Digging Up Dinosaurs

Part of the Fighting Dinos exhibition.

The seventh section of the exhibition discussed how paleontologists find fossil sites, how specimens are retrieved, and what happens back in the laboratory. A replica of an actual dig site offered visitors the opportunity to try their hand at hunting for fossils, while a virtual dig recreated on a large computer screen the stages of fossil discovery.

Scientists at the Dig Site

At the Dig Site At Ukhaa Tolgod, the team of scientists and field assistants unloads equipment, pitches the tents and heads for the dunes to look for fossils. Once a fossil is found, the team marks it and records its location and bearings using the Global Positioning System (GPS). When they find a specimen, researchers gently probe around it to expose as many bones as possible. Excavators pour glue on the bones to harden them before the real digging starts. Excavators remove as much rock as possible from around a large fossil, leaving only a supporting pedestal beneath the specimen.

Covering a fossil with newspapers, the team creates the first layer of a "jacket" that will protect the specimen during shipping. A protective jacket's thick second layer is made of plaster-soaked burlap and cheesecloth. The jacketed fossil is driven back to camp and crated with as much padding as possible to insure the specimen survives the long, rough journey to the Museum.

In the Laboratory Back in the lab, Museum preparators remove the jacketed fossil from its crate and saw open the protective plaster to reveal the specimen. After it is studied, the specimen will return to the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, its permanent home. It takes a steady hand to remove 80-million-year-old sandstone clinging to the specimen without harming it. Bit-by-bit, a skilled preparator uncovers the tiniest of bones, which may reveal the identity of the animal. Scientists study specimens using technology ranging from a microscope to 3-D x-rays called CAT scans. Ultimately, they publish journal articles to introduce the new specimen to the scientific community.