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The Jurassic fossils are here—now what?

Over the summer we received three shipments of Jurassic fossils and fossilized material at The Children’s Museum. After millions of years in the ground and more than 21 hours on the road, they were ready for the next leg of their Mission Jurassic journey.

Shipment of Mission Jurassic fossils arriving at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

The field jackets are quite large. One jacket alone weighs in at just shy of 1,600 pounds. We asked the museum’s Lead Curator of Natural Science and Paleontology Dallas Evans about the next steps for these massive fossils now that they’re at the museum.

Now what? Documentation and storage.

“The next steps involve cataloguing and tracking each field jacket,” he said. “We want to keep track of these items and know exactly what they are and how much they weigh. We then prioritize which ones get worked on first, and assign them to a preparator (a person who prepares fossils for an exhibit or for study). We make sure that this information is available for our paleo and exhibits staff...Documentation is a key part of the work that we do.”

Jacketed fossils from the Mission Jurassic dig site in the dock at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

Once the field jackets are catalogued, they are placed in storage until they can be safely brought into the lab for prep work.

Now what? A bigger lab.

While our team of scientists take measurements and catalogue the data, another major development has been underway in DinosphereⓇ—a new prep lab! These Jurassic bones are significantly larger than the Cretaceous bones that had been prepped in the Polly H. Hix Paleo Prep Lab. Bigger bones require bigger equipment and a larger workspace. The museum has been busy building a new R.B. Annis Jurassic Paleo Lab in order to accommodate the bigger Jurassic bones.

Now that the new lab is complete, our scientists will have the proper room and equipment to tackle the extraordinary specimens that have arrived from the Jurassic Mile.

Now what? Prepping the bones.

Paleontologists prefer not to have to do much prep work on fossils while they’re in the field. Labs provide a much more controlled environment for cleaning and prepping fossil specimens. No more unexpected hail, thunderstorms, or blazing sun.

Our scientists use a lift to transport the field jackets from storage to the lab. Once these massive jackets are safely stabilized on the table, it’s time to crack the big jackets open. Since these field jackets are basically the same material as old-school plaster casts that were used on broken bones and legs, our scientists use the same tool to open large field jackets—cast saws.

Using a cast saw to remove part of a field jacket from a fossil in the Jurassic Paleo Prep Lab at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

The saw doesn’t rotate like a typical circular saw does. It vibrates very fast. The vibration of the saw’s small blades splits the jacket open.

While the goal is to remove the fossil from the field jacket, that doesn’t happen right away. Keeping the fossil encased in some of the jacket helps keep the fossil cradled within the rock that was jacketed with the fossil. That rock has been stabilizing the fossil for millions of years. The best thing our scientists can do is keep the fossil encased within the rock so they have time to properly seal the cracks.

Examining a fossil in a partially removed field jacket in the Jurassic Paleo Prep Lab at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

With some of the jacket removed and some of the fossil safely exposed, our scientists begin sealing the cracks found in the fossil. They work on a very small area of the fossil at a time. Move too fast and you might miss something. For our scientists who are prepping these fossils, it’s quality over quantity. Because the end goal is to have a beautiful specimen that can be studied and put on display. And that takes time. While these fossils will ultimately be removed from their field jackets, it requires patience and attention to detail in order to remove them properly.

We know our scientists can’t wait to dig into these field jackets and get into studying these fossils. We also can’t wait to share them with you! It’s all in due time, though. Because something big...VERY big...is happening!

Mission Jurassic is a $27.5-million project that will be brought to life through the generosity of donors. Donate now on our website, or for extraordinary naming opportunities check out our Mission Jurassic Field Guide or contact Amy Kwas at 317-334-4608 or AKwas@childrensmuseum.org.

Don’t miss a moment of the Mission Jurassic project! Follow the Mission Jurassic hashtag (#MissionJurassic) and the museum’s Extraordinary Scientists-in-Residence, Prof. Phil Manning (@DrPhilManning)and Dr. Victoria Egerton (@DrVegerton) on Twitter for up-to-the-moment information!