Fossil Dinosaur Femur Finally Gets Its Number

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One of the Museum’s biggest residents has a new roommate with a claim to fame of its own. A sauropod femur on display across from The Titanosaur turned out to be part of the first dinosaur fossil ever excavated by Museum paleontologists.

When The Titanosaur first arrived in the Museum’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Orientation Center in January 2016, the fossil cast was accompanied by actual specimens from the dig site in Argentina. When those fossils returned to their nation of origin, a display of some of the most striking sauropod specimens from the Museum's paleontology collections went up in their place.

 

Panoramic view of several shelves and cases containing fossils of a variety of sizes, with attendant signs and digital displays.

Some of the Museum’s most impressive sauropod fossils are on display in the Wallach Orientation Center.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


One of those specimens was a Diplodocus femur from the collections that had what Senior Museum Specialist Carl Mehling calls “display potential”—a good-looking specimen that had been on view before.

In the course of preparing the fossil for its return to the spotlight, it soon became clear that the femur was not labelled with a specimen number. These numbers provide a valuable link to data like where and when Museum specimens were acquired. Placing an item on display without one is never a good option.

Instead, Mehling started sifting through Museum records to identify the origins of the femur. There were some helpful clues. For one thing, the specimen had clearly been in the collections for a while, so he could start looking in the earliest records of the Division of Paleontology, which today includes more than 32,000 specimens in its FARB collection—that’s the collection dedicated to fossil amphibians, reptiles, and birds. Soon, he came on references to the femur of AMNH FARB 223—a foundational find excavated in 1897 by Museum paleontologists Henry Fairfield Osborn and Barnum Brown. Comparing the femur to archival photos of the FARB 223 specimen confirmed the fossil’s identity. 

 

Barnum Brown wears a hat, holds a pick-axe, and kneels next to large fossilized bones; Henry Osborn, hat in hand, sits nearby.

Barnum Brown and Henry Fairfield Osborn sit beside a partially excavated Diplodocus bone at Como Bluff, Wyoming in 1897.

© AMNH Library 17808


“So the femur went from a mystery to part of the first dinosaur fossil the Museum ever excavated,” says Mehling. “And it was actually the first bone of the specimen found.”

The Diplodocus longus specimen was a Museum display piece for decades until it was dismantled in 1958. Now, this piece of history—both Museum and natural—is on display for everyone to view in the Museum’s famed fossil halls. And it finally has a proper collections number. Mehling added the string of numbers in white paint to the femur just last month, about 120 years after it was first discovered on a dig in Wyoming. Better late than never, right?

 

Carl holds a tray of white paint and uses a small paintbrush as to paint  "AMNH FARB 223" on the sauropod femur fossil.

Carl Mehling paints "AMNH FARB 223" on the newly-identified fossil.

© AMNH/R. Mickens


But why isn't the first fossil collected by Museum paleontologists...well, number one?

"Although this is our first Museum-collected dinosaur, by the time it arrived we had other fossils that were already in the collection, which were acquired by other means," says Mehling. "And even our first dinosaur wouldn't be the first fossil in the FARB collection, which includes more than just dinosaur fossils."