Don's diary: the Pliosaur's incredible journey

January 30, 2004

January 2003
I'm in Bogotá to see the fossilised remains of a pliosaur, a 4m-long Cretaceous marine reptile, in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

The specimen is truly amazing - the prepared skull is preserved in three dimensions, unlike the pancaked specimens I am used to in the UK. I tentatively suggest to the head of the geosciences department a loan to allow further research, naturally involving our Colombian colleagues. He is receptive, but wants a guarantee that it will be returned. I fly back to Cambridge.

March 2003
Marcela, a Colombian student, and I write an application for funding and discuss whether the fragile skull bones can travel. Marcela spends hours persuading the Colombian authorities that transport is a good idea, and that we have only the best of intentions. A loan is agreed but I still have to find the money for the transport.

June 2003
It's the Friends of the Sedgwick Museum development fair. Can I persuade the membership to fund transport of the skull? There are more than a dozen other proposals, all of which will substantially benefit the museum. Fortunately the membership is enthusiastic, but will the committee agree?

September 2003
The money for the transport is approved by the Friends committee and an order is sent to a shipping company. Marcela and I discuss, via email, the best methods of packaging. Then we receive news that our funding application has been rejected. The timing could not have been worse and our spirits sink. Do we still ship the fossil? With the order sent, we decide to take a chance.

November 2003
Finally, the shipping company gets the paperwork finished, but the letter granting the loan of the fossil is now out of date and has to be rewritten. Nonetheless, Marcela crates up the specimen. We remain extremely nervous about how the fragile skull will travel; our imaginations run riot and we wonder, once again, if we are doing the right thing.

December 2003
Marcela travels to the UK and we attend the Palaeontological Association annual meeting in Leicester. All of a sudden, things are moving apace - a date is set for the crates to leave Colombia, but the professor who will see them through customs has a viva that day. Nevertheless, he goes to the airport, followed by a mad dash through the streets of Bogotá to his exam.

Back in the museum, we learn that the crates have accidentally gone to Amsterdam. Due to the looming festive period, we risk storing the crates at the airport - our nerves are frayed, but we agree that this is the best option.

January 2004
On the day the bones arrive, the television cameras come, and the lorry driver has a shock as they want to film him unloading.

Fortunately we have stocks of tea and biscuits on hand to bribe him. The stakes are raised when the TV people want to film the unpacking - we pray the pliosaur has arrived in one piece. Marcela and I heave a sigh of relief as the promised skull emerges with only one small chip to a bone. A hectic day of interviews culminates with a live outside broadcast, that gets our pulses racing. So, we have our pliosaur, with lots of rock to remove from the body, but no funding -now the hard work really begins.

Leslie Noè is major projects officer at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.

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