Bringing Field Work to the Public and the Public to Field Work

[post by Allison Beck]

Although the common conception of a paleontologist is one who collects specimens and spends time in a museum surrounded by preparators and exhibits, this is often far from the truth. What the public thinks of paleontologists is often a far cry from our real lives, and having a chance to show people what we do is important. I no longer have a large research program, but teach full time at a community college in western Illinois. I absolutely love my job because I love teaching, but also for the perks it affords me, particularly the fact that I get three months off each summer to spend with my family. I do miss the basics sometimes, particularly the chance to see where our raw materials come from. That’s right, I miss the field work, so I help out when I can, even though it’s not the taxa with which I typically interact.

Last year and this year, I went as a volunteer to help at a site on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory in eastern Utah, a bonebed quarry being managed and excavated by the Burpee Museum of Natural History (located in Rockford, IL). Part of the collecting permit involves public education. This can take a variety of forms, but at the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry, it takes the form of free public tours during the two weeks that the site is being excavated each year. Additionally, volunteers, students on field courses, and other non-paleontologists participate in the excavations, offering a second layer of education.

 An overview of the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry.

Among the first things people who are not paleontologists notice is that conditions are harsh. Despite the view in movies, we are generally hot, sweaty, dirty, bug-bitten, sunburned and windblown. The work is unglamorous, and there are no buildings in which to buy food or find shade. We move mounds of dirt and rock just to collect a few cubic centimeters of bone. In my case, we are lucky enough to have a portable john (thanks BLM!), but otherwise we bring in our food and water each day.

The dig site can be seen in closeup, demonstrating the lack of shade or wind protection.

Second, many people notice that the bones look unlike anything you find in a museum. One of the reasons paleontologists spend years in school learning anatomy is so that we can identify fragments of bone in situ (in the ground), and even then we aren’t always correct. These bones have been lying exposed for millions of years, and have often been broken, flattened, piled up in weird arrangements or otherwise modified. That perfectly-laid-out specimen in the movie is almost never seen in real life.

Juvenile sauropod femur

A partially-excavated juvenile sauropod femur. The distal end, which would be part of the knee, is to the left.

Additionally, preservation sometimes leaves the bone very hard to distinguish from the rock around it, leading to the occasional “discovery mark,” or tool mark accidentally left by an excavator. To an untrained eye, it can be even more difficult to anticipate a bump or curve in a bone when trying to find its edges. Having tourists visit the site leaves specimens open to potential damage as well. Just this year a small child stepped on a specimen and crushed the end. These small dings can make the work of preparators in the lab a little harder, as they are the ones responsible for removing sediment from the bones and restoring them to their original shapes as much as possible.


Having tourists visit your site is an excellent way to teach the nature of paleontological discovery. We don’t just pick a spot and start digging, rather we find something and dig around, hoping that it continues and leads us to other bones. Having students at your site is a great way to recruit future paleontologists, or allows students to test the waters, so to speak, before making a career decision. Unfortunately, it also opens up the site to vandalism and poaching. Despite the fact that it is illegal to collect vertebrate fossils on public land without a permit, people do it, for a number of misguided reasons. Advertising your site is, unfortunately, a double-edged sword.


As a whole, however, allowing tourists to visit your site, and allowing volunteers to help with excavation leads to a better public understanding of the value of paleontological science, and allows non-paleontologists to truly appreciate the hard work that goes into finding, collecting, and curating our fossil resources. Ultimately, we want everyone to appreciate the stories that fossils tell us about what our planet (or even our own backyards!) looked like millions of years before humans came along.


--Allison L. Beck is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Black Hawk College in Moline, IL.


Posted: 6/23/2015 4:08:12 PM by host | with 0 comments
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