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Bringing Back Dinosaurs

Locating dinosaur fossils is difficult -- the Earth is large, and fossils are small -- but the paleontologist's labors don't end with discovery. Getting the fossils back to the lab and before the public is less glamorous, but every bit as difficult as finding them in the first place.

For example, Dr. Louis L. Jacobs of Southern Methodist University, discovered in Malawi, Africa, the nearly- complete remains of a very important titanosaurid, which he named Malawisaurus. (The fascinating story of his expedition is told in Quest for the African Dinosaurs.) Dr. Jacobs obtained permission from the government of Malawi to take the dinosaur to the United States, where it would be displayed and used to cast accurate models, before being returned to the people of Malawi.

Unfortunately, the remains of a titanosaurid are larger than a suitcase, or even several suitcases. Malawisaurus was a moderate-sized titanosaurid, yet its fossilized bones weigh tons. Dr. Jacobs could find no economically feasible method of shipping its remains back to the United States, and for more than two years after its discovery, Malawisaurus languished in storage, awaiting transport. Fortunately, Dallas is home to American Airlines and when they learned of Dr. Jacob's plight, they volunteered to fly the dinosaur back to Dallas. Malawisaurus will be studied and prepared in Dr. Jacob's laboratory on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

Once paleontologists have brought back fossils from the field to the lab, they are examined in detail. If the fossils are embedded in very hard rock, the entire rock may be cut out of the ground and moved back to the lab. All specimens are numbered and the position in which they were found is carefully recorded. The rock is numbered, and the direction that was north (when the rock was in the ground) is also been noted. Extremely large and heavy slabs of rock resting on wheeled frames can often be found blocking the hallways of laboratories, where they await the careful chisels of workers.

In the lab, the fossils are freed from the rock that surrounds them. Bit by bit, with painstaking care, the rock is chipped away by hand or with small electric drills. Air ducts above the workbenches vent away the inevitable dust.

As the rock is cut away, the fossils emerge. Most fossils are rather small and fragile, which means that extreme care must be taken in exposing them. Sometimes the fossils are the same color as the rock that shrouds them, which makes the task even more painstaking. At such times, ultraviolet light may help, because sometimes the fossil fluoresces and stands out from the rock.

Fossils recovered from rock are sorted and identified. They may be placed in informal containers on what seem to be cluttered tables, but the paleontologists know where everything is, and everything gets filed. As the fossils are identified and grouped, body structures are recreated. Vertebrae link up to form backbones; a leg emerges from tibia, fibula, and femur; radius, ulna, and humerus become an arm. Mineralized fossil bones are extremely heavy. When museums recreate life-like poses, they must first fashion a framework of iron to hold the dinosaur bones in place.

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