One of the many great advantages of working at the nation's natural history museum is access to incredible resources. As we were building the exhibit pieces for "Whales: From Bone to Book," I thought that it would be terrific to showcase how fossils are revealed and unlocked from their surrounding rock. Oftentimes, doing so is a delicate procedure that requires foresight, planning, and a bit of luck. With some help from staff in Paleobiology, we narrowed the search to a few promising plaster jackets of fossil whales, collected decades ago, and decided to CT scan it. This isn't standard procedure, but it is something that can be done, given the right occasion.
In the Whales: From Bone to Book exhibit, a fossil baleen whale vertebra (USNM 546146) sits above a custom-forged Marsh pick, belonging to the late Frank C. Whitmore, Jr. I have a hard time deciding which object is more priceless. (Photo: Abby Telfer)
Abby Telfer, manager of the museum's FossiLab, described more of this process over the summer, in an blog post for Digging the Fossil Record, the best one-stop shop for news and activities in our Department of Paleobiology. The article was also recently reposted by LiveScience, in their Expert Voices section.
I've wanted to supplement Abby's story with a movie compiled from the CT scans that we collected in the Department of Anthropology at the museum. It provides a cross-sectional view through the jacket, before staff opened it, using X-rays. It is sometimes disorienting to watch these movies because the X-ray slices aren't always intuitive -- generally bone is the bright white and smooth shapes; the surrounding sediment is more gray; and then finally the whole burrito is contained by loose white plaster bandages:
Coda: the website for Smithsonian Libraries' exhibition "Whales: From Bone to Book," has been revamped following the very successful symposium. We hope to be posting full-length videos from the symposium sometime this fall. Better yet -- stop by the National Mall to see the exhibit yourself, on the groundfloor of NMNH, between the gift shops!