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Card and Vial System for Small Specimens


The system has been designed to store small fossils considering the following significant criteria:

  • The fossil must be supported and protected.
  • The fossil should not be tangled in any supporting padding material.
  • The materials used should not contain contaminants which could cause specimen deterioration.
  • Catalogue numbers and card data should be clearly visible.
  • The fossil should be easily inspected, preferably without removing it from its container.
  • Access to the specimen should be easy.
  • The size of the labels and containers should be easy to handle.
  • Space should be conserved in storage cabinets.
  • The method should be inexpensive and efficient.
  • Adhesive should not be used to fasten the specimen to the support.


Gerald R. Fitzgerald
Collections Division
Canadian Museum of Nature
Box 3443, Station D
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1P 6P4

Photographs: Gerald R. Fitzgerald

Publication: 1992



The card-vial system employs glass shell vials ranging in size from 12mm in diameter x 35mm long to 15mm in diameter x 45mm long, that are adhered to specimen card labels with 5-minute epoxy resin adhesive (Fig. 1). Polyester batting is used to cushion the specimen and to hold it in place in the vial. White automotive enamel paint is painted on the vial as a background layer for the catalogue number. The catalogue number is recorded on the specimen card and vial with black drafting ink.

Figure 1. Card-vials in a storage cabinet. The high storage density is evident, 
                while specimen data are clearly visible on the cards. The use of trays
                for taxonomic groupings within drawers is illustrated.

Materials Tools Supplies

  • 5-minute epoxy resin adhesive
  • Acetone
  • Alkaline buffered specimen cards
  • Black drafting ink
  • Glass shell vials, 12mm (d) x 35mm (l) to 15mm (d) x 45mm (l)
  • Polyester batting
  • Polyvinyl acetate adhesive 5% in ethanol (wt/vol)
  • Small artist's brush
  • Technical pen with .45mm nib
  • White enamel automotive paint
  • Wooden toothpicks to mix epoxy


  1. Clean the shell vial with acetone and paint a patch of white enamel paint on the glass vial.
  2. Adhere the cleaned vial to the card using the 5-minute epoxy resin adhesive. Note that if many specimens are to be processed, it is best to prepare many card vials in advance and to assign the specimen numbers and record the data as specimens are processed.
  3. Record specimen data and catalogue number with black drafting ink on the card.
  4. Record the catalogue number on the white enamel patch on the glass vial. This precaution is taken in case the card and the glass vial become separated.
  5. Cover the catalogue number on the vial with a coating of polyvinyl acetate adhesive.
  6. Place the specimen inside the vial supported between two wads of polyester batting (Fig. 2).

    Figure 2. Front and back views of a card-vial. In this case a mandible is supported by two wads of polyester batting.

  7. Organize the card-vials in drawers, one behind the other in rows. The catalogue numbers are visible even if the drawers are tightly packed. Cardboard trays may be used to subdivide the specimens into taxonomic groups within the drawers.


To facilitate writing on the specimen card after it has been attached to the vial, it is convenient to use an inverted cardboard tray with a slot the size of the vial cut out.

If the specimen has rough surfaces or broken edges that could become entangled in the polyester batting, pH neutral tissue paper or cotton muslin can be used instead of the batting. However, the batting is a better padding material and does not present a problem with the majority of the specimens.

When sending the specimens out on loan, include the entire card-vial. It is no more difficult to pack a card-vial than the fossil. The small specimens are protected from loss or damage in the vial. Careful handling and packing will allow the card-vials to be shipped without damage.

Alternatively, small boxes are an option for storing tiny fossils, but is difficult to keep the label with them unless you glue it on. If the box is large enough to hold the label, it takes more space.

Adapted From

Fitzgerald, G. R. 1986. The card-vial system for the storage of small vertebrate fossils. In Waddington, J. and D. Rudkin (eds) Proceedings of the 1985 Workshop on Care and Maintenance of Natural History Collections. Misc. Pub., Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 121pp.

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