Historical bones and enamel gleam underneath vibrant lights in the Melbourne Museum, surrounded by throngs of excited youngsters — and a couple of captivated grownup.

However beneath this hustle and bustle, within the constructing’s basement, is the place such fossils are damaged out of their rocky tombs and cleaned up for show and scientific analysis.

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Palaeontologist Ben Francischelli describes a number of the instruments and strategies he used to extract fossils from the encasing rock. Hear on The Science Present.
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Items of limestone at varied phases of processing lie across the room. They’re all sizes — from tiny delicate bones lodged in matchbox-sized pebbles to hefty slabs that want a hydraulic carry to maneuver them round.

And overlook what you noticed on Jurassic Park, the place palaeontologists gently sweep sand and stones away from completely preserved skeletons. In actuality, it is a a lot noisier course of.

Fossils final thousands and thousands of years as a result of, very often, they’re surrounded by arduous rock.

So palaeontologists typically enlist the assistance of particular energy instruments, plus acid — and a complete lot of endurance.

Rocking out

Most of the bones and enamel within the museum’s basement are the fossilised stays of historic whales and dolphins that swam the oceans 15 million years in the past.

A sunrise over the ocean with a surfer silhouetted in the foreground
The waves that make this a part of shoreline so engaging to surfers additionally assist erode the limestone cliffs and unearth long-buried fossils.(

ABC Science: Belinda Smith


Once they died, the animals’ our bodies sank to the ocean flooring and have been coated in silt and dust. Over time, that squishy sediment solidified into limestone.

As of late, that limestone varieties towering wheat-coloured cliffs that hint Victoria’s Surf Coast. Because the wind and waves bash away on the cliffs, they expose bones and enamel embedded inside, that are typically noticed by eagle-eyed surfers and fossil-hunters.

Palaeontologist Ben Francischelli is one such fossil-hunter. He’s a part of a gaggle that recurrently scouts the coast at low tide for historic stays, which stand out black in opposition to the limestone.

And whereas discovering a fossil takes some ability, that is the straightforward half in comparison with what’s to come back.

Earlier than attempting to take away a fossil they’ve discovered, they pour on and soak it in a liquid referred to as paraloid that cures like a glue, giving power to the traditional stays.

Two glass jars with a white lid containing clear liquid in front of a drill and air hose.
Paraloid helps strengthen and shield fossilised bones from acid and rock elimination.(

ABC Science: Belinda Smith


Then if they’ll, the crew makes use of chisels and crowbars to soundly take away the fossil and surrounding chunk of limestone, which they then load right into a ready automobile. This may be arduous yakka … however the hardest work occurs again on the museum.

The limestone and embedded fossil is taken to the Melbourne Museum basement. Right here, the method begins to take away the fossil from its rocky nest the place it is rested for thousands and thousands of years.

Chemical assist

First, palaeontologists have to take away as a lot of the encompassing limestone as doable with out damaging the valuable fossil inside. Usually this implies sticking it in acid for a few days.

To do that, the fossil is taken to the museum’s acid course of room, the place plastic tubs and sinks line the partitions.

Regardless of being fairly arduous, limestone — which is made from a cloth referred to as calcium carbonate — dissolves in acid.

Pop a chunk of limestone in acetic acid, often known as vinegar, and bubbles of carbon dioxide begin forming on the rock floor.

The paraloid, which the fossil-hunters added earlier, helps shield the fossil from the acid. Palaeontologists will typically additionally coat the uncovered fossil with lacquer too.

Large plastic tub in a metal sink.
A relentless however sluggish circulation of water washes away calcium salts that kind whereas a fossil is bathing in a weak answer of acetic acid.(

ABC Science: Belinda Smith


After a few days, relying on the amount of limestone, the fossil is flushed with recent water to clean away calcium salts that construct up in the course of the chemical response between the acetic acid and calcium carbonate.

Then it is time to give the fossil its first clear, Dr Francischelli says.

“[The acid bath] normally turns a number of the sediments right into a slush, which we will then simply gently wipe away with a brush,” he says.

After which he brings out the ability instruments.

The massive weapons

Subsequent door to the acid course of room is the principle fossil preparation workshop.

It has tall ceilings and industrial followers, slightly like a normal workshop, however as an alternative of an array of screwdrivers and drills, these instruments vary from delicate brushes to modified dentist drills.

Earlier than getting caught into the fossil, Dr Francischelli says, “you take a look on the methods through which the bone is contouring by way of it, as a result of that very first bathtub normally strips a number of the encompassing sediment”.

“After which you have to ask your self the query: do I have to trim this specimen down additional?

The massive weapons aren’t as huge as your normal family drill, however these palaeo-tools pack a punch.

Earlier than getting began, Dr Francischelli dons protecting ear put on, goggles and masks, as a result of this half is extremely noisy and dusty.

A small power tool resting next to a piece of pale rock.
The air chisel chips off tiny flakes from the limestone surrounding fossils.(

ABC Science: Belinda Smith


The air chisel chips away on the rock whereas the fine-tipped drill is finest used for probably the most delicate work. Nonetheless, the sound is just not nice, to say the least.

And never every thing all the time goes to plan.

Typically, the bone can shatter — maybe as a result of it was by accident hit by a software or just vibrated an excessive amount of.

When that occurs, so begins the sluggish job of selecting up all of the shards and painstakingly gluing them collectively once more.

As soon as the fossil is cleaned up, Dr Francischelli says, he and his colleagues can correctly determine precisely what it’s they’ve.

“And if we all know that we have got one thing particular, which is why we take the time to really put together it within the first place, we will attempt to work out what sort of species it’s, [or] if it is a new species,” he says.

“And if that’s the case, or if it is one thing actually necessary, we will identify it in a paper, we will describe it within the scientific literature, and use it to teach the plenty about palaeontology as a complete.”


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