Skill’s involved in reassembling dino skeletons

Anthony Maltese is curator at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park, Colo., and author of the RMDRC Paleo Lab blog (, where he writes about excavating, molding, casting and mounting fossilized dinosaur skeletons.

Q. What are some scientific advancements in recovering and assembling fossil skeletons?

A. In many ways some techniques haven’t changed since the 1870s. We’re still using our eyeballs to find the fossils eroding out of the ground, excavating with hand tools and using plaster and burlap jackets to get them back to the lab. On the other hand, we’ve used CT and laser-scanning technology to digitize fossils and send information across the world. Dinosaurs are almost never found 100 percent complete, but it’s rarely appropriate to display them with missing bits. Say we have a dinosaur missing its right leg, but we have a perfect left leg from the specimen. Three-dimensional scanners and printers help us make mirror image parts, and even scaled-up (or) scaled-down ones so that we can more accurately (and easily) restore skeletons. It sure beats sculpting from scratch.

Q. Is the rate at which new fossils are being found slowing?

A. I think fossils are being discovered at a higher rate than several decades ago. Many museums have active field and lab programs, and many rock formations that were poorly studied in the past are getting scientific attention with spectacular results. We see this with the weird dinosaurs we are now digging up in the Judith River Formation of Montana, with many fossils belonging to entirely new species. Even without digging up new things, better understanding of the science enables us to discover new things about specimens that have resided in museum collections for a century.

Q. What do you wish people understood about dinosaur fossils?

A. For the most part, I’m just happy that dinosaurs make people curious and that they can approach paleontologists to answer their questions. If there was one thing that would make our job a bit easier it would be that while there are a lot of round rocks in this world, nearly none of them are dinosaur eggs. It’s probably the most common question we get – and the one where the visitor most frequently won’t believe our diagnosis. That being said, if you think you have found a fossil, it never hurts to send some clear photographs (with some sort of scale, a coin will even work) to your local natural history museum. Many great discoveries have been made this way.

Q. We can’t talk fossils without asking about dinosaur cloning. Will it ever be possible?

A. I don’t have a crystal ball, however I don’t see it happening in the near future. On the other hand, some more recently extinct species could possibly be resurrected given time and technology. What I wouldn’t give to see a Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon or Tasmanian tiger! Even talking about the possibility of it happening is exciting to me.