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Pro­fessor of Biology and curator of the Daniel M. Fisk Museum of Natural History Anthony Swinehart col­lected fossils this summer for the museum. Anthony Swinehart | Courtesy

Before a specimen can be dis­played in a museum, it must first be dis­covered, cleaned, and pre­pared.

During the week of June 10 – 17, a pro­fessor and an alumnus of the biology department worked on fossil digs in Chadron, Nebraska, with the goal of finding spec­imens to add to the col­lection in the college’s Daniel M. Fisk Museum of Natural History.

Anthony Swinehart, pro­fessor of biology and curator of the museum, led the expe­dition in search of fossils from the Oligocene Epoch. It was a chance hard to come by, he said.

“We went prospecting, which means to go out and look for new things,” Swinehart said. “We had a rare oppor­tunity to go to an early mammal site.”

Much of the land used for prospecting is pri­vately owned or operated by the gov­ernment, Swinehart said. The team from Hillsdale was able to secure per­mission to prospect on private land this summer, during which time the par­tic­i­pants spent about 14 hours every day digging for fossils.

Swinehart said one of his goals was to obtain pieces of an ore­odont skeleton, an extinct Oligocene mammal from North America.

“It’s an early mammal that was thought to be related to a camel,” Swinehart said. “It’s an organism that doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s kind of a small camel-like, capybara-like animal.”

The team was able to make his goal a reality.

“We got most of a skull, so I’m pretty happy with that,” Swinehart said. “I also have another jaw that’s still in alu­minum foil. But the cool part was that we also got a good part of the skeleton, so that was very grat­i­fying.”

Hillsdale biology alumnus Randall Rush ’17 also par­tic­i­pated in the trip. He and Swinehart were the only par­tic­i­pants to rep­resent the college on the expe­dition. This was Rush’s second summer trip with Pale­o­Prospectors, the company that was in charge of the group.

“Most of the trip was orga­nized by Pale­o­Prospectors,” Rush said in an email. “This is a private company led by Dr. Steve Nicklas and Rob Sula. They nego­tiate access to prop­erties with the landowners and help guide. Most of the people there were other clients from a variety of dif­ferent back­grounds.”

Steve Nicklas, asso­ciate pro­fessor of anthro­pology at the Uni­versity of North Georgia, founded Pale­o­Prospectors. His company pro­vides a unique method for inter­ested indi­viduals to go digging for fossils out West.

“I thought lots of people were trying to make a living dealing with fossils,” Nicklas said. “The more people I could get out to make sure they had a won­derful time, the more people I could get to come out.”

Clients can reg­ister for weeklong trips with Pale­o­Prospectors and spend time in the field with guides. Par­tic­i­pants are able to keep nearly all of their finds, with the exception of rare spec­imens that will be donated to museums.

According to Nicklas, Pale­o­Prospectors is the only orga­ni­zation of its kind that donates its finds exclu­sively to aca­demic insti­tu­tions.

For a couple of days during the June trip, the team looked for Cre­ta­ceous marine fossils. The rest of the trip was ded­i­cated to Oligocene fossils in the White River.

Many of these fossils were mammals, but they also found near-com­plete fossils of ancient tor­toises and pieces of those spec­imens. According to Rush, there were many other fossil finds, including jaw frag­ments, teeth, and other near-com­plete spec­imens.

“We got to keep all of our finds,” Rush said. “When working with Pale­o­Proe­spectors, you get to keep all of your finds with the exception of things of very sub­stantial mon­etary value or sci­en­tific value.”

The process of preparing a fossil for show­casing is dif­ficult and time-con­suming, Swinehart said. First, one must get down through the stone and dirt to the specimen itself. This takes some sand­blasting in the lab, Swinehart said. Once one gets to the fossil, though, more del­icate work is required.

“Some­times it’s just slowly picking with a hypo­dermic needle,” Swinehart said.

With modern spec­imens, the work put into showing them mainly involves preser­vation and taxi­dermy. However, for ancient spec­imens like those from the summer trip, more tedious detail work is required.

Because of the hours of work that must be put into preparing a fossil, there is

not a set date for when the new spec­imens, including the ore­odont and ancient tor­toises, will be dis­played in the museum.

“I curate the museum as a vol­unteer,” Swinehart said. “I basi­cally brought the museum back, and I do it on my free time, except when it involves stu­dents. We use the museum spec­imens for research, so it overlaps a bit. But I never know how long it’s going to take me to get some­thing prepped.”

Although it takes a great deal of time to prepare spec­imens for display, there is a large col­lection cur­rently being shown in the Fisk Museum that Swinehart said is available for use in student research projects.

“Putting the display together is another dif­ficult thing because you have to write up all the inter­pretive signage,” Swinehart said. “It’s hard to put a date on when they’ll be dis­played.”