Tutorial 34: How to document a specimen

March 4, 2019

As noted in the last post, Matt and I are off to spend a week at the Carnegie Museum from 11th-15th March. We expect to see many, many fascinating specimens there: far more than we’ll be able to do proper work on in the five days we have. So our main goal is to exhaustively document the most important specimens that we see, so we can work on them later after we’ve got home. I think of this as the “harvesting” phase of research, with the grinding and baking to follow.

I was going to write a checklist for myself, to ensure that I cover all the bases and we don’t find ourselves in six months’ time looking at our records and saying “I can’t believe we forgot to do X for this specimen” — because, believe me, we have spent far too much of our lives doing this already. But then I realised I should share it with the world, in case it’s helpful to others, too.

So here’s what to do when dealing with, for example, an apatosaurine cervical like this one. Let me know in the comments if I forgot anything!

BYU 20178, cervical vertebra from an apatosaurine sauropod. ventral view, anterior to the left. Note that the scalebar is held at approximately half the height of the vertebra; and that the catalogue card is in view and legible, giving a record who collected the specimen, when, and where.

Sketch the specimen, even if (like me) you are a terrible artist. The process of sketching forces you to really look at it — at each part of it in turn — and often results in you noticing something you would otherwise have missed. It would be worth doing this even if you immediately threw the sketch away: but don’t do that, because you’re going to want to …

Measure the specimen, using a tape measure, digital calipers or both as appropriate. You want to get at least all the measurements that you’ll include in a formal description — total length, total height, width across zygapophyses, etc. — but it’s often useful to also get other, more obscure measurements, just to make sure you’ve got your head around the shape. For example, in the vertebra above, you might measure the diagonal distances from the anteriormost projection of each cervical rib to to opposite side’s posterolateralmost part of the centrum. You record measurements in a table in your notebook, but some measurements are hard to describe: so just write them straight onto your sketch. To keep things straight, it can be useful to do the sketch in one colour and the measurements in another; or the sketch in pencil and the measurements in pen.

Now we come to photography. You want a lot of different kinds of photo, so lets consider them separately.

Take photographs of the specimen with its specimen label, ideally from several different aspects. This will make it easy to remember later which specimen is which. In a typical museum visit — especially a reconnaisance visit like our upcoming Carnegie trip — you’re going to see a lot of different specimens, and when you revisit your photos in six months it’ll be hard to keep them all straight. Make it easy on yourself. Also: the specimen label often contains other  useful information such as the quarry where the specimen was found. Capture that. Get a good close-up photo of the label alone, to ensure all the text is captured cleanly.

Take photographs from the cardinal directions. To illustrate a specimen nicely in a descriptive paper, you will at minimum want photos from anterior, posterior, dorsal, ventral and left and right lateral aspects (or as many of these are possible to obtain: you can’t always turn big specimens). Since these are the photos you’re likely to use in a publication, take extra care with these. Set up a plain-coloured background when possible so it’s easier to crop out later. Set up the best lighting you can. Take each photo several times so you can keep the best one. Use a tripod if you have one. (For much more on this, see Tutorial 8 on how to photograph big bones.)

Take photographs with a scalebar. This will give you a way to sanity-check your measurements later. Think carefully about scalebar placement. If you put it on top of the specimen so it obscures part of the fossil, be sure that’s not your only photo from that aspect: you won’t want to be left without good images of the whole bone. A scalebar placed on top of the specimen will appear larger than the same scalebar placed on the floor or the bench next to the specimen, thanks to perspective, which means your measurements are more trustworthy than photos of the scalebar. If you can easily arrange for it to be raised to half the total height of the specimen, you’ll get a more honest reading.

Photograph individual features of the bone with some kind of note. The reason I say “with some kind of note” is that I have hundreds of close-up photos of bits of sauropod vertebra which I evidently took in the hope of highlighting some specific bit of morphology, but I have no idea what morphology. Get a scrap of paper and scribble something like “big nutrient foramen”, draw an arrow on it, and place the scrap on the bone so that the arrow points at the feature. Take a photo; then remove the paper and take another photo. The first one is your note to yourself; the second is the raw material for an illustration that you might prepare later, highlighting the relevant feature in a more elegant way.

Do a video walkaround with narration. For some reason, we didn’t start doing this until very recently, but it’s a great way to get a rough-and-ready reminder of important aspects of the specimen. You can just do this with a phone, moving it around the specimen, pointing to interesting bits and saying things about them. Here’s an example of Matt pointing out some features of the preserved cervical vertebrae of Suuwassea, and here he is again pointing out how pelican vertebrae are made of nothing.

Take a shedload of undifferentiated photos from every possible angle. Your goal here is that you’ll be able to use photogrammetry later to make a 3D model of the fossil. I admit to my shame that I’ve still never successfully done this — but thanks to the kindness of my good friend Heinrich Mallison, who is an expect in this area, I do have some fine models, including the Xenoposeidon model that was published as a supplementary file to my 2018 paper. Even if you don’t have access to someone as helpful as Heinrich, it’s worth getting these comprehensive photo-sets because photogrammetry software is likely to get progressively easier to use. Hopefully in a couple more years there will be nothing to it but loading a bunch of photos and pressing a button.


Up till here, we’ve been concentrating on gathering information about the specimen in a form that we’ll be able to return to later and use in comparisons and illustrations. But we can do more than that now we’re here with the physical specimen:

Look at the bone texture. Figure out how much of it is real, and how much is reconstructed — a particular problem with older specimens. Keep an eye out for rugosities for muscle and ligament attachments, smooth areas and pockets for pneumatic diverticula (or fat pads in boring mammal verts), and any odd growths that might be ossified soft tissues or pathological reactive bone growth. These kinds of things are often much easier to see in the actual specimens than in even the very best photographs.

Check for areas where the specimen is under-prepared. It’s very common for a neural canal to remain filled with matrix — and easy to spot, so in a sense not a problem. But how often is a pneumatic feature obscured because it’s still full of matrix? This is probably part of the reason that caudal pneumaticity so often goes unobserved, and it will very often obscure foramina within the neural canal. Similarly, I don’t know whether the huge club on the end of the right cervical rib of NHMUK PV R173b (formerly BMNH R173b) is pathological bone or a mineral concretion, because all I have to go from is my lame photos. I should have figured that out while I was with the actual specimen.

Discuss the specimen with a friend. I just can’t overstate how important this is. When Matt and I visit a collection together, we discover much, much more than twice as much as either of us would alone. Isaac Asimov is said to have observed “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …””. Whether or not he ever actually said it (it’s not in any of his written works) it’s certainly true that the key moment in investigating a specimen is frequently when one person says “Hey, take a look at this”. Two minds can spark off each other in a way that a single mind can’t.


Last of all, it’s worth giving a little bit of thought to the possibility that you’ll one day be doing publicity for this specimen. So:

Get someone to take photos of you with the specimen. You’ll need them for press releases and media packs. I’ve only once in my life been in physical proximity with the Brontomerus specimen: during the three-day 2007 visit when I did much of the descriptive work for the paper. Idiotically, although I was there with three colleagues (Matt, Randy Irmis and Sarah Werning), I didn’t get anyone to take a photo of me with the material. So when we needed a photo for the publicity:

The Brontomerus mcintoshi holotype specimen OMNH 27761-27800, 61248 and 66429-66432 with the authors of the paper that described it. Back row (L to R): Mike Taylor, Matt Wedel, Rich Cifelli.

There was no good way to get it. I certainly wasn’t going to fly back out to the USA just to get a photo. So we got our Emmy award-winning special-effects-wizard friend Jarrod Davis to photoshop me into a photo that the museum had been able to take of Matt and Rich. (You can see the evidence here and here if you want to see how it was done. And, yes, before he could even start composing me in, Jarrod had to rescue a ludicrously under-exposed base image.)

Much better to avoid such nonsense. Get good photos of you with the specimens, like the one at the top of the Sauropocalypse post, and then if you ever need ’em you’ve got ’em.

 

3 Responses to “Tutorial 34: How to document a specimen”

  1. Dean Says:

    Have you witnessed the vertebral madness that is Bajadasaurus?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yeah, we feel bad about not having blogged Bajadasaurus, which might just as well have been named Badasssaurus. It’s just been insanely busy for us both. I hope we’ll get to it soonish, but other stuff is in the pipeline first.


  3. […] sheets, and spend quality time just looking at it and thinking about it. I don’t just mean documenting it for later analysis, but making use of that precious time right there with the physical specimen to […]


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