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 closely related modern species. However, we are still missing a few specimens, as they are out on loan.

The second guide is on how to digitize the VMNH’s work  on the identification and photographs of Solite Quarry Fossils so that it can be shared online with other researchers. This work is funded through a National Science Foundation grant and a part of a large collaboration with other museums such as: the American Museum of Natural History, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Illinois Natural History Museum, Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, and Yale Peabody Museum.

To make my job a bit tricky, I am not familiar with the fossil invertebrates nor with the computer software.  Fortunately, I have Christina Byrd beside me, the Paleontology Technician who has been working to digitize the fossils for the past three years. She will be showing me the ropes over the next six months. Want to learn more about her work? You can read previous blog posts to learn about the NSF grant as well as read Christina’s first blog post on the subject.

Step one: understand the basics of identifying the invertebrates and their taxonomic family or order and then spot them in the slate slabs. This shouldn’t be too difficult then, right? Well, it really depends on the fossil.

Exhibit A: it’s clearly… um, well… possibly some insect parts?

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Possible insect fragments; on flip side of 50503b; scale bar: 5 mm with 0.1 mm div.

Sometimes all that’s left behind is a vague trace of life– a smudge of something here, a jumble of something else, and with a scientific mindset one might be able see a few identifiable features. Or, if you are more like me, you might see Hermann Rorschach clicking his heels.

However, other fossils have remarkably detailed parts, such as a wing, a leg, or a body segment that make it easy to distinguish them. Sometimes, with luck, almost the entire organism is in crisp detail, such as this belostomatid water bug (VMNH 51727a) which bares a striking resemblance to it’s modern day cousin.

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Belostomatid water bug adult; scale bar: 5 mm with 0.1 mm div.

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Modern belostomatid; Photo: Ryan Hodnett

And while some have remarkable detail, others have a general shape that one can attribute to an organism, such as the plethora of clam shrimp found on a majority of the Solite slabs.

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Cluster of conchostracans (clam shrimp); scale bar: 5 mm with 0.1 mm div.

California Clam Shrimp

California clam shrimp; Photo: David Rosen/Wildside Photography 

My game plan then, is to describe the invertebrate organisms we know have been found at Solite Quarry in as much detail as possible and include helpful hints regarding all identifiable features. Some of the specimens are unavailable for digitization as they are currently out on loan. Unless they are returned prior to my departure from the lab, I will try my best to describe them in detail and provide alternative images to aid in identification. If the loans are returned while I am still in the lab, I will photograph the specimens and add them to the guide. Once I have completed the edits to the guide and  have added the missing information, I will need to test the effectiveness of it.  My plan is to challenge volunteers with no knowledge of fossil invertebrates to correctly identify the fossils using only the guide. This way we can receive real feedback on the language and descriptors used in the guide, and determine what we can do to improve it.

Step two: Write down every single step of Christina’s digitization process. Ask hundreds of questions. Fortunately, my lack of experience might actually be a benefit here– it is easy to make the assumption that people have a basic knowledge of a subject, and when creating a how-to guide, you really need to assume the person reading it knows absolutely nothing about it.

Maybe the benefit then, because I need to learn every single step, is that I won’t leave out any of the directions?

Perhaps, I planned to be completely unprepared for this– specifically for the ability to better explain it to others?

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Did you just buy that? It sounded good to me.

Because there certainly will be people who are familiar with EGEMs or our photo editing software Aperture, and those who understand how to manually use a 35 mm camera, I will create a second document that is a simple step by step list on our digitization process. My goal for that list is to write clearly and concisely, keeping it simple for ease of use. Having only the steps listed for the input will serve those who are familiar with the process but are perhaps a bit hazy on a step or two. The more in-depth guide will be broken up into sections that explain each and every step needed to accomplish each task and can be referred to when needed.

I see so many screen shots in my future, so many screen shots.

If you are interested in looking at the fossil images we have already taken, you can go to our flickr page dedicated to the Triassic Fossils of Solite. We will be adding more on a weekly basis.

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