Category Archives: sauropods

A Game Changer?

Today, Google and 60 partner museums unveiled the new natural history arm of the Google Cultural Institute. Launched in 2011, the Cultural Institute is an effort to make culturally significant material accessible online. Up until this point, the primary focus has been on art and history. In conjunction with museums and other institutions around the world, Google has been uploading millions of images, archival documents, and virtual walkthroughs of significant places. The natural history project offers more of the same, but with 100% more dinosaurs.

I had no idea this was in the works, nor do I know much beyond what is said in the press release. After spending much of this morning exploring the site, however, you can color me impressed. The sheer amount of content is overwhelming: 300,000 annotated specimen photos, virtual walkthroughs of 50 museums, and 184 multimedia presentations on topics both general (cabinets of curiosities) and esoteric (native plants and fish of Korea). Unfortunately, accessing this content can be a bit of a chore. I was often confused by the user interface, and found many of the most interesting or useful items by accident.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit.

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. Google Cultural Institute

For me, the museum walkthroughs are the clear highlight. Using Google’s Street View technology, users can explore the included museums and get surprisingly close to individual displays. Some of these “virtual tours” are frustratingly limited to a few corridors between exhibits, but others provide darn near the full experience of actually being there. Of the museum walkthroughs I’ve looked at so far, the National Museum of Natural History and Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde are particular standouts in this regard. A handful of museums have had virtual tours available online since at least the early 2000s, but this is the first time I’ve seen the concept escape the gimmick stage and become something potentially useful.

The quality of the multimedia presentations (“virtual exhibits”, if you must) is a bit mixed. The best ones make specific use of the partner museums’ collections, highlighting the scientific, cultural, or historical significance of particular objects. These presentations provide curatorial expertise and novel insights that are not easily found elsewhere. Other presentations, however, are frustratingly generalized, and don’t include much content that one couldn’t get from skimming a Wikipedia article.

yawn, another cgi sauropod. I'd rather see the mount.

Yet another middling CGI dinosaur. Yay, I guess? Google Cultural Institute

I would include the site’s flagship attractions – narrated 360-degree tours of selected exhibit halls – in the second camp. These three short videos each feature an exhibit that “comes to life” with the help of some acceptable-but-not-spectacular CGI. Take the video about the Giraffatitan at the Museum für Naturkunde. It’s awesome to be able to look all around the hall, but most of the video is taken up by an animated version of the dinosaur that doesn’t accomplish anything it’s Jurassic Park counterpart didn’t 23 years ago. The video starts to tell some interesting stories – convergent evolution between sauropods and giraffes, the rate of extinction caused by human activities far outpaces normal background extinction – but the goofy CGI Giraffatitan is very much in the way. Museums have so many strengths, so I’ll never understand the impulse to rely on things like animated dinosaurs that a) their audience can see elsewhere and b) Hollywood will always be able to do better.

A great deal of content to be found by the bold.

A great deal of content can be found by the bold. Google Cultural Institute

All in all, the new natural history project at the Google Cultural Institute is a very impressive starting point. Nevertheless, my optimism is tempered by the fact that the web is littered with apps and mini-websites developed by museums, then almost immediately abandoned. Too often, digital projects are taken on without a clear idea of who will continue to update it, what need is being addressed, or even who the website or app is for. The real test will be whether Google and the partner museums will continue to support the Cultural Institute with new content. This has been a recurring problem with museums’ digital endeavors, but perhaps the collaboration with Google (and its extensive infrastructure) will help.

Moreover, accessibility is an admirable goal, but there is a very wide gap between putting stuff online and creating something that lots of people (teachers, students, people who don’t live near museums) actually want to use. I’m encouraged by the range of material on the Cultural Institute site. Some content is fairly general, perhaps suitable for a 3rd grade science report, while other content is far more in-depth. I will be very curious to see what the public ends up using, and for what purpose. It would also be neat to see if this ended up being the start of a truly global digital collection, useful for educators and researchers alike. We’ll see if the Cultural Institute ends up being the catalyst that finally makes digital museums happen!

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, museums, sauropods, science communication

Meeting the Titanosaur

It be big

The titanosaur doesn’t photograph well. It must be experienced. Photo by the author.

On January 15, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first new fossil mount to be added to their paleontology halls in 20 years. It is the reconstructed skeleton of an as-yet-unnamed titanosaur, an immense sauropod dinosaur that lived in Argentina during the mid-Cretaceous. The titanosaur is probably the most hyped-up fossil mount since Sue, at least in the United States (Sophie the Stegosaurus in the U.K. and Tristan the Tyrannosaurus in Germany received similar attention). This merits some discussion. The AMNH public relations staff pulled no punches in selling the titanosaur as a must-see exhibit. Huge advertisements appeared on buses and buildings around New York, including in Times Square. The legendary David Attenborough hosted a television special on the discovery of the fossils. Countless local and national news outlets were invited to the titanosaur’s unveiling earlier this year. But is this dinosaur really the find of the century?

Titanosaur was even advertised in times square. Source

One of the many titanosaur ads that showed up around New York City this past winter. Source

It depends. The titanosaur represents a species new to science, but it has not yet been formally published. The fossils were recovered in 2014 by José Luis Carballido and Diego Pol, paleontologists with the Egidio Feruglio Paleontology Museum (the AMNH connection is that Pol was a doctoral student of Paleontology Division Chair Mark Norell). Bones from at least six individuals of the same species were found, together representing 70% of the skeleton. However, AMNH staff have mostly avoided calling this animal the biggest dinosaur ever.

Indeed, declaring any dinosaur species to be the largest is a fool’s errand. We’ve known for some time that South American titanosaurs, as a group, are probably the biggest land animals that ever lived. Unfortunately, these giants are typically represented by only a few isolated bones. For an animal to become fossilized, it needs to be buried shortly after death. But it takes a lot more dirt to cover a large animal than a small one. A flood or landslide big enough to completely cover a sauropod over a hundred feet long would be an exceedingly rare event. More often, these animals were picked apart by scavengers for some time before a few of the more durable bones were buried and fossilized. For example, Argentinosaurus is known from about ten percent of the skeleton, and Puertasaurus is known from just four vertebrae. Paleontologists can use better-known relatives to produce reasonable reconstructions from even these limited remains, but any length estimate is a ballpark figure. Even among related animals, proportions can vary significantly. Consider, for example, the very long tail of a green iguana as compared to the stubby tail of a Galapagos land iguana. Carballido and Pol’s find stands out among other titanosaurs because two-thirds of the skeleton is known. hen the description is published, it will undoubtedly shed new light on the skeletal anatomy of this group. Still, the missing parts mostly come from the neck and tail, which will probably preclude a precise estimate of the animal’s total length.

*This level of completeness is not entirely unprecedented. Dreadnoughtus, described in 2014, is also about 70% complete.

he peekin

The titanosaur’s head and neck extend out of the room and into the corridor. Photo by the author.

We can’t say the AMNH titanosaur is absolutely the biggest known dinosaur, but what about the mount? At 122 feet, the reconstructed skeleton prepared by Research Casting International dwarfs AMNH’s resident sauropod, the 82-foot apatosaurine. It’s also a fair bit longer than the museum’s brain-breakingly huge blue whale model. AMNH is not the first museum to display a titanosaur, however. The Royal Ontario Museum has a 110-foot Futalognkosaurus, which the AMNH mount handily beats. But the new titanosaur is essentially the same size as the 123-foot Argentinosaurus at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History (duplicates also exist in Europe and South America). The difference, as mentioned, is that not a lot about Argentinosaurus is actually known, and the mount is almost entirely a sculpted reconstruction. By comparison, the AMNH titanosaur is largely composed of 3-D printed components based on scans of original fossils. “The biggest reconstructed skeleton of a reasonably well-known dinosaur” isn’t the catchiest headline, though.

Suffice it so say that on paper, the AMNH titanosaur isn’t a revolution for dinosaur science. When I went to see it last weekend, I expected to see a typical example of a well-studied group of dinosaurs. I was not prepared.

the bastard

The closest I can find to a full-body photo of the titanosaur. Source

This bastard is BIG. I could go through a whole series of superlatives, but it’s impossible to describe the experience of sharing space with this magnificent skeleton. You cannot comprehend what a 122-foot dinosaur really is until you’ve experienced it. It helps that the titanosaur occupies a smallish, low-ceilinged room (a century ago, this was the infamous Hall of the Age of Man). It also helps that there are no long lines of sight into this space. You turn a corner and you are quite abruptly in the titanosaur’s presence. Regardless, the marketing line that was ubiquitous earlier this year – “everything else got a whole lot smaller” – rings unsettlingly true. Compared to the titanosaur, the mammoth and mastodon across the hall look like pipsqueaks. Even the AMNH blue whale, which usually requires a double-take, became a little easier to take in.

I’m no stranger to sauropods. I teach people about them at work all the time. But seeing the titanosaur in person was a revelation, and something I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the natural world. The titanosaur may not be the most important dinosaur discovery of our generation, but by giving it corporeal presence, AMNH created an incredible symbol. This is life at its limits, an embodiment of the incredible things the tetrapod body plan can do.

P.S.: If you’re concerned about the fate of the juvenile Barosaurus model that used to occupy this space, worry not. It now lives at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and will be on display at least through October of this year.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, museums, sauropods

AMNH dinosaurs in vintage cartoons

Today I happened upon a pair of wonderful vintage cartoons that simply must be shared. I found them in Edwin Colbert’s The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives, digitized here. The cartoons originally appeared in the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post, respectively.

original caption

Original caption: “And here is my first dinosaur – makes me feel like a kid again every time I look at it.”

The cartoons plainly depict the “Brontosaurus” and “Trachodon” (now labeled Apatosaurus and Anatotitan) skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History, and as representations of these mounts, they aren’t bad. At the time of the cartoons’ initial publications in 1939 and 1940, these and dozens of other fossil mounts had been on display at AMNH for over 30 years. They were iconic New York attractions, and the museum had rightly earned itself a reputation as the place to see dinosaurs.

original caption

Original caption: “I don’t mind you boosting your home state, Conroy, but stop telling the children that’s a California jack rabbit!”

Perhaps it’s unwise to interpret these images too literally, but I can’t help but wonder which version of the AMNH fossil halls the cartoonists intended to depict. Since 1922, the famous mounts had been housed in Henry Osborn’s Great Hall of Dinosaurs, but during the 1930s the dinosaur exhibits underwent a significant expansion. The dinosaurs were reshuffled into two halls, one representing the Jurassic and one the Cretaceous.

osborn era

The Great Hall of Dinosaurs as it appeared in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

brown's jurassic hall

The new Jurassic Hall opened around 1940. Photo from Dingus 1996.

The inclusion of a Stegosaurus with “Brontosaurus” and the ceratopsian skulls behind the “Trachodon” lead me to believe these are illustrations of the renovated halls, which would have been brand new at the time. But again, it’s just as likely that the cartoonists only intended to capture the general feel of these famous exhibits.

References

Colbert, E.H. 1945. The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: The American Museum of Natural History/McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

Dingus, L. (1996). Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, ornithopods, paleoart, sauropods

Installation art in the service of science

totes awesome

Unbridled awesome. Photo by the author.

Earlier this week, Dippy the Diplodocus gave me an opportunity to discuss mounted fossil skeletons as objects imbued with cultural and historical meaning. Today, I’d like to take that a step further and discuss them as art. Hold on tight, because it’s about to get interdisciplinary up in here.

The Barosaurus and Allosaurus encounter at the American Museum of Natural History is one of the most amazing fossil displays in the world. Within the historic Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, an adult Barosaurus skeleton rears to a height of fifty feet to protect its offspring from a charging Allosaurus. Although all three skeletons are glass-reinforced polyester and polyurethane foam casts (by necessity – it would be unwise to mount real fossil bones in such a precarious manner), they are based directly on real specimens. The adult Barosaurus is a cast of AMNH 6341, which was excavated by Earl Douglass at Dinosaur National Monument in 1923. The Allosaurus is a cast of DMNH 1483. The young Barosaurus is the most speculative of the lot and mostly consists of sculpted bones, but it includes casts of real juvenile sauropod vertebrae.

Looking past its physical properties, this display comes with an explicit pedagogical agenda. AMNH paleontologist Mark Norrell stated that the objective was “to imagine dinosaurs as living organisms, facing challenges similar to those that confront animals today.” When the exhibit was built in 1991, it was considered important to showcase what active, hot-blooded dinosaurs might be capable of. In this case, we have a portrayal of considerable speed and agility, as well as a suggestion of parental care and group living. The mount and its associated signage also invite visitors to consider the nature of the fossil record, and what questions paleontologists can and cannot definitively answer. We don’t know whether Barosaurus would have protected or even lived with its young. We don’t know if Allosaurus would have attempted to attack an animal more than three times its size. Even the ability of Barosaurus to rear up on two legs has been the subject of some debate. While not enormously far-fetched, this is still an imaginative reconstruction – one which challenges visitors to consider the evidence behind this and other displays throughout the museum.

However, even this sort of interpretation does not fully capture the experience of observing this tableau – there is something else going on here. The dynamic poses give the dinosaurs a startling presence, and it is scarcely possible not to imagine them as living animals. Visitors must consider what it would be like to encounter an Allosaurus charging at full speed, or to stand beneath a multi-ton sauropod. Standing in the center of the room, the viewer is literally surrounded by the mounts, and necessarily becomes a participant in the drama. Even if we ignore the representational identities of the dinosaurs and think of this display as a set of abstract shapes, it is still decisively monumental. The mise-en-scène draws the viewer’s eye around the room and up the neck of the Barosaurus, toward the vaulted ceiling. The scene can thus be described as a visual and physical intervention that draws each and every visitor that enters the rotunda into a shared performance.

Fancy fisheye photo.

The visitors themselves become part of the installation by providing a human scale. Source

As impressive as the mounts are on their own, they cannot be divorced from the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda that surrounds them. Aesthetically, the grandiose nature of the skeletons compliments the neoclassical architecture. The site-specific composition also encourages visitors to look around the room and take note of structural elements they might have missed (e.g. the ceiling). But the room itself is far from a neutral exhibition space. It is a public monument to the first President Roosevelt, who Donna Haraway calls “the patron saint for the museum.” In addition to an array of canvases depicting scenes from Roosevelt’s public life,  quotations are etched into the walls under the headings Youth, Manhood, Nature, and The State. Roosevelt’s words, literally carved in stone, speak to his appreciation of the natural world, his support for what he called “the strenuous life”, and his belief in living honorably and compassionately. Were it not for the throngs of tourists, this space could be mistaken for a shrine.

There are a few possible ways to interpret  the relationship between the dinosaurs and the hall around them. We could cast the adult Barosaurus as Roosevelt’s idealized citizen. Rather than letting the Allosaurus pick off it’s more vulnerable companion, it stands its ground, for “the highest form of success comes not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil.” Alternatively, we could follow Haraway and consider this space a monument to hyper-masculinity and paternalistic oppression. Haraway slams the Roosevelt Rotunda (which implies a male audience at the exclusion of others) and the adjacent Hall of African Mammals (which displays artificially-assembled nuclear families, always with a male leader) as products of the wealth and privilege of the early-20th century aristocracy. But if we assume – as many visitors apparently do – that the defending Barosaurus is female, the dinosaurs might be read as a direct critique of the institution’s history. While political and sociological readings probably didn’t come up much when these mounts were being constructed, intent isn’t the whole story. This is a public space, and visitors can and will make conscious and unconscious connections between the various objects on view. Besides, this wouldn’t be the first time fossils have been entwined with presidential politics.

Different

The fossils weren’t created to be displayed in this space, but the mounts were. Photo by the author.

A museum display always involves the staging or framing of the world. It is this infusion of creative choice that moves  fossil mounts beyond the realm of science and into art. As Polliquin puts it, a specimen from nature “permits or invites experience, wheras a work of art is intentionally made for an experience.” Whether they are composed of real fossils or casts thereof, fossil mounts are purposefully constructed to exist in the museum environment. Paradoxically, they are both the objects of scrutiny and the exhibit context. This is not something to hide or be ashamed of, but to celebrate. These mounts embody aesthetic  beauty, deep history, and rich culture, and these elements are just as important as their scientific value when we consider their role in the museological landscape.

References

Haraway, D. (1985). Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. Social Text 11:20-64.

Kohlstedt, S.G. (2005). “Thoughts in Things” Modernity, History, and North American Museums. Isis 96:4:586-601.

Lindsay, W., Larkin, N. and Smith, N. (1996). Displaying Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, London. Curator 39:4:262-279.

Norrell, M.A., Dingus, L.W. and Gaffney, E.S. (1991). Barosaurus on Central Park West. Natural History 100:12:36-41.

Polliquin, R. (2012). The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Vogel, S. (1991). Always True to the Object, in Our Fashion. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Displays. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, paleoart, reptiles, sauropods, theropods

I Have Opinions About Dippy

1st cast in spot of honor

Dippy the Diplodocus has been at London’s Natural History Museum since 1905. Source

Historic fossil mounts are usually taken for granted. Classics like the the AMNH Tyrannosaurus (which turns 100 this year!) have been enjoyed by generations of visitors, and it seems out of the question that they might ever be retired from display. Such was the case with Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum – this cast of the CMNH original has been at the museum since 1905, and has been the centerpiece of Hintze Hall since 1979. It was therefore something of a shock when the NHM announced on Thursday that plans are afoot to replace Dippy with a blue whale skeleton. For a few hours, at least, this was huge news. #Savedippy was trending internationally, memes were created, and petitions sprang up to keep the mount in place. To me, it was inspiring to see how much people care about this mounted skeleton. I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that fossil mounts take on second lives in museums, and have cultural and historical meaning independent of their identities as scientific specimens. The outpouring of love for Dippy is as clear an example as I could ever hope for.

Things seemed to calm down once a few editorials in favor of the change made the rounds, most notably pieces at the Huffington Post, the Conversation, and the Telegraph. These authors make a strong case for the blue whale: it’s the largest animal to ever exist, but it’s on the brink of extinction. It reminds us of our role as stewards of the planet, and the impacts the choices we make today will have on future generations. Meanwhile, the opposition hasn’t offered much beyond “kids like dinosaurs.” Personally, I’m not steadfastly opposed to the change. A whale is an excellent symbol for the importance of protecting the natural world, and it certainly beats losing exhibit space to a new cafe or gift shop. I’ve also never been to the NHM, and my heart already belongs to another Diplodocus, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Still, Dippy is an irreplaceable monument deeply entrenched in history, and certainly deserves a thoughtful defense.

The MNH released this concept art of the new display. Source

Exhibit company Casson Mann prepared this concept art of the new display. Source

To review, the original Dippy fossils were collected in 1899 near Medicine Bow, Wyoming by a team funded by Andrew Carnegie. The Pittsburgh-based industrialist/philanthropist wanted to make a name for his newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History by displaying the first-ever mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur. The Diplodocus discovered by Carnegie’s team was (and still is) one of the most complete sauropod specimens ever found. Nevertheless, they lost the race to public display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite “Brontosaurus” mount in March of 1905*, while Carnegie was still waiting for his museum building to be finished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus skeleton to King Edward VII. The replica now known as Dippy was on display in London before the end of the year. After completing a mount of the original fossils at CMNH in 1907, Carnegie went on to produce seven more Diplodocus casts, which he gifted to various European heads of state (read the full story here). In addition, at least four other Dippy replicas have been created since Carnegie’s death in 1919. Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy the Diplodocus is among the most-viewed animal skeletons in the world. Its cultural impact, particularly in Europe, is astounding. More than any other specimen, it can be argued that this one made “dinosaur” a household word throughout the world.

*Natural history historian Ilja Nieuwland once commented that the first cast – the one still on display in London – was temporarily assembled in a Pittsburgh warehouse the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall in 1904. It could therefore be claimed that this was actually the first sauropod mount.

diplodocus_nocopyright

The Diplodocus cast in London debuted two years before the Pittsburgh original.

And yet, one of the recurring arguments to replace Dippy in the Hintze Hall is that it’s “just a copy” or worse, “a fake.” Of course, referring to a fossil cast in this way is a flagrant misrepresentation. Casts are exact replicas of real specimens, full stop. You can read about the reasons casts are made in the Fossil Mount FAQs, but suffice it to say that replicas like Dippy are just as useful to researchers as the originals they are based on in most respects – some have even been used for microscopic analysis. At the very least, it’s downright inflammatory to dismiss a cast as though it were a P.T. Barnum-era forgery.

But let’s say we don’t care about that, and we must adhere to a conception of authenticity that doesn’t allow for casts. Even then, this particular cast is a 109 year-old historic icon. Despite being made of plaster, this replica introduced the world to the immensity of deep time. Carnegie himself described it as way to foster international peace. It gave the multilingual troops in the first world war a shared word with which to refer to tanks. It was a harbinger of globalization and mass production. And yes, it has enchanted generation upon generation of schoolchildren. NHM director Michael Dixon said that the blue whale will bring the museum’s “societally relevant research” to the forefront, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a natural history specimen more societally relevant than Dippy.

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

Never let it be said that blue whales aren’t impressive. This model at AMNH is staggeringly huge. Photo by the author.

That brings me to the most irksome pro-whale argument. Michael Rundle contends that the whale “is “more profound than Dippy could ever be. We still share a planet, and a destiny, with this weightless behemoth.” It is true that blue whales are incredible, awe-inspiring animals, with a fate that depends directly on our own commitment to preservation. At the entrance to the NHM, the whale skeleton will be a powerful tool for educating audiences about the fragile condition of the world around us. But dinosaurs are just as relevant to ecological education. The best way to understand the modern biodiversity crisis is to look to the past. The fossil record lets us observe how organisms have responded to climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species over 4.5 billion years. In turn, this information helps us make informed choices about our future. A sauropod like Dippy is a particularly useful teaching tool. It could demonstrate how keystone herbivores can shape their environment. Or it could be compared to a mammoth or an elephant to show how different flora can lead to the evolution of completely different megaherbivores. The NHM’s rhetoric in favor of the whale unfortunately reinforces the idea that past life is dead, gone, and irrelevant. Nothing could be futher from the truth.

Plus, nothing’s cooler than a sauropod.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM, opinion, reptiles, sauropods, science communication

So long, Diplodocus

USNM 10865 in the Hall of Extinct Monsters, circa 1932. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

USNM 10865, shortly after its introduction in 1931. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Since the National Museum of Natural History fossil halls closed for renovation this past April, I’ve made a habit of checking the webcam in Hall 2 every couple weeks or so. For a while, it didn’t look like much was happening – the first waves of de-installation occurred out of view, toward the back of the gallery. Eventually, however, the iconic dinosaur mounts started coming down. The Allosaurus vanished in mid-July. The Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus were gone in September. By late October, the exhibit team had started cutting back the elevated platform and surrounding walkway where most of the standing dinosaur mounts had stood. This was when the process got really interesting, because previous renovations to this space over the past century have always been additive. Old exhibit panels were boarded over and forgotten decades ago, and even some elements of the 1911 Hall of Extinct Monsters, such as the John Elliot fresco “Diana of the Tides”, are still buried in these walls. To hear about these time capsules of science history being unsealed over the past few months has been absolutely thrilling.

But when I checked the webcam last Tuesday, I was met with a slight sinking feeling. The Diplodocus, the centerpiece of this hall for the last 83 years, was gone.

Hall 2 at NMNH, as of December 23, 2014.

Hall 2 at NMNH, as of December 23, 2014. Source

After it was excavated from Dinosaur National Monument in 1923, USNM 10865 took Charles Gilmore, Norman Boss, Thomas Horne, and John Barrett nearly a decade to prepare and mount. Aside from an an adjustment to the neck supports in the early 80s (making it hang from the ceiling, rather than being propped up from the floor), the Diplodocus remained in place and unmodified for longer than the average American lifespan. Generations of visitors have gazed up at it, and those lucky enough to view it before 1963 were able to walk under it. This mount has unquestionably taken on a second life: it is an institutional and regional icon as much as it is a dinosaur that once roamed a Jurassic floodplain. And in three days, NMNH collections staff and specialists from Research Casting International cleared every trace of it – well over 200 individual bones – from the hall.

The Diplodocus, as it stood from 1963 through 1981. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Diplodocus, as seen from 1963 through 1981. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness to see the Diplodocus go. I’ve been visiting the sauropod since before I could talk. I knew it as a toddler, as a high school volunteer, as a fresh-out-of college-intern, and as a museum professional. Even though the fossil halls have been closed for months, I suppose it was comforting to know that the Diplodocus was still standing on the other side of those barriers. But now it’s actually gone, and that makes it really sink in that the NMNH fossil hall that I knew – the one that inspired and nurtured my life-long interest in paleontology, is gone for good.

An early sketch of

An early sketch of USNM 10865’s new home – anchoring the Jurassic ecosystem display.

Of course, the now-disarticulated Diplodocus fossils are in the best possible hands. The veteran team at RCI will conserve, restore, and eventually remount them in a stunning, dynamic pose. What’s more, the renovated fossil hall in which it will be reintroduced is going to be awesome – structurally, aesthetically, and pedagogically. It will contextualize classic specimens like the Diplodocus within a modern understanding of how the ancient past is connected to our present and future, while simultaneously honoring this space’s history and heritage. I can’t wait.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, sauropods

Bully for Camarasaurus

The story of the mismatched head of “Brontosaurus” is one of the best known tales from the history of paleontology. I think I first heard it while watching my tattered VHS copy of More Dinosaurs – scientists had mistakenly mounted the skull of Camarasaurus on an Apatosaurus skeleton, and the error went unnoticed for decades. The legend has been repeated countless times, perhaps because we revel in the idea that even experts can make silly mistakes. Nevertheless, I think it’s time we set the record straight: nobody ever mistakenly placed a Camarasaurus skull on Apatosaurus. The truth is a lot more nuanced – and a lot more interesting – than a simple case of mistaken identity.

Intrinsically related to the head-swap story is the replacement of “Brontosaurus” with Apatosaurus in the popular lexicon. This is well covered elsewhere, so I’ll be brief. Scientific names for animals are governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, which includes the principle of priority: if an organism has been given more than one name, the oldest published name is the correct one. Leading 19th century paleontologist O.C. Marsh named Apatosaurus ajax in 1877, based on a vertebral column discovered in the Morrison Formation of Colorado. Two years later, Marsh introduced Brontosaurus excelsus to the world, from a more complete specimen uncovered in rocks of the same age in Wyoming. Like many of Marsh’s publications, these descriptions were extremely brief, offering a scant two paragraphs for each taxon. However, Marsh did provide a longer description of Brontosaurus in 1883, complete with the first-ever restoration of the complete skeleton.

In 1903, Elmer Riggs of the Field Museum of Natural History (then called the Field Columbian Museum) underwent a survey of sauropod fossils held at various east coast museums and concluded that the names Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus had been applied to the same animal. Riggs’ treatment, however, was also somewhat incomplete. The unsung hero of the story is Charles Gilmore, whose thorough 1936 monograph on Apatosaurus should have put the admittedly catchier junior synonym to rest for good.

This is not a Camarasaurus skull.

Come play with us, Brontosaurus…forever and ever and ever. Photo courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

Enter the mustache-twirling villain of turn of the century paleontology, Henry Osborn. The founder of the American Museum of Natural History Department of Vertebrate Paleontology and eventual director of the museum at large, Osborn had a detestable social and political agenda and was generally a bit of a jerk. However, he was also the veritable king of American paleontology during his tenure, and his word was generally the last. As such, when the DVP prepared to unveil the world’s first mounted sauropod skeleton in 1905 (pictured above), Osborn insisted that it be labeled “Brontosaurus”, not Apatosaurus. Osborn was definitely aware of Riggs’ taxonomic work and his reasons for ignoring it may be lost to history. Regardless, by calling the first-ever display of a giant dinosaur skeleton “Brontosaurus”, Osborn ensured that the name would be cemented in the public consciousness forevermore.

So how does the mismatched head fit into all of this? The short answer is that it doesn’t. The fact that some Apatosaurus mounts had incorrect heads for much of the 20th century has nothing to do with the invalidity of the name “Brontosaurus,” although the two issues have often been conflated in popular books. I suspect the two stories got mixed up because paleontologists were pushing to correct both misconceptions around the same time during the dinosaur renaissance.

Marsh's Brontosaurus

Marsh’s second and definitive Brontosaurus reconstruction, first published in 1891.

Let’s go back to Marsh’s 1891 “Brontosaurus” reconstruction*, pictured above. The “Brontosaurus” type specimen did not include a head, and many have reported that Marsh used a Camarasaurus skull in this illustration. However, this would not have been possible, because the first complete Camarasaurus skull wasn’t discovered until 1899 (by the same AMNH field crew that was collecting fossils for the 1905 “Brontosaurus” mount). What Marsh had instead were a few fragmentary bits of Camarasaurus cranial material, plus a snout and jaw (USNM 5730) now thought to be Brachiosaurus (more on this at SV-POW). Although these pieces were found far from the “Brontosaurus” quarry, Marsh extrapolated from them to create the best-guess skull that appears in his published reconstruction.

*Note that this is the second of two “Brontosaurus” reconstructions commissioned by Marsh. The first drawing, published in 1883, has somewhat different skull, but it still does not resemble Camarasaurus. 

Although the venerable Stephen Gould states in his classic essay “Bully for Brontosaurus” that Marsh mounted the “Brontosaurus” holotype at the Yale Peabody Museum, Marsh never saw his most famous dinosaur assembled in three dimensions. In fact, Marsh strongly disliked the idea of mounting fossil skeletons, considering it a trivial endeavor of no benefit to science. As mentioned, it was Osborn and the rest of the vertebrate paleontology staff at AMNH that built the original “Brontosaurus” mount (AMNH 460), six years after Marsh’s death in 1899.

Counterclockwise from top:

Clockwise from top: AMNH “Brontosaurus” sculpted skull (Source), Peabody Museum “Brontosaurus” sculpted skull, real Apatosaurus skull (Source), and real Camarasaurus skull.

Preparator Adam Hermann oversaw the construction of the skeleton, combining fossil material from four separate individuals. All of the material had been collected by AMNH teams in Wyoming specifically for a display mount  – and to beat Andrew Carnegie at building the first mounted sauropod. Like Marsh, however, they failed to find an associated skull (a Camarasaurus-like tooth was allegedly found near the primary specimen, but it has since been lost). Even today, sauropod skulls are notoriously rare, perhaps because they are quick to fall off and roll away during decomposition. Instead, Hermann was forced to sculpt a stand-in skull in plaster. Osborn explained in an associated publication that this model skull was “largely conjectural and based on that of Morosaurus” (“Morosaurus” was a competing name for Camarasaurus that is no longer used).

Was it really, though? The sculpted skull is charmingly crude, so the overt differences between the model and a real Camarasaurus skull (top and bottom left in the image above) might be attributed to the simplicity of the model. Note that there isn’t even an open space between the upper and lower jaws! Still, Hermann’s model bears a striking resemblance to Marsh’s illustration in certain details, principally the elongate snout and the very large, ovoid orbit. It certainly isn’t out of the question that Hermann used Marsh’s speculative drawing as a reference, in addition to any actual Camarasaurus material that was available to him. At the very least, it is incorrect to say that AMNH staff mistakenly gave the mount a Camarasaurus skull, since Osborn openly states that it is a “conjectural” model.

A young Mark Norell

A young Mark Norell leads the removal of the sculpted skull from the classic AMNH Apatosaurus. Source

In 1909, a team led by Earl Douglass  of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History finally discovered a real Apatosaurus skull (third image, lower right). They were working at the western Utah quarry that is now Dinosaur National Monument, excavating the most complete Apatosaurus skeleton yet found (CMNH 3018). The skull in question (cataloged as CM 11162) was not connected to the skeleton, but Douglass had little doubt that they belonged together. Back at the Carnegie Museum, director William Holland all but confirmed this when he found that the skull fit neatly with the skeleton’s first cervical vertebra. As he wrote at the time, “this confirms…that Marsh’s Brontosaurus skull is a myth.”

The Carnegie team prepared and mounted the new Apatosaurus, and Holland initially planned to use the associated skull. However, when Osborn heard about this he threatened to ruin Holland’s career if he went through with it. You see, the new skull looked nothing like the round, pseudo-Camarasaurus model skull on the AMNH mount. Instead, it was flat and broad, like a more robust version of Diplodocus. Osborn wasn’t about to let Holland contradict his museum’s star attraction, and Holland backed down, never completing his planned publication on the true nature of Apatosaurus. Meanwhile, the mounted skeleton itself remained headless until Holland’s death in 1932. After that, museum staff quietly added a Camarasaurus-like skull. This was an important event, as it would be the first time an actual casted skull of Camarasaurus (as opposed to a freehand sculpture) would be attached to a mounted Apatosaurus skeleton. While I’ve had no luck determining precisely who was involved, Keith Parsons speculated that the decision was made primarily for aesthetic reasons.

Carnegie Museum Brontosaurus circa 1934. Source

Carnegie Museum Apatosaurus alongside the famed Diplodocus, sometime after 1934. Source

Elmer Riggs assembled a third Apatosaurus mount (FMNH P25112) at the Field Museum in 1908. Riggs had recovered the articulated and nearly complete back end of the sauropod near Fruita, Colorado in 1901, but museum administrators refused to pay for further collecting trips to complete the mount. Riggs was forced to mount his half Apatosaurus as-is, and the absurd display stood teetering on its back legs for 50 years. Finally, Riggs’ successor Orville Gilpin acquired enough Apatosaurus fossils to complete the mount in 1958. As usual, no head was available, so Gilpin followed the Carnegie Museum’s lead and gave the mount a casted Camarasaurus skull.

The completed mount as it stood in the 1970s, Camarasaurus head and all.

Orville Gilpin finally completed the FMNH Apatosaurus in 1958.

The last classic Apatosaurus mount was built at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in 1931, using Marsh’s original “Brontosaurus” holotype (YPM 1980) and a lot of plaster padding. The skull this mount originally sported (second image, upper right) is undoubtedly the strangest of the lot. A plaster replica sculpted around a small portion of a real Camarasaurus mandible, this model doesn’t look like any known sauropod. The overall shape is much more elongated than either Camarasaurus or the AMNH model, and may have been inspired by Marsh’s hypothetical illustration. Other details, however, are completely new. The anteorbital fenestrae are thin horizontal slashes, rather than the wide openings in previous reconstructions, while the tiny, forward-leaning nares don’t look like any dinosaur skull – real or imaginary – I’ve ever seen. The sculptor is sadly unknown, but this model almost looks like a committee-assembled combination of the Marsh drawing, the AMNH model, and CM 11162 (a.k.a. the real Apatosaurus skull).

During the mid-20th century, vertebrate paleontology lapsed into a quiet period. Although the aging dinosaur displays at American museums remained popular with the public, these animals came to be perceived as evolutionary dead-ends, of little interest to the majority of scientists. The controversies surrounding old mounts were largely forgotten, even among specialists, and museum visitors saw no reason not to accept these reconstructions (museums are, after all, one of the most trusted sources of information around).

A postcard

The Peabody Apatosaurus with its original head. Note that the Camarasaurus in the foreground also has a sculpted skull.

This changed with the onset of the dinosaur renaissance in the 1970s and 80s, which brought renewed energy to the discipline in the wake of new evidence that dinosaurs had been energetic and socially sophisticated animals. In the midst of this revolution, John McIntosh of Wesleyan University re-identified the real skull of Apatosaurus. Along with David Berman, McIntosh studied the archived notes of Marsh, Douglass, and Holland and tracked down the various specimens on which reconstructed skulls had been based. They determined that Marsh’s restoration of the “Brontosaurus” skull, long accepted as dogma, had in fact been almost entirely arbitrary. Following the trail of guesswork, misunderstandings, and scientific inertia, McIntosh and Berman proved that Holland had been right all along. The skull recovered at Dinosaur National Monument along with the Carnegie Apatosaurus was in fact the only legitimate skull ever found from this animal. In 1981, McIntosh himself replaced the head of the Peabody Museum Apatosaurus with a cast of the Carnegie skull. AMNH, the Field Museum, and the Carnegie Museum followed suit before the decade was out.

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Remounted Apatosaurus at the Carnegie Museum. Photo by the author.

Given the small size of the historic community of dinosaur specialists, it may have been particularly vulnerable to the influences of a few charismatic individuals. To wit, Marsh’s speculative “Brontosaurus” skull was widely accepted despite a lack of compelling evidence, and Osborn was apparently able to bully Holland out of publishing a find that contradicted the mount at AMNH. What’s more, the legend of the mismatched “Brontosaurus” skull somehow became distorted by the idea that either Marsh or Osborn had accidentally given their reconstructions the head of Camarasaurus. This is marginally true at best, since both men actually oversaw the creation of composite reconstructions which only passingly resembled Camarasaurus. Nevertheless, the idea that the skull of Camarasaurus was a passable substitute for that of Apatosaurus was apparently well-established by the 1930s, when Carnegie staff hybridized the two sauropods for the first time. Even today, there are numerous conflicting versions of this story, and it is difficult to sort out which details are historically accurate and which are merely assumed.

I’d like to close by pointing out that while the head-swap story is often recounted as a scientific gaffe, it is really an example of science working as it should. Although it took a few decades, the mistakes of the past were overcome by sound evidence. Despite powerful social and political influences, evidence and reason eventually won out, demonstrating the self-corrective power of the scientific process.

References

Berman, D.S. and McIntosh, J.S. 1975. Description of the Palate and Lower Jaw of the Sauropod Dinosaur Diplodocus with Remarks on the Nature of the Skull of ApatosaurusJournal of Paleontology 49:1:187-199.

Brinkman, P. 2006. Bully for Apatosaurus. Endeavour 30:4:126-130.

Gould, S.J. 1991. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Osborn, H.F. 1905. Skull and Skeleton of the Sauropodous Dinosaurs, Morosaurus and BrontosaurusScience 22:560:374-376.

Parsons, K.M. 1997. The Wrongheaded Dinosaur. Carnegie Magazine. November/December:38.

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Filed under AMNH, CMNH, dinosaurs, field work, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, reptiles, sauropods, systematics