Travis Wellman is the Operations Manager at Stonerose Interpretive Center and Eocene Fossil Site in Republic, Washington, which is world famous for its Eocene plant and insect fossils. He started working at Stonerose after graduating from high school in 2008. His dedication and continuity at the Center has been invaluable for their success, and he and Director Katherine Meade are responsible for ensuring that both the general public and professional paleontologists have access to the site. Both Travis and Katherine plan to join the Paleontological Society, which offers discounted memberships for avocational paleontologists. (Join online here.)
Tell us a little about the history of the Stonerose Interpretive Center and Eocene Fossil Site and your role as its Operations Manager.
The Stonerose Interpretive Center was established in 1989, after a decade of collection and scientific study of the fossils here. Although the fossils were known throughout history, they weren’t regarded as particularly significant until 1977. That was the year that artist and Burke Museum associate, Wes Wehr, convinced his young friend, Kirk Johnson, to take him on a road trip to eastern Washington. They stopped alongside the main street of Republic to explore, and discovered just how diverse and interesting our fossils were.
By 1989, with a lot of work by a dedicated group of citizens, the non-profit Friends of Stonerose Fossils was formed and the public was welcomed to visit, hunt for, and keep their fossil finds.
Stonerose was founded with the goal of furthering scientific study of the fossils found here, and to increase public science education. As the Operations Manager, I work with our associated researchers, I manage our seasonal staff, maintain our database, provide fossil identifications, and oversee the daily operations.
How did you become interested in paleontology?
Like most children, I developed a fascination with dinosaurs at a young age, although my interest was bolstered by the first Jurassic Park movie coming out when I was three years old. Despite being afraid of parts of that movie, I watched it repeatedly through my childhood. So really you could say that it was a movie that initially got me interested in paleontology. However, I didn’t consider a career in paleontology until after I had graduated from high school.
We already know your favorite fossil site, but is there a second-best favorite?
This is a tough one, but I would have to say the Chuckanut Formation [Eocene, northwestern Washington] would be my second-best favorite, because of the amazing palm fronds found there.
What is your favorite type of fossil?
My favorite type of fossil are plant fossils, especially of leaves. They’re so gorgeous and lifelike after millions of years. There is also a wealth of information you can learn from fossilized leaves. I like the sycamore leaves the best, because of the size variations, from the miniscule to the massive.
What was your favorite fossil discovery at the Stonerose site?
My personal favorite discovery is a piece I found about eight years ago, it has five alder leaves fanned out across it. It’s not scientifically important, it’s just a beautiful piece, like a piece of art. My favorite find by a visitor is a bird. It’s not pretty, and it hasn’t even been fully identified yet. However, it was recently sent to one of our researchers for further study. While we have found many feathers, it is the only bird found in 29 years of our operation!
How has the Stonerose Interpretive Center contributed to professional research?
The Stonerose Interpretive Center contributes to professional research by allowing the public to dig at the fossil site. This generates many interesting and new discoveries that researchers from around the world use in their studies. There is a core group of several researchers that visit yearly to study our material and have material loaned to them. Then there are other peripheral researchers who visit or request loans more intermittently.
Is there anything else you would like to say about avocational paleontology?
I think avocational paleontology is a key part of scientifically educating the public. Our approach of letting the public dig at our site helps bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public by turning regular people into citizen scientists and making them part of the scientific process. I think this helps make it all the more “real” to them. A person can read about fossils, look at images of them, or see them in museums, but none of that can compare to the feeling of splitting open a rock and knowing that you are the first ever to see the fossil inside!