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VMNH scientists Alton Dooley Jr. (left) and Ray Vodden discuss a cast of an ancient whale bone with JMM Director Heather Lerner.

Students Help Cast Giant Beaver

August 28, 2013

Students are helping cast The Joseph Moore Museum’s (JMM) giant beaver Castoroides ohioensis in a starring role at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH).

Scientists from that institution arrived at Earlham this week to work with students and museum specimens.

“We wanted to put a giant beaver in our museum,” says Alton C. Dooley Jr., Ph.D., Curator of Paleontology and Acting Assistant Director of Research and Collections at VMNH. Dooley and Ray Vodden, VMNH Research Technician and Specimen Preparator, have started casting the beaver and other specimens. They also will teach the casting process to students at the museum, so that they will be part of the process.

“Students will be involved in every step,” says Heather Lerner, Ph.D., JMM Director and assistant professor of biology. “This is a rare and worthwhile skill for students to have. And if we raise enough money, we’ll be able to keep the Giant Beaver molds here at our museum so students can make more Giant Beaver casts in the future and learn from the process.”

JMM is in the process of launching an online Kickstarter fundraiser. If this fundraiser is successful in making enough money to buy the casting supplies, JMM will keep the molds of the Giant Beaver. If not, the molds will go with Dooley and Vodden back to VMNH, where they will be able to make and sell copies of the Giant Beaver to benefit VMNH.

“It’s really the best thing, to have the molds stay here at the Joseph Moore Museum,” Lerner says. “If we have them, our students can continue working with them and new students can learn how to make casts. We can also benefit from any future sales of our casts.”

Casting is Key to Preservation

Two public events also will help explain the interesting lives of fossil animals and the importance of fossil casting.

Dooley presents “Biting Off More Than You Can Chew: The Story of an Ancient Whale” at noon on Thursday, Aug. 29, in Stanley Hall 044. The lecture focuses on a 14-million-year-old fossil whale in Virginia that scientists found in Virginia in 2006.

“We’ll look at the bones from this skeleton and try to piece together the story of how this whale lived and how it died,” Dooley says.

The second event entitled “Making Fossil Replicas” from 1 until 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 7, in the Joseph Moore Museum.

“Casting is an integral part of preservation,” Dooley says. “Many fossils are so rare or so fragile that they can’t be safely placed on exhibit. When this occurs, museums make detailed plastic cast replicas of the original fossil.”

Dooley and Vodden will demonstrate how museums produce these casts, including pouring the liquid plastic into molds and painting the casts to look like the real fossil.

“We’ll be making casts of bones and teeth of Ice Age animals such as horses, giant beavers and mastodons from both Indiana and Virginia,” Dooley says. Casts will be available for cash purchase with prices starting as low as $5.

The VMNH team will spend more than two weeks at Earlham casting the Giant Beaver, which is the single most complete specimen of its species ever found. It was discovered in 1889 in eastern Randolph County and was acquired by museum originator Joseph Moore.

Dooley says casting is an expensive, multi-step process that involves prepping the bones, preparing, setting and pouring the molds, demolding, pouring the cast and painting the cast. 

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