Where Did You Get All of These Fossils?
Posted On: 07/27/2017 - 12:14pm, Posted By: Glenn Storrs, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology
The Vertebrate Paleontology Collection at Cincinnati Museum Center (typically the bones and teeth of extinct animals, but also including fossil eggs, footprints and other trace fossils, plus some preserved soft tissues) has a long and storied, if somewhat checkered, history. A Cincinnati fossil collection was begun under the guidance of prominent Cincinnati physician Daniel Drake and the Western Museum Society in 1818. Collecting efforts were subsequently continued by, with fits and starts, members of the Western Academy of Natural Sciences (1835), the Cincinnati Society of Natural History (1870), and the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History (1957). Each of these institutions was a predecessor and lineal ancestor of Cincinnati Museum Center.
Samuel A. Miller was the first Curator of Paleontology of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History (1871-1874), followed by John W. Hall, Jr. (1874-1877), Edward O. Ulrich (1877-1880), John Mickelborough (1880-1884), Edward M. Cooper (1884-1885) and Charles L. Faber (1885-1886). Ulrich served as Custodian of the Scientific Department beginning in 1873. In later life, he accepted a position at the Smithsonian Institution. A comprehensive Geology Department was established at the Cincinnati Society of Natural History in 1889, but it was not until 1986, with the appointment of the first vertebrate paleontology curator at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History (H. Gregory McDonald, an expert on the “Ice Age” and fossil sloths), that a separate Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was carved out of the general fossil collection.
Samuel A. Miller, Cincinnati Society of Natural History Curator of Paleontology, 1871 – 1874.
During the Cincinnati Society of Natural History period, numerous fossils from the mid-western United States (especially Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa), both vertebrate and invertebrate, were collected and added by members and colleagues. Most of the older acquisitions still remaining in the collection date from this period.
Fossil exchanges, gifts and purchases for the collection were made. Personal collections of prominent Cincinnatians and some orphaned institutional collections made their way to the society. Notably, the historic ties between Cincinnati and Germany resulted in material entering the collection from famous European localities. At this time also, a large number a comparative specimens from a broad range of ages and localities were purchased from Ward's Scientific Company and other sources. Nevertheless, stratigraphic and taxonomic coverage remained patchy.
In 1942, much of the paleontological collection (excepting primarily items then on exhibit in the old Ohio Mechanics Building in downtown Cincinnati) was temporarily transferred to the University of Cincinnati Geology Museum, founded in 1907. The university collection included some vertebrate material prior to the transfer and continued to grow thereafter. Numerous specimens were contributed by the Dry Dredgers Association of Amateur Geologists & Fossil Collectors, the oldest amateur paleontology society in the United States, founded in 1942 under the guidance of U.C. professor Kenneth E. Caster. In particular, Elizabeth Dalvé, a university collection assistant in the 1940's and a Dry Dredger, provided useful comparative specimens as well as some important research material. Among the university geology museum curators, the single vertebrate paleontologist was Donald Baird. During his tenure, 1949-1951, great strides were made in the curation and expansion of the university collection. Notable among new acquisitions were specimens from the Ohio Pennsylvanian and a large collection of vertebrate ichnofossils and trackway casts. Baird graduated U.C. with his master’s degree and then left to pursue his doctorate at Harvard. He ultimately became the curator of the famous vertebrate fossil collection at Princeton University.
Donald Baird, University of Cincinnati Geology Museum Curator, 1949 – 1951.
While the original Cincinnati Society of Natural History collection was housed at the University of Cincinnati, a parallel collection grew at the society’s successor, the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, through field collection and donations. This was strongest in local and regional Pleistocene (“Ice Age”) specimens. H. Gregory McDonald undertook major excavations of a late Pleistocene fauna from a cave (Sheriden Pit) near Findlay, Ohio in the early 1990’s. The university fossil vertebrate collection was deeded to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History (now part of Cincinnati Museum Center) in 1987. The combined collection was moved to the Geier Collections & Research Center facility on Gest Street in 2001.
Subsequent to Greg McDonald’s tenure, yours truly was employed as the Museum’s second vertebrate paleontologist in 1995. I’ve tried to stay busy and since then, with help from numerous colleagues and museum volunteers, collections have been made from diverse localities in the US and abroad. Major research/collecting projects were initiated in the Devonian and Pennsylvanian of Ohio, the Mississippian and Pleistocene/Holocene of Kentucky, the marine Triassic of Nevada, the marine Cretaceous of Kansas and the continental Mesozoic of the US Western Interior. In particular, an educational/research field school was established at the Yellowstone-Bighorn Research Association near Red Lodge, Montana, resulting in important dinosaur holdings from the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation. This latter project operated for over a decade. Partnerships with Marietta College and Northern Kentucky University have added additional specimens from the Jurassic of Utah.
Glenn W. Storrs (left) and H. Gregory McDonald at Cincinnati Museum Center for the 9th North American Paleontological Convention, 2009.
In addition to fossils, the department preserves associated contextual data (field notes, maps, photographs, correspondence, preparation history sheets, old exhibit and collection labels, and publications containing reference to specimens in the collection) related to the cataloged collection items. Cast replicas of significant research and/or educational specimens held in other public collections are also maintained in the CMC collection.
Perhaps most significantly for this brief history of the collection, in 2009, a Cincinnati philanthropist permanently endowed the position of Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology. This single act insures that the collection will have direct care into the indefinite future. As with any museum (or other) collection, such care is needed to prevent deterioration from neglect, and to maintain a protected and useable resource. While this individual wishes to remain anonymous, anyone with a love of fossils and the history of life on Earth will remain forever grateful for their vision and generosity.
Part of Cincinnati Museum Center’s vertebrate paleontology collection at the Geier Collections & Research Center.