For decades, the Alf Museum has hosted stellar exhibits, students, staff, lab spaces, and fossils—yet, the collections storage space for priceless documents of past life did not match our aspirations to be a truly world class facility. The fossil collection is the heart of our museum. Cabinets and shelves were bursting at the seams with specimens, limiting the museum’s ability to collect new fossils and safely house historical ones. We needed additional space, and we needed it soon! Constructing a new building or expanding into existing rooms wasn’t an option. Fortunately, storage technology offered a creative solution.
If you can’t make new space, the best alternative is to make existing space more flexible. Sliding rows of cabinets offered a perfect solution! McMurray-Stern, a local company that specializes in storage for museums, archives, government facilities, and businesses, worked with Alf Museum staff to create a new vision for the old collection space. The final plans provided a 60 percent increase in storage capacity. The previous cabinets, along with many newly purchased ones, would be placed onto a carriage system. Each bank of cabinets sits atop a metal frame housing an internal motor—with the touch of a button, the whole bundle of cabinets slides along rails set into the floor. Aisles open and close to permit access to each row of storage.
In order to install the system, the previous configuration had to be removed first. But, it wasn’t as simple as just removing old cabinets and shelving. All of the fossils had to be moved, too. The downstairs exhibit hall was closed off and used as a temporary storage space for everything. In mid-May 2017, after the last school tour of the year, a crew of museum staff, volunteers, and Webb students sprang into action. Seventy new cabinets, ultimately slated for the collection, were moved off a truck and into the Hall of Footprints. Drawers of fossils from the collection were moved into each cabinet, with the location of every drawer and cabinet carefully marked and recorded for later reference. Every single drawer was also photographed, to provide a complete visual record of our collection—the first time it has ever been done! Once the old cabinets in the collection were emptied, they moved into the temporary storage space. For the first time in decades, the collection room was completely empty!
Next, a construction crew poured a new layer of concrete to support the compactor system, followed by carriage and cabinet installation. Once each bank was in place, museum staff and volunteers moved the fossils back. It took long hours and late nights, but finally every cabinet and every fossil was back where it belonged. The careful organizational efforts of collections manager Gabe Santos, working with the whole museum team, ensured that each specimen was where it belonged—not a small task when moving 231 cabinets and more than 175,000 fossils!
But, sliding rows of cabinets are only the most visible part of the renovation. We also needed to upgrade the work space to match. Curation practices have advanced considerably since the founding of the museum. In the “old days,” it was sufficient to record data on an index card and paint a permanent label on each specimen. Today, every specimen also is entered into a computer database and photographed digitally. Particularly delicate fossils get custom foam mounts made using advanced archival materials. Each of these steps requires special materials and workspaces. So, the final portion of the project included the installation of new computers, photographic equipment, and tables for volunteers and staff to process fossils and their associated data.
The collections upgrade provides space not just for the acquisition of new fossils, but also for the proper storage of “old” ones. Prior to the renovation, many of the fossils were crowded into drawers, sometimes with bones sitting on top of other bones. This is not a good way to store fragile fossils—overcrowding contributes to fossil damage. The next big task is to “uncrowd” many of our fossils (particularly those from the early years of the museum) and place them into appropriate containers. Many fossils also remain uncataloged, and have not been fully identified, studied, or entered into the museum database. There is lots to do yet!
“Completion of this project means our collections are now more fully accessible, thus increasing our global footprint in the paleontological research and museum education communities. Also, we now have space to house all the fossils that will be found by Webb students on peccary trips over the next few decades,” said museum director Don Lofgren.
The Alf Museum extends special thanks to key donors of this project, including Blake and Andrea Brown ‘68, Yanji Luo and Li Jiang P‘20, the Zemurray Foundation, Sam Zemurray ‘61, Dodd Fischer ‘61, Ronald Quon ‘55, the McMahan Family Fund at the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation, James Wang ‘51, Hugh Pitcher ‘68, Richard Kron ‘68, Jason Pasley ‘96, Monica Atiyeh Whitaker ‘96, Brian Zipser ‘96, Christopher Cord ‘60, William Marshall ‘96, Daniel Dexeus ‘96, and Heidi Marti ‘06.
New research from Augustyn Family Curator, Dr. Andy Farke
A chance discovery in Mississippi provides the first evidence of an animal closely related to Triceratops in eastern North America. The fossil, a tooth from rocks that were between 68 and 66 million years old, shows that two halves of the continent previously thought to be separated by seaway were probably connected before the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.
“The fossil is small, only the size of a quarter, but it packs a ton of information,” said Andrew Farke, a paleontologist at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at The Webb Schools in Claremont, California, and one of the authors on the paper announcing the discovery. “The shape of this tooth, with its distinctive split root, is absolutely unique among dinosaurs,” Farke continued. “We only have the one fossil, but it’s more than enough to show that an animal very similar to Triceratops–perhaps even Triceratops itself–made it into eastern North America.”
Horned dinosaurs, or ceratopsids, had previously only been found in western North America and Asia. A seaway down the middle of North America, which linked the Arctic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, split the continent into eastern and western halves during much of the Late Cretaceous (around 95 to 66 million years ago). This means that animals that evolved in western North America after the split–including ceratopsids–were prevented from traveling east. Due to a lack of preserved rock and fossils, scientists weren’t sure precisely when the seaway disappeared and animals could once again walk freely across North America. The newly described fossil strongly suggests that this happened when large dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops were still around, before the major global extinction 66 million years ago.
George Phillips, paleontology curator at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks’ Museum of Natural Science and discoverer of the fossil, was also an author on the paper. He described the moment of discovery: “I was excited because I knew it was a dinosaur tooth. I called my volunteer, Michael Estes, over to share in the discovery, and he was beside me in seconds. I knew it wasn’t a duck-billed dinosaur, and within 30 minutes of having found it, I posted on Facebook that I’d collected some rare plant-eating dinosaur tooth. It was none other than my colleague Lynn Harrell who made the suggestion, within minutes of my post, that it looked like a ceratopsian tooth.”Although previously known fragments indicated horned dinosaurs in Maryland and North Carolina, those fossils were of more “primitive” species that likely lived in the area well before it was separated from western North America. “The discovery is shocking because fossils of ceratopsid horned dinosaurs had never been discovered previously from eastern North America. It’s certainly the most unique and important vertebrate fossil discovery I’ve ever made,” said Phillips.
The ceratopsid tooth, from the lower jaw of the animal, was found in the Owl Creek Formation in northern Mississippi. Although that part of the state was under water at the time, it was fairly close to land. Farke and Phillips speculate that the tooth probably washed out to sea from a horned dinosaur living along the coastline in that area.
The fossil is housed at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences, and published in the journal PeerJ. The open access article can be downloaded here.
Fossils break. It happens. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try and prevent breaks in the first place. Continue reading
Gabriel Santos began work on September 1st as the Alf Museum‘s first ever collections manager, an endowed position funded by a generous gift from Gretchen Augustyn and family. Gabe will be working closely with Augustyn Family Curator of Paleontology Dr. Andy Farke to catalog, organize, and care for our ever expanding collection of scientifically significant fossils. Continue reading