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Ancient leaf surprises Dino Day crowd, staff
History comes to life at VMNH
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Works begins on cleaning the field jacket after it was opened Saturday morning during Dino Day at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Working on the project are (from left) volunteers Kathy Fell and Marsha Lewis, Dr. Alton Dooley of the museum, and Dr. John Happ, who found the dinosaur remains.(Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
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Sunday, January 13, 2013


Surprise! Employees of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) on Saturday found a leaf about 65 million years old.

If only they could identify what type of plant or tree it came from.

A field jacket containing fossil bones of a Triceratops skull, as well as the leaf, was opened at the museum as part of the Dino Day festival. The event coincided with the opening of two new exhibits, “Dinosaurs” and “Dinosaur Discovery.”

Paleontologists use field jackets to safely remove fossils from the ground and secure them while they are in storage.

Alton “Butch” Dooley, the museum’s curator of paleontology, said the ancient leaf looked like “an organic black smear.”

“Nobody would have recognized” what type of leaf it was, he said.

But it survived the trip through time alongside the bones, which Dooley said “seem to be in pretty good shape.”

“They’re nice and solid,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll disintegrate anytime soon.”

The museum received the field jacket from the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum. Dooley said the Shenandoah museum no longer had room for it, and it had no labs large enough for it to be opened and examined.

VMNH employees essentially knew what the bones inside the jacket looked like, so they were not really surprised after they opened it. They just had to cut through the plaster and other materials to get to the bones.

Dust flew through the air inside the museum’s paleontology lab as Dooley opened the jacket with a rotary saw. Other museum employees and a few special visitors, wearing dust masks, watched in the lab.

A crowd of people of all ages peered at the action through windows separating the lab from the museum’s Hall of Ancient Life.

Using two-way radios, employees in the lab communicated their findings to museum Executive Director Joe Keiper, who narrated for the crowd.

“This is great, man,” Keiper said. “All these people are getting a taste of paleontology,” which is the study of ancient life.

The Triceratops is a large horned dinosaur species thought to have roamed North America 65 million years ago.

It likely will be at least a year before the bones can be put on display at the museum, Dooley said. There still is a lot of cutting that must be done to get to all the bones, as well as a lot of sediment to be brushed away, to make them ready to display, he said.

The new dinosaur-themed exhibits will be at the museum through Aug. 25.

On display were real dinosaur fossil bones as well as cast skeletons of a 40-foot-long Acrocanthosaurus and the smaller Tenontosaurus and Deinonychus. The latter is one of only a few dinosaur species thought to be meat-eaters.

Walking through a maze as part of “Dinosaur Discovery,” visitors learned about different types of dinosaurs and their characteristics.

More than 1,100 people attended Dino Day. That was a lot more than the museum expected, although it always is hard to estimate how large crowds will be, said Marketing and Public Relations Manager Zach Ryder.

Dino Day featured various activities for visitors, including games, crafts and presentations by paleontologists well known in their field.

Vince Schneider, curator of paleontology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, presented a children’s program, “A Dinosaur Named Nancy.”

Dooley gave a program intended for adults, “Ghost Strata: Determining the Age and Depositional History of the Carmel Church Quarry.”

Scientists from the Martinsville museum continue to do research at the Carmel Church site near Richmond, where numerous fossils of marine and land animals have been found. It is considered to be the most dense location of vertebrate — animals with backbones or spines — fossils in the eastern United States.

Delana Boyd of Martinsville visited the museum for the first time during Dino Day. She said she had always wanted to visit but never had found the time.

Accompanied by her daughter, Savasiah, a Patrick Henry Elementary School student, Boyd said the exhibits were “really interesting.”

Another visitor, Bobby Robertson of Axton, said he was pleased that the museum has children’s activities because there is not a lot for kids to do in the area.


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