Montana State University

Former reptile wrangler now wins awards for fossil photos

November 20, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Ellen-Therese Lamm, in her lab at MSU's Museum of the Rockies, won honorable mention in an international contest for a photo she took of a dinosaur frill. A photo showing a different area of the same specimen is displayed on the screen next to her. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Ellen-Therese Lamm used to wrangle reptiles at Montana State University, but these days, she wins awards for photographing their extinct relatives.

The research associate recently photographed the outer edge of a dinosaur frill and won honorable mention in the 2009 Olympus BioScapes Competition. Winners were announced Nov. 18, and Lamm will receive her award Dec. 6 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Diego. Olympus received nearly 2,000 entries from 62 countries for this year's contest.

Lamm's award-winning photo is posted in the gallery of winners at http://www.olympusbioscapes.com/gallery/2009/index.html The photo will also accompany an article in the December issue of Scientific American.

The frill Lamm photographed through a microscope under polarized light came from an adult Triceratops that lived between 65 and 68 million years ago in the Hell Creek Formation of Eastern Montana, Lamm said. The Triceratops, originally identified as a Torosaurus in the Dinosaur Hall at MSU's Museum of the Rockies, is part of a research project examining the dramatic changes in skull structure that can occur as a dinosaur matures.

"I have a lot of enthusiasm, which has not waned in all my years here," Lamm said. "It's still intriguing and exciting."

Lamm came to MSU 19 years ago to care for a 15-foot python, alligators, caiman, turtles and lizards that lived in cages in the basement of the Museum of the Rockies. Paleontologists observed the animals to gain insights into dinosaurs.

With the reptiles long gone, Lamm is now devoted full-time to paleohistology in the museum's Gabriel Laboratory for Cellular and Molecular Paleontology. Paleohistology is the study of the microscopic structure of fossil specimens. As a paleohistologist, Lamm processes fossilized bone, tendons, egg shells, teeth and dung so paleontologists can examine thin slices under the microscope. Lamm often photographs the most striking, significant images and enters them in competitions.

One of Lamm's photographs of a Tyrannosaurus rex bone won first place in a 2006 contest sponsored by the Microscopy Society of America. Another took second place a year later. Some of her images are printed on silk ties and scarves and sold in the museum gift shop.

Lamm starts the histology process by removing a small slice from a fossil, then processing it until it's as thin as a hair. What starts out looking like a drab chunk of rock becomes -- under the microscope and polarized light -- a colorful, fanciful image that looks like it belongs on the pages of a children's book. Lamm's photo of the dinosaur frill, for example, could accompany a story about yellow slugs avoiding a purple eye while crossing a red-orange sidewalk.

Lamm's photographs have long-term significance that goes beyond their beauty, Lamm continued. Polarized light can reveal structures in different ways to the paleontologists who study them. Under polarized light, fossils display light waves that split unequally as they travel at different speeds through the structures. The divided waves separate into distinct patterns of light and dark. Various wave plates and crystal wedges -- not dyes -- colorize those patterns.

"Ellen is an exceptional histologist and always lets me know if a bone histology is interesting," said Jack Horner, Regent's Professor of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. "I have hundreds of histology images that I use for reference when doing comparative bone histology."

The Museum of the Rockies houses an extensive collection of thin-section slides representing the study of nearly 2,000 specimens that Lamm and MSU paleontology students have processed over the past 20 years.

Horner added that several paleontologists who have made major discoveries are former MSU graduate students who were trained in histology at the museum.

"This is the only laboratory for cellular and molecular paleontology in the world, and it processes materials for not only our former students, but also for many other researchers in the U.S. and other parts of the world," Horner said.

Lamm noted that current MSU graduate students are using paleohistology in their projects, too. John Scannella, for one, is using histology to study Triceratops development and cranial morphology. Holly Woodward is researching Maiasaura growth and the development of modern alligator bones. Badmaa Zorigt is studying Psittacosaurus growth and development.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu