Staff Spotlight: Giving old bones their due
“I found a champsosaurus when I was a high-school kid,” said Lindoe of the prehistoric lizard he stumbled upon while searching the badlands near his home town of Medicine Hat. “It was more or less my job reference.”
With that, Lindoe, who had no formal training in preparing fossils, began a fruitful career preparing specimens and exhibits for scientific study or display that would change the way dinosaur bones are handled and see the U of A become one of the top paleontology research centres in the world.
“The U of A, particularly now, is undoubtedly the best university in Canada for paleontology, and it is certainly up there in North America,” said Lindoe, who was awarded a Support Staff Research Enhancement Award during the Celebration of Research and Innovation March 30. “We have fairly extensive collections, particularly from the Cretaceous time zones to the present, which would be considered among the best in the world.”
Lindoe was hired in December 1966 into the Department of Geology, before paleontology became part of biological sciences, to collect and prepare any and all vertebrate fossils, dinosaur or otherwise.
As a preparator, Lindoe secures the specimens in a plaster jacket, much like a cast for a broken arm, to keep the specimen out of harm’s way as it is transported to the lab.
If is sounds easy, it is only because Lindoe makes it so. In fact, each specimen, whether it be dinosaur, fish or a modern mammal, has its own individual problems and each site requires different collecting techniques.
In instances where fossils are found in thin sheets of material and appear as flattened mineral stains, Lindoe developed an industry-wide technique for casting using an acid-etching procedure.
“We have some specimens from the MacKenzie Mountains that date back to the early Devonian period (416 million years ago)—right at the beginning of the age of fishes—and they were all very well preserved, but the method of preparing them was not known before we tried this new procedure,” said Lindoe.
Mark Wilson, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Laboratory for Vertebrate Paleontology, says Lindoe poured over that MacKenzie Mountains’ find for five months, running it through very diluted acetic acid baths, and interspersing that with gentle brushing with a camel’s hair brush. The result was a single piece of rock with the complete skeletons of eight exquisite early vertebrate fossils belonging to seven different species and five different vertebrate orders. Wilson says that particular specimen is referred to by palaeontologists the world over as the “wonder block.”
“Allan is by far the best collector and preparator of fossils that I have known, and it is because of his patience, care, skill and perseverance that the University of Alberta collections include some of the world’s best fossils with outstanding significance for research and teaching,” said Wilson. “As a mentor, Allan has modeled exemplary techniques and taught numerous undergraduate and graduate students how to find, care for, prepare, repair, mould, cast and otherwise enhance the scientific value of fossils.”
The fact that each fossil presents a new set of challenges every day is the reason the master caster has made the U of A his only job and why, despite cutting back to half time four years ago and then actually retiring on March 30, Lindoe is still not quite ready to depart the university.
“My involvement will be reduced but it is certainly not over,” he said, adding retirement will most like bring with it a small casting business where he will be available to continue to cast the university’s specimens. “I really enjoy all aspects of the job. I like going out in the field. I like the diversity of what is actually being done.
“I guess I will continue what I have been doing all along.”