The Paleo Lab Welcomes A New Intern! (A guest blog by Madison Pullis)


Hello everyone! I am one of the new interns invading the Virginia Museum of Natural History this summer. My name is Madison Pullis and I can be found in the Paleontology lab most days. I am from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa and just graduated from Iowa State University this past May. I majored in Anthropology, and minored in Environmental Studies and Sociology. I have some experience within anthropology – last summer I spent time in Costa Rica studying howler monkeys and I’ve also helped Dr. Matt Hill, an archaeologist at Iowa State studying the late Pleistocene/early Holocene time period (to put it simply), with research on extinct peccaries from Peccary Cave in Indiana.

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Return to Carmel Church

A couple weeks ago the VMNH paleo team returned to the renowned Carmel Church fossil site for a few days of excavation.  This 14 million-year-old marine site has been producing for years and this time was no less. We had a pretty good haul, including something extra special we’ll have to excavate out next time.


VMNH fossil preparator, Ray Vodden, with a whale vertebra.

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A haiku!

As we near out grant deadline, Ayranna and I have been working hard to finish up the digitization project. Things have begun to slow down, as we are running out of prepared specimens and now must take extra time to look on slabs have not been pre-checked nor sorted. We end up looking at a lot of slabs that only have plants or shell fragments and no insects. In terms of numbers for this grant, those slabs are worthless, though we do try to mark anything interesting for future researchers. But we need to keep moving forward on the insects, and cannot stop to take time photographing other things.


All the slabs we have searched through this last month with no insects present. They are to be stored in their appropriate cabinets to be available for future study.

However, we are making progress– we have reached our 7,000th record! Again, similar to our 6,000th record from March, it is not a very exciting specimen. Yet, we are proud of our progress and want to celebrate!



Our 7,000th Record! VMNH#97321; indet. insect abdomen fragment, scale bar: 5 mm with 0.1 mm div. 

Our 7,000th record! To commemorate this moment, Aryanna has written a Haiku!

Searching with the ‘scope

For record seven thousand

a bug butt I see.

In other news, Senator Tim Kaine stopped by last week for a tour of the museum and came into the lab to see some of the Solite fossil specimens.


Dr. Alex Hastings discusses the value of keeping donated orphan collections, one of which features a very important triceratops horn; with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. 

You can read about Senator Kaine’s visit here: in a write-up by the local Martinsville Bulletin. And we are preparing to be a designated stop For the Garden Club of Virginia on the Historic Garden Week tour. We will be assembling a giant cycad fossil to have on display, and the Solite fossils will also be out for folks to study under a microscope.

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Casting up a storm!

The VMNH paleontology lab has been busy making many different casts for several upcoming exhibit and outreach projects.  Paleo labs often make copies of important fossils so they can be shared with other museums and researchers, used in displays, and brought around for people to see and touch.


Beaver skeleton cast being mounted in a sitting position (it’s rolled on it’s back right now) for an upcoming display at Radford University.

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6,000 Records Reached!


As we near the deadline of our grant, which you can learn more about here and here, I am excited to say that we have reached over 6,000 records with images! We only have a few short months to reach the anticipated number of 9,000- so Aryanna and I are busier than ever here in the Paleo Collections. I wish I could say the 6,000th record was something glamorous, but unfortunately we have gotten into the territory of unsorted specimens, that have mostly just been bits and pieces of possible fossil insects.

Regardless, I feel it is worth celebrating this moment as we are two thirds of the way there!

SO… drum roll please…

Introducing fossil specimen number 6,000:


VMNH96365 – Nymph

See, I told you it wasn’t glamorous.

Here, I can make it fancier:


fancy nymph – VMNH996365

Better, no? Well, I probably should not be wasting time applying clip art to insect fossils, but hey, we all need a little levity once in a while.

In other news, the Paleo department has been busy with education outreach this past month- we took part in two separate Darwin Day events, one at Roanoke College and the other at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. We also headed down the the Schiele Museum of Natural History for their annual Fossil Fair. Alex’s enthusiasm cannot be matched.

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And… we are excited to be going back out on the road for a couple upcoming events. First, on  March 26th,  we will be heading north of Richmond for a paleo dig at Carmel Church Quarry. This is a 14 million year old site where 17 species of whales and dolphins; 15 to 20 kinds of sharks; seals; sea turtles; 20 to 30 fish, including sunfish, tuna, drum and sturgeon; and crocodile have been unearthed.


Cast of Eobalaenoptera harrisoni, a nearly complete 30-foot whale recovered from Carmel Church Quarry in 1990

And then, in May, Alex and I will drive up to Richmond for this year’s Virginia Academy of Science spring meeting. I went to school at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I am excited to see old friends and professors while there for the meeting.

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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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