New Award Honors Avocational Paleontologist in Alabama

T. Prescott Atkinson
T. Prescott Atkinson

Alabama employs about a dozen professional paleontologists, but there are many more people who search and study fossils as a hobby. These avocational or amateur paleontologists uncover a vast amount of knowledge about Alabama’s prehistory each year. To honor such an individual who has made outstanding contributions to Alabama paleontology, the Alabama Avocational Paleontologist Award has been created recently.

A committee has now selected a winner for the very first Alabama Avocational Paleontologist Award (ALAP award), a statewide award. The committee consists of UA Museums’ curator Dr. Adiel Klompmaker and one representative each of both paleontological societies in the state, the Alabama Paleontological Society and the Birmingham Paleontological Society. This award is made available by the Alabama Museum of Natural History and the Department of Museum Research & Collections, both of which are part of the University of Alabama Museums.

This year’s winner is T. Prescott Atkinson, who has spent five decades collecting and donating many thousands of fossils to multiple museums, including vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and tracks. Among his many discoveries in Alabama are a Late Cretaceous dinosaur egg from Harrell Station and rare insect wings from the Pennsylvanian of northern Alabama. Furthermore, Prescott has played a key role in the preservation and management of the Stephen C. Minkin Paleozoic Footprint Site (Union Chapel Mine) in Walker County, Alabama. Prescott is the vice-president of the Alabama Paleontological Society, arranging monthly talks. He is also an author of multiple scientific and popular papers in paleontology, and he has participated in various outreach events. In sum, the committee concluded that Prescott is a very worthy first recipient of this award.

“I was totally taken by surprise. I am excited and honored”, Atkinson said in a first reaction.

“I think this recognition of amateurs in paleontology represent an important recognition of the contributions that nonprofessionals can make by finding important specimens, locating and preserving important sites etc.  I hope that it will encourage kids and adults alike to pursue avocational paleontology and seek engagement with specialists when they find interesting or enigmatic fossils”, Atkinson said.

The award consists of an engraved plaque for the recipient and during this year’s virtual celebration of National Fossil Day on Wednesday October 14th. At 4:00 pm that day, there will be a special presentation about the Alabama Avocational Paleontologist Award which will be livestreamed to the UA Museums’ YouTube channel and the Alabama Museum of Natural History’s Facebook page.

While the main goal of this award is not inspiration per se, University of Alabama Museums’ Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Adiel Klompmaker, hopes that the news of this award will inspire young or older people to look in their backyard or property for fossils and/or become a member of a paleontological society in the state.

“The rocks and sediments exposed in Alabama contain a variety of fossils such as vertebrate, invertebrates, and plants from very different periods in Earth’s history. As a result, many people in Alabama are drawn to fossils! Avocational paleontologists have been active for many decades and have proven to be incredibly important for paleontology in Alabama”, Dr. Klompmaker said. “They all do it for the love of fossils and spend countless hours and money on their hobby. Their role in Alabama paleontology cannot be underestimated and should be acknowledged even more. This annual award celebrates their vast contributions.”