Fossil plant research at the Burke Museum

By: Paige Wilson

Over the past year, the Burke Museum in Seattle has shifted to accommodate new health and safety guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19. While the Burke’s exhibit spaces have been intermittently closed or with reduced capacity, Burke collections staff are still hard at work and finding creative ways to share their research and curation with the public.

Many of our researchers have also shifted to entirely remote work, bringing microscopes and other tools home to study fossils from the safety of their living rooms! However, sometimes fossil work can only be done in person at the museum. I am a paleobotany graduate student and have been visiting the Burke periodically to take pictures of fossil leaf specimens. My photography setup involves a copy stand with a mounted camera and high-powered lights.

The camera set up at the Burke Museum that I am using to photograph fossil leaves in the collection

I am in the process of photographing thousands of individual fossil specimens—if you have the opportunity to visit the Burke Museum, you may see me snapping photos! Once I have taken all of the photos I need, I can continue my data analyses at home. I am using these digital images to measure leaf characters (e.g., leaf size, tooth size, leaf area) that are known to be related to climatic conditions, such as temperature and precipitation. Because plants are stationary, they must be well adapted to the environmental conditions in which they live. These leaf fossils will help me estimate the paleoclimate conditions during the interval before and after the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction. My photos will also be uploaded to the Burke’s online specimen database so that the general public and researchers around the world can browse our collections, collaborate, and continue collecting data for research projects. This project is an excellent example of how many researchers, including myself, are adapting our work to more virtual-based formats while continuing necessary in-person research as safely as possible.

An example of an image of a fossil leaf from the Tullock Formation (Hell Creek study area) that was taken by me. I am processing images like this to measure characters that will tell me about paleoclimate in the early Paleogene

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