Paleolab

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE LABORATORY?
Together we will be opening up pieces of American fossil rocks and search for original fossils.
The stones that you have at your disposal come from Wyoming USA and inside them it will be possible to find some species of fossil fish. With the help of other guides, these specimens will be excavated and classified, and you will be able to take them home as a souvenir.

Before we go to the laboratory, we must learn about a few important notions:

WHAT IS PALEONTOLOGY:

Paleontology is a complex and structured science that studies all types of fossil finds, animals and plants.
The study of fossils allows us to understand which climatic and geographical changes have had an impact on the evolution, distribution, and characteristics of life forms in the past, therefore we can understand the history of life and the functioning of our planet.
In the words of L.F. Laporte, paleontology is the branch of natural sciences that studies living beings who lived in the geological past, " their identity and origin, their environment and evolution, and what they can tell us about the Earth's organic and inorganic past".
Sedimentary rocks are the only rocks that contain fossil remains. The first pages of the largest "book" of all time were written almost four billion years ago, and they depict the first forms of life; the book is made of sedimentary rocks.

WHAT IS A FOSSIL:
The term fossil (from the Latin word fodere: "to dig") in paleontology is usually used to indicate complete or partial remains of organisms that once walked the Earth. More generally it is used as any proof of geological past life (before the present time): animal remains, such as bones, teeth, eggs, shells, plant remains, like leaves, trunks, and pollen, any evidence of living activity (bioturbation structures such as burrows and footprints) and any traces related to food (coprolites).

WHO IS A PALEONTOLOGIST AND WHAT DOES HE DO?
The paleontologist's job is to provide a key to the understanding of this immense "archive". Through the analysis of fossils, the paleontologist has the task of reconstructing different stages of the evolution of the earth and the organisms that inhabited it.
How does a paleontological study come to practice?
It is of fundamental importance to understand the processes of fossilization; all the changes, which lead to the formation of fossil remains of an animal or vegetable organism.
Fossilization is a very complex phenomenon, so complex in fact, that there is a separate science, named taphonomy, which studies all the phases that lead to the formation of a fossil.
Any organism, once dead, can fossilize, even though some are more likely to preserve themselves than others: it is much easier to find the fossil remains of a mollusk with a shell than an animal without a hard skeleton (such as a jellyfish). The soft parts, such as muscles or skin, are only preserved in exceptional circumstances, while the mineralized hard parts, like shells or bones, tend to be more easily preserved. However, even the bones are prone to shattering and dispersing after death; because of this, they must quickly be covered with sediment to prevent them from being destroyed or lost.
For fossilization to take place, certain circumstances must occur simultaneously:

1. The covering material of the dead organism must isolate the remains from the surrounding environment. Compared to gravel or sand, mud is much more effective.
2. The smaller the fossilized organism is, the more likely it is to be will be preserved complete and in good condition.
3. Sedimentation processes allow the occurrence of fossilization and it usually happens where most of the sediments tend to settle; in a marine or lake environment. This is the reason, the number of fossil discoveries of aquatic organisms is significantly higher than that of terrestrial organisms.

The discovery of a fossil represents only the initial phase of extensive work that has to be accomplished; first on the field and then in the laboratory.
The next step revolves around the collection and restoration of the discoveries. It is an operation that can take place in different ways, depending on the nature and size of the fossils that have to be studied. Once the discoveries are obtained, either they are gigantic dinosaurs or remains of microscopic organisms, the way in which the study will be dealt with, will essentially be related to the purpose of the research.

The work of the paleontologist in 4 steps:
1. discovery
2. recovery/excavation
3. preparation in the laboratory
4. scientific research

The place of the discovery of a fossil must be described in detail. The paleontologist must carefully mark the position of each find with the help of photographs and sketches.

The excavation work can vary, depending on the nature and size of the fossils, and the type of rock that contains them.
In the most simple cases, when the rock is not particularly compact, the specimen can be extracted quite easily. In other cases, the use of hammers, small chisels, and other tools is possible; always with extreme delicacy to free the fossil without causing any damage.
In the event of fracturing the more fragile parts, the fossil is stabilized with the help of adhesives and hardeners and then retrieved from the matrix.
It is very important, that all the individual fragments which make up a fossil, are carefully collected for a reconstruction that takes place afterward in the laboratory.
Preparation in the laboratory: after extracting the fossil, thorough cleaning has to be carried out in order to completely rid it of the rock that surrounds it. The process can take several hours and, if done well, it will reveal even the smallest details of the organism.
In this case, the procedure may also vary, according to the type of the encasing rock. Simple cleaning with brushes, small cutters, micro-blades or thin steel needles might be sufficient, but in some cases, it is required to use acids.
During this phase, special glues are used quite often. These glues impregnate and harden the specimen to increase the resistance of the most fragile parts. The individual fragments, that are collected during the excavation campaign, will be assembled later.
The recovery and restoration of vertebrates include the reassembly of the various bones until the whole skeleton is rebuilt. The paleontologist rarely has all the bones of the specimen, and in this case, he will proceed with the restoration by reconstructing and modeling of plastic bones, which will complement the original parts of the animal.
Scientific research
After completing all the fossil recovery and reconstruction work, the paleontologist now has the task of executing the scientific research of the finding; to identify it at a specific level and then giving it a "first and last name", reconstructing its living environment and placing it in the correct geologic time as precisely as possible.
When this goal is achieved, the work of a paleontologist is complete.
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