. Our finds are approximately 10-12 million years old.

We searched through piles and piles of matrix and found quite a few shark teeth as well as some bone fragments (not from sharks) and some vertebra as well as some other animals’ remains like burr fish mouth plates and ray teeth. Fun. We didn’t find the big megalodon teeth that all are looking for but we came up with a nice variety of shark species and assorted other things. Was a beautiful sunny day, not too hot and not humid – just great.

I’m sifting the sandy, clay matrix through some chicken wire screen to capture the teeth. They are sneaky and can be hard to find
Typical matrix we were going through searching for buried treasures

My finds including shark teeth, burr fish mouth plates and ray teeth along with other bone fragments.

More of our finds
Another person (not me!) came up with this cool megalodon shark tooth – it’s a pretty big one, very cool.

Jared has gotten into scuba to be able to dive in fairly shallow waters in the gulf where fossilized shark teeth are known to make an appearance. He’s encouraging me to join in on this new adventure and way to expand our horizons for fossil searching. I was reluctant but suited up and experimented in his pool under his good guidance just to get a feel for what it’s like to breathe through a regulator under water, clear your mask while under and move about and adjust your gear to achieve “neutral buoyancy.” I got into it and very quickly adjusted to the sensation of breathing under water (resisting the self preservation urge to get out of the water!) and moving about with the full wet suit, boots, fins, and air tank. I think I’d like to do it and work to get certified to be able to dive. I have loved snorkeling when in beautiful waters with reefs and fish about, this would be going the next step to be able to stay under instead of swimming at the top and only diving as long as I can hold my breath. I may be into it! No photos exist to show me fully geared up much to my great pleasure. I stand corrected – here’s one of both of us in the pool, Jared’s nearest and I’m a bit submerged beyond him.

Wasn’t all digging for fossils. Went out boating in the gulf and found these two friendly fellows swimming near us.
Stayed away from these Florida residents this time. Jet black, eyes open and ominous looking alligators could be seen in roadside ditches all over the place.
Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida coastline.

Fish Thyme (Time?)

I’ve been having some fun in the workshop the last month or so playing with and learning about how in the world to prepare and expose fossil fish from the Green River Formation of Wyoming. I bought five small samples of the most common fish found in this formation that are in small, flat slabs of limestone. The fish (and other seas animals) are found smashed flat in thin layers of stone that was fine sediment at the bottom of a huge inland lake. The samples I picked up at the Tucson Fossil Show last month are from the layer referred to as the “sandwich layer” and are the most common two types of fish they find – Knightia alta and Diplomystus dentatus.

Here’s a photo of the five plates I picked up with light pencil marks over the line of vertebrae along the spines of each. That gives beginners like me a reference mark of where to start picking away at the overlaying rock layer. If you hold one of these slabs up to the sunlight and move it around you can clearly detect the “bumps” in the surface of the stone that are the telltale sign that something is hidden underneath.

Maybe there’s a fish fossil in each of these five thin slabs of limestone?

With much trial and even more error I have been using a variety of tools and techniques to try to unlock these thin, fragile fossils from the overlaying limestone layers. It’s quite a trick. One picks or pries at the surface stone around the line of vertebrae trying our best to gently prod the stone up and off without damaging the paper thin layer of bones and flesh imprint left on the rock. It’s a trick I have absolutely not mastered (yet). Hence why I’m working with the most common, least expensive and least rare of this type fossil. And I’ve been having fun. Tiny picks, needles, small air scribe tools some, tooth brushes, air blowers, and our sand blasting cabinet (very carefully!) have all been tried. Just a hair too much pressure with a tool or too straight down at the piece and whoops, I damage it or loose a tiny bit of the fossil impression or bone.

Here are a few photos of two Knightia alta fish I’ve completed. Not great, but I’m having fun learning and isn’t that what it’s all about anyway.

You can see where I blew away the faint dark impression of fish bone and flesh on top and to the rear of this specimen. It’s hard! (And what’s that above his/her head? Might be a poop from another fish.)

Here’s the second one I prepared and cleaned up –

Did a little better on this one with less loss of bone material.

And a few photos of the third one I’m working on now. A couple in progress so you can see the development from nothing to something! I think this specimen is the Diplomystus dentatus variety. Also very common and a slightly larger fish with a slightly different fin pattern than the Knightia.

Following the pencil line which highlights the raised backbone of the fish.
Now the specimen is becoming more visible. The slab of stone is in reversed position from the first photo above. It’s coming around nicely and looks bigger than the first two.

And here’s the almost fully prepared piece. Complete with other things about; see the trail of poopoo(?) above its head. There are also some small items that showed on the obverse side that I went ahead and exposed for the practice. They are a full half an inch of stone below the surface where our fish friend came to rest – meaning these small deposits are from a very different date, older than our fish.

Almost done, but still trying to remove some stone between the visible ribs.
On the back of the same fish plate I saw two distinct bumps and both are evidence of … something?

And lastly, here’s the fully prepared specimen of Diplomystus – my first one! And see that I discovered a second fish as I cleaned around the mouth parts. Saw some more black bits so I cleaned more. Look what I found – a 2nd fish that was either being chased by the first OR (more likely) was caught up in the same event that killed the 1st one and they just settled on the bottom of the lake at the same time. Being chased and almost eaten by the 1st fish is a more exciting story, for sure!

Two fish, one small piece of limestone. I didn’t know the 2nd little fish was there until I did!

Rib update (that’s an odd title?)

Just thought I’d show the end result of the neat hadrosaur rib my friend Jeff found a coupe of years ago on a dig with me out in Montana. Jeff came by the fossil workshop a couple of times to work on his find that we we not sure what it was. It was in a lot, A Lot, of pieces. I do like a puzzle (made of bones or otherwise) and was glad to advise a little and help a little to figure out what it was and how to put it back together. Jeff did a good job on the collection of it by capturing it in its original position as he found it and then gathering all the tiny bone scrap found all around the piece. Low and behold it turned out to be a delicate, 22 inch long rib that remarkably went back together with only a few holes where bone was missing.

After the first day, Jeff had put this much together from 10-12 (?) pieces; clearly a rib head.

He and I worked on it another day and found that many pieces did seem to go together. It was turning out to be a good piece – in fact good enough that I cursed him for finding it instead of me!

The rib head is to the left and we’re stringing together quite a bit of the small shards of bone. Maybe it will all go back together?

And after I played with the tiniest pieces left over it really seemed to come into shape…

Look at all those small pieces still laying about – possibly fit back in place?

Here’s the end result with some restoration added by mixing up some epoxy putty and shaping it into some of the voids left over. Serves two purposes – helps hold whole thing together and fills gaps so the specimen appears more whole.

Finished piece all glued together
And here after epoxy added to largest gaps. Ready for display at Jeff’s home. Museums typically paint over restoration efforts (the epoxy) to help the repairs disappear into the specimen.

Now you see how my friends treat me out in the field on digs – they swarm in and find good finds! Good job Jeff.

Way back on January 10….

I did a fun dino talk-presentation and read a children’s book to an eager group of local children at a bookstore on our downtown square here in Martinsville, called Fables & Fairy Tales ( I’ve spoken and read there before to the delight of some and chagrin of others! As usual I had a fun time sharing with smart, young folks who wanted to hear about and talk about fossil dinosaurs!

I read a fun book aloud to the group that featured plastic toy dinos that were running rampant over the whole school; basically getting into one mess after another while all the while trying to avoid the teacher’s “drawer of no return” where toys and other oddities end up when kids won’t stop playing with them and the teacher is at witt’s end. Leave it say that this group of dinos were completely irrepressible and would not stop the party, no matter what. Fun.

What a great photo showing the rapt attention of this adorable young lady.

I showed a few fossil samples to the group and handed around a few things so they could check them out up close. I had a few photos up on a TV screen from the 2023 field work season where we dug on a triceratops and I had a few bones from that dig to show. The best part of the evening was clearly the free fragment of real dinosaur fossil bones I had for each child to look through and select one for themselves. A big hit as usual. I purposely gather scrap bone pieces where something has eroded out and shattered so I have souvenirs like this to give away. No science is being harmed, and most kids (and adults) like possessing a real dino fossil. I sure enjoy these types of events and am glad to do them.

Tucson Fossil Show

I attended a few days around the opening of this huge international fossil, gem & mineral show in Tucson, Arizona over the past few days that takes place annually at the end of January and runs for 2 or 3 weeks. It’s huge, it’s massive, it takes place in many, many different venues all around town. It’s in huge tents, takes over many whole hotels with all the rooms used as display areas for different vendors, the convention center, a fancy hotel out in the desert that specializes in hosting only exclusive, high end gems (think rubies, emeralds and diamonds). There are dinosaur fossils, mammal fossils, shark teeth, creepy crawly things like trilobites and crinoid plates, there are exotic, fanciful shelled animal fossils full of vibrant mineralized color, fishes from all over the world, and gems and crystals and more rocks and more minerals and more….

It sure is simply overwhelming. So I go and focus on checking out the fossil selections, mostly to just see what’s new and what people are finding and to get to meet and mix a little with collectors and paleontologists who are deep into this fossil world. I’ve not purchased much, I so want to find items myself and then do the preparation and clean up. I did buy a few small, flat slabs of limestone from the Green River Formation in Wyoming from a dealer who had left them raw, unprepared just for people like me! They were very inexpensive and are one or two of the most common fish found in this special “fossil lake” near Kemmerer, Wyoming. I’ve not yet made the opportunity to go there to learn how they quarry these flat, thin slabs of stone out of the ground. I know it’s a significantly different way of working than what I normally do when digging on and removing dinosaur bones. The fish and other marine animals found in this formation are all smashed flat during fossilization so they are prepared and presented on thin slabs of stone and are 2D compared to whole bones. I look forward to seeing how they prep out and glad they are common species so any mistakes I make will be chalked up to the learning curve needed to figure out the methods to prepare them.

The Green River Formation fossil fish I picked up are shown here with a pencil mark highlighting where the row of vertebrae are on each piece. And a handful of red rocks given to me by a friend from Germany. Each is holding a marine fossil like the one that Martin already cleaned up.

Here are a few images from the show venues I toured. Quite a variety of different things for sale everywhere.

Some fancy and rare petrified wood with clear evidence of copper related minerals that formed it (the blues and greens from copper and related minerals).
One of many huge tent cities that appear for the annual show, filled with people and stuff.
I focused on booths and particular show areas know for fossil displays.
Minerals and jewelry quality gemstones are a huge draw to the show as well as fossil stuff.
Huge “plate” of fossil crinoid animals. Like modern sea corals, crinoids were animals, not plants. here’s a large stone record of a bunch of them all together.
More fossils. This looks like a large, scary brontothere/titanothere mammal fossil skull.
Dunkleosteus fossil fish from pre-dinosaur times! Along with some other fantastic fossil plates on the walls.
Blue rock anyone? Overwhelming for sure.

Oh, and did I mention, I got to experience mostly clear blue skies and sunshine here in Arizona this past weekend? It was a nice break from the grey and dull weather at home in Indiana in January. Wonderful to be here in the high 60’s to high 70 degree days!

Misc nonsense…

A friend has come by the shop a couple of times in the past few weeks to work together on a fossil rib he found when we were out prospecting a couple of years ago in Montana. It had been sitting in the fossil workshop just waiting for Jeff to come by and work more on his preparation skill set. I didn’t remember the piece and wasn’t sure what it was; my best guess was a fragmented (broken up) rib. After a day of cleaning work with hand tools, an air scribe tool and some time in the micro blaster (mini sand blaster cabinet) the puzzle started to form. It sure is a rib and it appeared that Jeff did a good job collecting it as he put the rib head together from a series of bits and pieces. Looks good and we agreed to meet up again to work on the balance of all the shards of bone that he collected with it. Who knows?, maybe it all will fit together into an almost complete rib bone?

No doubts, it’s the “head” of a dinosaur rib bone. Likely a hadrosaur species.

I’ll get another photo of the balance of the fossil bone and add it in here later. You’ll see quite a puzzle that’s being fitted back together.

This puzzle almost completely put back together.

I also got fired up and worked on some of Clarence the hadrosaur’s vertebrae that had been started some time ago and just sitting around on the work bench gathering dust and being totally ignored! Good to get back to something that had been set aside for a good while. I had fun working on it and wondered why I ever left it sitting there. And I know why – because working hour after hour on the same piece gets tiring and I get the urge to move on to something else, often something smaller that I can see finished results much sooner. Patience is key and it’s good to set something aside before mistakes start happening because of some monotony setting in but I need a little more discipline to get back to things after a brief pause.

The neural spine was cleaned up some time ago but the base (the centrum) of this vertebra was ignored. Photo to follow soon will show the finished product.
Here it is with clean up and a little bit of restoration. One of the two transverse processes is missing and the centrum at the bottom is normally a round shape but the bottom of it was worn away.

This hadrosaur specimen was dug over the last couple of trips out west and has @100 of its bones recovered and back in the shop. I’ll add a photo soon showing this completed piece once it’s fully prepared.

I’ve also been completing the final preparation on a large turtle specimen found near Clarence’s bones. I’ll also add a photo here shortly to show the final work. It’s about 16” x 16” with both most of the top and the whole bottom shell still intact. I’ve just recently removed most all the sandstone matrix that was stuck in place inside the cavity of the two shells so now it’s showing off the rib cage and vertebrae that attach to the top shell (the carapace). Photo to follow soon!

Preparation almost complete on this big turtle found in & amongst Clarence the hadrosaur’s bones. Making the turtle the same age; approx 66 million years old.
Here’s a shot of the spinal column running along the inside of the shell.

Also just last week I removed the Christmas attire that Sparky the Sinclair dino mounted outside the shop had on. Will have to give some thought, or just listen closely, to see what Sparky wants to wear next?

Fun Dino Talk – 12/15/23

I traveled up to Hamilton SouthEastern High School a week ago to chat with a newly formed Fossil Club. I took some samples of the triceratops we found a year ago and excavated this year from a site in SE Montana. The group was sure attentive and had questions and seemed to really enjoy the short talk and Q&A we had together. I think several of them would consider a future visit to a dig site with SIPI! Here’s a photo from their geology classroom where we got together to talk with their great teacher and advisor for their new club, Mrs. C.

Great turn out for a high school fossil club. Brought a scale map of the fossil bones of Olivia the triceratops, book of photos from the dig, field notebook and paper copy of the database of our collection to share with the group (along with fully prepared bones as well as some still in plaster field jackets).

Thanks to senior student Matthew for helping to organize and lead this new club and for inviting me to share.