Piecework : Museum Crew Toils to Reconstruct the Fossil Record

Times Staff Writer

Fritz Clark sits cloistered in his cluttered laboratory at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, surrounded by almost 400,000 fossil pieces of elephants, whales, bears and other animals that lived millions of years ago.

The 45-year-old Clark's job is like "building model airplanes," he says, or solving "jigsaw puzzles . . . only the kit is different."

One of three museum technicians assigned to vertebrate paleontology--the study of preserved remains of ancient backboned animals--his task is to clean fossils as they are found and brought to the museum, and then to piece together broken parts and reconstruct missing sections.

Most of them are never seen by the crowds that visit the museum in Exposition Park, but instead are catalogued for researchers to study.

It is work that is never finished. Boxes are piled to the ceiling--more skulls, teeth, vertebrae--awaiting attention. A few large rocks are scattered around, waiting for the fossils inside them to be chiseled out.

"We find them faster than we can put them together," Clark explained.

More often than not, the fossils found by researchers, volunteers and occasionally Clark and the other technicians arrive in fragments.

"I said Godzilla stood on this fossil," Clark joked, displaying the jaw of a prehistoric dolphin that originally came in 300 pieces.

A heavy-set, dark-haired man whose eyes take on an intense look when he talks about fossils, Clark came to the museum three years ago after 25 years in the Navy. "At sea," he said, "I was reading technical books on fossils instead of Playboy." A self-described lifelong fossil addict, his license plate reads "FSL FXR."

"They're all kind of neat puzzles," he said, displaying the skull of a 13-million-year-old sea lion he is working on. "See how the skull has been pushed into the brain case? Well, I'll be pulling this piece off, binding this over here, lining that up. . . ."

Lost in the zeal of his latest challenge, Clark was oblivious to the fact that the process he was trying to explain was virtually incomprehensible to an outsider. His voice was full of exuberance as his hands stroked the shapeless bone mass, which he held as if it were a precious gem.

"Pull this around, take that apart and put it up here," he finished, with a proud grin. "When I get through, this should look like a sea lion skull."

Clark is sometimes called to the scene of local fossil discoveries to help preserve the finds. "A few weeks ago they were digging a pit for a large condo in Century City and the construction workers thought they had found some fossils," he said.

"All over this basin you have so many buildings already, it's very rare you have a chance to go down to any depth to recover fossils."

A salt- and fresh-water estuary existed 50,000 to 100,000 years ago where Century City stands today, he said. "I went out there and pecked around. We retrieved, I guess, 50 bags of sand, and we've been screen-washing it." So far he and his colleagues have found such items as wolf and horse teeth, he said.

Normally, it takes such painstaking care to assemble the delicate fossil fragments without damaging them that it can take months to put even one specimen together. "It's a very, very slow process," Clark said.

He and the other technicians and six volunteers use equipment ranging from ordinary white glue, eyedroppers, tweezers, dental picks, scalpels and paintbrushes to more elaborate machines that look like miniature jackhammers and sandblasters.

On an open-air porch adjoining the lab, technician Michael Stokes toiled over a 12-million-year-old sea lion skull that a museum volunteer had found embedded in a 200-pound rock off Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Stokes, 34, had whittled the rock down by about half in a year's time. He dissolved the material around the fossil, known as matrix, by dipping it in formic acid--working slowly to avoid getting any of the solution on the bone itself--and then chipped away at the bone with instruments like the miniature jackhammer.

"We've been chipping on this one so much we named it Chippendip," he joked.

"All the fossils, the big ones, have names," Clark said, explaining that the workers build up a kind of affection for their fossils because of the time they spend on them.

"We have a whale (fossil) named Columbia because (the space shuttle) Columbia was flying over when we were digging it out," he said.

"There's one named Raquel," Stokes said.

"And one named Fred," Clark added.

"The misconception most people have is that the fossil story is complete, and it's not," Stokes said. "We're constantly filling in gaps, and that makes it easier to perceive the evolutionary trends."

"But the more you find out," Clark said, "the more you don't know."

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