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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.”