Through the labyrinthine halls of the Morrill Science Center, tucked away behind the 250-specimen collection of the Rausch Mineral Gallery, University of Massachusetts students can, very circuitously, find their way to the newly-created Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection.
The new addition to the UMass geosciences department is open to the public weekly from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in room 243A of Morrill, showcasing a wide array of fossils from countries all across the world, including Canada, Russia, China and Mongolia.
From 200-million-year-old dinosaur tracks found in Western Massachusetts to the cast of a 150-million-year-old primeval bird found in Blumenberg, Germany, the collection hosts both materials that the geosciences department took out of storage to put on display, as well as donated materials.
"This was an opportunity for us to really showcase some things that we had in our own collection for many, many years," Julie Brigham-Grette, professor and department head of the geosciences department, said. "All the fossils you see here are from the major periods of geologic time."
The display cases are ordered so that the younger fossils are on the right-most side of the room, while the oldest are on the left. The first, left-most cabinet displays fossils originally owned by the geosciences department, including smaller fossils of ferns, feathers and other materials. These materials are shown to students in the History of Life course. According to Brigham-Grette, the specimens are taken out of their display cases, shown to students and put back in after.
One fossil of a plant, owned by the UMass geosciences department, is on display in the Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.
"It's cool just to have a place to show undergrads and people who come into the lab what paleontology is all about, because I think people think of fossils, and they don't know what we do with them," said Raquel Bryant, a graduate student in the geosciences department studying paleoceanography and micropaleontology.
In honor of one of its main donors, the gallery was named after amateur paleontologist Lawrence Osborn, who donated about a third of what is now the current collection, according to UMass News and Media Relations.
Osborn, a former UMass executive director of planned giving, would accompany paleontologists on digs and collect fossils with them, Brigham-Grette said. When Osborn decided to retire from UMass, he wanted to move to Hawaii, but didn't want to move his collection with him. Instead, he chose to have it to stay at UMass, next to the mineral collection.
"Rock, mineral, and fossil collections within universities and colleges are very important resources, as they allow the students in those institutions access to the collections through research, curating, and learning activities," stated third-year doctoral student in micropaleontology Adriane Lam on her 'Time Scavengers' blog.
Lam helped curate the collection with her advisor, Professor Mark Leckie of the department of geosciences, and her fellow graduate student Serena Dameron, who is studying paleoceanography and micropaleontology. Dameron recalled going to Osborn's home to collect all his fossils, box them up carefully, bring them to UMass and then put them in the display cases - cabinets that were also found in Osborn's home.
"Honestly, I love all science. I'm attracted to all of it, so I can get very distracted by it all," Dameron said. "Just being able to hold those fossils is very exciting."
Brigham-Grette was particularly drawn to a plaster cast of the primeval bird, the Archaeopteryx, calling it the collection's most famous specimen.
The plaster cast of an Archaeopteryx, whose original fossil is located in Berlin, is on display in the Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.
"This is very special because this is the most famous Archaeopteryx ever found in the geologic record," Brigham-Grette said, mentioning that the German museum that houses the original fossil made six plaster casts of the original. "If you think of 'Jurassic Park' and those flying dinosaurs, [the Archaeopteryx is] one of them."
Other specimens include fossil plants and marine and land animals, as well as a clay sculpture that replicates an actual dinosaur egg, except inside the clay egg, there rests a tiny dinosaur in the fetal position.
The clay sculpture of a baby dinosaur in an egg is on display in the Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018
"I think we would be in a better place as a department if we could get more students to just take geology even as a [general education requirement]," said Bryant, who views earth sciences as an especially important subject when people are thinking about climate change. "To actually understand what's happening on the planet is the strongest defense against deniers. It's kind of a galvanizing force to do better."
Jackson Cote can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.
Photos by Caroline O'Connor