Volunteer Creates Web Site to Spotlight Fossils from Nebraska Counties

Released on 03/08/2004, at 12:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., March 8th, 2004 —

Lincoln, Neb. March 8, 2004 -- Nebraskans now have or soon will have a way to see the fossil heritage of their home counties, thanks to a new University of Nebraska State Museum Web site created by a dedicated volunteer.

With a mere fraction of 1 percent of the museum's collections actually on display in Morrill Hall on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, Gregory Brown saw the Internet as a way to make more specimens available for viewing.

"It's been something I've always wanted to do, because the research collections are fairly invisible to the public," Brown said. "I thought this would be a wonderful thing for kids and teachers to use to learn about geography, science and other things in their own counties."

Brown had noted the perennial popularity of a Morrill Hall display that shows mammoth or mastodon teeth from most of Nebraska's counties. And he found people often ask about fossils from their home regions during open houses at the research collections.

"In Nebraska, we have such a wealth of fossils from all the counties, and Nebraskans in general are very interested in natural history and how their own counties or regions fit into the big picture. The Web site seemed like a natural," Brown said.

A 25-year State Museum employee, Brown actually lost his full-time job as chief preparator during budget cuts last spring; but later funding was found to hire him back as a half-time employee. Yet he embarked on the Web site as a volunteer project, working from home, usually late at night "when the cat, dog, horses and wife are asleep."

"Everyone who works in the museum likes to share what they have a passion for," Brown said. "Ironically, as a full-time employee, I wasn't always able to do it. At half time I now have time on my hands to volunteer."

He started working on the Web site last July and recently has spent about 20 hours per week over several months getting the site operational.

The result is an easy-to-use, information-rich site where users can click on a Nebraska map to get a glimpse into their county's geologic past. For example, Scotts Bluff County yields pictures of a 21 million-year-old jawbone from a hippo-like anthracothere. Keith County yields a remarkably preserved molar of a "four tusker" elephant with a special feature on the 1988 scuba dive that found the fossil 20 feet under the surface of Lake McConaughy.

The site can be reached through a link the museum's home page (www-museum.unl.edu) or directly (www-museum.unl.edu/research/vertpaleo/NECounties). The Web site is still a work in progress. Fossils from 12 counties are on the site and Brown said he hopes to add information on four or five additional counties each month as time permits. The 12 counties listed are Antelope, Banner, Cherry, Douglas, Frontier, Hitchcock, Jefferson, Keith, Lancaster, Morrill, Scotts Bluff and Webster. An interactive feature allows users to request their county to be the next posted.

Most Nebraska counties have a rich fossil heritage, yet there are a few -- particularly in the Sandhills region --where fossil finds are rare because of the geology. But Brown says there is a natural history story to tell in each of the counties. "One way or another, we'll find something."

Brown's job as chief preparator is to prepare and preserve fossil specimens for scientific research at the museum, but he said he has found Web design to be a good hobby. The project also has allowed him to work with other museum staffers; Angie Fox, a scientific illustrator who also temporarily lost her job during the budget situation, contributed to the site's graphic design, and George Corner, collections manager, helped with content.

"I am thrilled that Greg and the museum staff have created the new county fossil Web site to make our research collections more accessible to the public," said museum director Priscilla Grew. "To our knowledge, our museum is the first in the country to offer this service. The animals that roamed Nebraska in the ancient past were truly spectacular."

Judging from the international feedback, Brown said he thinks the Web site might well be unique. He said many people have told him, "I wish our museum would do something like that."

Brown said he is anxious for Nebraskans to go online and learn. "I think it's going to be a neat resource for science classes at every level of school," he said, "The reward for me is the comments I get from people. I can't wait for some of the kids to start using it and to hear from them."

CONTACTS: Gregory Brown, Preparator, NU State Museum, (402) 472-2657; and
Priscilla Grew, Director, NU State Museum, (402) 472-3779