Scientists who dig dinosaurs in Eastern Montana will now be able to chemically analyze fossils the same day they're excavated and before degrading begins.The lab is the first of its kind and a dream come true, said Mary Higby Schweitzer, a North Carolina paleontologist who obtained the lab with Jack Horner, who is the Ameya Preserve curator of paleontology at MSU's Museum of the Rockies.
From the press release:
"This will be the first ever analytical molecular paleontology lab dedicated to doing analysis of this type on site," Schweitzer said.
Schweitzer's hypothesis is that fossils can stay deep in the ground for 68 million years and because they are in equilibrium with their sandstone environment, they can remain in nearly their original state with soft tissues preserved. It was a deep sandstone environment that preserved the soft tissue Schweitzer discovered a few years ago in the specimen "MOR 1125," dubbed B. Rex, found near Jordan, Mont. Schweitzer also found tissue that showed the Tyrannosaurus rex was an egg-laying female. Her revolutionary discoveries received international attention for what they suggested about fossil preservation.
Degradation began, however, as soon as field crews removed fossils from the ground and disrupted their equilibrium, Schweitzer said. Changing conditions and exposure to microbes all affected the fossils' condition.
To get a jump on the process and document it as it progresses, NC State provided funding for Schweitzer to purchase the lab and deliver it to MSU. The Museum of the Rockies then paid to adapt the lab for paleontology research. Horner paid for the renovations with money from Colorado Energy Management, which represented an anonymous donor, and Nathan Myrhvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft.
Almost half of the semi-truck contains a clean laboratory that will require users to don lab coats, lab shoes, gloves and hairnets before entering, Schweitzer said. The rest of the truck contains microscopes, work stations and a computer. Next year, it may also contain a scanning electron microscope and mass spectrometer with analytical capabilities. The entire truck has electricity, air conditioning and heating. It has room underneath for wastewater, diesel fuel and gear.
Along with the lab comes a new way of excavation, Horner said. This summer, instead of painstakingly removing sediment and rock from fossils, then stabilizing the fossils with plaster, the paleontologists will use cranes to remove two duckbill skeletons from Bureau of Land Management property. The workers will remove entire skeletons and encase them -- sediment and all -- in metal frames.