My Week at the Natural History Museum – Day Two: Palaeontology

Tuesday was palaeo.  I was very excited because this is the area of biology that has always grabbed me more than any other (and that’s saying something).  Although I have volunteered in palaeo, getting a guided tour around it as well as some curatorial work experience was amazing.

Day two began with us meeting Lil Stevens, a member of the palaeo team at the NHM.  She proceeded to show us round the department and introduced to staff as well as curatorial techniques.  Although the palaeo collections are virtually all fossilised remains of flora and fauna there are still hazards and risks associated with them.

One of the most dangerous (for the specimens) is pyrite decay.  “It affects the minerals pyrite and marcasite and occurs when the sulphide component oxidizes to form ferrous sulphate and sulphur dioxide. This can result in the total destruction of a specimen, and the acidic decay products can destroy specimen labels and damage storage materials“.  In order to combat this, some specimens are stored in an oxygen free atmosphere, usually by ‘vac-packing’ them in a way that removes said naughty gas.

The other main cause of damage is handling.  Either by people physically handling the specimens (over hundreds of years, the most popular specimens can show signs of greasy/sweaty finger damage) or from specimens being battered against each other with the opening and closing of drawers.

After our lovely tour we were lucky enough to assist a visiting researcher, Roger, with some of his PhD work: measuring plesiosaur vertebrae in order to establish criteria by which to identify certain plesiosaurs. This was fab: we measured various aspects of each vertebra (both caudal and cervical) and entered the details into a spreadsheet for him to analyse later.  We also got to see the beautiful cryptoclidus. Pictures follow, as before.

In the afternoon we got our hands dirty in more curatorial-related tasks.  We swapped quite a few old drawers for some nice new ones, ready to be moved to a different location, by moving the specimens from one to the other. We also physically moved entire drawers from one location to another. Have a look! Again, hover your cursor over the image to get more insider facts (and check my Flickr page for higher quality images)!

I loved my day in the palaeo department and really hope I get the chance to go back.  Seeing the plesiosaurs was very special and has inspired me.  Next up: botany!

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