Marcelo Isasi: the exhilarating experience of reconstructing dinosaur’s skeletons

He has been part of Fernando Novas’ team at the “Bernardino Rivadavia” Natural Sciences Museum of Argentina for 15 years. Since 2006, he has been a technician in palaeontology (CPA). He used to be a principal technician but then rose through the ranks and now is a professional technician.

Marcelo Isasi at the paleocave at the Museum.

Usually, it is common in the scientific community for a researcher to publish papers, attend conferences or disseminate their findings. However, there is one task that is rarely taken into account: behind all researchers there is at least one person or a team who provides assistance and qualified support to perform their tasks.

The members of the Support Staff Career (CPA) of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) are professionals and technicians – or artisans – who have the necessary skills to provide direct support to research programmes. There are 2.367 CPA who work silently and almost anonymously next to the 7.902 researchers of the CONICET.

Marcelo Isasi, 42, attended the National University ofLa Platato obtain his B.S. in Biology when he was very young. There, he decided to take part in the daily work of the Vertebrate Palaeontology Section of the “Bernardino Rivadavia” Natural Sciences Museum of Argentina (MACN), where he assists palaeontologists and collaborates with their tasks.

 The technician at the ‘paleocave’

The annex of the Museum is behind a hedge. Next to it, there is a building with a mural painting of dinosaurs and a wooden sign with carved letters that says ‘paleocave’. Inside this place, the only noises that can be heard are the clock ticking and somebody scraping and blowing a rock repeatedly: Marcelo Isasi.

“Everyday, this laboratory has something new”, the technician affirms. “Preparing each bone is always a discovery for me”.

The place is huge and is packed with precision instruments and various tools. There are magnifying glasses, fiber optic lamps, jackhammers, small electric drills and pieces of boulders on the benches.

How did he end up working here? When he was little, his backyard looked like a zoo: it had vipers, lizards, birds, bees and so on. Every time he went fishing with his father, he would bring dead animals he found on the way. Apart from that, he buried the animals in the yard, and then, with a paintbrush and a nail, he played to exhumate them. There were some milestones that led him to choose his profession: a grandfather who was painter, builder and “an excellent draughtsman. I always asked him to draw animals for me”. Since he loved biology, he had private lessons on biology. For this reason and thanks to the knowledge provided by the all the palaeontologists during his training and specially the valuable support of Dr. Novas, he became a CPA.

The route of a fossil

There are different situations that may lead dinosaurs’ bones to reach Isasi’s bench. Some people come across bones during their holidays, when taking strolls or working and then they call palaeontologists to research into the finding. Another way of finding fossils – and the most common one – is to go on expeditions. In his case, he participated in over forty. Although it is the hardest part of his job, it is the most rewarding, he says.

One expedition can last between ten and twenty days or several months. “We suffer from isolation but we also have fun sharing the experience with others, we climb mountains, ride horses, camp in the snow and so on”. The technician remembers two anecdotes: one was in Antarctica –“it was really hard because of the climatic characteristics of the place: snow, wind and places difficult to reach” -; the other one was at the Amazon inBolivia. “It was very special and interesting”, Isasi recalls. In the second one, they had to sleep outside in the forest for twelve days, bitten by insects of all sizes and colours and surrounded by poisonous snakes.

Besides, there were other strange findings such as the one that was reported on May 26, 2000. One morning, when Isasi reached the Museum, Novas asked him to explore a nearby and unexpected place: the excavations of the underground underTriunvirato Ave.It was not in a field or a mountain; the paleontological discovery was in the tunnel of the B line of the local underground. The builders were working on the enlargement of the line B, at the district of Chacarita, when they were forced to stop working: they had found glyptodont fossils that were millions of years old. On the following day, Saturday, the newspapers’ titles were: “Glyptodont fossils were found at the tunnel of subte B, in Chacarita”. This finding was not a surprise for Isasi. “It is common to find large mammals fossils in buildings under construction”, he states. Some people do not report it because they are afraid of delaying the building. Regarding this, he affirms that “our job is to collect the fossils as quickly as possible and take them to the laboratory for preparation and study”.

From craft work to future technology

Once the bones are found in the expedition, there is a process called “bochón” (the remains are wrapped in paper and plaster bandages to protect and move them safely), and then the material is placed in the building he works at. “That is the most fascinating part: to separate the rock from the bones of millions of years and discover the situations that fossil underwent”.

The following step is “the preparation”: a period of time in which by the use of magnifying glasses, fine tools, chisels and jackhammers the bone can be recovered. The duration of the process depends on the state of the bone: if it is fragile, it takes more time to obtain it as well as in the cases when the rock that involves it is hard. The first challenge is to take off the plaster and the rock that surround the bones – that usually merged with the fossil thousands of years ago.

After the preparation and with the bones free of rock, the researcher study each of them and they complete the missing parts of the skeleton, if necessary, to reconstruct it. Then, they produce the impressions of each bone, what is later going to be used to obtain the plaster, resin or polyurethane rigid copies that will be assembled in a metallic structure that will hold it. Finally, the pieces are painted to simulate the original colour of the fossils.

The exhibition

The “Bernardino Rivadavia” Natural Sciences Museum of Argentina has a huge paleontology room with a great number of skeletons of Mesozoic reptiles. This place is visited by many people, especially curious kids. In the past, however, it was different: the mentor of this room was José Bonaparte, a paleontologist pioneer of dinosaurs’ studies inArgentina. In 1980, Bonaparte began to exhibit old fauna that disappeared 65 millions of years ago. Before that, there were only mammals of the Pleistocene megafauna, a relatively recent geological time covering 2.5 million years to 10,000 years old. The first dinosaur’s skeleton was exhibited at the Museum was the reconstruction of a Patagosaurus. Then, other species were found by Bonaparte: the Carnotaurus and the Amargasaurus. In 1990, as in the rest of the world, dinosaurs became very popular with films likeJurassicPark. As a result, that room was one of the favorite for visitors.

Since he is one the few professsionals who carry out the assembly process of the dinosaurs’ skeletons inArgentina, he visited different parts of the world. As a CPA he was sent to Genova (Italy),Latin America, and even Japan, where he travelled to prepare several exhibitions.

Isasi’s work is handcrafted, almost an artwork. “Marcelo’s talent to prepare the fossils makes him one the most prestigious technicians of paleontology”, Novas comments. The materials to work in bones changed: now they use rigid polyurethane foam, because it is lighter, yet stronger. Before this, the replicas were made of solid cast.

Advanced technology is going to be applied in paleontology. There is a new 3D printer that apparently will be able to produce replicas of bones with the precise size for the exhibition at the Museum, without the limitation of the number of copies made, the materials and the storing problems of the traditional casting methods. As regards these advances, Isasi concludes “I love handcrafted work but new technology will be welcomed. If we do not adapt, we will end up like the dinosaurs”.

The Support Staff Career (CPA)

The Support Staff Career (CPA) was created in parallel with the Researcher Career in 1973. This course of studies is destined to people who provide qualified technical support for research groups of the implementation of research and development programmes under the supervision or direction of CONICET researchers.

The new members of the CPA are called through different categories, with the requirements asked by the centres that belong to the institutional network of the CONICET. These new applicants should provide technical support to the group, the scientific projects and enlarge the technological services.

There are different ranks within the CPA. The “professionals” are those who plan, conduct and implement support technical work. They lead technical groups to meet the needs of several projects. Some of their members are in charge of services or complex equipment. They provide assistance in laboratories, in field work and other research institutions including systems and communication.

On the other hand, there are the “technician” CPA. They implement and conduct work and general technical experiences under the supervision of researchers and professionals. They provide support in all levels by performing trials, measurements, maintenance of equipment and laboratories, support tasks in communications and services.

The “artisan” CPA should have the capacity and experience in his area of work, special skills and recognized creative imagination.

CPA’s performance is evaluated in the activities above mentioned and through reports. Likewise, the members of the Support Staff Career can be promoted according to the degree of specialization they reach. The change in Category may eventually happen but it is not a must.

By Cintia Kemelmajer