In the 63 years since the Museum opened, our Collection has continued to grow. It includes cultural, archaeological, and paleontological items that stretch across time and space, from thousands of years ago to the present day, and from South Florida and around the world. As we prepare for the move to our new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, we are now taking a renewed look at our collection, assessing the range of items and ensuring that the historical and scientific value of objects is recognized and digitally documented. What’s unusual is that we are doing this work in full view of our visitors, so everyone can do a little investigating and see what the Museum has collected – which is especially fitting, given that many objects have been donated over time by members of the public.
For each round of the assessment, we are taking out an entire section of our 50,000+ piece collection – in this instance, all of the fossils and bones. That means each and every fossilized rock and every prepared bone all come downstairs where they can all be seen. Then we invited an expert in the field to conduct the analysis. Because this second round of assessment mostly focused on paleontological items, Dr. Gregory Erickson, Professor of Paleobiology at Florida State University, came to help. He is widely-known as an expert on the king of the dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and his main research focus is studying the form, function, development, and evolution of animals (living animals as well as fossils). When studying fossils, bones themselves are a growth record of an animal’s life, much like tree rings contain a growth record of a tree’s life. Dr. Erickson uses these skeletal “growth markers” to discover growth rates in extinct and living reptiles, and to research bite-force biomechanics in living crocodiles as well as fossilized dinosaurs. All of this made him the ideal choice to lead this round of the assessment, working alongside the Museum’s Arts and Collections Manager Kevin Arrow.
The Museum also planned for this paleontology assessment to coincide with some exhibition planning for our new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science facility, as well as our bi-annual Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Show. The goal was to have another key person on hand for both the show and the assessment, who has unique perspective and knowledge of animals, both living and extinct. Gary Staab is a renowned sculptor specializing in forensic reconstruction, who has created astounding life-sized and accurate sculptures of dinosaurs and other animals for several museums and others around the world, including The Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Walt Disney Animation. In addition to assisting Dr. Erickson during the assessment, Mr. Staab also gave visitors the chance to get their hands on dinosaurs - by sculpting their own models in a Dinosaur Sculpting Class. Visitors then combined art, science, and history to create their own pretty accurate model of a sweet little sauropod dinosaur.
What was unearthed during the assessment?
Dr. Erickson analyzed a myriad of objects, including bones from a sperm whale, shells of invertebrate marine animals, mammoth teeth, and more. A couple of particularly interesting finds were remains that had been found in Florida of animals that haven’t been known to live in Florida for thousands or even millions of years. Imagine living over various time periods in a Florida where elephants, mastadons, woolly mammoths, and gomphotheres (an elephant-like animal) also lived!
Fossils weren’t the only things that Dr. Erickson observed during the assessment. Another exciting discovery for him was the excitement of many visitors who interacted with him and the collection items during his work here. It seems that as old as fossils are, seeing fossils never gets old!