Fossils are ancient creatures that have been crystallized and encased in stone after millions of years under intense pressure from layers of soil and sediment. They are the indicators that paleontologists use to piece together Earth’s prehistoric past and how the land and its inhabitants have evolved over billions of years. 

Even though these specimens have been mineralized, they can still be extremely fragile. That’s where fossil preparation comes in, a process that is necessary before fossils can go on display or even into storage. 

Julien Divay, a paleoichthyologist and current research associate for the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, has had his fair share of preparation experiences. 

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Watch an expert at the Royal Tyrell Museum prepare a fossil for research and display

“Fossil preparation is one of the duties that I initially had at the Tyrrell when I started there. Through the years, I ended up working on a variety of material,” he says. 

Divay says that the typical process starts with heavier duty tools, like rock saws, and works down to smaller tools, like dental tools or fixed pins, for more detailed work.

However, a process like this isn’t something that just anyone should try to accomplish. 

Paul Johnston, an associate professor at Mount Royal University and former curator for the Royal Tyrrell Museum, says that prepping fossils is something that only someone with the proper knowledge and tools should attempt. Not only are there safety concerns, but one must also worry about the laws set by Alberta’s Historical Resources Act, something Johnston had direct involvement in creating. 

Julien Divay uses a small dental tool as he works on preparing a small rugosa, or horn coral, fossil for storage. PHOTO: ANNE MAYO

“It was decided that we needed something that would protect some resources … but also you don’t want to discourage people that are just interested in natural history,” he says.

According to the Act, any fossils found in Albertan soil are the property of the government, and it is not permitted to alter, sell, or take them out of the province without government permission. Violation of these rules could result in fines of up to $50,000 or one year in prison.

“If there’s attempts to deceive … not only will provincial legislation get you, but also there’s federal legislation as well. I get calls from time to time by Border Control Services for fossils that are being exported out of the country,” Johnston says.

Paul Johnston examines a specimen under his microscope in order to write down his findings later on. Photo Credit: Anne Mayo

This is a process that is best left to the professionals, but understanding the amount of work that goes into even the tiniest specimen is a good learning opportunity for those interested in or pursuing a career in sciences like palaeontology.

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