Cleveland Museum of Natural History awarded nearly $800,000 to preserve fossil collection

Northeast Ohio is one of just a few places in the world that hikers and scavengers can easily search for, and find, signs of life from 359 million years ago. Fossils from the late Devonian Period are found pretty easily in the shale that is prominent in this region, says Caitlin Colleary, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH).

“If you've been to Rocky River Reservation, or other Metroparks, the dark shale cliffs along the river include the Cleveland Shale rock layer,” she explains. “That shale was the mud that was on the bottom of the ocean 359 million years ago and that's why we find the fish and sharks there. This time period is not preserved in a lot of places. If you're looking for evidence of the Late Devonian marine ecosystem and animals like Dunkleosteus, the best places to go are Northeast Ohio, Canada, Morocco and Australia.”

CMNH has “tens of thousands of fossils,” says Colleary, with the local collections going back to the 1920s. “It’s really rare to live in a place where we can find them here,” she says, adding that the museum also has thousand of Ice Age fossils, which can also be found in Northeast Ohio, in addition to its shale fossil collection.

It is one of the reasons Colleary and her colleagues recently received a $785,162 grant from the National Science Foundation that will ensure the museum’s long-term ability to steward and protect a globally significant fossil collection from Northeast Ohio.

Other CMNH staff members who are a part of the grant are Amanda McGee, collections manager of vertebrate paleontology, and Hailey Majewski, digital asset manager.

The grant contributes to the museum’s $150 million transformation project, to be completed in late 2024, which includes the construction of a state-of-the-art facility to store the Museum’s vast research collections—including climate-controlled storage to preserve the fossil collections.

Peter Bungart excavating a concretion from Cleveland shale in Big Creek ReservationPeter Bungart excavating a concretion from Cleveland shale in Big Creek ReservationThe fossils are susceptible to degradation if they are not housed in an ideal storage environment.

The storage facilities will be in the basement of the new wing, Colleary says, an ideal location for the Cleveland Shale collection to control humidity. “Humidity is really a problem” she explains. “In Cleveland, the shale fossils are subject to Pyrite Disease, or fool’s gold, and currently the humidity fluctuates. The fossils will be kept in open spaces in metal cabinets [to keep low humidity levels].”

The museum’s Ice Age fossil collection, however, requires different temperature and humidity levels or the fossils will start to crack.

Additionally, the grant will support preventative conservation of fossils that are exceptionally preserved, including shark fossils that retain soft tissues, such as cartilage. Rarely found in the fossil record, these preserved features enable scientists to learn more about these ancient animals.

The grant will support a large-scale digitization effort of the fossil collection. For the first time ever, the global community will be able to browse the museum’s Cleveland Shale fossil collection online.

The grant will fund the purchase of a 3D scanner capable of digitally preserving the surface and texture of very small fossils in extremely high resolution.

The Museum will use these 3D scans to develop new educational opportunities for teachers and students, providing 3D-printing kits of local Cleveland Shale fossils for use in classrooms. These kits will allow teachers to engage their students at the intersection of science and technology and expand students’ conceptions of what it means to be a 21st Century scientist.

The efforts to preserve the museum’s fossil collections are well worth it, since Northeast Ohio is one of the select regions for discovering Shale fossils.

“Finding fossils is really dependent on where you are,” says Colleary. “Rock layers are deposited over time, hundreds of millions of years, and then they're exposed on the surface and erode away. What's interesting is not all rock layers preserve everywhere. In Northeastern Ohio a lot of the rock that's exposed on the surface is the shale from the Late Devonian Period, around 359 million years ago.”

And although Northeast Ohio is known for its Shale fossils, Colleary says some Ice Age fossils are occasionally found here. “We do find Ice Age fossils all over Northeast Ohio,” she argues. “One of my favorites we have in the collection is a baby mammoth jaw t found when they were digging the sewers in Cleveland at East 40th Street and Euclid Avenue in 1909.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.