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Philly museum’s fossil surgeon reveals ancient past

Tom Avril


Excerpt:

At the Academy of Natural Sciences, Fred Mullison holds a polyester cast of Tiktaalik Roseae from Arctic Canada, which he made and painted. Next to him are the corresponding silicone molds.
Image Credit: Joy Lee/ philly.com

“The three crates full of rocks traveled more than 10,000 miles by air and sea, from a barren Antarctic moonscape to a hallway outside Fred Mullison’s cluttered workroom in Philadelphia.

Scientists dug up the rocks, but until Mullison got his hands on them, no one could truly see the details of what they contained:

Bony, armorlike plates from fish that lived nearly 400 million years ago. Teeth and spines from primitive sharks. Remnants of aquatic creatures with muscular “lobed” fins, similar to modern lungfish.

Mullison is a fossil preparator at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Wielding a carbide needle, he delicately chips away bits of sediment to reveal ancient bones trapped inside.

“This is a simple process,” he said. “You follow the bone and remove what’s not bone.”

Simple in concept, maybe, but his scientific colleagues say there are few who could exceed his pinpoint precision and intense focus. Mullison sits for hours at a time, peering at rocks through a microscope as he exposes their secrets, his right hand guiding the needle with almost imperceptible movements.

“He’s taking the rock apart grain by grain,” said academy paleontologist Edward B. Daeschler, a member of the team that dug up Antarctic rocks in December and January. “I don’t have that kind of patience.”” (…) READ MORE


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