Friday, 20 February 2015

Meet the TW:eed Team: Nick Fraser

Nick Fraser is head of the Department of Natural Sciences at the NationalMuseums of Scotland in Edinburgh. His role on the TW:eed Project is to manage the curation of vertebrate and other important fossils discovered during the project, coordinate large-scale fieldwork activities, and oversee a national TW:eed Project museum exhibit (coming in 2016). Here Nick answers our questions and describes his research interests:
How did you first get involved in tetrapod research? 
Many years ago while working in Jenny Clack’s lab in Cambridge I was fortunate to be able to carry out some prep work on some of the Ichthyostega material during my postdoctoral studies at Girton College, Cambridge. Mechanically removing the matrix away from Icthyostega bones still gives me goose bumps. I vividly remember one small block with the remains of a couple of digits exposed on the surface. Beginning to carefully expose the rest of the foot I first came across digit 3, then 4 and 5. But, as we all now know, it didn’t stop there and like a kid in a candy store I excitedly reported to Jenny the clear remains of first digit 6 and then digit 7. 

Nick searching for fossils at Solite Quarry, Virginia, USA
What other vertebrate sites have you worked on?
Beginning in 1979 I started working on the incredibly rich micro-vertebrate remains of the British Mesozoic fissure fills. This ultimately led to my PhD studies at the University of Aberdeen. As part of the bigger picture I wanted to know what these could tell us about the remarkable faunal turnover at the Triassic- Jurassic. The Newark Supergroup beckoned and, in the misguided belief that I could reconnect Pangaea, I headed for Virginia. Tackling the exceptionally difficult matrix that concealed Ichthyostega did prepare me for the ordeals of preparing the vertebrates in the Solite Quarry.
Two or three years after moving to Virginia, Jenny visited us in Martinsville and I recall taking her for a day trip to the Solite Quarry. By then Paul Olsen had spent many days patiently demonstrating to me how to search and excavate the remarkable vertebrates, invertebrates and plants that we continue to discover at this site.  But the locality does not give up its secrets readily and many hours, days and even weeks are required before you graduate from spending days fruitlessly searching to having confidence that new discoveries are still possible. That day Jenny left scratching her head thinking I had completely lost it when I declared the site to be one of the most important Triassic localities in the world!
How did you come to be involved with the TW:eed Project? 
After 18 years in Virginia, the opportunity to return to the UK and a position at National Museums Scotland was an exciting challenge. It also brought me full circle and I now find myself enjoying life back in the Palaeozoic and also working once more with Jenny on the TW:eed project!
The project was initially founded on the extraordinary efforts of Stan Wood. Stan’s enthusiasm for fossils and his abilities to convey this both to the public and his academic peers is legend. His warmth of expression and incredible ability to engage was almost as remarkable as his ability to find fossils where all others had failed. His discoveries have kick-started a number of illustrious academic careers and his last major discovery was the almost complete tetrapod specimen ‘Ribbo’. He is sadly missed.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Skills of Fossil Preparation

Have you ever wondered how fossil bones are recovered from a rock?

TW:eed Team volunteer Maggie Wood from the National Museums ofScotland has been learning all about just that.

Maggie recently spent a fortnight with Sarah Finney (Geological Conservator) at the University of Cambridge, Sedgwick Museum of EarthSciences. Maggie was on a training placement alongside Vicen CarriĆ³, geological conservator and preparator at the NMS and Anna Jerve from Imperial College London. The aim of the placement was to learn the different types of mechanical fossil preparation techniques and get training from the experts.

Maggie describes the experience:

'The workshop took place at the Brighton Building which is the laboratory and storage facility for the Sedgwick Museum. Sarah started by giving a tour of the collections and showed us the material we would be working on which included specimens from the TW:eed Project.

Tim Smithson demonstrated the preparation of a fossil-bearing mudstone from the main TW:eed Project field site. It crumbled very easily and was a challenge to prepare, but we found a number of fossils including the pectoral girdle of a rhizodont, a large carboniferous fish. Other specimens posed completely different problems being very hard and requiring mechanical preparation. Using these techniques I exposed part of a tetrapod tibia from a harder sandstone rock from the Early Carboniferous.

Vicen CarriĆ³ and Maggie Wood preparing a fossil specimen
We visited the Department of Zoology to see how useful the micro-CT scanner could be prior to the preparation of the material for the TW:eed Project. The scan shows the differences in density inside the object chosen and produces a series of images that represent slices through the object. These slices can be put together digitally to produce a 3D image of the whole object. Colours can be added to highlight the individual bones in a specimen.

It was very stimulating to meet colleagues from another institution working in the same field. As a complete beginner I enjoyed the fortnight enormously and learned a great deal. I will now be able to do more detailed work with Vicen in fossil preparation at NMS.

We were made very welcome by all members of staff including the lovely volunteers. Sarah Finney is a great team leader, an inspiration for everyone and makes the Sedgwick a very happy place to work. I would like to thank everyone who helped make the experience so productive and enjoyable.’

That sounds like a wonderful placement and a great opportunity to work on such fascinating ancient fossils.

Until next time