Curating a New Fossil Collection

Yep, we’re really into puns.
Fossil turtle shells from the Oligocene (~32-34 million years), along with a turtle coprolite (fossil poop) from the Eocene (~47 million years).

Adriane here-

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.

Teeth of Hyracodon, a pony-like organism that lived during the Oligocene.

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.

An Edmontosaurus metatarpal (toe bone).

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.

A piece of a Triceratops horn.

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.

A Eubrontes trace fossil. Eubrontes is the name given to the dinosaur track. This one in particular came from western Massachusetts, and is about 200 million years old!

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!

An Oviraptor egg, with a plastic model behind it to illustrate how the young dino would have grown inside the shell.

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.




Keichousaurus hui, a marine reptile that live about 240 million years ago.
Two eurypterids, Eurypterus lacustris. Eurypterids are commonly called ‘sea scorpions, and are the state fossil of New York. These two are from the Silurian Period and lived ~430-418 million years ago.
An unidentified leaf fossil with excellent preservation. Notice how the leaves and stem are clearly visible.
Two Devonian (~385 million years) brachiopods. They may not look like much, but these specimens are extra special because their lophophores, which were internal feeding structures, are preserved!
A Plesiosaur vertebrae (back) and humerus (front). Plesiosaurs were marine reptiles that preyed on other marine organisms. This specimen was found in southern Colorado and is Late Cretaceous (100-66 million years) in age.
A piece of a Hadrosaur jawbone. Hadrosaurs were duck-billed dinosaurs. This specimen came from the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation and is 70-66 million years old.
Fern fossils from the famous Mazon Creek locality in northern Illinois. The fossil are preserved in concretions, and when split, there are two halves of the fossil.
A Eucalyptocrinus specimen. This species belongs to the Class Crinoidea, which includes modern animals such as modern ‘feather stars’.
The final product! The Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection is housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst,  Department of Geosciences, and is open to the public during weekdays from 9 am-5 pm.

5 thoughts on “Curating a New Fossil Collection

  1. Tobias Baskin January 27, 2018 / 9:37 pm

    Wow! Could you be more specific about where in Morrill the collection is shown? I go by the Mineral collection every day (and love it). But didn’t know about the bones. Looks outstanding. THanks.

    • arl1988 February 4, 2018 / 10:39 am

      Hi! The fossil collection is right behind the mineral gallery! There’s a door way at the back of the mineral gallery, just walk through there to get to the fossils!

      • Tobias Baskin February 4, 2018 / 11:08 am

        Thanks! Actually the other day, by following my nose, I found it. Silly me, thought there was just a meeting room behind. The fossill exhibit looks great. Now I need to find a bit of loose time to explore carefully.

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