Royal Saskatchewan Museum
2340 Albert Street
REGINA SK S4P 2V7
Wes Long is a rarity. He’s someone who discovered his passion at a young age and then, after embarking on a different career path for more than a decade, eventually found his way back to his dream job.
As a kid, Long, who grew up on a farm near Lumsden, SK., was “dinosaur crazy.” He even built his own dinosaur models. “I’ve always loved dinosaurs. I always wanted to dig up dinosaurs, then I got sidetracked by radio for awhile.”
After high school, he attended broadcasting school in Regina and spent 14 years working for Rawlco Radio as a writer and film critic. One of the perks of working in journalism is that you have the chance to meet many different people. Through work, Long met Royal Saskatchewan Museum Palaeontologist Tim Tokaryk, who told him he could work with dinosaur fossils by volunteering with the museum.
That was in 1993. The first day Long volunteered at the museum, Tokaryk placed various tools used to remove dirt and rock from fossils in front of Long. When he saw them, Long realized he was even more suited to the job than he initially thought. In addition to radio, Wes has a carpentry and fine art background and was familiar with most of the tools in front of him.
In 1994, Wes began helping to prepare Scotty, the first Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton discovered in the province. Eventually, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum hired Wes as a Curatorial Assistant in Palaeontology. Currently, he works at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum Fossil Research Station in the T.rex Discovery Centre in Eastend.
In the lab, Wes works to free fossils from the clay or stone surrounding them, which can be difficult and time-consuming, depending on the material. Wes often has to reconstruct parts of bones that are missing, which is where his art background helps out because he needs to visualize the size and shape of the missing anatomy.
His main project was the preparation of Scotty’s bones and he describes it as one of the most time-consuming, difficult projects he’s completed.
“Scotty was in a concrete- like sandstone. That’s why it took so long to get all the bones freed from the rock. I finished Scotty March 9th, 2011 at 10:15 a.m. I had been working on it for almost 10 years,” Long said. “It’s going to be very rewarding once it’s all molded and cast and standing up in the gallery. That’s the real payoff. I’m used to looking at it bone by bone, not as an entire animal. Once it’s all mounted, it’s going to pretty amazing to see.”
Long is modest. He describes how challenging his work is, but not how talented he is. According to Palaeontologist Tim Tokaryk and RSM Director Harold Bryant, Long is incredibly skilled and effective at preparing fossils. He is also an accomplished artist. He often draws the dinosaurs whose bones he prepares. These illustrations are frequently published in scientific journals and the media.
During a typical day in the lab with bones like Scotty’s, surrounded by a tough material, Long must turn on dust extractors, dress in safety gear and chip away rock with a small, air-powered chisel known as an air scribe.
He often breaks up his lab days by working on projects that don’t require the air scribe. His next project that doesn’t require the scribe is a Triceratops skull surrounded by soft clay that he’ll work at with dental picks and scalpels.
When Tokaryk and Long are out in the field searching for bones (or “prospecting,” as they refer to it), they hike through the spots where bones are likely to be exposed, “looking for those tell-tale signs that there might be fossils in the hill,” Long said.
Those tell-tale signs are typically fossil fragments. Long’s eyes are accustomed to picking out the fossils from the modern bones. Since they tend to absorb the minerals that surround them, fossils are usually heavier and darker in colour than modern bones. They also have a different texture. And a dinosaur’s anatomy is far different than the anatomy of a gopher or farm animal. “It’s pretty easy to tell a cow bone from a dinosaur bone,” Long said.
Looking for fossils is an emotional experience for Long. There are joyful highs and intense disappointments. “A lot of the time, we just find isolated bones, which is frustrating. Part of a rib. Toe bones. You’ll start digging into the hill and you won’t find anything else. In other cases, you’ll find a single bone eroding out, and you start uncovering it and it turns out you have a partial skeleton.”
Long enjoys prospecting and digging for fossils, but his favourite part of the job happens in the lab. “Whenever I find something in the field now, I think, ‘Wow, I can’t wait until we get this in the lab to find out what we actually have.’”
And although Long has prepared dinosaur bones of all kinds, including the bones of Scotty the T. rex, there are still bones he’d like to find and clean and prepare.
Most of all, he wants to find an Archelon, an enormous, extinct sea turtle that swam, at one time, through the interior seaways of Saskatchewan. Long enjoys working on marine reptiles because their bones tend to be in good condition and are usually surrounded by shale, which is softer and easier to remove than the hard materials like sandstone that surround many dinosaur bones.
“It would also be neat to find a juvenile Triceratops. That’s another one on my wish list.”
Long’s career history is long itself—and varied. But he hopes to spend the rest of it seeking, digging for and cleaning dinosaur bones with the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.