I have a question for the paleontological community. I know this blog doesn’t get anywhere near the traffic to expect many answers, if any, but I’m going to ask it anyway.
How do fossil mounts factor into your research? What information can be gained from an assembled and articulated vertebrate skeleton that cannot be determined (or is more difficult to determine) from the study of individual bones? Mounts did have a role in research historically: for instance, Gilmore used the process of creating the Triceratops, Camptosaurus and Diplodocus mounts for the United States National Museum to correct anatomical errors and assumptions previously published by Marsh. But are we still learning from the process of physically assembling skeletons (digital models don’t count)?
I ask because my immediate assumption is that mounts do not benefit research. Fossil mounts clearly have (admittedly difficult to quantify) educational value. They are spectacular, awe-inspiring displays with a physical presence that no book, film or shoddy cable documentary could hope to achieve. For many, including myself, fossil mounts were a first encounter with science in general, inspiring me to ask questions about the natural world and seek ways to answer them. But if we focus entirely on the process of studying and learning from fossils, do mounts have any value?
There is no shortage of reasons why mounts utilizing original fossils are problematic for researchers. Mounted fossils, which are often all-important holotypes, are difficult for researchers to access, and certain parts of the skeleton, like the back of the skull or the vertebral bodies, cannot be reached at all. The mounting process, while better than it was a century ago, is invasive, destructive and sometimes irreversible. Mounted fossils in public spaces inevitably suffer damage from fluctuating temperature and humidity (such as pyrite disease), uneven weight distribution and vibration from passing crowds. Many historic mounts used plaster or shellac to seal bones together or to reconstruct broken pieces, which is effectively impossible to remove without damaging the fossils. In the case of the Peabody Museum Apatosaurus, modern researchers do not know how much of certain bones are real and how much was reconstructed.
There is a long, worthwhile discussion to be had on whether the needs of research or the needs of education are more important in this scenario (David Hone and Heinrich Mallison make a case for each side on their respective blogs). But before I get to that point, I’d like to sort out if the distinction is as clear cut as “mounts good for education, mounts bad for research.” Any comments or experience on the matter would be very much appreciated!