August 8, 2012
By Kelly Ostrofsky
Each summer, the Museum hosts a number of student interns from colleges and area high schools. These students work in different areas of the Museum, learning about careers in science or doing research on a specific topic. This is the second post about what some of the students are doing at the Museum this summer. In this post, Donald S. Dean Adopt-A-Student intern Kelly Ostrofsky shares her experiences working on fossils in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Adopt-A-Student program is funded by the Kirtlandia Society, an associated society of the Museum.
I came to The Cleveland Museum of Natural History about two months ago, but only stayed for a few days; my internship with the Department of Physical Anthropology would be taking me to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for six weeks of preparation and curation of Woranso-Mille fossils. At the time, I did not know what to expect. I knew little about what "preparation and curation" involved, so I was uncertain about what I would be expected to know and what I would be doing once I got there. Still, I was excited. When I applied for the internship, the 2012 project details had not been posted yet, so when I found out I was accepted and going to Ethiopia, it was a nice surprise!
I have been pretty lucky these past few summers, gaining a lot of different experiences in the field of physical anthropology. Two years ago I went to the UK on a four-week summer program through Michigan State University called Forensic Anthropology and Human Identification, which is the first time I got some hands-on experience with bones. Last summer I traveled to South Africa to collect data for my senior honors thesis, working in the Dart Collection as well as with the Australopithecus sediba fossils from the hominin site of Dmanisi, in the Republic of Georgia. In May I graduated from Duke University with a B.S. in Evolutionary Anthropology, and wasn't sure what the next year would bring.
Still, I knew that going to Ethiopia to work on the Woranso-Mille fossils with Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie would be another incredible experience. Woranso-Mille is a paleontological study area in the central Afar rift of Ethiopia, and numerous fossil specimens of early human ancestors have been discovered there, including a partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis. The site samples an important time period for which there was previously inadequate fossil evidence, especially in regards to human evolution (3.6 to 3.8 million years ago). I was definitely excited for the opportunity to look at these fossils!
I just got back to Cleveland and will be here for a few days before I give a presentation about my time in Ethiopia. I learned a great deal while I was working there, at the National Museum of Ethiopia. For starters, I learned what "preparation and curation" means for a paleoanthropologist. To put it simply, there are many things that have to be done before fossils can be studied and analyzed. This preparation involves cleaning as well as reconstructing fragmented fossils; they must also be organized and catalogued so that each specimen can be readily accessible to researchers.
Cleaning an elephant molar before gluing it together.
My first task was actually before I left Cleveland. For the few days I was here before the trip, I entered data into a catalog. When fossils are recovered from the field, each is given a specimen designation that indicates the locality in which it was found. Also recorded are the preliminary identification of the fossil, who discovered it and GPS coordinates. I was transferring the information from last year's field notebook into the computer database. Even with this simple task, I started to realize there would be a lot to learn. I basically had no experience with fossil taxa other than hominids, so most of the identifications were unfamiliar to me. I learned to identify different fossil taxa such as suids (pigs), cercopithecids (monkeys) and bovids (think antelope), among others.
Cleaning fossils can take a variety of forms, depending on what type of dirt or matrix is surrounding the fossil. Sometimes the fossil can just be soaked in water and gently scrubbed with a toothbrush, or you can use dental tools to remove adhering sediment. Often, though, you will need to use an airscribe to remove the matrix, which can be as hard as concrete. Some specimens are extremely fragile, so care must be taken while cleaning these fossils.
Fossils must also be labeled with a specimen number, which ensures the information associated with each fossil (ID, location of discovery, etc.) can always be accessed. I spend a lot of time the first few weeks labeling specimens, from large mandibles to small monkey teeth. It's a good thing I can write in tiny letters!
When all of this is done, the collection still has to be organized, which may include arranging the specimens by locality of discovery, gathering specimens of certain taxa for detailed analysis, checking to see if each specimen is stored in its proper tray and merging new material from recent field seasons with the older collection.
I was sad to leave Ethiopia, but I know I have learned a lot and that this knowledge will be helpful in my future career as a physical anthropologist and possibly paleoanthropologist. Most of what I learned is not something that is taught in a classroom, so I'm glad I have had the chance to add this to my growing list of experiences.
Although intimidated at first with the many things a paleoanthropologist should know—from geology and field work, to staying up to date with fossil discoveries and the implications for human evolution, to conducting original research—I feel as if I am building a solid foundation on which to further my studies, and all I can say is that I am looking forward to it!