Specimen collections form the backbone of exhibits, education, and research at a natural history museum. The most complete and well-preserved specimens are usually the ones highlighted in exhibits, while fragmented and incomplete specimens are held in collection rooms behind the scenes. The latter specimens may not be pretty or obvious as to which animal or plant they represent, but they are still important to preserve. A biologist wouldn’t study just one meadow lark to understand everything about the entire species, and a paleontologist wouldn’t want to study just one Pteranodon fossil to try to understand everything about pterosaurs. So, scientists collect many specimens – including partial and fragmented specimens – hoping to form as accurate a picture as possible about these animals and how they lived. Additionally, we use these specimens to train students of all ages in the process of science, we show them off during tours, and we share relevant information and images online for public access.
Of course, the easiest way for the public to learn about our specimen collections is through interpretive exhibits. Visitors not only see what ancient and modern plants, animals, and ecosystems look like, but can learn about the research done on those organisms. Exhibits are a great way for scientists to share their research. Pictured here is a Niobrarasaurus dinosaur skeleton being laid out for a new exhibit being constructed at the Sternberg Museum. By designing this exhibit, we have the opportunity to showcase specimens that have never been on display or have not been on display recently. And we are also able to share new research undertaken by FHSU students, faculty, and staff on some of our fantastic fossils.
To celebrate National Fossil Day (October 11, 2017), the National Science Foundation featured four paleontologists on its social media accounts and on Science360 Radio. Dr. Laura Wilson was one of the featured scientists. Her and Sternberg Museum Adjunct Curator Mike Everhart’s recent Science Friday segment was featured on the air, and pictures of her research were shared across social media platforms. Laura currently has two National Science Foundation grants to support the paleontology collections at the Sternberg Museum.
NSF Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/US.NSF/posts/10155566238757900
NSF Twitter: https://twitter.com/NSF/status/919190210910531585
NSF tumblr: http://nationalsciencefoundation.tumblr.com/post/166433503138/fossils-hunting-in-the-kansas-sea
NSF Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nsfgov/
Two images include fieldwork with Quinter High School students in the Late Cretaceous Smoky Hill Chalk (Niobrara Formation) in Western Kansas. Laura and students from the Advanced Biology class (along with their teacher) excavated a mosasaur fossil in the spring of 2014. The third image is of the internal bone structure of a Hesperornis leg bone from the Arctic.
We can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Fossil Day than with Fort Hays State University paleontologists!
Though it may not be news to paleontologists and visitors to the Sternberg Museum, not everyone in the country knows that Kansas was covered by an ocean 85 million years. To address this, Sternberg paleontologists had the opportunity to take to a national stage and talk about the ocean that covered Kansas in the Cretaceous. On Friday September 15th, Chief Curator/Curator of Paleontology Dr. Laura Wilson and Adjunct Curator of Paleontology Mike Everhart appeared on public radio’s Science Friday. The Saturday before, they recorded their segment at Wichita’s Orpheum Theater in front of a sold-out studio audience. Fielding question from host Ira Flatow and the audience, Laura and Mike discussed the paleontological history of Kansas, the Western Interior Seaway that covered Kansas, and the extinct animals that filled the sea. They also got to touch on subjects close to their research. Mike has studied many of the vertebrate groups that lived in this Cretaceous Seaway and is known as a mosasaur expert. Laura studies the seabirds that lived in the Seaway and works on putting together the ancient ecosystem structure. If you missed it, the segment is available online.
In 2016, the Sternberg Museum’s Paleontology Department was awarded two National Science Foundation grants to support collection improvement projects. “Implementation of a relational database for the Sternberg Museum paleontology collection” is funded though the Collections in Support of Biological Research program, and “ The Cretaceous World: Digitizing Fossils to Reconstruct Evolving Ecosystems in the Western Interior Seaway” is funded through the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program. The collection staff has been working hard to refine and archive data, curate new specimens, photograph fossils, and build a database, so we wanted to update you on our progress!
Over the course of the year, almost all of our hand-written ledgers have been transcribed into a digital format; they will soon be archived in a new database being tailored specifically for the Museum’s paleontology collection. Collection cabinets have been reorganized, specimens have been rehoused, and data tables have been cleaned up. 2,105 new specimens have been cataloged into the collection, bringing the curated total to 21,545 fossil specimens (19,147 vertebrates and 2,398 invertebrates). 342 invertebrate fossil specimens have been photographed. We have presented project updates at two conferences: the Association for Materials and Methods in Paleontology and the Kansas Academy of Science.
Thanks to these grants, we have also been able to fund four graduate students and 11 undergraduate students to work in the paleontology collection and be trained in collection management and digitization techniques. They have been exposed to primary research, new software programs, aspects of natural history previously unexplored, and have gained valuable experience working in groups, working individually, with recordkeeping, and in organization.
We still have two more years on both grants, so we are looking forward to continue collection improvement and working with new students. In the next few weeks, we should be finalizing our new database, which will be accessible by the public via our website. For now, you can see some of the images of Sternberg Museum fossils on cretaceousatlas.org, and you can follow the paleo department on Twitter @FHSU_Paleo for collection updates.
It has been a big year for the Paleontology Department at the Sternberg Museum. In the beginning of 2017, the Dane G. Hansen Foundation awarded Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History a matching grant of $81,000 to renovate the museum’s fossil preparation lab. Expanding the preparation lab benefits all who work, visit, volunteer and learn at the museum. The preparation lab is where staff, volunteers and students clean, stabilize and repair fossils for long-term preservation before they are ready for research or exhibit. It is a fundamental part of the museum, and this is a fantastic opportunity for us to improve how we serve the public. Enlarging and updating the prep lab will allow us to expand our educational resources, create new exhibits, train students and undertake scientific research — all important aspects of the museum’s mission.
We are thrilled to share that we have reached our $81,000 match!
In addition to proceeds raised from the 2016 and 2017 Museum Galas, we had 58 donors come forward to see the lab come to life. This includes a very generous donation from Mike and Pam Everhart. Mike is the Adjunct Curator of Paleontology at the Sternberg Museum, author of the book “Oceans of Kansas” (second edition coming soon!), and author of the website by the same name. He and Pam have been active in Kansas paleontology for decades. Museum scientists and staff are now working with the FHSU architect and builders to design the space. Kick off of renovations is tentatively scheduled to begin in the fall to expand the lab and redesign parts of the Cretaceous exhibits to incorporate a larger lab. Once the lab is constructed and fitted with updated equipment, we will be able to train students and volunteers, host workshops, and have a hands-on lab for our after school and summer camp programs!
Check out a recent interview with our Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Laura Wilson, on projects being undertaken by the Paleontology Department.
If you didn’t have a chance to donate during the fundraising campaign, we are still accepting donations to expand ventilation capabilities in the lab and to fund students to prep, train volunteers, and run workshops. Businesses and individuals can make a tax-deductible contribution to the effort by contacting the Fort Hays State University Foundation: http://foundation.fhsu.edu/donate/ (select “Other” under Designation and specify Sternberg Museum), (785) 628-5620, or firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the project can be found online (http://sternberg.fhsu.edu/paleopreplab/) or by contacting Dr. Laura Wilson, Curator of Paleontology (email@example.com; 785.639.6192).