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Quinter students pick, brush shale from fossil

8/2/2014

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Although they're all young, the four Quinter students hunched over the makeshift work table frequently had to step away from the back-breaking task at hand.

Of course, they constantly were leaning over, taking a close -- and often much closer -- look at the fossilized remains of a 16-feet-long mosasaur unearthed with the help of paleontologists from Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

Two of the Quinter High School students, senior Tanner Samuelson and sophomore L.T. Coburn, with the help of other students, are spending time this summer clearing the gray shale encasing the fossil pulled from the ground not far from Castle Rock. It was a project they undertook as part of an advanced biology class.

This summer's effort to prepare the fossil isn't part of the class. Instead, they're just interested in seeing the project through, perhaps allowing it to return to Quinter to be displayed there.

Both students delighted in the project.

"It was just awesome," Samuelson said.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Coburn said.

While neither is certain the experience will seal their fate as paleontologists, they're still delighted.

"I knew they were out there," Samuelson said of the extent of fossils being found in Gove County.

Samuelson and Coburn spent a recent Monday morning at Sternberg and have had a bit of a chance to be in the spotlight as the two who pulled the fossil from the ground.

Sternberg paleontology curator Laura Wilson helped shine the light on the students, as well as getting the chance to get her hands dusty as she joined the students in chipping away at the rock encasing the fossil. She was just as quick to step back as a teacher and detail for onlookers -- young and old -- just what was going on.

Their work was visible to museum visitors, thanks to glass panels allowing a full view of Wilson and the students working with brushes and dental tools as they exposed the fossilized bones.

On this day, the students had unveiled portions of those bones.

Just a few weeks earlier, Wilson said, they were hidden from view by nearly 500 pounds of rock.

The students, she said, came to Sternberg and asked for advice on how to remove the fossil from the ground.

"Some of it was exposed," Coburn said of the fossil, which had been discovered by landowner Jack Salyers who approached Quinter science teacher Steve Nicholson.

"Not many people can say they found a fossil," said a woman listening to Coburn and Wilson talk about the discovery. "That's awesome."

But they still have to chip and pick away at the rock surrounding the fossil.

"At this point, we know there's something in here," Wilson said.

Preparing a fossil is specialized, time-consuming work, she said, and not something she often has time to do.

Typically, it's on her free time when she works on preparing a fossil.

Exactly how the mosasaur fossil will turn out is uncertain, Wilson said, because it might have been crushed when it fell to the ocean floor.

It didn't help the fossil was contained in a shale casing, rather than the stronger limestone.

"Just because it's not pretty, it doesn't mean it doesn't have scientific value," she said.