Wyoming Paleontology Dispatch #3: How to date a fossil

The Bighorn Basin’s colorful stripes reveal an ancient riverbed

Part of a fossil palm frond from the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum in Wyoming. (Scott Wing)

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This begins the most tedious part of the day. Each specimen we collect has to be marked with the locality number and with an indicator of how many pieces it is in (not every rock breaks the way we want!). After marking them with a Sharpie pen, we wrap the rocks with fossils on them in industrial toilet tissue. The best brands are those without perforations, and I buy them in giant rolls because we use a lot! It’s very much like wrapping a sprained ankle with an Ace bandage in that we put a little pressure on as we wrap. This holds the rock and fossil together, and protects the delicate surface from being scraped or bashed by another rock. We use masking tape to close the package, and we mark the site number again on the outside so the packages can be sorted when we get back to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. By the time we bump across the gullies and sagebrush back to camp, it’s close to 7 p.m. and the light is getting golden again. Dinner remains to be cooked, dishes to be done, but it has been a long and satisfying day.

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Scott Wing is a research scientist and curator in the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Paleobiology.


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