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Down in the Basement

July 2, 2013

Dinosaurs have been a museum icon for centuries and here at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences most visitors know exactly where to find them. On the third floor you can find the legendary Acrocanthosaurus, the top predator and “Terror of the South.” You can also find the exceptionally-preserved skeleton of “Willo,” our small, vegetarian dinosaur friend. While “Prehistoric North Carolina” provides an awe-inspiring glimpse of our state’s rich and dynamic past, less the 1% of the paleontology collection is actually represented in this hall! However, if you travel five floors down – down in the basement – you can find thousands of fossils!

Welcome to the Paleontology Department in the NC Museum of Natural Sciences Research and Collections division

Welcome to the Paleontology Department in the NC Museum of Natural Sciences Research and Collections division

The vertebrate paleontology collection consists of approximately 60,000 specimens. The invertebrate paleontology collection is just as extensive with an estimated 55,000 specimens. Down in the basement, you can find hundreds of ancient shark teeth, the remains of the extinct giant ground sloth, dinosaur bones from the Jurassic, and yes, you can even find fossilized poop! With a collection this large, it is very important to keep it organized, and keeping it organized means that the entire vertebrate and invertebrate collection – over 100,000 specimens – needs to be inventoried!

Just a few of the many rows of collection cabinets that store the our vertebrate and invertebrate fossils

Just a few of the many rows of collection cabinets that store our vertebrate and invertebrate fossils

So, what is a collection inventory? A collection inventory is essentially a master list of every object in a museum collection. Fossils from all over the state and across the world have been entrusted to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for safe-keeping. These fossils fall under the protection of the Department of Paleontology and it is our job to maintain an itemized list of every fossil in our possession. Down in the basement, we are undertaking this job one day at a time.

The first step to a collection inventory is to catalog each specimen. Cataloging requires knowledge and experience to help correctly identify each fossil. First, before you begin, you need to assign the fossil a unique number to identify it by. Next, you need to collect any and all information about the fossil. You want to know what it is, where it was found, when it was found, and also who found it! Then, you need to find the appropriate place to store the fossil until it is needed for an exhibit or for research. At the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the Department of Paleontology has over 10 rows of cabinets, stacked three high, and with anywhere from four to 10 drawers in each. Each cabinet is assigned a time period, a location, and a specimen type. Each cataloged fossil must go into the appropriate cabinet and drawer for safe-keeping. Next, you want to print off a label for each fossil with the catalog number and all available information concerning what the fossil is, where it was found, when it was found, who found it, and so on. Whew! But, wait, there is more!

Fossil crab

Fossil crab

Fossil shark teeth and vertebrae

Fossil shark teeth and vertebrae

Stegosaurus vertebra

Stegosaurus vertebra

Now that each fossil has been cataloged, we can finally take an inventory of the collection! This requires us to go from cabinet to cabinet and drawer to drawer until every fossil is accounted for and recorded in our digital database. When we go through each drawer, we take note of each catalog number and enter it into the database where all the information about that fossil should be recorded. We check the number and label information against what is listed in the database and record the cabinet number and drawer number where the fossil can be found. Sometimes, however, the number and label information does not match up with what is recorded in the database. When this happens, it is our job to find out what details are incorrect in order to correct it. We then enter in the updated information and record the cabinet and drawer number for where that fossil is located. The inventory is complete once each fossil has a recorded home.

A drawer full of coprolites (otherwise known as fossilized poop)

A drawer full of fossilized poop (or a drawer full of coprolites if you want to be scientific about it)

Collection inventory is a tedious task, but it ensures that each fossil and the valuable information it holds is accounted for by our Museum. Collection inventory is important because it makes our collection accessible and allows us to share our fossils with scientists, researchers, and educators across our state and even across the world. All in all, a good collection is an organized collection. It is a tough job, but somebody has to do it!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    July 3, 2013 7:51 am

    I was glad to see more information about what goes on behind the scenes at the museum. There is a tremendous amount of work that goes every day by dedicated and talented people who may never be seen so thousands and thousands of people can enjoy and learn from it. Outstanding article!

  2. July 5, 2013 10:28 am

    This is great! I have a ton of pictures that look pretty much exactly like this 😛
    Glad you’re having fun down there!

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