Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Restoring a Brontosaurus

Growing up in the 80's and 90's was a strange time for a dinosaur fan. On one hand there was a plethora of old books in the library on dinosaurs telling us all about Brontosaurus. On the other, we were getting it beat into our heads that Brontosaurus didn't exist, and it's really Apatosaurus. It was all confusing for those few of us that were actually actively interested in these animals. Today Emanuel Tschopp published a paper resurrecting the genus Brontosaurus as valid. Where does this come in? In college I was lucky enough to work on sauropods, but never on the most famous ones. That all changed almost 8 years ago.

Our company was hired to reprepare, restore, remount, mold and cast the "Apatosaurus" specimen on display at the University of Wyoming geological Museum. This massive beast, also known as the "Sheep Creek" specimen after where it was found, was discovered and excavated in 1902 by a Carnegie Museum crew led by the great John Bell Hatcher. The specimen (CM 563) went back to Pittsburgh where it was quickly prepared in an effort to get the beast mounted and on display. Just before the mounting process was to start, an even more complete beast was recovered. Priorities shifted, and the new Apatosaurus went on display. It's still there at the Carnegie, remounted just a few short years ago.
The old mount, a young Brent for scale

CM 563 sat in storage for nearly a half a century until Dr. Samuel Knight from the University of Wyoming arranged for the specimen to be brought to their museum. He spearheaded the effort to restore incomplete bones, fabricate missing ones and get the whole specimen mounted in a current (for then) pose. The tail-dragging pose didn't age well, especially after the "dinosaur renaissance" which re-imagined these animals as more dynamic beasts.
Pubis bones never mounted on the old mount. Old Carnegie numbers still on them

Where do we come in? Director at that time Dr. Brent Breithaupt contacted us as a local (ish) company that could make copies and provide the museum with a revenue stream with the royalties from sales. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? With 100 years of work on a specimen, you know it never is!
before and after pics of the bones. Yes, originals were painted back in the day.

Hardware cloth, plaster and metal rod restoration from 1950's

Once we had everything in the shop we used special techniques to clean the specimen of its coating of paint to reveal several generations of restoration and conservation work. Everything except for the pelvis/sacrum, which was left on its pedestal and molded in place. It was also the set up for an epic April Fool's joke, but that's a story for another time. In any case, we were able to preserve the historic numbering on the specimen (including some possible field numbers), document its condition, and restore the specimen to good as new condition.
Molding the pelvis in situ

We mounted the skeleton back at the museum in nearly the same pose (sauropods are huge, so unless you have a big open building, your options are limited). One major change though was getting that dragging tail off the ground and up in the air. Much better! You can now see cast copies of this specimen in museums across the world. I'm lucky enough to have worked on this historic specimen of Brontosaurus parvus.

Swinging its tail over Big Al.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ava Restoration Update: March

Reconstruction of the skull started with 40 individual bones
Whether they are big or small, all ceratopsians sure do have a lot of parts. When they are juveniles like our Avaceratops, the lack of fusion in bones makes that even more apparent. For example, the sacrum (the wad of bones that holds up the rear end of the animal) in adults is usually one giant unwieldy piece. In our young animal, it is 26 individual parts, all with some degree of crushing, though not always in the same direction or degree.

Sacral neural spines molded
More of the massive piles of sacral parts
We've finished preparing the specimen and are busy restoring the individual bones to get molded. Restoration is a catch-all phrase that can mean anything from putting a protective layer of consolidant over the surface to sculpting missing bits to molding crushed vertebral centra, casting them, then cutting up the casts to re-inflate them to their appropriate size.
Most of the ribs, many crushed in strange directions

We're even using our trusty 3d scanning and printing equipment again to make precise mirror images of elements we are missing from one side to help complete the skeleton. In the end we'll end up with everything we need for a full sized standing cast skeleton, hopefully by Memorial Day.

Dorsal neural spines. Each one gets a centrum once restored.
Keep watching the updates on this blog for more news and pics of the restoration, molding and mounting project.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Our newest little turtle: Jubal

Apparently TPI is the new home for the small turtles of the Niobrara chalk. We've already prepared, molded and cast our tiny Chelosphargis advena, Prepared a new Prionochelys matutina, and show prepped a nice Toxochelys latiremis that we discovered this past spring, all with nice skulls.
Our Prionochelys matutina specimen from MU5 (Coniacian)

You'd think that we would be content with our fossil turtle stash, but no. You can never have enough of these little guys. This week we prepared from start to finish another new specimen of a tiny protostegid from Kansas.

Box o rocks and bones
Preservation of the bones was beautiful, in nice hard yellow chalk so prep was an absolute joy. We didn't collect this specimen ourselves, which might explain the slightly unorthodox packing method employed in shipping the bones.

Plastron during preparation

While prepping the slabs we discovered many bones that were not apparent when work started. many of these surprise elements were adhered to adjacent bones by a thin layer of the oyster Pseudoperna congesta, making separation much more difficult.

Detail showing much of the pelvis in place

Amazingly, we are 4 for 4 this year for beautiful turtle heads. The skull block on this specimen contained not only all the major head bones, but also most of the hyoid apparatus. A very rare find in animals this small in the chalk.

Skull block before prep

Partly in thanks for helping us determine the identity of this turtle (the uber rare Chelosphargis advena), and partly just because we like him so dang much, we nicknamed RMDRC 15-001 "Jubal" in honor of Dr. Kraig Derstler of the University of New Orleans. For the back story, well you're just going to have to ask him about it.

Profile view of skull after prep

When finished with the prep, we did a layout and were shocked how complete this specimen really is. Next up is restoration, molding and casting so copies can be exhibited in museums and homes worldwide. The specimen is currently displayed in our lab viewing area, so come by soon and check it out before we put it all back together.

This is what a turtle looks like if you crack it open and pull everything out

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Avaceratops layout

If you've been following the progress of our Avaceratops (or something like it) project, you may have noticed a lull in updates, especially after the completion of the reconstruction of the skull about a year ago. This is about to change.

Skull elements present (missing the predentary) Modified image courtesy Scott Hartman
This summer we finished preparation of all the material we recovered from the site, all 170 or so numbered bones plus a good amount of unnumbered things that were discovered deep within the larger jackets during lab work. 

3d model of the skull made using photogrammetry
We had no idea how complete this animal actually was. For the better part of a year the bones were in drawers and on shelves in no particular order, so it never really seemed that impressive.

Bryan and Jacob doing science
Once we laid it out however, we were shocked. This thing really does look like an animal! It takes up quite a bit of space in the "run over by a bus" pose right now, but when assembled, the specimen will be on the order of 13 feet (4m) long, and approximately 4 feet (1.2m) tall at the hips. A cute little juvenile!

Curator for scale
All of the missing bones will either be sculpted from scratch (last option) scanned from the opposite side and printed in mirror image, or be scanned from other ceratopsian specimens and be manipulated in the computer to fit before printing.
Obligatory Ava butt picture.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

It's Tucson Time Again

Sorry for the lack of updates. We're working on a ton of new projects this winter for an awesome Tucson gem and Mineral show. A few teaser pics, more and better ones as we get closer to shipping the show. Now back to the salt mines.

Enchodus vs. Hamburger-sized turtle

Newest fish

Headbutting Sandy

Cap'n Chuck's back end

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Actual Mosasaurus from Kansas

Mosasaurs in Kansas, no big deal, there are thousands of specimens known. But what about the actual genus "Mosasaurus"? As recently as 1967, Dale Russell's excellent mosasaur book claimed "Mosasaurus ivoensis" was present in the Niobrara. Since then, Johan Lindgren has moved the holotype of that species (from Sweden) into Tylosaurus. The lone Kansas specimen originally described by Williston in 1902 looks to be attributable (to my eye) to existing known Niobrara mosasaurs, most likely Platecarpus and Clidastes.With the loss of the one possible chalk specimen we're left with a sort of sad thought: Mosasaurus didn't exist in Kansas.

Until now.
Excavating the skull parts

This spring a TPI field crew accompanied by famed Kansas Cretaceous expert Mike Everhart came out to Wallace County in far western Kansas at the request of a private landowner. We were investigating a report of a mosasaur eroding out of the Weskan member of the Pierre Shale, immediately above the much better known Sharon Springs member. Hardly any people work on collecting fossils out of the Weskan, so we were excited for this opportunity in virtually unexplored country. The critter, RMDRC 14-015, got the nickname "Wally" after Wallace County, and was brought back to the lab this spring.

Nice flipper
After recovery and prep it was obvious we were dealing with a pretty darn big mosasaur with a skull about 4 feet long, but what could it be? The only reported specimens this size out of the Pierre in Kansas could be Tylosaurus or Globidens. Prognathodon crassartus from "Eagle Tail, Kansas (now known as Sharon Springs) turned out to just be Plioplatecarpus. the premaxilla lacked a substantial rostrum so that excludes Tylosaurus, though its slight nub of one also excludes Prognathodon (known from other Pierre deposits). The teeth are all sharp and pointy, so not Globidens (yes they are pointy in juvenile Globidens, but with a 4 foot long head, it's silly to consider this critter a juvenile). In the end, with the characters we saw, there was only one logical conclusion.
Bite mark on frontal
Yes Virginia, there really is Mosasaurus in Kansas.
Bulky snout
In fact now there are two: We started recovery of another even larger and more massive specimen from the same ranch at the end of October, RMDRC 14-050. More on that this spring when we return to finish the site. The coolest thing is how the specimens display both advanced and primitive features usually assigned to one or another species of Mosasaurus, but not all in one. It's probably a brand new species, which is really exciting for us.

We are currently restoring and molding the complete skull of RMDRC 14-015 for debut at the Tucson Gem and Mineral show this January, in fact the palate it being installed as I type. The rest of the specimen may take a bit longer to restore, but the world always needs more 30 foot long water lizards. And you can quote me on that.
Newest digsite, mainly concretion

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Daspletosaurus reconstruction progressing: Pete III

You know, I think I'm just going to share some pictures as an update to my last blog post. We'll keep the reading part short and sweet. Restoration is coming along well. The skull is up next, and in the meantime we have the leg finished and the arms almost there. Lots more to come over the next few months. It's always good to have new tyrannosaur stuff to play with.

Pete III's scaps and arms

The scapulae were remarkably well preserved in 3D

Left leg before paint

After paint, left leg from the rear

Side view, the leg is HUGE!