Last year, the Department of Geosciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst received a very generous donation of fossils. Being a fossil freak myself, I was over the moon excited to set up the new collection and help make the display for these precious fossils. Our department already has an impressive collection of minerals (the Rausch Mineral Gallery, which is open to the public weekdays from 9 am – 5 pm), so a fossil gallery was the perfect compliment to this. The department decided to call the collection the Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection, after the generous donor.
Setting up the fossil displays was quite a task, but one of the most fun tasks I have participated in during my time at UMass as a graduate student! Unwrapping boxes upon boxes of vertebrate and invertebrate specimens was better than Christmas morning as a kid! There are several amazing fossil specimens, but one of my favorite is a Triceratops horn fragment. Other impressive specimens are the two nests of dinosaur eggs and two individual eggs.
In addition to the fossils donated to us, the Geoscience department also has an impressive collection of Paleozoic invertebrate fossils that were collected by a previous professor (who has long since retired). The last cabinet in our fossil display was reserved especially for these fossils. My previous research experience was with Paleozoic invertebrates, so I (quite happily) undertook the task of selecting, identifying, and setting up these fossils.
My advisor Mark, my lab partner Serena, and I were tasked with organizing the display in cabinets next to our mineral gallery. We decided to order the specimens according to geologic time, with the youngest fossils on the right side of the room and the oldest on the left. In addition, we also tried to separate the fossils within each cabinet by terrestrial and marine organisms. This way, visitors can see how life on Earth has changed and evolved through time on land and in the oceans.
Rock, mineral, and fossil collections within universities and colleges are very important resources, as they allow the students in those institutions access to the collections through research, curating, and learning activities. Professors can also incorporate the collections into their teaching curriculum if they wish to. This semester, the Historical Geology students at UMass will each be assigned a fossil from the collection. As a class project, each student will write a one-page description of their fossil, and will include facts about the organism. These pages will then be print and bound in a book kept by the fossil collection so visitors can learn more about the extinct organisms. In this way, the students are learning about geologic time, evolution, and paleontology, and also science communication!
The collections are great tools for education outreach and science communication. For example, I have used the Rausch Mineral Gallery housed at UMass to teach local Boy Scouts about natural resources and important minerals we use in our everyday lives. Late last year, the first group to see the fossils was a science club from one of our local high schools. The kids were amazed at the fossils! When I told them our oldest fossils were ~550 million years old, they were seriously impressed. In the world of paleontology, dinosaurs are often king, so it’s always a sweet victory when I can get people to marvel at our Earth’s earliest multi-cellular invertebrate creatures.