Large Mammal Skull Headed to OMSI for Cleaning, Prep Work

What do you do if you’re feeling a little old and grubby? Schedule a trip to the spa, of course, and book a makeover from top to bottom.

In the fossil conservation world, the concept is the same, but the mechanics of making it happen are a bit more complex. For one thing, it can take four strong backs and a truck just to leave home. But thanks to a collaboration with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and the North America Research Group (NARG), the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals recently shipped a 100-lb. fossil skull to OMSI to be prepped for eventual display here.

Fossil skull before its big move from the Rice museum curator space to the prep lab at OMSI.

First, some background. Many years ago, the museum took possession of a 34-million-year-old mammal skull from the famed Chadron Formation of South Dakota. Known at the time as a titanothere, the animal was part of a now extinct group of gigantic rhinoceros-like perissodactyls (odd-toed ungulates, or “hoofed mammals”). These behemoths roamed in herds, primarily in the Badlands area of the United States and Canada. Now usually dubbed “brontotheres,” (thunder beasts) these enormous animals were the largest North American mammals during the Eocene, standing up to 8 feet tall at the shoulder, and reaching 14 feet in length. They were so abundant during their time that entire fossil beds have been found at several locations in the Badlands area.

According to the National Park Service, brontotheres lived in open areas close to the nearly-tropical forests common in western and central North America during the Eocene. They were browsers, meaning they fed on leaves of trees or shrubs. Image from the Badlands Natural History Association.

Brontotheres were browsing herbivores with large “W” shaped molars, useful for grinding and chewing. They had a large bony “Y” shaped horn, which protruded just above the nose. The horn was much larger on males and probably used for head butting. The head was large, but the eyes were small and located on the front of the head. Ears were situated at the back. The body resembled a rhino, but the legs and feet were more like an elephant.

As brontotheres evolved, the core of their horns grew larger and longer. They had fewer incisors, which might have been related to development of a prehensile (able to grasp) lip. Their nasal canals shortened.

Most brontothere fossils are recovered from North America, although some have been found in Asia.

Connected to Famous Bone Wars

Dr. Hiram Prout, a St. Louis physician, described what was dubbed a titanothere jaw in 1846. It was the first scientifically described fossil specimen from the American West and discovered in what is now Badlands National Park. The jaw is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Nature.

The famous fossil hunters O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope gave the varied fossil titanothere-related specimens many different names, based on the shape of the horns. It turned out the horns were highly variable within a single species, and if Cope and Marsh weren’t so competitive about discovering and naming new fossils, in what became known as The Bone Wars, they might have figured the horn variability out on their own. After later paleontologists studied large collections of skulls occurring together from the same areas, they discovered that one shape actually grades into another.

Megacerops sp., North American brontothere from the Eocene. Copyright Nobu Tamara. Low res version licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.

Over time, more researchers adopted the brontothere name, but the scientific literature still retains numerous references to titanotheres, so both names are used. The key source for North American brontothere fossil remains is the Chadron Formation. According to the literature at the website of Badlands National Park, the Chadron is found in North Dakota, South Dakota, northwestern Nebraska, and eastern Wyoming. It is named after the town of Chadron, Nebraska and was mapped out by Carl Vondra in the 1950s. The greyish Chadron Formation was deposited between 34 and 37 million years ago by rivers across a flood plain. Each time the rivers flooded, they deposited a new layer on the plain. Alligator fossils indicate that a lush, subtropical forest covered the land. Most fossils found in this formation are from early mammals like the three-toed horse and the large titanothere.

Into Our Collection

This particular fossil skull came to the Rice Museum five years ago as a donation by a local dentist, who displayed the skull in his office. It was in bad shape, and the movers accidentally broke it during transport, adding further insult. A fossil preparation expert from NARG took over the skull and put in considerable time stabilizing the specimen. He also embedded a crucial metal strut under the hard palate because there was too much plaster to give any meaningful support.

The skull came back to the museum, but it still needed a lot of work before it could go on display, and volunteer help at NARG was then consumed with preparation of a recently discovered thalattosaur, a sea-going reptile discovered near Mitchell, Oregon. The skull gathered dust until recently, when it made its trip to OMSI. But now that the specimen is back in the lab, it’s time for some serious pampering.

Local fossil preparation expert Greg Carr is spearheading the project. He determined that there are three layers of restoration to update, including a coat of white paint over drywall mud and lime mortar, plus several applications of PaleoBond glue. “I plan on cleaning off the drywall mud and smoothing out the lumpy Bondo with a Dremel,” he reported. He will remove some of the lime mortar to expose as much bone as possible, but not endanger the mechanical strength.

Noted fossil prep expert Greg Carr, member of the prominent local fossil club North America Research Group (NARG) will probably need a year to prep the skull for exhibit back at the Rice Museum. Photo by Sue Wu.

“Then we’ll repaint the filled-in parts to complement the bone,” Greg said. “We’ll build a mount to hold the skull about one foot above a strong plywood base, then add lights and mirrors to highlight the wonderful teeth,” he added.

Working about one day a week, Greg estimates it could take a year to get the specimen ready for a public display.

Sue Wu, OMSI Earth Sciences Coordinator, is enthusiastic about OMSI, NARG, and the Rice Museum teaming up. “I’m excited that we can partner with the Rice Museum on this project,” she said. “There are so many great science education organizations in this area. When OMSI can collaborate with places like the Rice Museum, we provide a richer experience for our visitors. Most visitors have never heard of this fossil mammal, so this is a rare opportunity for them to see a skull being worked on. I’m grateful to the Rice Museum for providing us with this opportunity.”

She said Greg is a good choice to lead the project. “He is the perfect person to be preparing the skull. Not only is he a highly experienced fossil preparator, he’s also a fabulous educator who loves showing and sharing with visitors what he’s doing with the fossil.”

Greg and his fellow volunteers already have a nickname assigned to the skull. “Another volunteer named Jack Pollock thinks we should nickname the beast ‘Lumpy,’” Greg said. “It seems very appropriate!”

2017 Northwest Fossil Fest at the Rice Northwest Museum

The Northwest Fossil Fest sponsored by the North America Research Group (NARG) will take place at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals on Saturday, August 12, 2017, from 10 AM to 5 PM.

The theme for the 12th Annual Northwest Fossil Fest is “Fishing the Past!”

The event is free for families to learn about fossils, fossil collecting, preparation, identification, hands on demonstrations, and educational displays. Dr. Edward Davis, University of Oregon will talk on fossil fish from Oregon, including the sabertooth salmon.

Paleontologists will be on hand identify fossils and to show kids of all ages how to clean and prepare fossils.  There will be lots of hands on activities and this is a great event for families and fossil fans.  Attendance for the Fossil Fest includes free admission to the museum.

For more information and up-to-the-minute information see Northwest Fossil Fest.

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2016 Northwest Fossil Fest at the Rice Northwest Museum

2016 NW FOssil Fest PosterThe Northwest Fossil Fest sponsored by the North America Research Group (NARG) will take place at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals on Saturday, August 13, 2016, from 10 AM to 5 PM.

The Theme for the 11th Annual Northwest Fossil Fest Fossil Teeth!

The event is free for families to learn about fossils, fossil collecting, preparation, identification, hands on demonstrations, and educational displays. There will also be two great talks.  The first will be Dr. John Bershaw of the Geology Department at Portland State University. He will be talking about how he uses fossil teeth to measure changes in chemistry that tell us something about how the past environment changed.  Victor Perez of the University of Florida will present a talk entitled “The Giant Megalodon and what we know about it from Teeth.”

Paleontologists will be on hand identify fossils and to show kids of all ages how to clean and prepare fossils.  There will be lots of hands on activities and this is a great event for families and fossil fans.  Attendance for the Fossil Fest includes free admission to the museum.

For more information and up-to-the-minute information see Northwest Fossil Fest.

2015 Fossil Fest Speakers and Activities

The 10th Annual Northwest Fossil Fest at the Rice Northwest Museum is this weekend, sponsored by NARG, the North American Research Group. The Theme this year is The Pleistocene Epoch and they have a round of amazing speakers and presentations that will tickle your fossil fancy.

The lecture schedule for Saturday is:

11:00am – “The Beringia Land Mass of the Ice Age” by Greg Carr/NARG member

12:30pm – “The Yamhill Pleistocene Project” by Mike Full, Director of the Yamhill River Pleistocene Project

2:00pm – “Ice Age Fossils in Woodburn, Oregon” by Dave Ellingson, Educator, Woodburn High School, Oregon

David Ellingson, Willamette Valley Pleistocene Project

Odulia Flores and Woodburn Science Teacher David Ellingston with school fossil projectDavid Ellingson will be speaking on the Pleistocene peat bog found on the campus of Woodburn High School, and founded the Willamette Valley Pleistocene Project. The project has gained national recognition and acclaim with articles like “Biology teacher has a bone to pick with awareness” and “Digging Up Dirt on the Past” in the Woodburn News locally.

The high school science teacher is lucky to have an Ice Age dig site right on the school campus, and Ellingson uses it to bring to life their archaeology and geology studies. He leads fossil hunt field trips throughout the Willamette Valley. The students have found mammoth tracks, evidence of baby mammoths, possible horn core of a Bison latrifons, sloth, horse, and mastodon, and other animal fossils, as well as evidence of an animal with a seven-foot horn span.

The following is a 30 second, time-lapse video of a dig in 2013 called the Woodburn Fossil Rescue Dig by NARG.

Continue reading

Northwest Fossil Fest at the Rice Northwest Museum

2015 NW Fossil Fest FlierThe Northwest Fossil Fest sponsored by the North America Research Group (NARG) will take place at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals on Saturday, August 8, 2015, from 10 AM to 5 PM.

The Theme for the 10th Annual Northwest Fossil Fest is The Pleistocene Epoch!

The event is free for families to learn about fossils, fossil collecting, preparation, identification, and display. The event includes lectures and demonstrations, including presentations by Mike Full and Dave Ellingson.  Mike will discuss some of his recent important discoveries from the Yamhill River Pleistocene Project and will have some of his Ice Age mammal bone discoveries on display.  Dave, a science teacher at Woodburn High School, will talk about major fossil discoveries from a bog deposit on grounds of the Woodburn Campus.  The Woodburn discoveries are part of the exciting Willamette Valley Pleistocene Project.  The lecture schedule will be published soon.

Paleontologists will be on hand identify fossils and to show kids of all ages how to clean and prepare fossils.  There will be lots of hands on activities and this is a great event for families and fossil fans.  Attendance for the Fossil Fest includes free admission to the museum.

For more information and up-to-the-minute information see Northwest Fossil Fest.

IMPORTANT ROAD CONSTRUCTION ALERT:  Please note that Helvetia Road will be closed August 8, 2015 because of construction.  Please follow our detour instructions and be alert for detour signs to guide you to the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals and the 2015 NW Fossil Fest.

Walt Wright Petrified Wood Seminar at Fossil Fest in August

August 10, 11, and 12, 2014, will be Walt Wright’s Petrified Wood Seminar at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals, hosted by the North American Research Group (NARG Paleo).

Walt Wright is a leading expert in petrified wood. His popular seminar will be held in conjunction with the NARG Northwest Fossil Fest on August 9th, also at the museum.

Walt Wright expert on petrified wood - courtesy of North Orange County Gem and Mineral Society.

The 3 day workshop has two registration options within and without lunch for $90 and $110 respectively.

Walt Write is an expert Botanist, Ecologist, Geologist, and Paleobotanist from Brea, California, with extensive professional experience as a Naturalist for the U.S. Forest Service in the Angeles Forest, education and research at the University of California, Riverside, and as consultant to federal government agencies on endangered species restoration and resource mitigation. Continue reading

9th Annual Northwest Fossil Fest

NARG 9th Annual Northwest Fossil Fest.The Northwest Fossil Fest hosted by North American Research Group (NARG) will be at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals Saturday, August 9, 2014.

The Theme for the 9th Annual Northwest Fossil Fest is Petrified Wood.

The event is free for families to learn about fossils, fossil collecting, preparation, identification, and display. The event includes lectures and demonstrations, including a presentation by acclaimed petrified wood specialist, Walt Wright, followed by an optional 3 day workshop (requires separate registration).

The schedule for the Fossil Fest is:

  • 11:00AM – Fossils of Oregon
  • 1:00PM – Walt Wright’s Introductory Lecture on Identifying Petrified Wood
  • 3:00PM – Brad Newport and the Holleywood Ranch on his famous Petrified Wood Collection and its history

This is a great event for families and fossil fans. Attendance for the Fossil Fest includes free admission to the museum.

For more information and registration, see Northwest Fossil Fest.