From Science Museums to Subfossils

Looking back, it seems like most kids from my generation went through a “dinosaur phase” and wanted to be paleontologists at some point.  I still feel amazed and incredibly lucky that for me, that dream is starting to come true!

“Discovering fossils” about 15 years ago

I’ve always had an interest in the natural world and loved going to places like the zoo, the Field Museum, and other hands-on science museums.  Throughout grade school and high school, I was passionate about spending time outdoors, reading National Geographic magazines to keep up with important scientific discoveries, and learning about the diversity of life on earth.  When the time came to decide what I wanted to study in college, biology and anthropology were obvious choices.  NIU offered not only good programs in both of those departments, but also a means of combining them: a study abroad program in Madagascar.

The summer before my junior year, I was able to spend one month in Madagascar, studying living and extinct lemurs, completing my own research project, and participating in a real paleontology dig.  Between examining subfossil lemurs at the University of Antananarivo and being able to look for such bones myself, I found my childhood dreams of being a paleontologist come roaring back to life (much like the dinosaurs in the movies that had inspired me).  The idea of studying bones that are thousands or millions of years old and being able to reconstruct the life of an extinct species was absolutely thrilling.

Discovering fossils now

In the fall, I started working in Dr. Karen Samonds’ lab at NIU.  Among the fossils I helped prepare were the ribs and vertebrae of a sea cow from Nosy Makamby.  None of the bones in the lab held as much excitement, however, as the sea cow mandible (pictured in my last blog) that still had teeth in it.  When I learned that these fossils represented a potentially new and unnamed species of sea cow, I was eager to take on the project.  I’ve already learned a lot and had a wonderful experience, and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store!

By Rebekah Ernat


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