The Paleo Lab Welcomes A New Intern!

Guest writer: our new intern, Aryanna James.


I am a new addition to the paleontology lab, so an introduction is in order. Additionally, I am new to the area! I moved to Martinsville, Virginia from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania over the past summer after graduating from Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology with a concentration in Ecology and a minor in Geography/Earth Science. In my minor I focused primarily on hydrological studies and GIS. However, insects are one of my greatest passions. I’ve done research that combined the two, hydrology and entomology. I participated in both field and lab work for a graduate student’s thesis. The project sought to analyze the effectiveness of liming practices in acidified mountain streams in restoring their aquatic ecosystems.


This images shows a reconstruction of Tiktaalik roseae. Image credit: Tyler Keillor/ Beth

While in my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to meet renowned evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Dr. Neil Shubin. He is well-known for his discovery of Tiktaalik, the fish with “legs” or rather arm-like structures. Tiktaalik had shoulders, elbows, and wrists, allowing him to do push-ups, likely allowing him to bring his flattened head to the surface of the water and peer into the terrestrial world. Evolutionarily, that’s a push-up closer to humankind. Tiktaalik lived in ancient aquatic environments 375 million years ago and provides insight into the evolution of tetrapods. Dr. Shubin’s discovery resulted from expensive trips to the arctic Ellesmere Island, but it was his humbler fossil hunting beginnings that really sparked my interest. Dr. Shubin began his search along Pennsylvania’s highways. When the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) builds and blasts for roadways it exposes rock. Knowing this made fossil hunting and discovery seem much more attainable to a meek and poor beginner such as me. In fact, I had driven past some of Dr. Shubin’s fossil sites without even knowing it!


Possible fly; scale bar: 5 mm with 0.1 mm div.

Fast forward almost a year later. I am working as an intern at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in the paleontology lab. I work alongside lab technician Lucy Treado photographing and cataloging fossilized insects and insect fragments. Much of my time is spent visually scanning over smooth, black shale for shiny and silvery specks that indicate organic life. The fossils come from primarily two locations: a solite quarry and a site along Route 220. I’ve learned that paleontologists are like vultures, scavenging areas of exposed rock that are a byproduct of larger scale digging and blasting projects. On February 7th, 2017 I went on my first fossil hunt along Route 220. We managed to collect a decent number of slabs with silvery specks in them which require further inspection under the camera lens. I am hoping to find some interesting insect specimens!


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More Bugs!


Valesguya disjuncta aka scavenger fly

This has been an exciting week in Paleontology! A few days ago, the discovery of a feathered dinosaur tail fragment was all over the internet and yesterday our stackshot equipment (which was being fixed) returned to the lab. Ok- maybe a feathered dinosaur tail beats some camera equipment, but regardless, I was pretty excited to get back to photographing our collection. We have a small collection of insects encased in Baltic amber and we decided this was a great time to test out our recently improved stackshot.

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Fossil Dinosaur Eggs at the VMNH

About 66 million years ago, at the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs, Montana was home to many different kinds of dinosaurs, big and small.  Those dinosaurs lived and bred in the lush riverine landscapes of a much warmer Montana.  Hundreds of small fossils from this ancient ecosystem are housed in the VMNH collections from the Cretaceous-aged Hell Creek Formation.  A recent study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology by Frankie D. Jackson and David J. Varricchio of Montana State University found a new type of dinosaur egg.


Dinosaur egg shell fragments for the new egg species Dimorphoolithus bennetti

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How-to How-to

Blog Post by Lucy Treado, Paleontology Intern

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How-to How-to… No, I am not stuttering. This is why I am here in the paleontology lab. I am helping to write and test a couple of how-to guides. The first is a how-to guide on the identification of invertebrate fossils from Solite Quarry, which will hopefully aid future interns and volunteers in understanding the collection. For the most part, this guide is already well put together and features images of the fossil organisms as well as images of Continue reading

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Guest Blog: New App Features Fossils from the VMNH Collections


3D Fossil, an app that was just released this past month features material from the VMNH collection of pre-Dinosaur Age fossils (Paleozoic). These fossils include rare specimens that are not on display, such as the fossil starfish shown above, and can only be seen in this app.

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Titanoboa Talk goes online with Science Circle


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This past Saturday, July 30th, Dr. Alex Hastings (Asst. Curator of Paleontology at the VMNH) gave an online presentation for the international community called Science Circle.  This group gets together regularly via Second Life, which allows people from all over the world to interact in a virtual setting. For the presentation, Science Circle member Dr. Bill Schmachtenberg (Ferrum College & Franklin County High School) set up some images of the VMNH as well as some large snakes in the background for the virtual presentation.

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Digging for Dinosaurs in Wyoming

This summer, the VMNH paired up with Lynchburg College and headed to northern Wyoming to help excavate out Jurassic dinosaur bones from a 140 million year old site.


Dr. Brooke Haiar of Lynchburg College (right) directing the field crew at the dinosaur site in Wyoming.

The bones belong to a sauropod (long-necked dinosaur), including key parts of the hip and ankle that tell researchers a lot about how these animals moved.  The site has been worked on previously, and from bones extracted in 2014, tail vertebrae of the animal seem most similar to Continue reading

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