Humans are the most common cause of specimen loss and damage. Even fossils that appear robust can have areas of weakness or cracks that may not be readily apparent. If you regularly handle fossil specimens, there’s a good chance that you may end up damaging one. This can happen before you even touch the specimen: opening cabinets, drawers, or moving trays can put a specimen at risk. 

Following these basic handling procedures (and making sure that your colleagues and visitors are aware of them too) can greatly reduce the risk of causing damage.

  • When you open a cabinet, check carefully before slowly pulling out any drawers. Often specimens are tightly packed and are in contact with the bottom of the drawer above.
  • If you must remove an entire drawer, make sure that you can support the weight of the drawer before doing so. Drawers sometimes differ in depth – pull the drawer out slowly and be aware of when you are nearing the end of the runner.
  • Fossil specimens are often both fragile and heavy. Before you pick one up, think about how you will lift it. Is it light or heavy; are some parts of it more fragile or weakly attached than others?
  • Never examine a specimen in a place where it can fall all the way to the floor. Hold it above a drawer, or tabletop, so that it has less far to fall if you drop it, and where you could easily find it.
  • Think about how you put specimens down. Don’t let the full weight of the specimen rest on a fragile structure.
  • With a larger specimen, try lifting the object an inch or so clear of the surface, then immediately put it down. This will give you a sense of any weaknesses, instability or flex in the specimen.
  • With heavy specimens, make sure you have cleared the area that you are moving them to before you pick them up. Make sure you are capable of lifting the specimen alone, and ask for help if you are in any doubt.
  • When working on heavier specimens, always lay a sheet of Ethafoam, or other cushioning material down on the tabletop for the specimen to rest on.
  • No don’t leave specimens out for prolonged periods of time – it increases the risk of accidental damage.
  • Never force a specimen back into a box, drawer, or cabinet. Take the time to make sure it fits properly.

For more information

For more information on proper handling you can download the American Museum of Natural History Department of Paleontology’s General Handling Procedures and their specialized Type Specimen Handling Guidelines.  For guidelines on handling different types of collections visit the Ontario Ministry of Culture website.