So once a fossil is cleaned up and cataloged, what does the Museum do with it? This might seem like the end of the road, but is actually far from it. This is the part that most paleontologists enjoy the most: research.

Vertebrate paleontology research can range from the identification of new species to the development of new techniques for molding and casting. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is unique in its involvement of volunteers, not only in the excavation and preparation of fossils but also in the process of publishing results. In fact, the final class taught in the Museum's Certification in Paleontology Program covers research methods and report writing, giving volunteers guidelines for publishing their findings. Since the certification program's inception in 1990, volunteers have been the primary authors for a number of scientific papers, posters, and presentations. One of these volunteers is Virginia Tidwell, who has not only been a presenter at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's annual meeting but also the author of a paper about restoring crushed skulls for display, and the lead author of a paper identifying a new sauropod dinosaur. (Another volunteer, Bill Brooks, coauthored the sauropod paper, along with chief preparator Ken Carpenter.) Volunteer Frank Sanders presented a poster at the SVP meeting on mirror imaging bones for skeletal mounts, and his current research studies the application of hematite to gastroliths, or stomach stones, used by sauropod dinosaurs. Another volunteer, Ed Lederer, coauthored a poster with preparator Bryan Small on a microsite in Moffat County, Colorado. And the list continues. Each year, new DMNS volunteers contribute original research to the field of vertebrate paleontology.

Neurankylus: Click to enlarge
Colorful Neurankylus turtle
Sometimes, research performed at another institution informs the science at DMNS. Remember the Cretaceous turtle from North Dakota? It's from the genus Neurankylus. The end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, was marked by a mass extinction, the second largest in Earth's history (the largest was the Permian extinction, 251 million years ago). Dinosaurs, swimming and flying reptiles, a host of marine invertebrates, and almost 80 percent of the terrestrial plants in the Western Interior of North America all went extinct. Yet some organisms survived, and Neurankylus was one of them. In 1988, a group of vertebrate paleontologists, led by Robert Sullivan of the San Diego Natural History Museum, discovered a 63 million-year-old Neurankylus turtle in the San Juan Basin, New Mexico. The New Mexico turtle had something the North Dakota turtle didn't: its original color pattern. Although the North Dakota turtle that DMNS staff and volunteers collected looked pretty drab, in life it was colorful: little black polka dots on a reddish-orange background. Who would have guessed?

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. 1999. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology: Abstracts of Papers Vol. 19, supplement to no. 3
Sullivan, Robert M. and Spencer G. Lucas. 1988. "Spots before our eyes: A unique fossil sheds light on the color pattern of a turtle that died 63 million years ago" TERRA Vol. 26, no. 6, 17-19
Sullivan, Robert M., Spencer G. Lucas, Adrian P. Hunt, and Thomas H. Fritts. 1988. "Color pattern on the selmacryptodiran turtle Neurankylus from the Early Paleocene (Puercan) of the San Juan Basin, New Mexico" Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: Contributions in Science no. 401, 1-9
Tidwell, Virginia. 1996. "Restoring crushed Jurassic dinosaur skulls for display" The Continential Jurassic Michael Morales, ed. Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 60
Tidwell, Virginia, Kenneth Carpenter, and William Brooks. 1999. "New sauropod from the Lower Cretaceous of Utah, USA" ORYCTOS Vol. 2, 21-37


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