2022 in Review: Smithsonian Staff Sifts Through an Ocean of Fossils

Integrating shimmering ammonites, toothy mosasaurs and a massive haul of specimens into the growing National Fossil Collection

The tightly-coiled shells of ammonites, squid-like cephalopods that died out alongside non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period, are found around the world. Some of these shells sport a metallic sheen thanks to the carbonate composition of their ancient shells. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

2022 was a busy year at the National Museum of Natural History. The museum returned to its pre-pandemic visitation hours, welcoming millions of visitors through its doors to see a host of new displays, including spectacular diamonds unearthed in America and the first Northern giant hornet nest discovered in the United States.

But much more action was taking place off exhibit, in the labyrinth of halls and labs at both the museum and its collections facility in Suitland Maryland. Here, museum staff are constantly acquiring, labeling, preserving and sorting specimens that range from pressed plants and pinned butterflies to ancient fossils and massive whale bones. To kick off 2023, Smithsonian Voices is highlighting some collection milestones from the previous year.

Read all stories in the "2022 in Review" series here.

While the Deep Time Fossil Hall’s battery of fossil behemoths like the Nation’s Tyrannosaurus rex and woolly mammoth captivate visitors, most of the museum’s fossils are off exhibit in the building’s east wing. Here, cases and shelves brim with fossilized material that’s hundreds of millions of years old. Some of the bulkier bones, like duckbill dinosaur skulls and mastodon femurs, are encased in molded plaster and fiberglass storage jackets.

Oversized specimens in the National Fossil Collection, like these Triceratops horns, are kept on shelves or encased in plaster and fiberglass jackets to prevent the fossils from breaking under their own weight. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

Together, these fossilized bones, teeth, plants, shells and leaves comprise the National Fossil Collection, an assembly of more than 40 million specimens housed at the museum and its off-site collections facility. The collection dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when paleontologists scoured the western United States for fossils. Many of the bones they unearthed, including some of the first skeletons of iconic dinosaurs like Stegosaurus and Allosaurus, ended up at the Smithsonian.

But this storied fossil collection is far from static. While many of the animals and plants that comprise the collection are long gone, the National Fossil Collection continues to evolve and grow as it acquires new material. In recent years, one acquisition has dwarfed all others: the arrival of a massive haul of fossils collected by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). “It is definitely one of the largest specimen transfers in the department’s history,” said Kathy Hollis, the paleobiology department’s collection manager.

The USGS collection dates back to 1897, when researchers began collecting fossils as they examined the complex geology of the United States. Over the past century, many of these specimens have ended up at the museum, the official repository for USGS fossils. Over the decades, the Smithsonian and the USGS have even shared office space and curators. But nearly 1,000 cases full of USGS fossils remained at a warehouse in Denver. In 2018, the USGS agreed to transfer these fossils to the Smithsonian to ensure it remained accessible for future generations of geologists and paleontologists.

Although the museum has been the official repository for USGS fossils for decades, a fraction of the collection remained in this Denver warehouse until the transfer began in 2018. NMNH
Many of the USGS fossils will be stored in brand new specimen cases in a recently-renovated section of the museum’s offsite collection facility in Maryland. NMNH

This set in motion a monumental transfer of fossilized material. In total, 23 fully-loaded freight trucks donated by FedEx would make the 1,600 mile journey from Denver to the museum’s collection facility in Maryland.

A fine art handling firm helped the NMNH teampack the prehistoric cargo. While skilled in handling delicate objects, the art team relied upon the expertise of the museum’s fossil preparators when shipping larger fossils. One specimen in particular — the plaster-bound skeleton of a giant, Mesozoic marine reptile called a mosasaur — proved daunting. “When one of the contractors at the firm had to dismantle that specimen, we had him on a video call with one of the museum’s preparators to learn the best way to remove the [plaster] mount, stabilize and crate the fossil,” Hollis said.

In the museum’s Deep Time fossil hall, a mosasaur skeleton lunges at the fossilized shell of a squid-like ammonite. A portion of the recent USGS acquisition were marine fossils deposited in a long-vanished interior seaway. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

Three years after the transfer began, the final truck dropped off its fossiliferous freight in April 2021. In total, the museum’s paleobiology team had moved some 342,532 pounds of fossils, adding more than 1.5 million new specimens to the National Fossil Collection.

But there’s no rest for the weary. Hollis and the rest of the paleobiology collections team recently began working on another monumental undertaking dubbed the Defragmentation Project. The effort was sparked by the need to relocate hundreds of cases of fossil mollusks, sediment cores and oversized bones from the museum’s flood-prone basement. But the scope quickly expanded as the team seized the opportunity to reorganize, or defragment, the entire collection’s 11,000 fossil cases to make the specimens as accessible as possible. In addition to moving the cases around — which Hollis compares to a “giant tile game” — the team is also updating crumbling, confusing or missing labels, locating lost specimens and ensuring everything is in the right spot.

Pallets of specimen drawers arrive at the museum support center in Suitland, Maryland. The team is now working on adding barcodes and catalog numbers to the new fossils to ensure researchers can easily find them. NMNH

“We don’t just want to preserve the collection as it is. We want to remove any current confusion to make the collection a better resource for scientists.” – Kathy Hollis, Paleobiology Collections Manager

Making this world-class collection accessible is paramount due to the scientific importance of many of its specimens. A good portion of the recent USGS haul was collected by the late USGS paleontologist Bill Cobban. Cobban spent decades unearthing ammonites, a prehistoric squid-like animal with tightly coiled shells, and other fossils from the Western Interior Seaway, an ancient body of water that blanketed a large swath of western North America during T. rex’s late Cretaceous reign.

According to Hollis, Cobban’s fossils are not just beautiful — several of his ammonites shimmer like gemstones — but also incredibly important for understanding the geologic history of North America. Together, these fossils tell the entire odyssey of the long-vanished sea. “Without this reference collection, we wouldn’t have that knowledge of what was living when or what was happening to the seaway,” Hollis said. “The richness of this collection allows us to continue asking and answering questions — that is what is really exciting to me.”

During the Cretaceous Period, a swath of western North America was underwater. As a result, USGS researchers like Bill Cobban unearthed marine fossils like these cephalopods (left) and brachiopods (right) fossils. NMNH

Read the previous installment of “2022 in Review” here: The National Herbarium Goes Digital

Related Stories:
What’s Next for the 1.2 Million Prehistoric Fossils Now at Smithsonian
Digitization Allows Public Access to Smithsonian’s Hidden Collections
Smithsonian Puts Backstage Fossil Preparation Center Stage in its New Fossil Hall