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By Tony Ault
Staff Writer 

Western Science Center labs fossil preparation for study takes years of tedious work

 

Last updated 9/17/2018 at 10:37am

Tony Ault photos

Western Science Center Museum docent April Mejia carefully works to remove some of the matrix covering this part of the upper front leg bone (humerus) of an extinct mastodon found in a construction site in the Grizzly Ranch area of Temecula.

Leya Collins, weighing just over 100 pounds, is just as capable with a jackhammer, and maybe even more so, as a 250-pound well-built, suntanned construction worker.

With one hand, Collins can carefully chip open a hard casing that a construction worker wouldn't dare to tackle. She is glad to show her skill to dozens of children and students as they pass through her "construction" area.

Where would this be? It is the fossil preparation lab in the Western Science Center Museum in Hemet. Collins, an archeologist, is the paleo preparatory laboratory manager at the center in charge of preparing fossils of every size to study by paleontologists and other scientists. Her tools include a small hand-sized jack hammer called a microjack, powered by an air compressor, not unlike the heavy ones used in demolition.

Her knowledge and skill with this air-powered instrument are unique when it comes to chipping away the hard plaster and fiber jackets placed on fossil remains for shipping. Some fossils are very fragile. One miscalculation with the minijack could break the prized rare fossil into many pieces, lost forever for study.

The process of preparing a fossil for extensive study is very long, sometimes years, before scientists can determine its age, exact species and origin. Tools small and large are used in the process of preparing a fossil ranging from a toothbrush to a heavy pry bar and the microjacks.

Collins has found many willing hands to help her prepare the fossils that come into the museum from all over the nation. Some volunteers are skilled, some are aspiring to become a paleontologist or archeologist and some are curious university students. Helping Collins out on the day of our Saturday visit were museum docents April Mejia and Bethany Lawson.

Mejia not only is a docent at the museum, but a cultural anthropologist who teaches at Cal Poly Pomona, Norco College and Mt. San Jacinto College. Lawson is a university student majoring in another field but fascinated by fossils and painstakingly working for hours removing the jackets or dirt matrix on incoming fossil specimens.

Meija was chipping away at the matrix of the piece from a mastodon's humerus bone, or long upper leg bone, found in a dig in the Grizzly Ridge area of Murrieta. Lawson was working on pieces of a mastodon's rib found in the same area, possibly the same one.

Collins was on hand to make sure the docents work is properly done and answer their questions. Eventually the fossil will be compared to the mastodon fossils found in the Hemet Valley.

Children and adults coming to visit the museum can see the docents and Collins working on their current fossils and even get a tour of the more complete preparation laboratory.

Others can attend special educational programs at the museum learning how to find, prepare and study fossils from dig to laboratory. Collins said the museum lab has a 3D printer where students can make their own tiny dinosaur replicas and copies of actual fossil bones.

Drawing the most attention from the paleontologists and Collins at the museum is the latest arrival, a baleen whale suspected to have lived up to 50,000 years ago in the ice age. It is the largest fossil ever to come to the museum, from a dig in Santa Cruz, Calif. almost two years ago. Collins is awaiting another Jen-Air compressor with larger tools to tackle the casing on the fossil that is over 12-feet long.

Visitors to the center will be able to see the preparatory work ongoing in the museums outdoor dig site.

Work is continuing on the many pieces of the museum's most famous fossil, a large ice age mastodon that once lived in the Hemet Valley thousands of years ago, fondly called "Big Max." Big Max's fossils remain in his own area of the preparatory lab awaiting study.

Collins, and her volunteer crew along with Dr. Alton Dooley, the Western Science Center, executive director, and noted paleontologist, curator Andrew McDonald along with visiting scientists work on many fossils simultaneously, revealing their amazing histories and secrets.

Soon the newly arrived Baleen whale fossils will be seen by visitors just as the scientists are working to remove its jacket with tools including the microjacks.

"We are waiting for our new microjack before the work begins," said Collins.

Tours are available of the museum and laboratories. Call the Western Science Center and Museum at (951) 791-0033 or see westernsciencecenter.org.

 

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