Vertebrate Paleontology

Photo: Dennis Wise/University of Washington
Photo: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Vertebrate Paleontology at the Burke Museum

The Vertebrate Paleontology Collection is global in scope and includes over 73,000 fossils from over 3,200 localities from all seven continents. 

The collection includes fossil mammals, birds, dinosaurs, reptiles, amphibians and fishes, as well as a rapidly growing collection of fossil marine mammals from the Pacific Northwest.

Search the Collection

In total, the Paleontology & Geology Department cares for more than 4 million specimens of fossil invertebrates, vertebrates, plants, microfossils and trace fossils.

Geology & Paleontology Database

Collection Highlights

Vertebrate paleontology has an important collection of fossil marine mammals ranging in age from about 30 to 5 million years old, with the bulk of the collection comprising toothed whales, early baleen whales, as well as a variety of extinct dolphins.

The Burke’s marine vertebrate collection also includes a rapidly growing collection of scientifically important specimens from the Pacific Northwest. The collection also has specimens representing seals and sea lions (pinnipeds), an extinct family of marine, quadrupedal herbivores (desmostylians), large penguin-like birds (plotopterids) and an unusual bear-like animal that ate clams and snails (Kolponomos).

Highlights: Aetiocetidae specimens, oldest members of the modern cetacean suborders (odontocetes and mysticetes)

Life on land was fundamentally altered by the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. In addition to wiping out dinosaurs (except birds), animals of all sorts were affected. One of the best places to document and interpret these changes is in northeastern Montana, where rocks of the Hell Creek and Tullock formations are exposed.

The Burke Museum houses the fastest growing collection of vertebrate microfossils (i.e., the fragmentary remains of small mammals, lizards, fish, dinosaurs, etc.) from this critical interval in Earth history. Because of their abundance, these fossils allow researchers to understand the pace, timing, and selectivity of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

Highlights: Dinosaurs, mammals, and other vertebrates from the end of the dinosaur era

Unfortunately for paleontologists, much of central Washington is covered by the Columbia River basalts. However, in several places sedimentary rocks are exposed that allow us to understand what animals were living in this area.

The Burke Museum houses over 8,000 vertebrate fossils from the Pliocene of Washington State, including the first fossil deer in North America and some of the last rhinos.

Highlights: Five million year old fossils of mammoths, camels, horses, rodents, rabbits, turtles, fish, and numerous other groups document ancient life in central Washington 
a man stands with tools on his belt and a excavation site in the background
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington
Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Our Research

Our research interests include the Permo-Triassic and Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction events, the rise of dinosaurs, the origin of mammals, and the Cenozoic evolutionary radiation of placental mammals. 

Led by curators Christian Sidor and Greg Wilson, we integrate new analytical approaches, such as bone histology and 3D visualization, with field explorations to Washington’s many locales as well as far-off sites in places like India, Ethiopia, Antarctica, Tanzania, and Zambia.

University of Washington Courses

Our collections and staff play an important role in undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Washington, particularly within the Department of Biology.

a young woman stands in the collection and holds a fossil bone

Vertebrate Paleontology Collection Study Grant

This grant provides financial assistance for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers to study fossils in the Vertebrate Paleontology Collection at the Burke Museum.

Questions & Answers

We’ve compiled answers to some of the most common questions we receive. Have another question that you need help with? Contact us.

The geology and paleontological collections are open to visiting researchers by appointment only. Interested researchers should contact us to make arrangements. 

The Geology & Paleontology Department will lend specimens to qualified institutions for exhibition, education or scholarly research. Specimens will not be lent to individuals except under special circumstances and with the approval of the Burke Museum Director.

Loan requests are considered on a case-by-case basis and approval is contingent upon such considerations as the structural stability of the specimens; security; exhibition or research conditions at the borrowing facility; insurance, crating, transportation, length of exhibition or research, and requirements for courier service. Please contact us for more information.

If you think you have found a fossil, the Geology & Paleontology Department can help identify it on a time-available basis. Please note that we will not purchase your fossil or take it away. If you wish, and if your fossil is of scientific interest, you may donate it to the museum. 

To get started, please fill out the Burke’s Online Identification Form

The Geology & Paleontology Department considers donations on a case-by-case basis. Of particular interest are fossils from the Pacific Northwest or those belonging to a taxonomic group or geologic age that is not well represented in the collection. Not all fossils are appropriate to donate, especially those without basic locality data or clear ownership details.

Please contact us for more information.

The Burke Museum retains the sole copyright for its holdings and all images depicting its holdings. Photographic images that are in the care of or are the property of the Burke Museum, or photographs, photocopies, or artistic renderings of collection items that are in the care of or are the property of the Burke Museum may not be used for commercial purposes without specific written permission.

Please contact us for more information.

We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers! Visit our Volunteer page for more information about Burke Museum volunteer opportunities and to view current openings.

Our Team & Contact

Meet the people within the Burke Museum Geology & Paleontology team.

Our Team

Have a general inquiry?

Contact Us

Photo: Cathy Morris/Burke Museum
Photo: Cathy Morris/Burke Museum

Additional Resources

We've compiled several online resources from outside of the Burke Museum that may also be of interest.

a woman looks through a microscope while removing rock from a large fossil

Support Vertebrate Paleontology

Your gift makes it possible! We couldn't do what we do without donor support for collections care, research and public outreach.

Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum
Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum