Plateosaurus for Brussels

Ben le platéosaure dans la Galerie des Dinosaures
14/12/2017
Plateosaurus for Brussels
post by
Reinout Verbeke

135 years after the Bernissart Iguanodons, the Museum of Natural Sciences showcases an authentic and complete dinosaur fossil: Ben, the Plateosaurus from Switzerland.

After one and a half year of chiselling, gluing and welding, Ben the Plateosaurus – 6.4 meters long and 210 million years old – is the new star of our Museum of Natural Sciences. Plateosaurus was one of the first long-necked dinosaurs, possibly an ancestor of Diplodocus. This is Ben’s story.

Frick, summer of 2007: Eureka!

Swiss palaeontologist Ben Pabst and a group of students search the clay quarry of Frick for dinosaur fossils. The chance of finding Plateosaurus remains is not small: since the seventies, more than 30 complete and incomplete Plateosaurus skeletons were found there. Frick is a Plateosaurus cemetery. This time, the paleotrippers dig up a beautiful specimen, but it almost goes wrong. ‘Right after we uncovered the fossils, we were hit by a storm’, Pabst remembers. ‘We built little dams for an hour, to prevent the fossils from washing away in the flood. We were soaking wet.’

Brussels, May 2016: ‘Ben’

Four wooden boxes, together weighing around half a ton, are delivered in the palaeontology lab of the Museum of Natural Sciences. They are filled with white packages, some big and some small. ‘Kinder Surprise Eggs’, technician Aldo says, starry eyed. They are a tad harder to open than the chocolate eggs: the content is protected by 210 million year old sediment and a layer of aluminium foil, jute and plaster. Revealing the 200 fossilized bones with a pneumatic chisel – which looks like dental drill – is meticulous work. That is why the Sauriermuseum in Frick, where the many Plateosaurus fossils are beginning to take up a lot of room, makes a deal with the Museum of Natural Sciences: the fossil can be exhibited forever in Brussels, if the Institute can find the money and the personnel to prepare everything. The job goes to Aldo Impens, Stéphane Berton, Jonica Dos Remedios and some volunteers. The Brussels-Capital Region supports the project financially.

The fossil is named Ben, a tribute to its discoverer. Ben Pabst is not new to the Museum. In 2002-2003 it showcased 8 fossils from the Jura (among which a Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus). All of them specimens that Pabst helped excavate in the How Quarry in Wyoming (US) in the nineties.

Brussels, November 2016: Patience is a Virtue

For months now, a long and loud ‘bzzzzzz’ can be heard in the paleolab. It is only interrupted to coat the revealed bones with ‘mowilith’, a liquid plastic that fills the microscopic cracks in the bones and keeps them together. Without it, the fossils would pulverize sooner or later. ‘They are more fragile than glass’, Stéphane Berton warns. Years ago, the former security guard retrained to be a palaeontology technician. ‘At all times, you have to be careful not to drill into the bones. Luckily, the colours show where the sediment ends and the fossil begins.’

Brussels, February 2017: Plateoteam

The Museum has received money to ‘prepare’ Ben, but has to find the means to showcase the skeleton through crowdfunding. After extensive media attention and a benefit, Ben seduces more than 600 crowdfunders, who together raise 50.000 euro. The money will be used to make a metal frame, a podium, a making-of video and further embellishment of the Dinosaur Gallery, which Ben shares with the Iguanadons that were found in Bernissart 140 years earlier. They are still one of the most import dinosaur discoveries ever, the only other authentic dinosaur skeletons in Belgium.

Brussels, April 2017: Dinosaur Puzzle

A sigh of relieve is heard in the paleolab: after almost one year of nonstop working, all beige-brown fossils are neatly arranged on a large table, in open boxes, every one of them labelled to ease the assembly. The fossils are actually from two individuals of the same size, ‘07’ and ‘08’. The second specimen was found in the summer of 2008. The Frick Museum promised a skeleton that was at least 80 percent complete, and now the palaeontologists and technicians can check that. They make an inventory: 50 bones on the hind limbs, 42 on the front limbs, 47 vertebrae from the sacrum to the tip of the tail, 15 dorsal vertebrae, 10 neck vertebrae, 26 ribs, 32 'chevrons' (bones at the bottom of the tail),... it checks out! The missing parts are replaced by sculptures, with a strong core of polyurethane and layers of synthetic plaster. ‘In the future, we hope to create these with a 3D printer’, Aldo says.

How do you know what a missing bone looks like? For a limb, it is easy: just mirror the bone of the opposite leg. For other bones, they have to search earlier Plateosaurus studies. The skull is built based on a replica of a skull that was found in Trössingen, Germany, in 1911. There and in France, dozens of other Plateosaurus fossils were found. ‘210 million years ago, ‘Plateos’ where all over the place’, Aldo says. ‘They were the first large dinosaurs and because of their size, they were rarely bothered by predators. Let me put it this way: they could eat and mate all day. They only had to be careful not to get stuck in the mud, which possibly happened with Ben and many other Plateosaurs in Frick.’

Brussels, July 2017: A Tailor-Made Frame

After an irritating delay of a couple of weeks, the metal for the frame arrives. Temperatures rise in the tent where Aldo works the metal, in a shower of sparks. All fossils – up to the smallest hand bone – have to be able to rest on the ‘coat hangers’. The fossils themselves are way to brittle to drill. ‘This is my dream job’, Aldo says. ‘It will not make me rich, but building a dinosaur is a priceless experience.’ Meanwhile, Stéphane is painting the sculptures brown. ‘We are playing it fair: the public will be able to see the difference between the real fossils and the copies.’

Brussels, October 2017: Six

Palaeontologist Koen Stein (VUB) has news. His analysis shows that Ben was around six years old when he died. Stein came by in July, to sample a paper thin piece of Ben’s femur. The scans of that sample – with so-called X-ray fluorescence – show the calcium content, which indicates bone tissue (blue) and the titanium content, for blood vessels (red). ‘A blue line means a delay in growth: that was the dry season, when there was less food’, Koen says. ‘Between two blue lines there is a ‘red’ period of rapid growth and fast augmentation of blood vessels in the bones. That was in the rain season, with lots of green. Not all vertebrates have such a ring pattern. The descendants of Plateosaurus, sauropods like Diplodocus and Apatosaurus, continuously grew, which made them so gigantic.’

Brussel, November 2017: The Curtain Falls

The frame is brought to the Museum hall. It is fixed to the ceiling at the tail, and is supported at two points: under the belly and the shoulders. When Aldo, Stéphane and their colleagues have fixed all of the fossils on the frame, Ben is ready to face the masses.

 

Plateosaurus Ben can be seen permanently from 15 December on.   

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