'Zillion-year-old' bones cut in new UofM Museum of Natural History's fossil prep lab

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An airscribe removes sediment from a vertibra of an extinct mammal from turkey. The specific animal is called palaeoamasid, which is distantly related to living elephants.

“So this is a vertebra,” explained Bill Sanders, holding up a rust-colored bone with dirt caked on it.

“If you feel your own back, you have bones on your own back that are part of your spine,” he continued. “this bone is one bone from the spine of an ancient mammal that is about 43 zillion years old.”

Wide-eyed with a quizzical look on their face, kids and parents alike listen to Sanders explain the fossil he's holding. Their questions range from how big was the animal to if it's as old as the better known ancient reptiles of the Triassic and Jurassic periods.

“It's younger than dinosaurs, but a little older than me,” he said with a grin.

Sanders is standing in front of a window, speaking into a head set. Behind him is the new fossil prep lab, outfitted with microscopes, scalpels, drills and a whole lot of bones. On the other side of window are visitors of the new University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. While the laboratory has been in use since last June, the rest of the building has only been open since April 14.

As the museum unveils new displays of prehistoric creatures, it's also inviting a new era of scientific communication. Rarely have patrons gotten such a close look at the process of fossil preparation. Now, they can watch in real time as ancient animals locked in soil just as old reemerge into the light, to be scanned and studied for future research.

“This is more state of the art than any other university lab in the country,” he said. “We're much more student-driven than any university in the country.”

While several schools at Texas, Oklahoma, Berkeley, Nebraska and Yale have their own programs to tout, Sanders thinks the work done at the University of Michigan is the product of more efficiency. Several undergraduate and graduate students spend hours a week in the lab chipping and sawing dirt off of fossils, as well as crafting and painting casts that serve as models for the bones.

“We like that because it creates a critical mass of experience you don't necessarily get at other universities,” said Sanders.

If the prep lab is the epicenter of that experience, Melissa Wood is the beneficiary of some of that infrastructure.

“I'm so lucky because there are so few undergrads that get to go the field, collect things themselves and then get to write about it,” said the third-year undergrad. “It's really rare and I'm really lucky to have Bill.”

Wood is working on her Senior Honors Thesis: mapping the dental formula, or the teeth structure, of a specific type of Embrithopoda. Despite looking more like a rhinoceroses, the African and Eurasian species are related closer to elephants. While paleontologists have a good idea about what the African species' mouth looked like, there's less known about the Eurasian species.

“We already have the African one, but they have this really weird teeth structure where they have these ridges that are so long because they are vegetarians,” Wood said, “but you don't have that in the Eurasian specimen. Which means they are eating something else.”

Answering what kind of teeth they had will give Wood a better idea of the kind of diet the animal consumed and why. Across the room, Kajsa Lundeen and Marlee Anderson, both seniors, are sanding and molding bright white jawlines.

“A lot of fossils are incredibly fragile, so casting allows us to be more hands on,” Lundeen said. “So we can make a copy of it and send it along.”

Casting fossils is not a new process. It's also not the only way to model old bones. The Museum of Paleontology has a project known as the University of Michigan Online Repository of Fossils (UMORF), an online data base with a digitized 3D model of bones collected by the school.

These can be accessed for free by anyone in the world - offering renderings of hundreds of bones for anyone curious to learn more. Despite the simplified version of physically casting a fossil, it's still considered more accurate because of the amount of detail it captures. A digital version can't necessarily show all of that - neither can most 3D printers.

One doesn't have to look far to see the difference. Look through the window and the museum's crown jewel, a male and female mastodon couple stand. Appearing completely authentic, these skeletons are actually incomplete.

“Both are a mixture of some fossil, some casting,” Wood said. “I think the male back right leg was missing or couldn't be found, so they copied it and 3D printed it.”

Those who printed the missing leg intentionally left some of the printer's ridges, in order to show the difference between a fake bone and a real one. Occasionally casts get put on display, but they normally are built for research and used as lesson plans in class. Sanders estimates researchers in the fossil prep lab spend 40 percent of their time creating casts, which amounts to dozens a week and hundreds a year.

“There's a sharing function in biology and across disciplines,” he said. “The best part of science is when you're not hiding things away.”

Despite the longevity under dissection in the lab, there's an air of progressiveness that has blanketed part of the field. In a 2013 study, data pointed to a lack of gender diversity in the field - only 23 percent of members in the Paleontological Society were women.

That data was matched by an anecdote that Sanders remembers. He recalls hearing a professor announce a long time ago to his students “women don't get to look at fossils.“

“If you said that today, you might get fired,” he said. “Attitudes have completely changed.”

That's most evident in one sect of the field, the one Sanders is apart of: the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. He said a few years ago the group's membership climbed to makeup more than half women. Unintentionally, the fossil lab has rode a similar wave, employing almost entirely women.

A tribute to how accessible the field has become for women, Wood has had a front row seat to the continuing inspiration that has driven that momentum toward more diversity.

“There was a little girl looking through the window when she saw one of the other women prepping one of the fossils,” Wood said. “the little girl asked 'oh! can girls be paleontologists too?'”

“Bill explained to her that 'yes, they can...'”