By Abby Telfer, FossiLab Manager, Paleobiology Department
Just in time for National Fossil Day, October 17th, and International Dinosaur Month, the Department of Paleobiology has launched two new websites. One details the work taking place in FossiLab, the exhibit laboratory where visitors can watch as fossils, including dinosaurs, collected by Museum scientists are prepared for study. The second site, Dinosaurs in Our Backyard, is a companion website to the exhibit of the same name. It showcases dinosaurs and other fossil discoveries from the Washington D.C. area and allows users to explore how scientists interpret fossil and geologic evidence to learn about life in the distant past.
After being awed by the giants in the adjacent Dinosaur and Ice Age Halls, visitors to the FossiLab and Dinosaurs in Our Backyard exhibits are sometimes surprised to realize that our scientists are equally interested in finding small, even microscopic, fossils. What could their allure possibly be when there still are new, big dinosaurs to be discovered? One answer is that the study of tiny bones, teeth, and other fossils provides rich and exciting new information about biodiversity in Mesozoic ecosystems – the animal and plant “communities” in which the dinosaurs lived and evolved. By tracking changes in these ecosystems over time, scientists may learn, for example, what conditions led the dinosaurs to evolve into so many diverse types while at the same time, their plant and meat-eating competitors to decline in importance.
FossiLab volunteers support Museum research on Mesozoic ecosystems by isolating the fossils of very small animals (microvertebrate fossils) from eroded sediments collected at numerous sites in North America. Using microscopes, we have searched Triassic sediments collected in Virginia by Curator Hans Sues, and currently we are picking Triassic fossils from Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona for Curator Kay Behrensmeyer. The latter project was described in a previous post to this blog and is featured on the FossiLab website. During this work, FossiLab visitors have witnessed the discovery of tiny teeth from many types of animal, including pterosaurs and early dinosaurs. Later in the year we will begin washing and picking through several hundred pounds of sediment collected last summer by curator Matthew Carrano’s field team at microvertebrate-rich sites in Montana. Who knows what we’ll find!