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  • Valerie

What it’s like to discover a new species

I consider myself an amateur paleontologist, and of course, my dream has always been to help scientists discover a new species. After all, who doesn’t want to be the first to see something that is unique and could add to our understanding of our world?

A trip to Stonerose

My first visit to Stonerose—my first-ever dig—was during their annual members’ weekend event in 2017. I had recently joined the Northwest Paleontological Association in Seattle, and everyone there recommended it. The weather was gorgeous, and I had a great time sitting in a slightly muddy hole, chatting with other members, and splitting rocks open (often with my bare hands) to find fossils. I was absolutely thrilled with the number of fossils I found and the fact that I could keep them! On that trip, I found many plant species but no insects or fish, while my husband, Guy, found a spectacular Marchfly specimen. I knew I had to go back.

In 2018, I once again attended members’ weekend. That year, the weather was a bit cooler and some of the excitement of finding the more-common species had worn off. By late afternoon, I was ready to call it quits, go back to the motel, and get ready for the members’ dinner, where Bruce Archibald, PhD, would be presenting his recent research into Eocene insects. One thing about digs: saying “I’m done” leads not to leaving the site, but to a very slow process that starts with thinking about leaving, but continuing to search, and ends with a slow meandering through the site with frequent stops to search because “I have a feeling about this spot.”

I found a fossil. What is it?

On one of those meandering stops, I found what looked like an insect wing. I had been hoping for fish bones or a whole fly, so at first, I wasn’t properly enthused. The more I looked at it, though, the more I loved it. I took it to my friend and Stonerose expert Gregg Wilson, who was sitting nearby, and he said something like “Looks like an Odonata” (dragonflies and damselflies) and then probably told me a bunch of fascinating things about Odonata that I’ve now forgotten. At this point, I had a pretty strong suspicion that the museum would keep the specimen for research, and they did.

Citizen Scientist in the making

I’ll be honest, it can sometimes be a bit of a letdown to find something interesting enough that you won’t be allowed to take it home, but the folks at Stonerose were very gracious. They allowed me to take photos of the wing, put it under a microscope and let me examine it onscreen, and ensured all my information was correct so I would be properly credited if the find was used for research, display, etc. Any slight disappointment was tempered by the idea that my work might someday contribute to science.

That night at the members’ dinner, Dr. Archibald discussed his recent research but also mentioned his upcoming research into Odonata of the early Eocene. I was suddenly very excited again. Might my specimen help his research? I could only hope. Afterward, I thought about it every once in a while, but mostly went on with my life. Then, out of the blue, during an online paleontology lecture hosted by the Burke Museum in March 2021, a presenter brought up some new Odonata research linked to Stonerose. I admit, I stopped listening for a few minutes to follow the posted link and do a search for my name—and there it was!

Introducing: a new species of Odonata

Paratype 2 of the new species Okanopteryx jeppesenorum, “collected at Republic B4131 by Valerie Paquin.” There were photos, drawings, and a description of my find. I shouted something incomprehensible to my husband, then showed him the paper. He was just as happy as I was. There must be a saying about couples who dig together.

Knowing I played a part in the discovery of a new species is incredibly gratifying. I have been on digs in Montana with University of Washington researchers and in northeast Washington with Burke Museum researchers, and I am a volunteer fossil preparator at the Burke Museum, so I know I’m often engaged in “citizen science.” But this contribution tops the list…for now.

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