Burpee Museum Hosts 22nd Annual PaleoFest

Mar 4, 2020

Fossils and dinosaurs will be the talk of the town in one part of Rockford this weekend.  

This is the Burpee Museum of Natural History’s 22nd annual PaleoFest.  The event brings paleontologists and their associates together to share their latest research with each other and the public. Joshua Matthews is Burpee’s Director of Paleontology. He said this gathering started in the 1990s in response to local interest and fossil finds.

Joshua Matthews is the Director of Paleontology at the Burpee.
Credit Burpee Museum of Natural History

“It’s very popular but most of it’s restricted to the little things you find in limestones and rock quarries around here," he said.  "Little brachiopods, bivalves and things that lived on the bottom of the ocean.”

Interest in PaleoFest grew over the years, particularly around 2001. Burpee had just completed an excavation in Montana that brought back “Jane.” She’s the most complete skeleton of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex ever found and a highlight of the museum’s collection.

“And it’s just grown and grown and it’s gotten more popular within the paleontology community, then five or six years ago we opened it up to a symposium style, so one year I believe we had close to 25 speakers coming in for the weekend," Matthews said.

One past speaker was Dr. Steve Brusatte, a colleague of Matthews who currently works at the University of Edinburgh.

“So Steve has really grown up through the ranks through Burpee, which is cool for us. He and I actually went on our first expedition together in 2005 when we found Homer,” Matthews said. 

Homer is the skeleton of a young Triceratops found in the same region as Jane. Matthews says Brusatte was hired as a scientific consultant on the next Jurassic World movie.

One of this year’s speakers is Dr. Matthew Wedel. He’s Assistant Professor of Anatomy at the Western University of Health Sciences. Wedel first heard about PaleoFest when both he and a Burpee team were doing fieldwork in Utah on the Morrison Formation. He will speak about ancient Brachiosaurus bones, which he says are relatively hard to find.

“Whereas other famous dinosaurs like Chimerasaurus now we have at least bits and pieces over 200 individuals, for Apatosaurus and Diplodocus, both of those were up over 100 individuals. For Brachiosaurus, we’re right about 10, and none of them are complete. Sometimes it’s just a foot, or a couple of vertebrae.”

Wedel used a CT scanner to search for hollow cavities within bones like these. He says this is the same adaptation that makes bird bodies light enough to fly.

“What maybe not a lot of people realize is that birds inherited those air-filled bones from their dinosaurian ancestors," Wedel said. "So big meat eaters like T-rex, but also big plant eaters like Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus had air-filled vertebrae.” 

This, Wedel said, suggests a common ancestor. 

Joshua Matthews notes this research will be just one of many topics at this year’s Paleofest.

Jane is the most complete skeleton of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex ever found, and a centerpiece of the Burpee's collection. Behind her is a scale model of an adult T-rex.
Credit Chase Cavanaugh

He said, "Dinosaurs are cool, and who doesn’t like dinosaurs, but paleontology involves everything, from the littlest creatures to the biggest creatures to plants to bacteria, all kinds of things. So PaleoFest really gets speakers to talk about all of paleontology, rather than just dinosaurs.” 

For example, another speaker will be talking about saber-toothed tigers. Matthews says there are also many smaller fossils out there waiting to be found..    

"You can pick up one slab of rock that you can hold in your hand and you can have thousands of invertebrate specimens on one, whereas some dinosaurs are only known for a tooth or a bone here and there,” he said. 

Whatever one’s interest, Matthews says PaleoFest is open to everyone. Burpee will bring in students from local Rockford schools on Friday for a special meetup with the paleontologists.  There will also be various workshops and activities, some incorporating the museum’s collection. 

“So all throughout the museum, we’ll have stations set up," Matthews said. "The kids get a little passport when they walk in and each station they get it stamped. At the end, they get a little prize of some sort they can take home with them.” 

And with the way PaleoFest has built up over the years, this year's kids could grow up to be future paleontologists.  

PaleoFest runs Friday through Sunday at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford.