Hillsdale College’s Daniel M. Fisk Museum of Natural History in Strosacker Science Center has added hundreds of specimens collected this summer by Professor of Biology and curator of the museum Anthony Swinehart. The specimens will enhance the public displays as well as aid in research and classroom teaching.
In order to acquire these specimens, Swinehart set out on a summer-long excursion, spanning nine states and eight geological time periods within the Mesozoic and Paleozoic eras. He covered much of the Southeast and several states in the Southwest, but he also explored the Upper Peninsula and ended in Hillsdale County. Some expeditions he went on alone, but for some, junior Spencer Bohlinger joined him.
The Mesozoic era includes three periods — the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. According to Bohlinger, most of the dinosaurs people are familiar come from the latter two periods.
“The Triassic period is a really interesting time in earth’s history though, because it’s when dinosaurs started to evolve, and there’s only a few places in the world you can go to see them,” Bohlinger said. “We now, from this trip, have some of the largest collections of some types of Triassic fossils.”
Due to limited display space, only a small percentage of these specimens will be placed on public display. The remainder will be stored out of sight in the museum to be used for research and teaching. He said many of the specimens may not be particularly aesthetic or notable for displays to the general public, but they may be very valuable for research and teaching purposes.
“Some of them are more crowd-pleasing than others,” Swinehart said. “Some specimens are very important to science but aren’t very interesting to the average visitor.”
He explained that the visibility of a fossil, which makes it eye-catching to spectators, and its rarity, which makes it relevant, are two big factors in determining what goes on public display in the Fisk Museum.
Swinehart said the museum was lacking in fossils from certain geological time periods. When he came to Hillsdale in 1998, there was no museum. Now, 20 years later, it is one of the only small schools in the nation with two mostly complete dinosaur skeletons. Swinehart said the Fisk is different than many museums because it is in the process of being rebuilt after being lost from the campus for more than half a century. It is still building up some of the common pieces that other college museums already have.
Additionally, one of Swinehart’s former students, Randall Rush ’17, owns a New Mexico ranch on top of Triassic rock, which is often inaccessible.
After finding a large deposit of relatively rare Triassic mollusk fossils in New Mexico, there is a good possibility that the mollusks may yield new species to science, according to Swinehart.
“This particular assemblage of fossils is notable, and I will soon be publishing it in a scientific journal,” Swinehart said, in an email.
After taking Swinehart’s classes, Rush became very interested in paleontology and is currently volunteering and doing research in the field. Visiting the ranch was the original target trip for Swinehart, but he decided it would be sensible to do research on cities along the drive.
“I worked with Dr. Swinehart on a couple of fossil hunting expeditions in past summers — South and North Dakota and ones in Nebraska,” Rush said. “We had been discussing this one for a while.”
Another notable find that Swinehart said will be featured in the Fisk is Silurian algae from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is not only rare and difficult to spot but also has the intrigue of locality. What makes this fossil so special, he said, is that unless they get buried in low oxygen conditions, they don’t typically fossilize.
Part of the reason for the emphasis on fossils in these new additions is Swinehart’s personal interest in fossils and his goal to develop research opportunities in paleontology for students.
“I generally have some groups that I focus on with an eye for student thesis research,” Swinehart said. “The goal is to do some of our research without having to leave the museum.”
Bohlinger said one way the museum is incorporated into the classroom is for studying purposes. For example, he said students in Swinehart’s Historical Geology class are responsible for knowing the names of different museum specimens.
Before fossils go out on display, the fossils must be prepared, which, for some of them, involves getting cut out of the rock. From there, they’re given catalog numbers and placed in packaging with the appropriate information written on it. All of that is then put into a database that makes it easy to find where and when the fossil was found and what the fossil is.
“We’re developing one of the finest natural history museums in the state,” Swinehart said.
Bringing students on summer excursions is one way the college is able to improve the museum.
“Given the size of our school, the quality of science program is available almost nowhere else,” Bohlinger said. “Although bigger schools may have the same resources that we do, I wouldn’t have the same relationship with my professors and have summer opportunities like this one.”