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
Lexile

A fossil, if you think about it, 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, 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 or even air-powered, needle-tipped jackhammers.
 
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, restoring 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 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.

Filed Under:  
Assigned 104 times
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why does a fossil preparator’s work not end in the field?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (48)
  • carlosj-
    3/01/2017 - 08:43 a.m.

    they don't have all the tools to prepare the fossil.

  • zlily-dav
    3/01/2017 - 11:17 p.m.

    In response to “Giving a fossil a facelift,” I found this article interesting for three reasons. First, I learned about a career called a fossil preparator. In the article it states, “It is a fossil preparator's job to remove a fossil from the surrounding materials to reveal it for study and display.” Until now, I didn’t even know this career existed. I had heard of archeologists, but not fossil preparators. I also thought this article was interesting because I learned that fossils can be more than plants or animals that have changed to rock. The article says, “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.” I had no idea that the location where a once living organism dies has an impact on how the fossil changes over time. Lastly, I also learned some information about how fossils are removed from their surroundings by reading this article. For example, in the article it states, “work often begins in the field, 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.” The article goes on to discuss the types of tools used to extract a fossil. It states, “Depending on the matrix, tools may range from soft brushes to metal dental picks or even air-powered, needle-tipped jackhammers.” Even though most people are familiar with the word fossil, I don’t think they know the whole story and they underestimate how much work is involved in piecing together our past.

  • juliamc-pel
    3/06/2017 - 11:47 a.m.

    It doesn't end in the field because they take it and clean it with special tools.

  • kevinl-pel
    3/06/2017 - 12:00 p.m.

    They must test it.

  • ryana-pel
    3/06/2017 - 12:01 p.m.

    After the fossil is packaged it still has to be unpackaged ,put together ,and be prepared for display.

  • austinh2-pel
    3/06/2017 - 12:25 p.m.

    Because they still have to assemble the fossil and prepare it for display

  • jorger-pel
    3/06/2017 - 03:19 p.m.

    They want to be save.

  • jesusr-pel
    3/06/2017 - 03:24 p.m.

    fossil preparators work really hard looking at three fossils and watching every
    move every day

  • armandor-pel
    3/06/2017 - 03:48 p.m.

    The soft parts decay or are eaten away. A fossil preparator must piece together fossilized bits of the organism.

  • emilc-pel
    3/07/2017 - 03:33 p.m.

    Fossil preparator's work not end because the always like to find old fossils' or new fossils'.

Take the Quiz Leave a comment
ADVERTISEMENT