The Denver Museum of Nature and Science now houses more than 30,000 fossil plant specimens. Managing these collections not only means ensuring the fossils are available to today's scientists but also ensuring that they are well-preserved for future study. Because of this, fossil plant collections are organized to meet two objectives: to support current paleobotanical research and to last in perpetuity.

Most of the fossil plants at the Museum have been acquired through its own collection efforts, but the Museum can acquire fossils in other ways, such as a donation, purchase, or transfer from or exchange with another educational institution. The storage and care of any kind of fossil is a long-term commitment that ultimately requires space and entails significant expense. What's more, once a fossil is formally added to the Museum's collections, disposing of (or "deaccessioning") the fossil is no simple process. Therefore, whether to accept or reject fossils is strictly up to the curator, in this case paleobotanist Dr. Kirk Johnson.

Plants arriving from the fossil lab are dabbed with acrylic paint, enough to hold the fossil's locality and catalog numbers. (Someone who hand carves brand names onto aspirin tablets would be well suited to writing the appropriate numbers on these little dabs of paint — the ability to write tiny-yet-legible numbers is a plus.) The fossils are also placed in individual, lined boxes, and each fossil receives its own tag indicating the locality where it was collected. As the curator reexamines the fossil, taxonomic information is added to the tag.

When a rock is split open, it often leaves two impressions of the fossil. These mirror images, as well as other fossil plants that live on more than one rock, are known as part-counterpart fossils. They are curated the same way as other fossils, except that the parts are kept together in the same box and labeled accordingly.

Fossil leaves in long-term storage
For long-term storage, the Museum uses metal cabinets. Using this storage space as efficiently as possible makes more room for future finds, so the cabinets rest on movable rollers, called compactors, that maximize space by opening only one or two aisles at a time. For the most part, plant fossils reside in shallow drawers, which is why all the excess matrix must be trimmed in the preparation process. All the specimens from a single site are stored together and the sites are arranged in the cases by decreasing age. Type specimens, fossils used as the prime example for a particular species (see Research), are stored in separate cabinets.

Safely storing the fossils is crucial, but the Museum can't stop there. If the fossils are truly going to be useful, a central record must be kept of the collection contents. As in the field, an assembly line approach works well in collections. In the cataloging process, one Leaf Whacker adds taxonomic and locality data to the tag, another Leaf Whacker records the catalog and locality number on the fossil itself, and a third Leaf Whacker records all the information in the Museum's catalog.

The Museum's catalog consists of literally thousands of individual catalog sheets. The left-most column is a sequential number that becomes the fossil's catalog number. Other information recorded for each fossil is taxonomic information, including its division, class, order, and the lowest identifiable taxon. Other data recorded for the fossil include the locality where it was collected (no surprise there), its geologic age, and who collected it. Written entries in the catalog are later entered into the Museum's electronic database.


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