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Geology & Paleontology

Geology & Paleontology

04/07/16

Weird Tasks: Moving the Glyptodont

Marc Hebert, Sean Workman, and Bert Valentin preparing the hoist

As we have worked our way through the pliosaur exhibit project, we have come up against a series of problems that have required novel solutions. About a month ago we carried out a very strange task, and one that none of us had ever had to do before: we needed to move the glyptodont.

Before I explain how we did this, perhaps I had better backtrack a bit, as you probably have some questions at this point: "What is a glyptodont, anyway? Where did the Museum get its glyptodont and why did you need to move it?"

The glyptodont as featured in Ward's catalogue from 1866

The glyptodont, as featured in Ward's catalogue from 1866

Glyptodonts were creatures that lived during the Ice Age, that have been described as "fridge-size armadillos," although the largest ones could perhaps have been called "armadillos the size of Volkswagen Bugs." They were heavy, armoured creatures that weighed up to two tonnes. They spent their time lumbering around the forests and plains of South America and southern North America,  eating trees and grasses. Glyptodonts became extinct about 10,000 years ago during the “Quaternary Extinction Event,” at about the same time as giant ground sloths and other large mammals, probably as a result of climate change and hunting by humans.

Our particular glyptodont is a replica of a fossil that belonged to the genus Glyptodon, and like our ground sloth it came to the Museum by a long and circuitous route. The glyptodont and the ground sloth were among the earliest casts of big vertebrate fossils, produced during the late 19th century by Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York. Our ground sloth (Megatherium) was supplied to the Redpath Museum in Montreal in time for the opening of that institution in 1882, while the glyptodont joined it in Montreal some years later.

Megatherium and glypto at Redpath

The Redpath Museum in 1925, showing both the glyptodont (left) and the ground sloth (right). (photo: McCord Museum)

By the 1960s, the Redpath was renovating, and these immense casts were removed and needed a home. The Manitoba Museum was under construction, so the casts were transferred to us and shipped to Winnipeg. They were assembled when the Earth History Gallery was constructed, and were there in time for the gallery opening in 1973. For the forty-plus years since then, both of these huge and historic casts have stood in place on the platforms that had been constructed for them.

The ground sloth and glyptodont, in their positions in the Earth History Gallery from 1973 to 2016

The ground sloth and glyptodont, in their positions in the Earth History Gallery from 1973 to 2016

Now, in 2016, we are renovating that part of the gallery so that we can install our exciting fossil pliosaur, and to make space we have had to move the glyptodont. Since this replica had been in place since long before any of us worked here, we did not have any advance knowledge of how it should be handled, and since it is an irreplaceable artefact dating from  over a century ago, we considered this move with some trepidation. Since it turned out that the glyptodont is also immensely heavy, having been constructed of plaster, wood, and iron in the best 19th century fashion, our trepidation was well placed.

Detail of the glyptodont, as it was

Detail of the glyptodont, as it was from 1973 to 2016

As has been the case with handling the plesiosaur specimen, our technical staff love this sort of challenge, and Bert Valentin and Sean Workman had come up with solutions in the best "jury rigged" manner. Back when we installed our mineral exhibit, Bert had modified an engine hoist so that we could move our giant amethyst specimen, which weighs close to half a tonne. Now, with a fossil cast that weighs about the same amount (we weren't able to weigh it, so this is a best guess), Bert re-modified that hoist as a glyptodont-lifter. The following sequence of photographs shows how it went - the process was much more nerve-wracking than it appears here!

Bert Valentin crawls under the glyptodont to saw the head off, while Janis Klapecki and Sean Workman assist. The head will be taken out for conservation work, while we move the glyptodont's carapace.

Bert Valentin crawls under the glyptodont to saw the head off, while Janis Klapecki and Sean Workman assist. The head will be taken out for conservation work, while we move the glyptodont's carapace.

The engine hoist is placed over the glyptodont, which is attached by thick straps attached to steel beams.

The engine hoist is placed over the glyptodont, which is attached by thick straps attached to steel beams. The long pieces of wooden rail will allow us to control the tipping of the carapace when it is unbolted from the platform.

An end-on view shows how the steel beams are passed under and through the glyptodont.

An end-on view shows how the steel beams are passed under and through the glyptodont.

Marc Hebert had built this extension to the ground sloth's platform. A cardboard cutout shows the location to which we will move the glyptodont.

Marc Hebert had built this extension to the ground sloth's platform. A cardboard cutout shows the location to which we will move the glyptodont.

Before Sean can begin to hoist the replica, Bert adjusts the attachments.

Before Sean can begin to hoist the replica, Bert adjusts the attachments.

It is lifted, and the scary part of the operation begins!

It is lifted, and the scary part of the operation begins!

Sean rolls the hoist, while Bert and I use the rails to keep the carapace steady.

Sean rolls the hoist, while Bert and I use the rails to keep the carapace steady.

Contemplating just how we are going to swing that heavy fragile antique up onto the platform . . .

Contemplating just how we are going to swing that heavy fragile antique up onto the platform . . .

. . . and here we go, using the cart to prop the base supports.

. . . and here we go, using the cart to prop the base supports.

Traditional muscle power is used to slide the glyptodont to its final location.

Traditional muscle power is used to slide the glyptodont to its final location.

The replica is bolted in place, ready for the rest of the exhibit to be completed around it.

The replica is now attached in place, ready for the rest of the exhibit to be completed around it.

03/17/16

Pliosaur Progress: We’ve Been Busy!

Debbie and the mount

Debbie Thompson considers the splendid mount that she is creating for the pliosaur skull.

As you may know if you look at this page occasionally, for the past couple of years we have been working with a beautiful fossil of a pliosaurid plesiosaur, which was collected by Wayne Buckley from western Manitoba. We are now at the stage of preparing a permanent exhibit of the fossil, which will be installed in the Earth History Gallery this summer. So we have been very busy in the past little while!

The skull rests on a bed of sculpted artificial shale, constructed over a wire frame filled with spray foam.

The skull rests on a bed of artificial shale, constructed from a sculpting material over a wire frame filled with spray foam.

Much of my own work involves the planning of the exhibit: writing copy for the panels, selecting images and graphics, collaborating with the designer, and working with grants and budgets to ensure that everything is on track. While I am doing this, some of the other staff are carrying out very creative and exciting work: the designer, of course, but also those who are building cases, engineering hanging mounts for a skeletal reconstruction, and figuring out lighting and other technical issues.

A sturdy steel frame supports the entire mass of skeleton and mount.

A sturdy steel frame supports the entire mass of skeleton and mount.

Debbie fits pieces of "shale" that she has created to cover the skull edges.

Debbie fits pieces of "shale" that she has created to cover the skull edges. The skull had to be inserted on its own separate support mount that "slots" into place, so these smaller pieces are needed to hide the edges of that support.

As these photos show, one of the most creative tasks is that of artist Debbie Thompson, who is making an artificial stone (shale) bed that will surround the original fossils so that they will look almost the same as they did when they were first discovered. When Debbie's work is done, I think that many visitors will mistake her "rock" for the real thing, but as these photos show, this is only achieved through tremendous focus and patience.

The skull has to be inserted on its own separate mount that "slots" into place. The numbers represent all the pieces Debbie has sculpted to cover the edges of this separate support.

The numbers represent all the pieces Debbie has sculpted to cover the edges of the separate support.

When Debbie had finished preparing all the "shale" for the skull surround, we needed to remove the skull to put it safely away. Here' Bert Valentin and Sean Workman move a specially adapted drywall lift.

When Debbie had finished preparing all the "shale" for the skull surround, we needed to remove the skull to put it safely away. Here, Bert Valentin and Sean Workman move a specially adapted drywall lift.

Chains suspended from the drywall lift are attached into looks on the skull support.

Chains suspended from the drywall lift are attached into loops on the skull support.

As the skull is lifted, Bert makes sure that everything is kept straight.

As the skull is lifted, Bert makes sure that everything is kept straight. Note the yellow jacks on which the skull support rested; these allowed for very smooth lowering or raising of the support.

At its full height, the skull support is clear of the mount, and the entire lift can be rotated.

At its full height, the skull support is clear of the mount, and the entire lift can be rotated.

The skull is lowered to the cart that will transport it to storage.

The skull is lowered to the cart that will transport it back to storage, where it will be safe until we are ready for the final installation in the Earth History Gallery.

If you want to read other posts related to this project, please look herehere, and here.

10/20/15

Flipping the Skull

The plesiosaur skull, as it appeared in our temporary exhibit last winter.

It is exciting and interesting to work with the fossils of large vertebrate creatures, but this is a field with many complexities. During the fossilization of most vertebrates, the bone was replaced by other minerals, which makes the skeletal components both heavier and more brittle than they were during the animal's life. For those of us working in the "back rooms" of museums, it can be very tricky to move these large, weighty, and fragile fossils as we prepare them, study them, or mount them for exhibit.

Janis Klapecki and Tamaki Sato, strapping the two cradles together.

Janis Klapecki and Tamaki Sato, strapping the two cradles together.

A few weeks ago, we had to perform one of the trickiest tasks associated with big vertebrates: flipping a skull. The large pliosaurid plesiosaur that was donated to the Museum by Wayne Buckley had been fully prepared by Wayne, so that the bones are completely removed from bedrock; their weight is supported by mounts or cradles (structures similar to the plaster field jackets). This makes the fossil much easier to exhibit or study, but it means that we have to ensure that we are fully supporting the skull whenever we move it, so that it doesn't collapse or break. Since this particular specimen is unique and scientifically important, and since it has survived the past 90 million years or so in remarkably good condition, it is imperative that we take extra care!

Before we could begin the "flip", we had to turn the cradles so that they ran across the table. L-R: Kevin Brownlee, Amelia Fay, Tamaki Sato, Janis Klapecki, and me.

Before we could begin the "flip", we had to turn the cradles so that they ran across the table. L-R: Kevin Brownlee, Amelia Fay, Tamaki Sato, Janis Klapecki, and me (photo by Stephanie Whitehouse).

In late September, we were visited by Dr. Tamaki Sato (Tokyo Gakugei University) and Dr. Xiao-Chun Wu (Canadian Museum of Nature), who spent several days here studying the skeleton for a scientific publication. Before they arrived, Debbie Thompson had been making the final exhibit mount for the plesiosaur; to allow her to do that work, the skull was resting in a temporary support cradle, with its "back" side (the side hidden during exhibit) facing up. We knew that Tamaki and Xiao-Chun would want to thoroughly examine both sides of the skull, and that at the midpoint of the week we would need to flip it so that they could study the "front" side.

Making sure we are all in agreement, before we begin! Clockwise from left: Kevin Brownlee, me, Amelia Fay, Xiao-Chun Wu, Tamaki Sato, Janis Klapecki, and Roland Sawatzky (photo by Stephanie Whitehouse).

Making sure we are all in agreement before we begin! Clockwise from left: Kevin Brownlee, me, Amelia Fay, Xiao-Chun Wu, Tamaki Sato, Janis Klapecki, and Roland Sawatzky (photo by Stephanie Whitehouse).

Knowing this in advance, Debbie had prepared a second cradle that would fit onto the the side that was currently up, making this support out of wood, plaster, burlap, and other materials. Unfortunately for us, Debbie was on vacation when the visiting scientists were here, so it was left to the rest of us to ensure that the cradle was used as she had intended.

On the Wednesday afternoon, Collections Specialist Janis Klapecki and I went to the room where the plesiosaur is laid out, and with Tamaki and Xiao-Chun we fitted Debbie's second cradle over the skull. The fit was perfect, so we wrapped sturdy packing straps around the two cradles, then tightened them until there was no give and the wood supports were flexing a bit. This tightness would ensure that the bones would move as little as possible during the flip.

Click the image to see a video of the flip.

Click the image to download a short video of the flip (2 MB; video by Stephanie Whitehouse).

When we were ready, we were joined by several of our curatorial colleagues, who had kindly volunteered their assistance. The skull and cradles were not immensely heavy, but the operation had to be done very steadily and smoothly, so it was best to have two or three people on each end of it. Once we had everything in place, and once we had discussed how we would do it, it only took a couple of moments to actually flip the skull.

Before we could remove the "lid", we had to check that the skull was not sticking to it anywhere (photo by Stephanie Whitehouse).

Before we could remove the "lid", we had to check that the skull was not sticking to it anywhere (photo by Stephanie Whitehouse).

When we removed the straps and exposed the skull, it was clear that the planning had paid off: the fragile fossil had survived it perfectly. Tamaki and Xiao-Chun could continue their scientific study, and the rest of us could return to our many other tasks. But we aren't quite done with this sort of work yet: we will have to flip the skull at least a couple more times before it goes into a new permanent gallery exhibit next year.

The upper jacket is removed (photo by Stephanie Whitehouse).

The upper jacket is removed (photo by Stephanie Whitehouse).

Success! L-R, front: Tamaki Sato, Stephanie Whitehouse; back: Xiao-Chun Wu, Janis Klapecki, me, Roland Sawatzky, Amelia Fay, Kevin Brownlee (photo by Xiao-Chun Wu).

Success! L-R, front: Tamaki Sato, Stephanie Whitehouse; back: Xiao-Chun Wu, Janis Klapecki, me, Roland Sawatzky, Amelia Fay, Kevin Brownlee (photo by Xiao-Chun Wu).

Tamaki and Xiao-Chun return to their scientific studies.

Tamaki and Xiao-Chun return to their scientific studies.

 

09/23/15

Cleaning Week: Filing Trilos

An enrolled and incomplete cheirurid trilobite, possibly belonging to Ceraurinus

An enrolled and incomplete cheirurid trilobite, possibly belonging to Ceraurinus

Last week was the Museum's "cleaning week", during which we were closed to the public so that we could focus on getting our house in order. There was much recycling of paper, moving of old furniture, and scrubbing of walls in many parts of the Museum. Here in the Geology and Paleontology lab, we decided that this was the ideal time to file some of the fossils that had been catalogued in the past few months. Most particularly, we put away several hundred Ordovician age trilobites from the Stony Mountain Formation at Stony Mountain, just north of Winnipeg.

Some of the catalogued trilobites, ready to be filed away

Some of the catalogued trilobites, ready to be filed away

How did the Museum end up with hundreds of trilobites that needed cataloguing? Stony Mountain is one of the really important sites in southern Manitoba dating from the Late Ordovician Period, about 445-450 million years ago. During this time central North America was covered by tropical seas, and at Stony Mountain the limestone deposits are tremendously rich in fossils of marine invertebrates: corals, brachiopods (lamp shells), trilobites, and many other kinds of creatures.

The invaluable Ed Dobrzanski did most of the work on this project.

The invaluable Ed Dobrzanski did most of the work on this project.

Staff and volunteers from this Museum and its predecessor have collected fossils at Stony Mountain since the 1930s; over the years thousands of specimens have been catalogued to our collections, but very few of these were trilobites. A museum always collects more samples than can be catalogued quickly, and the Stony Mountain trilobites are somewhat complicated and consist mostly of small pieces*, so we had been holding onto them until there was time to consider which ones belonged in the permanent collection.

Components of a trilobite that may belong to the genus Failleana (that's a cranidium, the mid-part of a head, on the upper right)

Components of a trilobite that may belong to the genus Failleana (that's a cranidium, the mid-part of a head, on the upper left)

We knew that the Stony Mountain trilobites had been gradually "stacking up", and volunteer extraordinaire Ed Dobrzanski and I had decided that we would devote some serious time and space to this project when we could. A few months ago the lab was looking relatively clear, so we laid out the hundreds of trilobites in trays and decided which ones were good enough to go into the permanent collection. I identified quite a few of them, but it fell to Ed to carry out the laborious, repetitive work of cataloguing each specimen.

The specimens were filed away in our collections room.

The specimens were filed away in our collections room.

When he was done, there were some 150 catalogued batches, all neatly laid out and padded. Once I had reviewed his records (we always double-check everything for accuracy!), we still had to find space in the collections, shifting the drawers in several cabinets to free up a block so that the trilobites could all be together and organized.

One of the drawers of Stony Mountain trilobites

One of the drawers of Stony Mountain trilobites

Finally, last week, we put the trilobites away! This may seem like a very big job for some small old fossils, but it means that many potentially important specimens are now properly recorded and stored, with the trilobites and their data readily available for future research or exhibits.

Trilobite components: the tail (pygidium) of a cheirurid on the left, and partial mouthparts (hypostome) of an asaphid on the right

Trilobite components: the tail (pygidium) of a cheirurid on the left, and partial mouthparts (hypostome) of an asaphid on the right

*These trilobites are almost all incomplete because most trilobite fossils are from pieces of exoskeleton left behind when the animals moulted in ancient tropical seas. For the fossils at Stony Mountain, wave and current action on the ancient seafloor caused further abrasion and breakage.

08/25/15

Left Behind in Airport Cove

Our field group, walking across dolostone beds in the Silurian part of the cove.

Our field group, walking across dolostone beds in the Silurian part of the cove.

If you think about how Museum paleontologists get fossils, you might guess that we go out and find where the fossils are, extract all of them from the rock and sediment, and return them to the Museum. Certainly that is what we do where fossils are scarce, but in many instances our job really consists of deciding what to leave behind. Our specialists at the Manitoba Museum are called curators, and a curator by definition has to be able to select what is needed for collections and exhibits.

A lovely example of the Ordovician gastropod (snail) Maclurina manitobensis, on a large block that is still in Airport Cove

A lovely example of the Ordovician gastropod (snail) Maclurina manitobensis, on a large block that is still in Airport Cove

This fact was really brought home to me in the past couple of weeks, as we revisited sites in Airport Cove, the stretch of shoreline north of the airport at Churchill. Airport Cove covers a large area, with many patches of bedrock spread across the shoreline. These patches of rock allow us to sample many different sedimentary beds from the end of the Ordovician Period and the beginning of the Silurian Period, roughly 445-435 million years ago.

In the cove, the rock seems to go on almost forever.

In the cove, the rock seems to go on almost forever.

The rocks in the cove were deposited as sediment in warm tropical seas, so fossils are plentiful in many of them. With such an embarrassment of riches we have to be selective every time we go out in the cove; if I collected every decent fossil, we would need an entire freight train to get them to Winnipeg!  And then, where could we possibly store them?

Two examples of the large Silurian brachiopod (lamp shell) Virgiana decussata

Two examples of the large Silurian brachiopod (lamp shell) Virgiana decussata

As a result of our previous work here, many examples of the "standard" fossils from Airport Cove are already resident in the Museum's collections, and this time we were looking for very specific and rare things. So we would walk around the cove each day, considering and photographing the more common sorts of fossils. Some of these are old friends, on blocks of stone that I can remember being in the same place ten or fifteen years ago. Others were new to me, but I can hope to see them again if I get back here. And then there are the few fossils that are so good that they must go to the Museum; one of these is shown at the end of this piece.

Abundant pieces of auloporids, Silurian "organ pipe" corals, in a dolostone bed low in the modern intertidal zone

Abundant pieces of auloporids, Silurian "organ pipe" corals, in a dolostone bed low in the modern intertidal zone

If you are ever in the Churchill area and wish to go looking for fossils, please follow all  guidelines on polar bear safety! We had to leave our work area at Airport Cove twice last week as there were bears nearby, and on one occasion a mother and cub walked right through our site very shortly after we got into the truck.

Old friends: we have been walking past this block of Ordovician stone for the past fifteen years or more. The elongate fossil on the left is the central tube (siphuncle) of a nautiloid cephalopod, while on the right is an tall aulacerid stromatoporoid (sponge).

Old friends: we have been walking past this block of Ordovician stone for the past fifteen years or more. The elongate fossil on the left is the central tube (siphuncle) of a nautiloid cephalopod, while that on the right is an tall aulacerid stromatoporoid (sponge).

The pygidium (tail) of the Ordovician trilobite Isotelus

The pygidium (tail) of the Ordovician trilobite Isotelus

Another example of the gastropod Maclurina manitobensis (lower), with an unidentified fossil that might be a stromatoporoid sponge

Another example of the gastropod Maclurina manitobensis (lower), with an unidentified fossil that might be a stromatoporoid sponge

The one we couldn't leave behind: this beautiful Ordovician coiled nautiloid cephalopod is now in transit to Winnipeg, along with the other fossils we collected.

The one we couldn't leave behind: this beautiful Ordovician coiled nautiloid cephalopod is now in transit to Winnipeg, along with the other fossils we collected.

end of cove

 

03/28/15

The Fossils Surround Us

An orthoconic cephalopod (Armenoceras?) near the Planetarium.

An orthoconic cephalopod (Armenoceras?) near the Planetarium.

Those of us who live in Winnipeg know that fossils are never far away. Many Winnipeg structures feature surfaces clad in Tyndall Stone, a fossil-rich dolomitic limestone of Late Ordovician age (about 450 million years old). Tyndall Stone covers public buildings such as the Manitoba Legislative Building and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and commercial buildings in the downtown core, but it can also be seen in thousands of homes in Winnipeg: in walls, steps, and fireplaces.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the Museum and the adjacent Centennial Concert Hall both use Tyndall Stone inside and out. Of course Tyndall Stone fossils are represented in our Earth History Gallery, but if you think about it, it is odd that there are so many more "museum-grade specimens" exposed to the weather on the outside of the building. On the inside, as these photos show, we sometimes cover up beautiful fossils with the detritus of everyday existence: signs, fountains, alarms, and thermostats. In part, this is because the fossils are so abundant that it is hard to avoid them when placing objects, but it may also be that they are so commonplace here that people ignore them and take them for granted.

Maybe someday we will add interpretative signage to some of the better and more accessible fossils on and in the Museum, but that would be a big project to undertake. In the meantime, here is a sampling of a few of the good ones.

 

The hallway near the elevators may look like an unprepossessing remnant of the 1960s, but ...

The hallway near the elevators may look like an unprepossessing remnant of the 1960s, but those mottled walls are thin slabs of Tyndall Stone. This stone, quarried by Gillis Quarries Limited at Garson, Manitoba,  is rich in fossils representing life from an ancient tropical seafloor.

The clock rests on a surface of burrow mottles - think how many creatures lived in this seafloor!  Protrochiscolithus to the lower left.

Geologically, Tyndall Stone is part of the Selkirk Member of the Red River Formation; this bedrock formation underlies much of southern Manitoba, but it is only exposed in certain places such as in cliffs along Lake Winnipeg, and in the Tyndall Stone Quarries at Garson.  Behind this clock, the darker mottles represent burrows in the ancient seafloor, made by millions of little arthropods or worms. The white structure to the lower left is the colonial coral Protrochiscolithus.

Stromatoporoid

The big brown blob beside the elevator is a stromatoporoid sponge. To its lower right, a smaller dome-shaped stromatoporoid (brown dome) was encrusted by the tabulate coral Protrochiscolithus (white), and to the right is a honeycomb rugose coral (Crenulites?).

Chain coral Catenipora

The pattern in the upper right represents the chain coral Catenipora, which grew on the ancient seafloor (a place with no risk of fire!).

Rugose coral fountain

The white thing beside the water fountain is an excellent example of a rugose coral (horn coral).

Protrochiscolithus

The ancient seafloor was mostly soft and muddy, but many of the creatures required firm or hard substrates. Since substrate was at a premium, animals often grew on top of one another. The dome-shaped structure to the lower left in this photo represents the colonial coral Protrochiscolithus (white part), which grew on top of a stromatoporoid sponge (brown part).

Cephalopod thermostat

As common as dirt: there are so many fossils in these walls that some very good ones, such as this cephalopod, have been covered by things like this thermostat.

Tyndall Stone wall

Since there are so many fossils in the relatively small area of the foyer walls, imagine how many there are on the outside of the Museum!

11/27/14

The Old Plesiosaur and the Sea: The Collectors

In my last blog post, introducing our plesiosaur exhibit,  I promised to follow up with some of the story of how the collectors found, extracted, and prepared the fossils. When I was assembling the exhibit I interviewed Kevin Conlin and Wayne Buckley, since they tell these stories so much better than I ever could. Here are the interviews, which are also on the panels within the exhibit.

 

Kevin Conlin

Kevin Conlin is a ceramic artist in western Manitoba who has worked with various museums, collecting and participating in scientific research. He collects fossils under permits from the Manitoba Historic Resources Branch, and has collected significant specimens now in the collections of The Manitoba Museum.

Kevin & fish 2

How did you get into fossil collecting?

It goes back to Grade 3, on a school trip to the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. I took my lunch money and purchased three trilobites from the gift shop. From there, I began to look into what fossils were, and started a long life of keeping my head down whenever I was out where there were rocks or gravels that could contain fossil material.

 

How do you find the fossils?

When I first got into collecting I didn’t know much about rock types. After taking some geology in school and university I began to recognize and distinguish rocks that would house fossils – the types of sediments or fossils in the area really dictate how you find fossils. I look for the odd shapes, textures, any variations in the surface of matrix or sediment which could indicate something other than just mud, sand or sedimentary rock. It could be anything from a pin prick to the size of a 200-pound boulder!

 

Kevin Conlin poses with a large fossil fish that he is preparing in Brandon

Kevin poses in Brandon with a large fossil fish that he is preparing.

 

What do you do to prepare the fossils?

Depending on the fossil and its fragility, I use a special glue. For cleaning and preparing fossils, miniature jackhammers and a miniature sandblasting unit are used to remove sediment. It all depends on the fragility. Some fossils come naturally cleaned by the elements. Others still encased in rock can take hundreds of hours of preparation.

 

Among the fossils you have found so far, which one is your favourite?

I like all fossils. They all bring great enjoyment – trilobites, birds, a Carboniferous collection that I really enjoy. I have no real favourites.

 

Kevin creating ceramics

Kevin creating ceramics in his studio (photo courtesy of Kevin Conlin)

 

What do you think is the most pleasurable part of fossil collecting?

The most pleasurable part of fossil collecting to me is relaxation. Even though the work can be difficult, finding the fossil and knowing that you are the first human to see it brings a great deal of pleasure.

 

Why do you collect fossils? Why is it important to do this?

I collect fossils for the mystical quality from ancient worlds and the beauty they project. I also collect fossils for the purpose of preservation. It is important to preserve this material because nature will destroy it over time through erosion. Being a ceramic artist, a large part of my fossil collecting becomes an inspiration for my work. The interesting thing about being a clay artist is that many fossils are found in clay!

 

Black trilobite urn, made by Kevin Conlin. (photo courtesy of the artist)

Black trilobite urn made by Kevin Conlin. (photo courtesy of the artist)

 

Wayne Buckley

Wayne Buckley is a retired agricultural research scientist in western Manitoba. He collects fossils under permits from the Manitoba Historic Resources Branch and has donated significant specimens to The Manitoba Museum.

Wayne & cabinet

How did you get into fossil collecting?

As kids, my cousin and I had an interest in collecting rocks. We had heard that you might be able to find fossils at a place we were camping, so we went looking and we found this beautiful ammonite. I remember being struck that it was possible for someone like me to find beautiful and interesting things like that. I was hooked for life!

 

What do you have to do to pull out a fossil you have found? What sorts of tools do you use?

I suppose the most important tool is a shovel; we do a lot of digging! Then we get the picks and crowbars to lever out big chunks of shale. As we get further into the rock it becomes quite hard, and I use a small jackhammer. Once the fossil is exposed, we need to prepare a trench around it, then cover it with a burlap and plaster cast. We’ve used various techniques to get fossils out of the bush. Early on it was mainly inner tubes with a piece of plywood – we would drag and float it out. Later I made a skid that would float and we could haul that behind an Argo (an amphibious vehicle).

 

Dragging a field jacket with the Argo

Dragging a field jacket with the Argo. (photo courtesy of Wayne Buckley)

 

Among all the fossils you have found so far, which one is your favourite?

That’s easy. That plesiosaur that I just donated [to the Museum] is certainly my favourite.

 

Wayne Buckley preparing the plesiosaur skull.

Wayne preparing the plesiosaur skull (photo courtesy of Wayne Buckley)

 

What do you think is the most pleasurable part of fossil collecting?

Well, I guess there are really two things that come to mind. First of all, there’s the thrill of making a discovery. That, however, is fairly rare. Probably just as important is that I enjoy being out in the bush. I really enjoy the relaxation that comes with eating my lunch on a vantage point, listening to the silence and watching the birds and other animals.

 

What sorts of sources do you use to identify the fossils?

There’s a great website called Oceans of Kansas. It describes many of the fossils that we find in Manitoba, because they are also found in Kansas. Also, as I have a background in science, I am quite comfortable with searching the scientific literature and ultimately going to the original research papers where new species were named.

 

Wayne Buckley with a large fish (Ichthyodectes sp.) that he collected. This fish is featured in our current exhibit.

Wayne with a large fossil fish (Ichthyodectes sp.) that he collected and prepared. This fish is featured in our current exhibit.

 

Why do you collect fossils? Why is it important to do this?

I have a passion for fossils. I think collecting them is important because we don’t have a complete record of the early life that was in Manitoba during the Cretaceous Period. I feel that we are able to make significant scientific contributions. It’s also important to save the fossils; erosion is very rapid where we are collecting and fossils simply erode away.

 

Wayne in the fossil quarry he created during collection of the plesiosaur

Wayne in the fossil quarry he created during collection of the plesiosaur (photo courtesy of Wayne Buckley)

11/13/14

Sea of Monsters

The Old Plesiosaur and the Sea Exhibit, Open November 14th-April 6th

plesiosaur exhibit entrance

Tomorrow morning we will be opening our new Discovery Room exhibit, The Old Plesiosaur and the Sea. Some Discovery Room exhibits show exciting or previously unseen objects from the Museum's collections, while others feature collaborations with the community. This exhibit will do both: some of the beautiful specimens have been donated over the past few years by two remarkable fossil collectors, but many of the other specimens are being loaned by those collectors, just for this exhibit.

The collectors, Wayne Buckley and Kevin Conlin, spend much of their spare time collecting and preparing fossils from Cretaceous rocks in the Manitoba escarpment. These fossils include large marine reptiles, beautiful fishes, and many other forms of sea life. The exhibit is intended to share with the public some of the fossils Wayne and Kevin have collected, along with the story of how and why they have carried out this difficult and complicated work.

The exhibit itself is partly tied to a donation to the Museum. This spring, Wayne Buckley very generously donated a plesiosaur, the skeleton of a huge swimming reptile that he had collected, prepared, and studied over a period of several years (hence the name of this exhibit). We are planning a major new gallery exhibit that will feature this fossil, but we wanted to share it with the Museum's visitors as soon as possible, and this temporary exhibit seemed like a wonderful opportunity to also display some of Wayne and Kevin's other fossils.

The photos below simply show parts of the exhibit, and some of the behind-the-scenes work that was required to put the specimens there. I will try to follow up in a week or so with some of the very interesting story of Wayne and Kevin's fossil collecting.

 

Placing the skull onto a cart, so that it can be moved to the exhibit

After we brought the plesiosaur to the Museum, we worked on it in one of the back rooms. Here, we are placing the skull onto a cart so that it can be moved to the exhibit. L-R: Ed Dobrzanski, Bert Valentin, Ellen Robinson, Carolyn Sirett, Stephanie Whitehouse, me, and Sean Workman. (photo by Randy Mooi)

Carolyn and Ellen accompany the skull in the freight elevator.

Carolyn Sirett and Ellen Robinson accompany the skull in the freight elevator. (photo by Randy Mooi)

Will it fit into the case?

Will it fit into the case? Fortunately the skull is not quite as big as it looks from here (note the metal mount, devised by Bert and Carolyn). (photo by Randy Mooi)

All together now!

All together now! The skull is heavy and fragile, a tricky thing to move into a tight space. L-R: me, Stephanie Whitehouse, Bert Valentin, Sean Workman. (photo by Randy Mooi)

Adjusting the skull on its mount

Adjusting the skull on its mount

plesiosaur skull

The plesiosaur skull and neck vertebrae (V-3151)

exhibit_from_bird_corner

A splendid disarticulated fish (Ichthyodectes) donated to the Museum by Wayne Buckley

A splendid example of the fish Ichthyodectes, disarticulated (broken up) by currents or scavengers on the ancient seafloor. This fossil was donated to the Museum by Wayne Buckley. (V-3122)

Sharks are widespread in Manitoba's Cretaceous rocks.

Sharks are widespread in Manitoba's Cretaceous rocks. Shark teeth are very hard and commonly fossilized. Shark skeletons are made of softer cartilage, so most parts of the skeletons are rarely preserved. As shown by the specimens here, however, vertebrae (backbones) and jaws are sometimes fossilized because those parts are hardened with calcium salts. The fossils in this case are on loan from Wayne Buckley.

Some of the fossils in the "Cretaceous Community" case.

Some of the fossils in the "Cretaceous Community" case: an example of plesiosaur ribs and gizzard stones (1), the snout of the bony-headed fish Thryptodus? (2), and a vertebra from an elasmosaur (long-necked plesiosaur) (3). These fossils are on loan from Kevin Conlin (1, 3) and Wayne Buckley (2).

One of my favourite fossil specimens is this Cretaceous bird, loaned for the exhibit by Kevin Conlin.

One of my favourite fossil specimens is this Cretaceous seabird, loaned for the exhibit by Kevin Conlin. The bird is still partly enclosed in dense shale matrix; the X-ray below shows that most of the skeleton is actually present.

This ammonoid urn, inspired by Cretaceous fossils, was created by Kevin Conlin.

Kevin Conlin is a professional ceramic artist. This ammonoid urn was inspired by Cretaceous fossils and rocks.

10/07/14

Are we Still in Manitoba?

Travels in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, August, 2014

Visiting the waterfall at Surprise Creek.  L-R: Me, Daniel Shaw (Manitoba Geological Survey), Michelle Boulet Nicolas (MGS), Michelle Trommelen (MGS), Daniel Gibson (Churchill Northern Studies Centre). Photo by our helicopter pilot, Frank Roberts

Visiting the waterfall at Surprise Creek, near the Churchill River. L-R: Me, Daniel Shaw (Manitoba Geological Survey), Michelle Boulet Nicolas (MGS), Michelle Trommelen (MGS), and Daniel Gibson (Churchill Northern Studies Centre). Photo by our helicopter pilot, Frank Roberts

Manitoba is an immense place, very slightly larger than France. If you look at the map, you will see that roads here are concentrated in the southernmost part of the province. The farther north you go, the fewer areas you will find that are easy to visit. Those of us who work in field-based sciences occasionally get to some of the more out-of-the way places, but most of us have still seen only a small fraction of what this province has to offer. The Manitoba landscapes that are familiar to us are either the parts that we have seen (such as the prairies and the big lakes), or those that are regularly depicted in photographs and tourist brochures (such as a few places in the boreal forest and the rocky shoreline around Churchill).

The "standard" image of Churchill: a polar bear in coastal vegetation

The "standard" image of Churchill: a polar bear in coastal vegetation

This fact was really brought home to me during the last week of August, as I was invited to participate in some northern fieldwork organized by my colleagues at the Manitoba Geological Survey. I have seen a good few parts of southern and central Manitoba, but in the northern third of the province I really only know the Churchill area. Nevertheless, I thought I had a good feel for what the areas away from Churchill might be like. Our plan for this trip was to visit some of the geological sites in the Churchill area, but also to take advantage of funding support for helicopter time, which would allow us to visit a few places far up the Churchill River, 100 kilometres from any road and far from the Hudson Bay Railway.

The Churchill is a grand river!

The lower Churchill River is huge!

The helicopter travel turned out to be an eye-opening experience. The up-river sites had received some study from scientists working with the Geological Survey of Canada, who visited this area 50 to 60 years ago, so I knew something of what I would see in terms of the rocks and fossils: the bedrock exposures are very good, and many of the fossils are superb (though they are not generally as abundant as I had anticipated).

Cephalopods in the Chasm Creek below Red Head Rapids (one of these is now in the collections of the Museum)

A few of the fossils we found: these Ordovician age cephalopods were in the Chasm Creek Formation below Red Head Rapids on the Churchill River (one of these is now in the collections of the Museum). That's the helicopter skid on the left; we had landed directly on the outcrop.

Up over the tundra the landscape is dramatically different: moss and ponds

Up over the tundra the landscape is dramatically different: this is an aerial view of moss and ponds, from a height of a few hundred feet.

More than a decade ago we had overflown a few of these up-river sites when we had a bit of helicopter time in Churchill, so I should have really known what it would be like there, but seeing them from the ground was quite different. The Churchill River landscape has a tremendous sweep and grandeur. The river is very wide and flows swiftly, sometimes in an almost straight line, more often with gentle bends. Some downstream areas have bars of gravel and cobbles, but farther upstream there are several sets of treacherous-looking rapids. The valley walls steepen as you travel upstream, from the flat lowlands south of Churchill to a substantial height of land 100 kilometres upstream where the valley walls are cliffs of Ordovician bedrock, resting on the Precambrian granitic rock that makes up the river bed.

A river-level view below Portage Chute

A river-level view just below Portage Chute

Portage Chute, Bad Cache Rapids, Surprise Creek, Caution Creek, Chasm Creek . . . the place names alone should be enough to tell you that you aren't on the prairies any more. Honestly, if I had been somehow sedated and delivered into the ravine of Chasm Creek without any awareness of how I arrived there, I would have thought that it had to be somewhere in the Yukon or perhaps the Northwest Territories.

Daniel Gibson at Chasm Creek

Daniel Gibson at Chasm Creek

The valley of the Churchill River is a literally awesome place, breathtaking in its grandeur, its scale, and in the variety of landforms and organisms. It is absolutely a northern place, a place that Manitobans should be aware of, a place to celebrate!

Back along the coast toward the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

A more familiar place as we flew "homeward" near the end of the day: a  view back along the coast of Hudson Bay toward the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

06/30/14

Isn’t it iconic? Don’t you think?

 

Cretaceous exhibits in the Earth History Gallery: pterosaurs "fly" above the plesiosaur and the mosasaur skull.

Cretaceous exhibits in the Earth History Gallery: pterosaurs "fly" above the plesiosaur and the mosasaur skull.

 

What are the Factors that Make an Exhibit "Iconic"?

In the last little while we have been working on the plan for a new exhibit in the Museum's Earth History Gallery, which will be focused on a large specimen that we recently added to the collections. Around here we like to refer to the specimen and the planned exhibit as "iconic." But what does iconic really mean? And what makes an object or exhibit iconic?

It seems to be the case that words that were once relatively obscure can become popular, and have their time in the media spotlight before once again slipping into comfortable obscurity (see my post about the word curator  from a few months back). Like curator, icon is currently a popular word; its formerly limited religious application is now being expanded to computing, linguistics, and popular culture. It is the latter meaning that is applicable to museum exhibits, and the Oxford Dictionary says that an icon is "a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration."

Veneration, of course, means respect or reverence. An iconic exhibit must be one that will be admired, honoured, or thought highly of by many of the people who visit the Museum. The creation of an iconic exhibit is, therefore, a rather demanding prospect for the Museum's exhibit team, since it must be more exciting than many of the other exhibits at the Museum, and more memorable than most of the exhibits they will have seen in other museums!

The Museum's Megatherium has been exhibited for more than 130 years!

The Museum's Megatherium has been exhibited for more than 130 years!

For an exhibit to be iconic, I think it really needs to have "legs." It has to have the potential to last not just for years, but for decades, and to be effective throughout that time. It has to be the sort of exhibit that can excite the children when it opens, but that will also be memorable to those same people when they revisit the museum years later as adults, and to excite their children. That sounds like a high order indeed, but how can we consider something to be "revered" unless it is long-lived?

I was contemplating this question a few weeks ago, as I visited the collections building of the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. The New Brunswick Museum is very different from The Manitoba Museum; one of the biggest differences is that their collections are not stored at the same place where the public view the exhibits. In Winnipeg we have our collections in various spaces within the same large museum building, but in Saint John the exhibits are in a rented space at Market Square near the middle of town, while the collections occupy much of the building that used to be the public museum, located more than two kilometres away on Douglas Avenue (near the Reversing Falls).

The Earth History Gallery

The Manitoba Museum's Earth History Gallery

Since the current New Brunswick Museum's exhibits were largely created new since 1990 (though of course some specimens and artefacts were relocated there from the old museum), the exhibit halls lack the sorts of long-lived exhibits that are so important at The Manitoba Museum. Some of our major exhibits such as the Nonsuch, the polar bear, and the Urban Gallery have all seen little change in forty years or more. The New Brunswick Museum may lack that sort of long-lived exhibit in its current galleries, but as I studied collections located in the former galleries, I was struck by how vividly I could recall the "ghosts" of some exhibits I had visited there as a child. Old New Brunswick Museum exhibits such the Hillsborough mastodon, the giant sturgeon, and the shipbuilding gallery all had a great impact on me, and were probably influential in my choice of a museum career.

I know when I talk to life-long Winnipeggers that our Museum has had the same sort of impact on them, as they recall with fondness some of their visits to our galleries in the 1970s and 1980s. Some older Winnipeggers, though, have similar feelings about the former Manitoba Museum, which was located in the Civic Auditorium (now the Manitoba Archives Building) from about 1932 to 1970. And the exhibits of that old museum were largely lost or removed from public view when the collections were transferred to the current Manitoba Museum.

The old Manitoba Museum

The old Manitoba Museum, housed in what is now the Manitoba Archives Building

Since The Manitoba Museum is already a place that houses many iconic exhibits, it is incumbent on us to try to keep these as we go forward in the development of new "icons." Fortunately, from my observation of gallery planning, we are very respectful of the institution's past, and though we have lost a few exhibits over the years, we have also taken extraordinary steps to ensure that others have been saved and refurbished. As we go forward, and as this institution is itself gradually becoming a historic site (this is hard for us to perceive, but it IS happening!), we will need to ensure that the best and most important of our old exhibits are preserved, with perhaps an occasional updating or "burnishing" to maintain their iconic status. People will always want to come to see the Nonsuch!

For our new exhibits to become icons, we need to always be considering the elements that give them the "wow" factor, that will take away the visitor's breath, either on first sight or after slight contemplation. The most obvious iconic attributes will be in the exhibited objects themselves, which may be large, or splendidly beautiful, or unique. Again, the Nonsuch is an obvious example, but we have many others: the ground sloth (Megatherium), the giant trilobite, the elk diorama, and many of the artefacts in the Hudson's Bay Company Gallery. In addition to the specimens and artefacts, though, there are many other factors. Cases are designed to optimize viewing by all visitors, and nowadays the Museum pays immense attention to factors such as lighting, colour schemes, graphics, and text readability.

One of the Museum's mineral cases: lighting and design are critical to modern exhibits.

One of the Museum's mineral cases: lighting and design are critical to modern exhibits.

Of course, there are also the technological elements, which are constantly grappled with by all modern museums. These can frustrate museum staff and they can sometimes torpedo an otherwise solid exhibit, but when they work they can elevate an exhibit to iconic status. I hope that will be the case for our Ancient Seas exhibit, opened a few years ago and a solid favourite of some of our younger visitors. I was very pleased a few weeks back when my friend Cortney posted a photograph of her daughter Teagan, with the statement, "enraptured by the Ancient Seas exhibit, every time."

The Ancient Seas exhibit (above) and Teagan's view of it (below)

The Ancient Seas exhibit (above) and Teagan's view of it (below)

ancient seas teagan_edit

Those of us working at the Museum need to endeavour to find a way to share all of our treasures, but at the same time we should have no room for exhibits that are "worthy but dull." We have to strive to "enrapture" all of our visitors! This is a big and exciting challenge as the Museum continues to develop and evolve.