Inside N.C. Science

Hobbyists grow museums’ fossil collections

CorrespondentApril 20, 2014 

While conducting behind-the-scenes tours of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences paleontology collections, I am often asked, “Were all these specimens collected by the museum’s staff?” With more than 120,000 cataloged specimens, the answer has to be “No!”

Fossil prospecting takes a lot of time and patience, and there are too many potential localities in North Carolina for museum staff to adequately survey on a regular basis. The museum (like many others) has long relied on contributions and specimen donations of the amateur fossil-collecting community to grow the collection.

Fossils are a “finite resource” and should be available to the scientific community for study. Recognizing that such specimens should be deposited in a properly maintained collection and made accessible to the scientific community, knowledgeable fossil collectors are eager to contribute to scientific research by keeping precise locality data and by bringing unusual specimens to the attention of qualified researchers.

The North Carolina Fossil Club is a great example of responsible stewardship. This group of enthusiastic amateur fossil collectors enjoys learning and sharing their hobby and frequently donates significant finds to our museum. They also promote the study of paleontology by offering small grants to museums, graduate students and other qualified researchers, who are then invited to present their research at club meetings. The N.C. Fossil Club is also very involved in public outreach and education, by presenting school programs and by participating in fossil fairs and festivals throughout the state.

The N.C. Fossil Club recently released the first volume of a planned four-volume set on the fossils of North Carolina. Intended as a guide for identifying both common and rare fossils found in North Carolina, the spiral-bound book is full of excellent photographs and helpful descriptions. This first volume gives a brief look at state geology and explores plants and a number of invertebrate fossil groups, including Ediacaran Period fossils – about 635 million to 542 million years ago – which are the oldest fossils found in North Carolina. Sponges, corals, bryozoans, crabs and echinoderms (such as starfish and sea urchins) are also featured. Future volumes will cover mollusks, fishes, reptiles, birds and mammals, and are expected to be released within a year.

This ambitious undertaking was initiated 12 years ago by Dr. Richard Chandler, an emeritus professor of mathematics at N.C. State, who had dual interests in paleontology and photography. Because of Chandler’s dedication and the additional efforts of N.C. Fossil Club members, “Fossil Invertebrates and Plants” will be a useful resource for anyone seeking specimen identification and basic information about certain fossil groups.

This first volume is published in book and CD format and is available from the N.C. Fossil Club for $55. Details/ordering: www.ncfossilclub.org/node/8.

Vince Schneider is curator of paleontology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

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