Saved fossils can aid future research

The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, in Raleigh, is an amazing place.

Even beyond what the visitors see, well within its depths are specimens ranging from familiar plants and animals – that lived and died within the past 125 years or so – to fossilized crocodilians that roamed what is now North Carolina nearly 230 million years ago.

My own recent discovery started with a collection of dinosaur bones hidden in a similar museum and serves as a reminder of how essential natural science museums are for understanding changes to life and the Earth over decades and millennia.

Several years ago, I began a new paleontology project in a remote and largely unexplored area of Utah. The only known dinosaur skeleton from there was collected in 1992, still encased in rock, and housed at a regional Utah museum. Until my arrival no one had an interest in studying the bones – so the treasure inside its rock sarcophagus remained unknown.

Being an expert on duck-billed dinosaurs, I instantly recognized pieces of skull. A few years later, after tenacious cleaning and study of the skull, I announced Rhinorex, a new species of duck-billed dinosaur, which can be seen for a short time at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences before it returns home to Utah.

My experience is relevant because had Rhinorex not been cared for inside a natural science museum for nearly 20 years, awaiting someone with the right expertise to recognize its potential, we would have much less understanding of dinosaur evolution. Closer to home, a similar case can be made for the wealth of plant and animal specimens cared for within the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

In the late 1800s and earliest 1900s, the museum’s founding fathers Herbert and Clement Brimley were diligently collecting local flora and fauna during the transition from the colder climate of the “Little Ice Age” to the warm temperatures of today.

Using some of the younger specimens in our own museum, someone could test whether the increases in temperature over the past century had an effect on the body form of different animal or plant species. This change cannot be observed by studying only today’s ecosystems.

Additionally, technology has advanced to realms well beyond Jules Verne’s imagination.

Can you picture the look on the Brimley brothers’ faces if they were told that the large right whale specimen they mounted and put on display in 1894 could be X-rayed and printed in 3-D and then analyzed via microchemicals within its bones to determine where it lived throughout its life?

With time comes new means with which to gain information. And with continued preservation of specimens in natural science museums our children will have a chance to make remarkable discoveries that we can’t even imagine, using new technologies to study the incredible historical record of our geologic, paleontologic and biologic heritage.