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The paleontological collections contain over 2.75 million specimens of fossil invertebrates, fossil vertebrates, fossil plants, and modern mollusks. The collections provide the main reference materials for undergraduate student instruction and graduate student research in paleontology at the University of Washington. A portion of these collections is on display in the Burke Museum galleries. We are dedicated to making the collections resources and our research results available to inquiring minds throughout the world, and to training the next generation of natural history scientists and museum professionals.

Vertebrate paleontology
This collection includes 43,000 specimens of fossil mammals, birds, dinosaurs, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes.

Marine vertebrates
The Burke Museum has a rapidly growing collection of scientifically important fossil marine vertebrates from the Pacific Northwest. Casts of some of these fossils are on display in the Burke and at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. A spectacular new addition to the collection and displays are fossil sockeye salmon from Ice Age lakebeds in western Washington.

Most of the fossils are the bones of a wide variety of marine mammals from the period 25-5 million years ago. These include:

  • the oldest members of the modern cetacean (whale) suborders-the toothed whales (odontocetes) and baleen-bearing whales (mysticetes)
  • the extinct family of whales, Aetiocetidae, that are mysticetes with teeth
  • primitive, extinct agorophiid-like odontocetes, some of which may be ancestors of today¹s echolocating toothed whales, like the Orca.

The museum also has fossil bones from seals and sea lions (pinnipeds), from an extinct family of marine, quadripedal herbivores (desmostylians), large penguin-like birds (plotopterids) and an unusual bear-like animal that ate clams and snails (Kolponomus).

See a collage of some of the leading cetacean paleontologists at work.

Invertebrates and microfossils
The largest collection within the Burke museum, comprising 2.5 million specimens, dates back to the founding of the Burke Museum in 1885. Collections are arranged stratigraphically, and include fossils from pre-Cambrian to postglacial Holocene in age, with emphasis in materials from the Pacific Northwest. About half of the invertebrate paleontology collections are mollusks (clams, snails, ammonites and nautiloids) from the Cretaceous and Tertiary of western North American and Pacific Rim. Aside from the extensive Charles E. Weaver collection of Mesozoic South American material, there are also significant collections from western Europe, and southern and eastern North America. Recently donated material includes a comprehensive collection of exhibit-quality decapod crabs and thalassinoid shrimps from the Pacific Northwest.

The microfossil collections, consisting primarily of Foraminifera, comprise approximately 60,000 catalogued specimens, and total over 1 million specimens. As with the macrofossils, the bulk of the collection is the Cenozoic western North America, however, sizable Gulf Coast and western European segments lend worldwide representation.

Plant and insect fossils
The fossil plant collections are the second-largest West Coast assemblage of fossil flowers, plants, and woods. The Eocene fossil plants, fish, and insect collections from Republic, Washington, are world famous and include many type specimens.

See remarkable plant fossils at our affiliate site, Stonerose Interpretive Center.

Why collect?
Museums are storehouses of scientific information, which can be used to unravel the complexity of the natural world. During the past 100 hundred years, we have learned a great deal about the world we live in, but we believe that this is only a small part of the scientific body of knowledge, and this is especially true regarding the history of the earth and its life along the Pacific margin.

We collect, preserve and maintain specimens for such research projects. The fossils and minerals are used by museum staff, University of Washington geologists and biologists, graduate and undergraduate students, and avocational paleontologists. Specimens are loaned to other institutions around the world. The bulk of our collections is not suitable for exhibit and we keep those very rare, exhibit-quality specimens for our outreach and education. We want you to share in our stories and the excitement of new discoveries with you.