Dinosaurs, Dead Fish, and a Paleontologist Named Pop

 

Dinosaurs, Dead Fish, and a Paleontologist Named Pop

Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2019

Millions of years have passed since the age of the dinosaur, but their reputation as some of the world’s fiercest and most awesome creatures lives on. Preserving and uncovering the legacy of these and other extinct life forms is the primary job of paleontologists as they pull back the shroud of time on these extraordinary species and the long-lost worlds they inhabited. In the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I was granted a hands-on opportunity to help preserve spectacular fossils and to further illuminate the history of scientific discovery.

This semester, I worked under the supervision of Dr. Matthew Lamanna, Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Linsly Church, Curatorial Assistant in Vertebrate Paleontology, with my work allocated into two main projects. The first involved scanning and transcribing decades-old curatorial documents, whereas the second entailed conducting conservation work on fossils. Although both tasks seemed straightforward at first, little did I know that, in the process of conducting them, I would delve into a captivating and sometimes bizarre world that included socks full of invertebrate fossils lost on a German mountainside and a 1940s scientist’s wife’s threat to cut off the cookie supply for the entirety of an expedition into the Montana badlands. These stories and many more come from my time spent in Vertebrate Paleontology.

My first assignment was to scan, transcribe, and preserve archived correspondence dating from the 1930s to the early 1960s, a time when Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum was spearheaded by curator J. LeRoy (aka “Pop”) Kay. I would come to learn the significance of this period as I gradually read and transcribed hundreds of documents. Amazing stories would come from these documents, including the ones about “rocks” in socks and a cut in the cookie supply as mentioned before. Most importantly during the Pop Kay era, however, would be the renovation of the museum’s exhibition halls, making way for important expeditions and collections, such as the acquisition (in early 1941) of the original skeleton of the infamous dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered. 

My second assignment taught me the valuable lesson of being able to adapt to constantly changing conditions. It began with the conservation of middle Eocene-aged (~50 million-year-old) fossil fishes from a paleontological site known as Monte Bolca in Italy. Under Church’s guidance, I learned how to clean, repair, and build storage mounts for fossils. What made the work interesting was that, although these fishes are tens of millions of years old, the job was never at a standstill. Over the course of my internship, I also learned about the materials used to make molds and casts of fossils, the difference between a genus and a species, and how to analyze bones recovered from the field in a laboratory environment. 

As the semester came to a close, I began reflecting on my own connections to the legacy of dinosaurs. To paleontologists, evolutionary relationships, fascinating anatomy, and the geological history of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures are what makes the study of these ancient beasts worthwhile. The endless stories from the Pop Kay era, the current Vertebrate Paleontology staff’s reminiscences of their equally tasking and rewarding expeditions, and a future career path are what dinosaurs have come to mean to me.

Categories: 
  • Academic Interns
  • Undergraduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh