Fossil hunting brings wellbeing and enjoyment to Landscape Architect

On site in Grays Harbor County, Washington

While most of us have our eyes glued toward the future, waiting for life to get back to normal, Colin Owen is keeping busy reaching back into the past…really far back! A landscape architect in our Lacey office, Colin has been following his passion for fossil hunting and preparation.

Landscape Architect Colin Owen preparing a fossil at Lacey MakerSpace

One of his projects, a member of an extinct crab species called Pulalius vulgaris, was alive about 40 – 50 million years ago. Colin found it at a site in Grays Harbor County.

“It has been a great hobby to learn about, especially during the shutdown,” he said. “You can’t catch COVID if you’re alone in the middle of the woods!”

To clean the fossils, Colin uses a tool called an air scribe, a pen-sized pneumatic jackhammer that chips away at the stone around the fossil. For table space and access to an air compressor, he goes to the Lacey MakerSpace, an “innovator’s workshop” on the St. Martin’s University campus that provides community access to a variety of fabrication tools and training.

In addition to the tools, Colin has found some much-needed safe socializing at their shop. “It has been such a good resource to help me keep my sanity,” he said.

Colin had a membership at a similar workshop space in Nashville, where he’s from, and loved it. So when the MakerSpace gave SCJ four memberships for employee-owners to use as a thank you for sponsoring the program, Colin could hardly wait to get down there and dive into a project.

He has been working through the fossils he found last summer, cleaning petrified wood, using chemical stabilizer on more fragile things like leaves, and running items through his rock tumbler.

His latest project (left) is a different type of crab that’s relatively uncommon to find. The genus name is Ranina spp., also called a frog crab. The bottom photo shows an example of a modern species.

He has found it challenging as the crab is the first of its kind he has worked on and there aren’t many examples as reference. “I have to proceed more slowly so I don’t damage body structures that I wasn’t expecting to find,” he said. For example, he’s not 100% sure where the claws will be positioned or even what they’ll look like.

Like landscape architecture, fossil preparation requires the ability to visually think in three dimensions and understand how something will look when you can’t see all the pieces. “It’s comparable to designing a landscape and knowing what it will look like after everything has grown out, versus when it was installed,” he said. “They also both require a lot of patience.”

Colin prepping the Pulalius vulgaris fossil

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