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A forever home for fossils

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Jason Moore, an assistant professor in the University of New Mexico’s Honors College and a vertebrate paleontologist, holds a fossilized skull of a oreodont in the prep lab in Northrop Hall. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The oreodont is a little like a camel, a little like a sheep and a little like a pig – or at least it was; it has been extinct for millions of years.

But Jason Moore and his students continue gleaning insights about the mammal’s existence and its surroundings by evaluating fossils in a basement lab at the University of New Mexico’s Northrop Hall.

Fossilized oreodont bones are featured heavily in the collection Moore gathered on a UNM-funded expedition at Nebraska’s Toadstool Geology Park. But UNM will have them around only temporarily; Moore has arranged permanent homes at museums inside and outside New Mexico, primarily because UNM lacks an appropriately controlled environment for their storage.

“In the long term, zero percent get to stay here,” Moore, a vertebrate paleontologist and assistant professor in UNM’s Honors College, said of his collection, which he estimates at 10,000-plus pieces. “We don’t have the facilities to hold them.”

UNM undergraduate student Wiley Abt measures fossils with a caliper in the prep lab in the basement of Northrop Hall. UNM’s current plan to remodel the vacant Biology Annex includes the new lab and storage space. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

While UNM keeps thousands of fossils on its Albuquerque campus, the university’s Earth and planetary sciences department does not have space that meets federal repository requirements for storing vertebrate fossils.

That is about to change.

UNM plans to transform its vacant, 8,000-square-foot Biology Annex building into an interdisciplinary teaching and learning center for Earth and planetary sciences, the Museum of Southwestern Biology and UNM’s Museum Studies program. It will feature new labs and storage space, plus places to teach and display the specimens.

The current Biology Annex plan has garnered much more support than a previous version that would have repurposed the building for graduate student art studios. Art students and faculty members railed against the Board of Regents-approved plan to move their studios from the Art Annex to the Biology Annex to make way for the Honors College.

UNM has since scrapped that plan after an architectural review showed it would be cost-prohibitive. Art will stay in place, and Honors is likely destined for the first floor of the Anderson School of Management.

Part of a fossilized rabbit jawbone, estimated at 33 million to 34 million years old, is among the specimens collected as part of research by UNM assistant professor Jason Moore. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

But officials still wanted to use the Biology Annex, so interim Provost Craig White convened a task force to explore possible uses. The interdisciplinary center emerged as the top contender.

“To have the opportunity to turn this facility into a showcase and a teaching space and a laboratory preparation space for these extraordinary collections is a tremendous gift,” UNM Arts and Sciences Dean Mark Peceny said at a recent regents committee meeting.

Regents have approved the recommendation; however, they must still approve a more detailed design and reallocate the funding previously earmarked for the Art Annex plan.

The University of New Mexico plans to create new storage space in the vacant Biology Annex for fossils like this.

Christopher Witt, Museum of Southwestern Biology director and associate professor in biology, lauded the new plan for several reasons, including the impact “well-designed spaces” can have on creativity and productivity. The museum will “allocate” some of its own specimens to the Biology Annex, depending on particular teaching, analysis or display goals, he said.

“The space that we are envisioning in the Bio Annex would bring together students and scientists from different departments to extract and analyze information from these priceless objects,” he said in an email. “The study of specimens should be exciting because it provides a unique way of understanding life and how it changes over time and space – this space will make it exciting.”

Cori Myers, an invertebrate paleontologist and assistant professor in Earth and planetary sciences, said fossils kept in poor conditions can turn to dust and some fossils in UNM’s collection have shown signs of disintegration. She estimated that UNM has at least 25,000 fossils in Northrop’s basement, including a strong collection that speaks specifically to New Mexico’s natural history.

While the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science has a wide swath of such specimens, Myers said, most national museums do not.

“Not very many of them have collected heavily in New Mexico, so we have these amazing high-resolution records of New Mexican fauna and flora that is not really replicated anywhere else,” she said.

Moving them to a repurposed Biology Annex would mean improved conditions for evaluation and storage, but also better access for teaching and even public viewing. She said she hopes that student tours that already visit campus for other reasons will eventually have a chance to also view fossils at the Biology Annex.

“These are valuable to the public. … This is a record of our history, so it’s important for research, it’s important for teaching and getting our students engaged in science, but more than that,” she said, “this is the history of world.”

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Assistant professor Cori Myers, left, and undergraduate student Dustin Perriguey, show some of the fossils currently stored in the basement of Northrop Hall. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

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