By Kate Griesmann, development and communications assistant, Museum of Natural and Cultural History
EUGENE, Ore. (Feb. 18, 2009) — Greg Retallack picked up his first fossil as a 6-year-old boy on vacation at a beach in Coledale, Australia. The fossil was nothing special – a clam shell in beach rock – but it sparked a lifelong passion for collecting and recording fossils from around the world.
For 51 years, Retallack, a University of Oregon geology professor, has expanded his collection. He recently donated most of it to the UO's Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
Retallack's collection exceeds 9,000 items, stretching back through eons of time. His donated pieces will be added to the Condon Collection, which is part of the museum's paleontological holdings. In addition to a wide variety of fossils and rocks, the Condon Collection includes the personal holdings of Thomas Condon, the UO's first geology professor, which were obtained soon after Condon's death in 1907.
"The Condon Collection is a scientific legacy for the whole state, and my collection adds to that substantively," said Retallack, who is one of the curators of the Condon Collection. Retallack's gift increases the Condon Collection by almost 20 percent and adds significantly to the diversity and geographic coverage of the collection.
"Amassed over his lifetime, Greg's collection comes from all seven continents and from the earliest signs of life to the present day," said Edward Davis, Condon Collection manager. "The taxonomic scope is excellent as well, since Greg has managed to collect specimens of several important taxa for comparative purposes, as well as a number of excellent casts of historically important specimens."
Retallack, who was born in Hobart, the capital of Australia's island state of Tasmania, says he built his collection, only keeping pieces that were truly exceptional and of museum quality, knowing that the end result would likely be used for education and display.
The result is a vast assortment of fossils that offer glimpses of the earth's ancient past. From 13,000-year-old woolly mammoth hairs found in Siberia to 3.5 billion-year-old stromatolitic limestone unearthed in Western Australia to leaf and fruit impressions from Antarctica, the fossils help to establish the chronology of life on Earth.
"Greg's interests span the entire range of paleontology from plants to vertebrates and invertebrates, and the diversity of the assemblage reflects that interest and expertise," said William Orr, geology professor emeritus and director of the Condon Collection. "Many of the specimens he donated are simply no longer available because of their rarity or restrictions on collecting at many of the sites."
Along with catalogued pieces, Retallack's donation also includes 129 field notebooks filled cover-to-cover with handwritten details about the fossils he collected and where each came from. The notebooks will be an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to study the pieces further, Retallack said, ,noting that fossil collections purchased commercially rarely include information on where the items were found. "We know exactly where it all came from," he said. "Some older museum collections, for a variety of reasons, often didn't do that."
Ensuring that the fossils have a permanent home was one reason behind the donation, Retallack said, but he also hopes that by becoming part of the museum collections the pieces will be more accessible to the general public and to researchers.
However, given the size of the collection-approximately 26 cubic yards of fossils altogether, with individual pieces ranging in size from a large slab of fossil palm leaves from central Oregon to tiny microfossils of Precambrian cyanobacteria (blue-green algae)-that may prove difficult in the near future, say museum officials.
The Condon Collection already fills its current space to capacity, but plans are underway for an additional wing to be added to the Museum of Natural and Cultural History to house the paleontological collections. The museum currently is building a new curation center to house anthropological and archaeological collections.