Giving fossils a facelift A broken, fossil tyrannosaurid dinosaur tooth found on the ground in the Judith River Formation in Montana. (Lower, left) Fossil Preparator Michelle Pinsdorf extracting a fossil from a protective plaster jacket. . (Michelle Pinsdorf/NMNH-2016-00532, Smithsonian)
Giving fossils a facelift
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If you think about it, a fossil has not shown its best face in a long time, maybe ever. It has spent millions of years embedded in rock, ice, tar or amber. It is a fossil preparator's job to remove a fossil from the surrounding materials to reveal it for study and display. The difficulty of the preparation depends not only on what the fossilized organism is, but also how it has changed over time.
 
We think of fossils as animals or plants that have mineralized (changed to rock). But, that is only part of the story. Fossils are defined as any traces of life 10,000 years old or older. A fossil can be as subtle as a footprint. Or it can be as substantial as a skeleton. Whether it mineralizes or not depends on the conditions it experiences. And how long it experiences those conditions. Living material buried in ocean sediment might get totally replaced with minerals. Living material in a peat bog might survive for thousands of years nearly unchanged.
 
A fossil preparator's work often begins in the field. It starts with the extraction of a fossil from the landscape where it is discovered. Along with the fossil comes a lump of surrounding material. It is left on as protection for packaging and transport to a fossil preparation lab. There, a fossil preparator uses an array of specialized tools to remove the material around the fossil. Depending on the matrix, tools may range from soft brushes to metal dental picks. In addition, even air-powered, needle-tipped jackhammers are sometimes used.
 
But not all fossil organisms are created equal. Usually the hard parts of an organism, such as bones, shells or stems, have fossilized. The soft parts decay or are eaten away. A fossil preparator must piece together fossilized bits of the organism like a puzzle. The preparator restores missing parts using information from other sources about what they should look like. This makes a preparator part scientist, part detective, part artist and part engineer.
 
Preparator Michelle Pinsdorf prepares fossils for display and research. She works at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
 
Learn more about her job, and how volunteers play a role, in this "Smithsonian Science How" webcast. During Inside the Smithsonian's Fossil Prep Lab, Michelle takes you on a tour of the Fossil Prep Lab while answering questions.

You can get teaching resources to use with the webcast.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why does a fossil preparator’s work not end in the field?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (25)
  • grantl-bur
    3/06/2017 - 12:51 p.m.

    A fossil preparator's work does not end in the field because there is plenty more to do in the process. This includes extracting the material around the fossil uses various tools. Last, you have to know about the fossil that you have collected. To me, if you don't know about the fossil, you can't do much.

  • charliet-orv
    3/07/2017 - 11:27 a.m.

    Because they have to clean it. And they have to figure out where each bone goes.

  • HunterTow
    3/09/2017 - 12:06 p.m.

    a fossil preparator’s work not end in the field? Because a fossil preparator must piece together fossilized bits of the organism like a puzzle. The preparator restores missing parts using information from other sources about what they should look like. This makes a preparator part scientist, part detective, part artist and part engineer.According to the text i got my answer in paragraph 4 in line 3 i found my answer.This is based on why or why not preparator's work not end in the field.

  • jacklynt-ste
    3/10/2017 - 01:25 p.m.

    Fossils are so interesting and cool. When I was little my grandmother and I would go look for fossils and it was so much fun. I think that fossils are a great way to rediscover the past.

  • melissag-bur
    3/12/2017 - 11:36 p.m.

    A fossils preparator work does not end in the field because they keep on wanting to see if there are even more fossils where they discovered.In the article it said "Giving fossils a facelift "it said that the preparation resorts missing parts using information from other sources about what they look like.I would love to see a fossil. My sisters friend has a real fossil.

  • shaylap-bur
    3/15/2017 - 08:35 a.m.

    The fossil preparator's work dose not end in the field because there are many more fossils to fix. There are all kinds of fossils around the world for the preparator to facelift. I went to a museum once and saw a fossil.

  • aliciap-smi
    3/22/2017 - 09:55 a.m.

    A fossil preparator's work does not end in the field because there are many other parts and they must piece together other parts.

  • hayleel-ste
    3/23/2017 - 01:44 p.m.

    I couldn't imagine having to piece all the fossil parts together and then having to examine them, that is way to much patience needed and I fr sure dont have that.

  • tiffanyh-ste
    4/20/2017 - 12:40 p.m.

    They're constantly looking for fossils. And most of the time when you find one there's probably more around the same area.

  • JosieW-G-ell
    10/13/2017 - 09:19 a.m.

    They work a lot because they want to find more things in the field.

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