Texas Memorial Museum paleontology experts celebrate National Fossil Day

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The National Fossil Day website was closed Wednesday because of the shutdown, but the Texas Memorial Museum still celebrated the day with a workshop about fossils and fossil identification.

Pamela Owen, senior biodiversity educator at the museum, offered her expertise to visitors throughout the day. Owen said she frequently identifies fossils for people over email using photographs, but for National Fossil Day the museum provided a chance for people to show her their fossils.

“Have you ever watched ‘Antiques Roadshow’ on PBS?” Owens said. “We don’t appraise, we don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s worth this [amount],’ but it’s that personal interaction and getting the whole story like, ‘Where did you find it?’ There’s something really rewarding about doing identifications in person.”

Edward Theriot, Texas Natural Science Center director, said Central Texas is a great place to hunt for fossils, so many people use the museum as a resource for identifying what they find. 

“We have to provide an access to science for the public,” Theriot said. “The University has a role in service to that state. The museum is a component of that.”

He said the museum offers students and graduates the opportunity to reach out and connect with the public using the information they learn in the classroom. Approximately 400 local teachers use museum resources every year, Theriot said.

James Sagebiel is the collection manager for the vertebrate fossil collection, which is part of the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“The fossil collections split from the Texas Memorial Museum very recently,” Sagebiel said.

The fossil collection has always been owned by the geosciences school, but the school separated from the College of Natural Sciences in 2005. Administration is still working to separate the collection from the natural sciences college. The main fossil exhibits will remain in the Texas Memorial Museum.

Owen said the exhibit is an important part of education at every level because fossils help students understand history.

“We are celebrating fossils by educating people,” Owen said. “Unfortunately, because of the government shutdown, you can’t see the National Fossil Day website but you would see that it’s really becoming a big deal. It’s growing.”

Theriot said he believes the work of the museum and the fossil exhibit are key to understanding the past, present and future.

“The reason the past is important to me is that we understand what the future might be like,” Theriot said. “The present is not going to stay this way forever. The better we understand the past, the better we can predict the future.”