Fossils in storage: How do you sort through the backlog?

Yesterday, I posted about Pegomastax africanus, a parrot-like dinosaur whose fossil was discovered not in a remote waste in some far corner of the world, but in a rock that had sat in storage at Harvard University for 50 years.

In the post, I tried to explain why something like that could happen. The simple fact of the matter: A successful archaeological or paleontological dig will produce far more material than the original scientists have time (or money) to sort through, process, and examine. So lots of stuff ends up sitting in storage.

That led BoingBoing reader Matt Fedorko to some interesting speculation:

"...This seems like a perfect opportunity to exploit 3D scanning technology to put the shapes of fossils, at least, into some kind of digital storage area where other researchers could look at a dig's haul and start to work with them spatially, or beside any of the other data that is collected in the field or logged during the cataloging procedure."

Now, Charles Q. Choi, a journalist who wrote about the discovery of Pegomastax africanus, says that Matt's idea isn't all that far-fetched. In fact, scientists already do something like this with the fossils that do get closely examined.

Laser scanning of fossils to create 3-D models of them is becoming increasingly common. These models are key to computer simulations exploring how dinosaurs might have moved, and serve as the blueprints for replicas created using 3-D printers. Such 3-D printed fossils open up the possibility of 3-D printed dinosaur robots, a massive geek conjunction of lasers, dinosaurs and robots all in one package. More prosaically, the ability to hold a fossil in your hands can help paleontologists better imagine how bones of unknown species might fit together into skeletons.

When we talk about a backload of unexamined fossils sitting in storage, we aren't talking about piles of T-Rex femurs stacked up behind the Ark of the Covenant in some warehouse. Instead, these fossils are still stuck in slabs of rock and not always in a nice, clean way where you can see an entire fossil skeleton splayed out on a rock surface. Meanwhile, the rock slabs, in turn, are encased in layers of burlap and plaster — a coating that researchers use to protect the fossils in the field and during shipment from the dig site back to the lab.

Choi suspects that 3-D imaging might be a tool that could help scientists more quickly sort through all those white lumps to see which ones deserve attention.

Instead of removing fossils from their matrices and then laser scanning them, why not try creating 3-D scans of them while they are still trapped within the rock? Imagine 3-D models of all these vast libraries of fossils placed online where students in schools all around the world might take a look at them either on their computers or as 3-D replicas.

This idea is part of Choi's ongoing series "A Modest Proposal". You can read the full post at his Assignment Impossible blog.

Image: Alex Harrison, Appalachian State University


  1. From another angle, this seems like another reason to spend money on technology while cutting education budgets.  Why pay the researchers and students who would be needed to actually prepare and catalog and study these fossils, when you can automate the process?

    And then, if the scanning technology doesn’t perform as expected, well that’s an entirely separate issue – kind of like the TSA scanners that have been warehoused for years.

  2. I would just like to comment on how nicely the fossils in the post pic are plastered.  Very tidily done.

    Edit: Also, the guy who figured out how to X-ray fossils (using wet towels, I’m told) is a very interesting character.

  3. There are actually CT scanners for fossils, but as they say on a comment on the original article, CT doesn’t give good contrast between materials with similar densities, and fossils are basically rocks embedded in rocks so it’s not going to be easy to get good images!

    Here’s the comment that explains it much better than me:

  4. I was reading/watching something about archaeological digs at a certain site giving up way more finds than could be every looked at by the current researchers.  Their solution was to preserve the site and only dig up small portions of it to learn what they could.  The rest was left in the ground undisturbed for future researchers to discover with theoretically better techniques and technologies.  Seemed like a reasonable solution: disturb what you must to learn as much as you can, but leave the rest pristine so others can come back and build on your work.

  5. I’ve sometimes wondered if some sort of in-place imaging might ever become feasible, rather like the echos used to hunt for oil deposits but much more detailed.

  6. They could invite interested amateurs to be a part of working through the backlog.  They could charge for the experience, killing two birds with one stone, dealing with the backlog while raising money to support other related programs and projects.  Grad students in a related field like Paleontology, Radiology, Biology, or maybe even Education, could supervise and work with the amateurs, letting them participate in analyzing and cataloging the fossils and learning about their finds.  In my area, there was an archaeological site that was about to be flooded by a new reservoir, and there wasn’t time or budget to have a big enough team of real archaeologists out to the site to excavate and catalog and deal with the artifacts.  So they rallied the couple of real archaeologists they could, and some college students close to graduation in related majors, and then opened it up to amateurs.  They had more response than they had need for people.  People were more than willing to pay to be a hands on part of the project. 

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