Category Archives: field work

Dinosaurs of the Field Museum — Part 1

About a year ago, I wrote this post about the dinosaurs of the London Natural History Museum, admittedly in a bit of a hurry. The post has proven very popular, which leads me to conclude there’s interest in more “quick bite” articles about the specimens on display at various museums. I’ll see about putting together more of these in the future.

For now, I’ll start close to home, with the dinosaurs on display at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH). This entry is about the most notable specimens that were acquired outside the living memory of current staff. I’ll follow up with an article about more recent acquisitions sometime soon. It’s important to note that while I’m focusing on dinosaurs here, the real meat of the Field Museum’s vertebrate paleontology collection is in its Cenozoic holdings. Those too will need to be a topic for another time.

Brachiosaurus altithorax (P 25107)

Menke poses with the Brachiosaurus humerus, unwittingly creating an image that every subsequent sauropod worker is obligated to recreate. Photo © Field Museum.

The first dinosaur discovered by Field Museum paleontologists was nothing less than the biggest land animal known at the time. On July 4, 1900, the museum’s first paleontologist Elmer Riggs and his assistant H.W. Menke came upon a set of enormous bones in western Colorado. Riggs—who was specifically hired two years earlier to find dinosaurs for the nascent museum—named the new dinosaur Brachiosaurus altithorax in 1903. The individual bones were set in display cabinets (left image, below) around the same time. Comprising about 25% of the skeleton, Riggs did not consider the find complete enough to assemble into a standing mount. Nevertheless, the museum commissioned a replica Brachiosaurus skeleton about 90 years later, basing the missing pieces on the related Giraffatitan.

New Brachiosaurus fossils have proven elusive. While several individual bones have been found, the holotype collected by Riggs and Menke remains the most complete example of this famous dinosaur.

Apatosaurus” sp. (P 25112 and P 27021)

The Field Museum’s “Apatosaurus” is a composite of two sauropod specimens, collected 40 years apart. Photos © Field Museum.

Riggs and Menke found another sauropod in western Colorado in 1900, and returned the following year to excavate it. This time, they had the back two-thirds of an apatosaurine sauropod, complete save for the distal portions of the limbs and tail. As museum leaders were unwilling to fund a search for more sauropod material, Riggs mounted the partial skeleton in 1908 (left image, above). 

The sauropod remained in this unfinished state until the 1950s, when preparator Orville Gilpin arranged to acquire another incomplete sauropod. Gilpin had excavated the specimen with Jim Quinn near Moab, Utah in 1941, and knew that it was a perfect complement to the skeleton on display. Long-time museum president Stanley Field (nephew of founder Marshall Field) had repeatedly resisted requests from the paleontology staff to complete the mount, but allegedly relented after overhearing a visitor ask which side of the half-dinosaur was the front. Gilpin built an armature for the neck and shoulders of the newly acquired specimen (right image, above), and finished the mount with casts of Apatosaurus forelimbs and a Camarasaurus skull from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Field Museum finally had a complete sauropod on display, which was unveiled at the April 1958 Members’ Night. 

Apatosaurus” as it is currently displayed in Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

In 1992, the composite sauropod was dismantled and relocated to the new Life Over Time exhibition on the other side of the building. The museum hired Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc.—a now-shuttered company specializing in mounting fossil skeletons—to do the work. The updated sauropod debuted in 1994, now posed as though looking at visitors on a nearby elevated walkway. The sauropod remained in place when Life Over Time became Evolving Planet in 2006, though with the walkway gone it now appears to be admiring the Charles Knight murals on the wall.

A note on nomenclature: Riggs identified this skeleton as Apatosaurus, but the label was changed to Brontosaurus in the mid-20th century, when Apatosaurus fell out of common parlance. The name Apatosaurus returned to labels in 1994. However the most recent word on this specimen—from Tschopp et. al 2015—is that it’s not Apatosaurus nor Brontosaurus, but likely another, yet unnamed taxon.

Triceratops horridus (P 12003)

The skull of FMNH P 12003 as it is currently displayed in the SUE gallery. Photo by the author.

In 1904, Riggs moved on from the Jurassic-aged rocks of Colorado to the Cretaceous of Carter County, Montana. Today, this part of southeast Montana is lousy with paleontologists. There’s even an annual shindig for field crews held at the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka. However, Riggs’ expedition was among the first to visit the region from a large museum. The most significant find of the summer was a Triceratops skull and partial skeleton from just west of the Chalk Buttes.

The skull was prepared by 1905 and has been in every iteration of the Field Museum’s paleontology halls. The unusually thick brow horns were recently confirmed to be real bone, but it’s possible that they were originally from another, larger specimen (edit: There is real bone inside the horns, but they are padded with a lot of plaster reconstruction—see comments). The remainder of the skeleton remains in storage.

Gorgosaurus libratus (PR 2211)

Elmer the Gorgosaurus as it was last displayed, in 2017’s Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life. Photo by the author.

Most collecting was paused during World War I, but shortly after the war, Marshall Field III funded new expeditions in all four of the Field Museum’s major research areas (Zoology, Botany, Geology, and Anthropology). Riggs led three of these expeditions, one to Alberta and two to Argentina and Bolivia. Riggs saw the 1922 Alberta trip as something of a practice run, since he hadn’t been in the field for some years, and some on his team had never done fieldwork at all. 

Still, the crew was serious about bringing in fossils. Riggs decided to go to the Red Deer River region of Alberta, a place where his former colleague and classmate Barnum Brown had unearthed numerous near-complete dinosaurs for the American Museum of Natural History. Riggs also hired fossil hunter George F. Sternberg, who already knew the area well, to join him on the 14-week expedition.

After returning from Alberta, Riggs was busy getting ready for the upcoming expeditions to South America, and most of the field jackets remained unopened for years, or even decades. One jacket lingered until 1999, when the large team of preparators assembled to prep SUE the T. rex decided to crack it open. 

Inside, they found the virtually complete hips, hindlimbs, and tail of a four-year-old Gorgosaurus, which they named Elmer. Riggs’ notes indicated that the skull ought to have been present, but the preparators only found a few teeth. Further investigation revealed that the partial skull had been in its own jacket with a different number, and that it had been loaned to the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s. The Berkeley scientists had subsequently lost the fossil, but (fortunately) made a cast of it, which was later returned to the Field Museum. 

Elmer was included in the touring exhibition Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries, and most recently in 2017’s Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life. It is currently off exhibit.

Lambeosaurus lambei (PR 380)

Lambeosaurus under prep in 1955. Photo © Field Museum.

According to Riggs, the “prize find” of the 1922 Alberta expedition was a Lambeosaurus found by Sternberg. Even in the field, it was clear that the skeleton was completely intact, save for the head, part of the neck, and the tip of the tail. Sternberg’s field notes indicate that the weathered side included a number of large skin impressions. The Lambeosaurus was jacketed and excavated in eight sections, totaling about three tons of rock and fossil.

Like Elmer the Gorgosaurus, the Lambeosaurus was left unprepared while Field Museum preparators focused on the fossils from South America. In 1947, the University of Chicago closed its geology museum and donated its collections to the Field Museum, pushing the Alberta fossils even further down the queue. Stanley Kuczek finally prepared the Lambeosaurus in 1954, when it was slated to be paired with Daspletosaurus in a new display (more below).

Kuczek prepared only the unweathered (face-down in the field) side of the skeleton, so the skin impressions Sternberg reported are still embedded in the matrix around the fossil. A Lambeosaurus skull from the University of Chicago collection (UC 1479) was used to complete the display. Sternberg’s Lambeosaurus remains the most complete non-bird dinosaur at the Field Museum, and a (perhaps unsung) highlight of the collection.

Daspletosaurus torosus (PR 308)

Nathan Cochran recently rediscovered the original “Gorgosaurus” and Lambeosaurus label, as seen in this image. Check it out here. Photo © Field Museum.

The Field Museum’s Daspletosaurus, sometimes called “Gorgeous George,” was collected by Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History in 1914. It came from the same region of Alberta that Riggs and company would visit eight years later. At the time, the partial skeleton was considered an example of Gorgosaurus, of which the New York museum already had three. In 1955, Field Museum board member Louis Ware offered to buy the American Museum’s spare tyrannosaur, and soon the fossil was on its way to Chicago.

Orville Gilpin mounted the skeleton—which has been known as Daspletosaurus since 1999—for display. He elected to create a completely free-standing mount, with no visible armature. This required drilling through each of the vertebrae to thread a steel pipe through, as well as splitting the right femur. These destructive practices would never be undertaken today, but in the mid 20th century, dinosaurs were seen as display pieces first and scientific specimens second.

Daspletosaurus in Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

Like the “Apatosaurus,” Gorgeous George was revealed to the public during Members’ Night. The skeleton was placed at the south end of the museum’s central Stanley Field Hall, standing over Sternberg’s Lambeosaurus as though it had just brought down the herbivore. In 1992, Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc. remounted the Daspletosaurus in a more accurate horizontal posture, once again poised over its Lambeosaurus prey. The real skull has never been mounted on the skeleton, but it is currently on display near the museum’s east entrance.

Parasaurolophus cyrtocristatus (P 27393)

Parasaurolophus in Evolving Planet. Photo by the author.

The Parasaurolophus cyrtocristatus holotype was found by Charles Sternberg (father of George) in 1923, near Fruitland, New Mexico. It made it to the Field Museum through a series of exchanges, but was not prepared until the 1950s. John Ostrom published a description of the skeleton and partial skull in 1961, noting that it was nearly identical to Parasaurolophus walkeri from Alberta, except for the crest on the back of its head. While P. walkeri has a long, backward-projecting crest, the New Mexico species has a short crest that curves downward.

The Parasaurolophus was first exhibited in 1994, as part of Life Over Time. The 70% complete skeleton was mounted directly to a wall, with illustrations of the missing bones behind it. Ten years later, Research Casting International was brought in to turn the Parasaurolophus into a complete standing mount. As in most modern mounts, the armature is designed so that each bone can be removed individually for study or conservation. Captured in a graceful walking pose, the Parasaurolophus is—in my opinion—the most elegant and evocative dinosaur mount at the Field Museum.

References

Brinkman, P. 2000. Establishing vertebrate paleontology at Chicago’s Field Columbian Museum, 1893–1898. Archives of Natural History 27:81–114.

Brinkman, P. 2010. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brinkman, P. 2013. Red Deer River shakedown: a history of the Captain Marshall Field paleontological expedition to Alberta, 1922, and its aftermath. Earth Sciences History 32:2:204-234. 

Erickson, G.M, Makovicky, P.J., Currie, P.J., Norell, M.A., Yerby, S.A., and Brochu, C.A. 2004. Gigantism and life history parameters of tyrannosaurid dinosaurs. Nature 430:722–775.

Forster, C.A. 1996. Species resolution in Triceratops: cladistic and morphometric approaches. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 16:2:259–270.

Gilpin, O. 1959. A free-standing mount of Gorgosaurus. Curator: The Museum Journal 2:2:162–168.

Ostrom, J.H. 1961. A new species of hadrosaurian dinosaur from the Cretaceous of New Mexico. Journal of Paleontology 35:3:575–577.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, field work, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, ornithopods, sauropods, theropods

Ernestine lives!

A scaffold of foreboding surrounds the Brachiosaurus cast. Photo by the author.

Earlier this year, the Brachiosaurus cast skeleton that stood on the Field Museum’s northwest terrace was retired. On display for 23 years (and 23 brutal Chicago winters), the replica was suffering from a rusting armature and extensive cracking. Deemed structurally unsound, it was dismantled the week of June 12. Though we lament the loss of the long-necked sentinel over DuSable Lake Shore Drive, the legacy of Brachiosaurus—the Field Museum’s first dinosaur—lives on.

The story of Brachiosaurus begins with the museum’s founding, nearly 130 years ago. The Field Columbian Museum opened in Chicago on June 2, 1894 as a permanent home for the collection assembled at the previous year’s World Columbian Exposition. While the collection boasted thousands of zoological, botanical, anthropological, and geological objects, it had but a single dinosaur: a replica skeleton of Hadrosaurus. Based on the original at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the model was badly out of date by the 1890s. Oliver Farrington, the Field’s original geology curator, considered it an embarrassment and petitioned director Frederick Skiff to hire a vertebrate paleontology specialist to collect better material. Skiff passed the request on the board, but was denied—with a building full of uncataloged specimens, they saw no need to obtain anything new.

The board changed their minds in 1898, when the Carnegie Museum and American Museum of Natural History announced plans to find sauropod dinosaurs for display. The resume of Elmer Riggs, a recent University of Kansas graduate with ample fossil hunting experience, happened to be on Skiff’s desk, and so Riggs was hired to collect dinosaurs for the museum.

The Brachiosaurus site in summer 1900. This excavation was particularly well-documented, thanks to Menke’s long-exposure, plate glass photographs. Photo © Field Museum, CC BY-NC.

In 1900, Riggs was prospecting near Grand Junction, Colorado with assistant Harold William Menke and camp cook Victor Dames. Their quarry was an exhibit-worthy specimen of Brontosaurus, the largest known dinosaur at that time. On July 4, Menke made a promising find: a giant limb bone that was the right size to be a Brontosaurus femur. The group began excavating and eventually revealed additional limb bones, nine-foot ribs, an articulated series of dorsal vertebrae, the sacrum, and a scattering of other bones. The course-grained, pebbly matrix suggested burial in a fast-moving river, which probably swept away the missing parts. All told, they had about 25% of a skeleton—not enough to mount for display but still worth collecting.

Once the fossils were back at the museum and undergoing preparation, Riggs confirmed something he had probably suspected in the field. Menke’s six-foot, seven-inch limb bone wasn’t a femur, it was a humerus. The humerus of Brontosaurus was well under five feet, so this animal was substantially larger. With his 1903 publication introducing Brachiosaurus altithorax to the world, Riggs emphasized its record size—and encouraged the press to make a meal of it.

Brachiosaurus was a win for the Field Museum: the first newly described dinosaur to come out of the nascent institution was also the biggest ever (a title Brachiosaurus would hold for the better part of the century). But while many of the individual bones were put on display in 1908, the holotype wasn’t complete enough to assemble into a standing mount. Instead, another find from Riggs’ 1900 Colorado expedition—the Fruita Apatosaurus—became the museum’s first mounted sauropod.

When the Field Museum was exploring the idea to create a complete replica Brachiosaurus, an unknown staffer (“M”) drew up this illustration to show how much would need to be reconstructed. This image is stitched together from multiple scans.

It would be almost ninety years before the museum revisited the prospect of putting Brachiosaurus on display. In the early 1990s, the Exhibitions department was hard at work remaking its paleontology halls from the ground up. This project would eventually open as Life Over Time in 1994, but in the meantime it was agreed that a showstopping symbol was needed outside the exhibit proper.

That showstopper could only be Brachiosaurus. The Field Museum hired Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc.—a now-shuttered company specializing in mounted fossil skeletons—to make it happen. Commonly abbreviated as PAST, the company was founded by Gilles Danis, who previously created many of the Royal Tyrell Museum’s opening day exhibitions.

Fortunately for Danis and his team, there was more Brachiosaurus (and Brachiosaurus adjacent) fossil material to work with then in Riggs’ day. A handful of specimens referred to Brachiosaurus altithorax (mostly individual bones) had since turned up in the western United States, but the bulk of information came from a pair of Tanzanian skeletons. In 1914, German paleontologist Warner Janensch determined that these specimens were a second species of BrachiosaurusBrachiosaurus brancai. More recently, the Tanzanian brachiosaur has been moved to its own genus, and is now known as Giraffatitan brancai. While there are a number of key differences, Giraffatitan and Brachiosaurus are one another’s closest known relatives, making the former a reasonable reference for the unknown parts of the latter.

Ernestine the Brachiosaurus in Stanley Field Hall. Photo © Field Museum.

To reconstruct Brachiosaurus for the Field Museum, the PAST crew started by taking molds of the Brachiosaurus holotype bones. Next, Danis and Donna Sloan traveled to the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, where the Giraffatitan fossils are housed. While they were not allowed to make casts, Danis and Sloan took extensive measurements. Stephen Godfrey used this information to sculpt the missing parts of Brachiosaurus, including the head, neck, tail, and feet.

A few adjustments were made along the way. First, the PAST crew inflated the limb bones slightly, so that the steel armature would fit inside. Second, the museum wanted visitors to be able to walk under the Brachiosaurus, but its torso wasn’t quite long enough to meet the minimum fire egress requirements. PAST solved the problem by quietly duplicating two of the vertebrae in the dorsal series. In an amusing twist, these stretch-limo proportions may have inadvertently been correct. Danis named the finished replica Ernestine, because “Ernestine is an awkward name and Brachiosaurus is an awkward-looking thing.”

Ernestine the Brachiosaurus has stood in the United terminal at O’Hare since 1999. Photo by the author.

On June 29, 1993 (a Tuesday), Danis, three PAST crew members, and six Field Museum staffers assembled Ernestine in the museum’s central Stanley Field Hall. Reporters from the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune were present to document the construction (scans of these articles are at the end of this post). Seven hours later, Brachiosaurus was complete, on its feet for the first time in 152 million years. At 41 feet tall, the replica skeleton was tall enough to peer over the second floor mezzanine and into the entrance to Life Over Time.

By coincidence, Ernestine’s debut was less than three weeks after the release of Jurassic Park—which happened to feature a Brachiosaurus in an iconic opening scene. The film quickly became the highest-grossing of all time, and launched a global wave of dino-mania. While he was busy finishing up and installing the Brachiosaurus, Danis was fielding calls left and right for his services. Even hotels were inquiring about putting dinosaur skeletons in their parking lots. His response? “If they can put up the cash for them, we’ll put them up!”

The outdoor Brachiosaurus on a rare sunny day. Photo by the author.

Ernestine’s stint in Stanley Field Hall wound up being short-lived. The Field Museum acquired SUE the Tyrannosaurus in 1997, and the mounted skeleton took the sauropod’s place in May 2000. Ernestine was relocated to O’Hare International Airport, where it remains today. Meanwhile, the museum commissioned a second Brachiosaurus replica to be displayed outdoors. Made from durable, all-weather plastic resin, the outdoor Brachiosaurus stood on the northwest terrace for the next 23 years. Notably, it outlasted SUE’s time in Stanley Field Hall: the Tyrannosaurus was relocated to its own gallery in 2018, and a cast of the Argentinian sauropod Patagotitan now occupies the Field Museum’s central space.

The Brachiosaurus display in the Field Museum’s Science Hub includes parts of the holotype, a replica skull, and more. Photo by the author.

Now that the outdoor Brachiosaurus replica has been retired, it’s fair to ask what’s next for the Field Museum’s first dinosaur. Ernestine will remain at the airport for the foreseeable future, but plans for the northwest terrace have not yet solidified. In the meantime, a popup exhibit rhapsodizing Brachiosaurus recently opened in the Science Hub—a rotating exhibit space where interpreters are always present. I was happy to write the labels for this display, which tells the story of Brachiosaurus from its discovery to the removal of the outdoor skeleton (in far fewer words than this post). The exhibit includes the sculpted skull of the outdoor Brachiosaurus and parts of the holotype—including the tail vertebrae, which haven’t been on public view since the 1920s. Be sure to stop by if you’re in the area, but be quick: Science Hub exhibits typically last only six months or so.

References

Brinkman, P.D. 2010. The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.

Engh, B. 2020. We Found a Brachiosaurus.

Riggs, E.S. 1903. Brachiosaurus: The Largest Known Dinosaur. American Journal of Science 4:15:299-306.

Simpson, W. 2022. Pers. comm.

Taylor, M.P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janesch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29:3:787-806.

Taylor, M.P. 2014. Giles Danis of PAST on the Chicago Brachiosaurus mount.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, field work, FMNH, fossil mounts, history of science, movies, museums, reptiles, sauropods

Rhinos too thick: Fossils and flattery at Agate Springs

“No progress at all. Rhinos too thick.”

So wrote American Museum of Natural History fossil collector Albert Thomson in his September 1917 field notes. At that point, Thomson been collecting mammal fossils at Agate Springs nearly every year since 1907—and was still finding rhino bones in such abundance that they formed a seemingly impenetrable layer.

Located in northwest Nebraska and dating to about 22 million years ago, the Agate Springs bone bed is an aggregation of fossilized animals on an astonishing scale. Like the Carnegie quarry at Dinosaur National Monument, it provides a snapshot of an ecosystem at a moment in geologic time. But while a high estimate of the individual dinosaurs represented at Carnegie Quarry is in the hundreds, the main bone bed at Agate Springs may well contain tens of thousands of animals. The vast majority of fossils come from the tapir-sized rhino Menoceras, scrambled and packed together in a layer up to two feet thick. Moropus, Daeodon, and an assortment of other hoofed animals and small carnivores have also been found. These animals may have gathered during a drought and succumbed to thirst or disease, before the returning rains rapidly buried their remains. It’s also possible that the bone bed represents a mass drowning during a flash food. Since different parts of the site vary in density, Agate Springs likely represents multiple mortality events over a number of years.

knightmiocene

Charles Knight’s mural of the Agate Springs ecosystem. © Field Museum, CC BY-NC 4.0

Today, less than 30% of the Agate Springs bone bed has been excavated, but not for a lack of effort. Teams from a half dozen museums visited the site between 1900 and 1925, with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CM), the University of Nebraska State Museum (UNSM), and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) establishing large-scale excavations and returning year after year. As we shall see, the relationships between these teams were not always amicable, making this period at Agate Springs a window into the preoccupations of museum workers at the turn of the century. Agate Springs also illustrates how east coast paleontologists interacted with and relied on local people, defending their social capital as jealously as any fossil deposit. Finally, museums’ interest in Agate Springs in the mid 20th century exemplifies how exhibitions had evolved during the intervening period.

The setting

Agate Springs is unceded Sioux territory, occupied by settlers after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. James Cook purchased the treeless tract of rolling hills from his father-in-law in 1887, naming it Agate Springs after the rocky banks of the nearby Niobrara River. James and Kate Cook established a ranch where they raised horses and cattle, and Agate Springs became a popular stop for travelers on their way to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The Cooks were aware of bones weathering out of the hills as far back as 1885, when the land was still owned by Kate’s father. James knew that scientists were on the lookout for fossils in the region—by one account he worked for O.C. Marsh as a translator in 1874. Once the ranch was established, he began writing to museums, including UNSM in Lincoln and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, inviting them to visit Agate Springs. A UNSM party led by Erwin Barbour was the first to drop by, spending a night at the Cook homestead in July 1892. Chiefly concerned with collecting “devil’s corkscrews” (ancient beaver burrows) north of the Niobrara, Barbour sent his student F.C. Kenyon to check out the bones Cook promised in the nearby hills. Kenyon collected as much as he could carry, but his report apparently did not excite Barbour, and the UNSM party moved on.

It would be twelve years before another paleontologist visited Agate Springs. Olaf Peterson of the Carnegie Museum stopped by the ranch in early August of 1904, at the end of a tumultuous field season in western Nebraska. Peterson had received a telegram on July 4 that his brother-in-law, boss, and mentor John Bell Hatcher had died of typhoid. Peterson intended to cut the season short, but Carnegie Museum director William Holland denied the request, writing in no uncertain terms that Peterson was to continue his work in Nebraska. Later in July, Peterson fell ill himself, and spent several days recovering in Fort Robinson. Suffice it to say, Peterson was not in the best of moods when he arrived at Agate Springs.

Nevertheless, the outcrops Peterson saw at Agate Springs revitalized his spirit. Accounts differ on what part of the site Cook showed him (this will be important shortly), but when he returned east two weeks later he was raving about a quarry with “ten skulls within a six-foot radius.” In Pittsburgh, Peterson and Holland began drawing up plans for an ambitious excavation the following year. In their view, they had staked a claim to the site: just like contemporary gold and oil prospectors, turn-of-the-century paleontologists lived by the rule of “dibs.” For the museum crowd, being the first scientist to “discover” a quarry meant an entitlement to control the site and the resources it produced. This included both the physical fossils and the privilege to describe and interpret those fossils—controlling the site meant controlling scientific knowledge.

Dueling quarries

Cook either didn’t know about such customs, or didn’t care. To his credit, Cook was never interested in monetizing the fossils at Agate Springs. By all accounts, he simply wanted to share with the world the knowledge that the bone bed represented. He was concerned that it was so expansive that no single team could uncover all its secrets. On May 26, 1905, Cook wrote to Barbour, inviting him to share in the bounty he had shown Peterson the previous summer, explaining that it was “so large that [the Carnegie team] could not work it out in years, so there is plenty of material for other parties to work with.”

On other occasions, Barbour had taken a cautious stance when corresponding with landowners. In this case, however, he could barely contain the enthusiasm in his reply. In a single letter, Barbour reminded Cook that UNSM had visited 12 years before and therefore should have collecting rights, asked Cook to place a literal flag on the site claiming it for the University of Nebraska, offered to hire Cook’s 18 year-old son Harold as a field assistant, and appealed to Cook’s state pride by listing the out-of-state institutions that were removing Nebraska’s fossil heritage each year.

agatehills

Carnegie and University Hills at Agate Springs National Monument. Photo by Neublar110, CC SA

That summer, Peterson and Barbour opened quarries on two neighboring buttes at Agate Springs, which came to be known as Carnegie Hill and University Hill. While the two parties were cordial neighbors, letters exchanged by Holland, Barbour, and Cook demonstrate that the museum directors were uncomfortable with the situation. Holland repeatedly wrote to Cook, claiming that his team was more skilled than Barbour’s and warning that it would be bad for science if the fossils and geological data were split between two institutions. Harold Cook didn’t appreciate Holland’s condescending tone. In a note to his father pinned to one of the letters, he wrote that “a letter of this kind is the work of a pinheaded, egotistical, educated fool.”

The Carnegie and UNSM teams returned to Agate Springs in 1906, but spent the summer of 1907 elsewhere. The elder Cook took the opportunity to invite yet more paleontologists, and teams from AMNH, the Yale Peabody Museum, and Amherst College showed up to collect fossils.

Meanwhile, Holland began a campaign to wrest control of the site by any means necessary. He became particularly focused on the narrative of who discovered the bone bed. According to Holland, Cook had shown Peterson the smaller, less dense site that would be come to be known as Quarry A. Peterson then went prospecting on his own and found the primary bone bed that straddled the two buttes. Holland went on to argue that regardless of who first saw the fossils, Peterson earned credit for the discovery because he was the first trained scientist on the scene, and therefore the first individual to correctly identify the age and identity of the animal remains.

Cook rejected Holland’s retelling of the events of August 1904, insisting that he had known of the bone bed for years before he showed it to Peterson. In many ways, the two men were talking past each other. Cook found Holland’s insistence on claiming the discovery for Peterson nonsensical and disrespectful—he knew his own land, and he was the one who invited the paleontologists in the first place. Holland, on the other hand, was staking a claim among his fellow academics. He needed to demonstrate that the Carnegie Museum had been at Agate Springs first, so that other institutions would yield to his authority to interpret and publish on the fossils.

IMG_9364

Menoceras fossils from Agate Springs on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Late in 1907, Holland visited the Cooks’ ranch in person for the first time. He offered to buy the fossil-bearing land outright, doubtlessly planning to block the other museums from accessing it. At this point, James Cook made the awkward discovery that Carnegie Hill and University Hill were actually just outside his official holdings, in the public domain. Holland moved to purchase the land, but Harold Cook beat him to it, building a cabin and filing a homestead claim in March 1908. In their gentlemanly rancher way, the Cooks told Holland to get lost, and the Carnegie Museum left Agate Springs for good.

Playing nice

While Holland had managed to sour his relationship with a remarkably welcoming and accommodating landowner, Barbour did the opposite. In letters to Cook, he regularly acknowledged the rancher as the discoverer of the site. He visited the Cooks frequently and employed Harold in the UNSM quarry, training the younger Cook into a formidable fossil prospector and anatomist. Soon Harold was studying at the University of Nebraska under Barbour, and a few years later, Harold and Barbour’s daughter Elinor were married. Barbour also named a few species after the Cooks, including Moropus cooki.

AMNH director Henry Osborn and field manager Albert Thomson had a similarly positive relationship with the Cooks. The New York museum took over Carnegie Quarry in 1908, and Osborn visited several times to express his gratitude. Like Barbour, he paid Harold for his time, labor, and expertise. Later, Osborn invited Harold to work at AMNH during the off-season. In return, AMNH was permitted to collect at Agate Springs for nearly two decades. Thomson returned almost every year through 1923, and the museum accumulated so many Menoceras and Moropus fossils that it began selling and trading them to other institutions.

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Menoceras and Moropus slab at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

The reward for staying in the Cooks’ good graces was clear. UNSM and AMNH paleontologists gained access to the Agate Spring quarries for many years, accumulating large collections. They earned accolades from publications, public interest from the skeletons they placed on exhibit, and even monetary rewards from selling the excess specimens. Meanwhile, the Carnegie Museum was shut out after their first few seasons of collecting because Holland was, if not outright hostile to the Cooks, unable to communicate effectively with the ranchers. For American paleontologists at the turn of the century, social capital was a critical resource. Positive relationships with landowners and other individuals in the fossil-rich western states earned them access to land, information about the terrain, and networks of eyes on the ground, any of which might lead them to the next important quarry.

You get a rhino block, and you get a rhino block…

The scale and intensity of the Agate Springs excavations decreased after 1910, and in the early 20s, Thompson and the AMNH crew closed up shop, believing they had found examples of every species that could be found. By that time, the site’s value for museums had shifted. Rather than being a bonanza of specimens to collect, categorize, and publish on, Agate Springs had become a place to quickly and easily obtain display-worthy fossils. As Hunt puts it, the site was a “storehouse of good exhibit materials, to be tapped when needed by museums wishing to mount a rhino or two.”

Today, Agate Springs fossils—acquired in the field or via trade—are on display at large and small museums all over North America. Many of these are mounted skeletons of rhinos, camels, and Moropus, but there is also a particular abundance of large, incompletely prepared slabs, which provide viewers with a small window into the Agate Springs bone bed. Because of the sheer density of bones, the early 20th century excavation teams quickly stopped jacketing fossils individually, and instead began preparing out large blocks, typically four to six feet across. The blocks were hardened with shellac, and reinforced with wood planks around their borders. Pulleys and cranes were required to lift the largest blocks out of the quarries. In the early years, the intention was to fully excavate these blocks at their respective museums. It’s not clear which museum first placed a complete block on exhibit, but the idea proved popular. Many later visitors to Agate Springs, from James Gidley of the National Museum of Natural History in 1909 to Elmer Riggs of the Field Museum of Natural History in 1940, came with the express purpose of collecting intact slabs for display.

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Menoceras slab on display at the Field Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

The popularity of fossil blocks from Agate Springs coincides with a shift in philosophy toward exhibitions at natural history museums. While early 20th century exhibits were catalogs of life, emphasizing the breadth of the museum’s collection, by the 1920s and 30s many museums had begun moving toward narrative exhibits. Displays were intended to communicate ideas, and objects served as illustrations of those ideas. The fossil blocks from Agate Springs were ready-made illustrations of a number of paleontology concepts, from the process of taphonomy to the task of excavation millions of years later. Most have remained on display to this day, a fact that James Cook would undoubtably be pleased with.

An incomplete list of museums in possession of Agate Springs blocks follows. Do you know of others? Please leave a comment!

  • Carnegie Museum of Natural History
  • American Museum of Natural History
  • University of Nebraska State Museum
  • Field Museum of Natural History
  • National Museum of Natural History
  • Royal Ontario Museum
  • Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
  • Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology
  • University of Wyoming Geological Museum
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
  • Wesleyan University Geology Museum
  • University of Austin Texas Memorial Museum
  • University of Michigan Museum of Natural History
  • Science Museum of Minnesota
  • Fort Robinson State Park Trailside Museum

References

Agate Fossil Beds: Official National Park Handbook. Washington, DC: National Park Service.

Hunt, R.M. 1984. The Agate Hills: History of Paleontological Excavations, 1904-1925. 

Vetter, J. 2008. Cowboys, Scientists, and Fossils: The Field Site and Local Collaboration in the American West. Isis 99:2:273-303.

Skinner, M.F., Skinner, S.M., Gooris, R.J. 1977. Stratigraphy and Biostratigraphy of Late Cenozoic Deposits in Central Sioux County, Western Nebraska. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 158:5:265-370.

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Filed under AMNH, CMNH, collections, dinosaurs, DMNS, exhibits, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, sauropods, theropods, thyreophorans

The dinosaurs of London’s Natural History Museum

Founded in 1881 as an offshoot of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London is one of the world’s best-known and most-visited museums. For millions of visitors from the UK and abroad each year, NHM provides their first—sometimes only—opportunity to see a full-sized dinosaur skeleton in person. That makes the collection of dinosaurs on display uniquely important: each one is an ambassador to paleontological science and the deep history of the Earth.

For your reference and mine, what follows is a brief introduction to NHM’s dinosaurs. Please note that I have not been to NHM and this information is based on references available online.

Diplodocus carnegii (Dippy)

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For 36 years, Dippy greeted visitors in Hintze Hall. Source

Most readers are probably familiar with the story of Dippy the Diplodocus. In 1898, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded an expedition to find a sauropod dinosaur for the newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Diplodocus the team uncovered the following summer was—and still is—one of the most complete sauropod skeletons ever found. Nevertheless, Carnegie lost the race for the first mounted sauropod on permanent display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite Apatosaurus in March of 1905, while the Carnegie Museum building was still unfinished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus to King Edward VII. The replica known today as Dippy went on display in London that May. Carnegie went on to produce seven additional Diplodocus casts, and more have been created since his death in 1919.

Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy’s cultural impact is astounding. As Nieuwland writes, “Carnegie’s series of casts—and the political gesture of their donations—turned [Dippy] into a contested and open-ended object that existed at the crossroads of several interacting (social, political, cultural, scientific) domains.” The intersection of political intrigue and gossip with the sensational nature of the specimen itself resulted in a cascade of media attention, political cartoons, and eventually even films. At least in Europe, Dippy can be believably said to be the specimen that made “dinosaur” a household word.

In 1979, Dippy was moved to NHM’s cavernous entryway, called Hintze Hall. The cast served as the museum’s mascot and most iconic object until 2015, when it was replaced with a blue whale skeleton. Dippy’s time in the limelight was not over, however. The original cast was retrofitted for the traveling exhibition Dippy on Tour, and a bronze duplicate may one day be installed outside NHM.

Triceratops sp.

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Triceratops replica skeleton at the Natural History Museum. Source

This Triceratops is not an original skeleton or a cast—it’s a papier mâché model. Frederic Lucas of the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) created this replica in 1900 for the Smithsonian display at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. He likely used O.C. Marsh’s published illustration of a Triceratops skeleton as his primary reference. The model made a second appearance at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, but was rendered obsolete shortly thereafter when Charles Gilmore finished the world’s first real Triceratops mount in 1905. While constructing the skeleton, Gilmore learned that Marsh and Lucas’s straight-legged interpretation was physically impossible—Triceratops actually had partially sprawling forelimbs.

Nevertheless, exhibit models like this rarely go waste. Two years later, NHM received Lucas’s model as a gift from USNM. It has been on nearly continuous display ever since.

Iguanodon bernissartensis

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The Belgian Iguanodon cast as it appears today.Source

In 1878, coal miners in western Belgium discovered a clay deposit dense with Iguanodon fossils. A crew from the Belgian Royal Museum of Natural History (now the Belgium Museum of Natural Sciences) excavated dozens of skeletons, and in 1882 Louis De Pauw and Louis Dollo took on the task of assembling the best examples into standing mounts. De Pauw distributed casts of the largest and most complete individual to several institutions around Europe, including NHM (sources differ on whether the NHM cast arrived in 1895 or 1905).

While Dippy is made up of individual plaster casts of each bone, the Iguanodon was molded and cast in a handful of large sections. This means that the skeleton cannot be easily reassembled into a horizontal pose, and must remain a relic of an earlier era in our understanding of dinosaur posture.

Hypsilophodon foxii

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Nearly all known Hypsilophodon fossils come from the”Hypsilophodon bed,” part of the Wessex Formation on the Isle of Wight. More than a hundred articulated skeletons have been found in this mudstone layer, including NHM’s mounted pair. These particular individuals were collected by Reginald Hooley, an avocational fossil collector who also described and published several new species. The bulk of Hooley’s collection was sold to NHM in 1924, shortly after his death.

The larger Hypsilophodon (R5829) was mounted in 1934 by preparators Louis Parsons and Frank Barlow, in an upright, tail-dragging pose that closely mirrored the Belgian Iguanodon. This mount remained on display until the early 1990s, when the specimen was remounted for the 1992 dinosaur hall. Nigel Larkin and colleagues adapted the original iron armature to give the skeleton its correct horizontal posture. A juvenile Hypsilophodon (R5830) from the Hooley collection was also mounted at this time, using a cast Orodromeus skull provided by the Museum of the Rockies. Both Hypsilophodon mounts remained on display until 2016, when they were removed due to conservation concerns.

Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis

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The centerpiece of the 1924 Hooley acquisition is the holotype skeleton (R5764) of Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis, known at the time as Iguanodon atherfieldensis. Hooley found the 85% complete skeleton in 1914 on the Isle of Wight, in several blocks that had already eroded out of a cliff. It was—and still is—the most complete dinosaur skeleton found in the UK. Like the Hypsilophodon, the Mantellisaurus was originally mounted in the 1930s with a kangaroo-like posture. It was remounted for the 1992 exhibit in a horizontal walking pose.

More recently, the Mantellisaurus was moved to the redesigned Hintze Hall, part of a small selection of iconic specimens that represent the NHM’s collections and research areas. As an exceptionally complete, local dinosaur, it was a natural choice to represent vertebrate paleontology at the museum. In 2019, paleontologist Susannah Maidment and preparator Mark Graham spent four days temporarily dismantling the Mantellisaurus mount and digitizing every bone for future research.

Scolosaurus cutleri

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The complete Scolosaurus fossil. Image courtesy of the National History Museum, CC BY.

Another remarkable real specimen in the NHM collection is the Scolosaurus holotype (R5161). This fossil includes nearly the entire animal intact and in situ, including its osteoderms and some skin impressions. Only the head, the end of the tail, and two limbs are missing.

The Scolosaurus was found by fossil hunter William Cutler in 1914. After moving to Alberta from the UK, Cutler found work on Barnum Brown’s field expeditions before setting out as an independent collector. Cutler had a reputation for reckless behavior in the field, and often worked alone. Excavating the Scolosaurus was a case in point: it collapsed on him while he was undercutting the jacket.

NHM purchased the Scolosaurus in 1915, and Parsons set to work preparing the fossil straightaway. It has been on near-continuous display since 1929.

Cutler was hired by NHM again in 1925 to search for dinosaurs in Tanzania. Among his party was none other than Louis Leakey, on his first field season. Tragically, Cutler contracted malaria and died in the field at age 47.

Massospondylus carinatus

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Like most of the dinosaurs in the 1992 exhibit, Massospondylus stands on a platform over visitors’ heads. Source

In 1962, NHM acquired a nearly complete, unarticulated Massospondylus cast from the South African Museum in Cape Town. Some time later, William Lindsay and colleagues mounted it for a temporary exhibition at the City of Plymouth Museum. The mount has an unusual supporting armature, composed of short, glass-reinforced epoxy tubes. Since each section of tube fits tightly into the next, the mount can be assembled without the use of adhesives. The Massospondylus was repurposed for the 1992 dinosaur hall, where it remains today.

Gallimimus bullatus

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At 18 feet long, Gallimimus is bigger than you think. Source

Like Massospondylus, this Gallimimus arrived at NHM as an unarticulated cast in an exchange with a peer institution, in this case the Polish Academy of Sciences. The original skeleton was discovered on a Polish-Mongolian joint expedition led by trailblazing paleontologist and all-around incredible person Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska.

When NHM was beginning work on the 1992 dinosaur hall, the fossil prep team elected to hire Research Casting International to mount the Gallimimus. Rather than using the plaster casts, RCI made a plastic duplicate of each bone and assembled them on an aluminum armature. The skeleton’s running pose meant that the mount’s weight had to be carefully managed. All the weight rests on the left leg, which was molded around a 22-pound steel rod to compensate.

Lindsay reports that the decision to display most of the dinosaurs on elevated platforms was not made until after most of the mounts were finished. This wasn’t an issue for the smaller, more stable skeletons, but the Gallimimus was heavy and awkward enough that the tensioned steel cables holding up its platform had to be adjusted and readjusted as the skeleton was assembled.

Baryonyx walkerii

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A relief-mounted cast of Baryonyx, created in-house at NHM. Source

In January of 1983, William Walker discovered a large claw in a brick pit. NHM paleontologists Angela Milner and Alan Charig traveled to the site in southern England that summer to look for more. What they found was a carnivorous dinosaur unlike any other, with a crocodilian snout and smooth, straight teeth for snagging fish. Named Baryonyx walkeri, this specimen (R9951) is the only confirmed example of the species yet found.

The Baryonyx was found in particularly hard matrix loaded with iron ore, and as a result took nearly ten years to prepare, mold, and cast. A relief mount was completed just in time for the opening of the 1992 dinosaur hall.

Stegosaurus stenops (Sophie)

Sophie the Stegosaurus greets visitors in Earth Hall, at the museum’s east entrance.
Source

NHM’s most recent major dinosaur acquisition is a juvenile Stegosaurus called Sophie (R36730). Commericial fossil hunter Bob Simon collected the skeleton at a quarry in Wyoming, in 2003. The 90% complete, three-dimensionally preserved skeleton was prepared at Sauriermuseum in Switzerland. NHM purchased the specimen in 2013 with the help of multiple donors. Working in secret, staff paleontologists Susannah Maidment, Paul Barrett, and Charlotte Brassey thoroughly documented the skeleton with CT and laser scans of every bone. Sophie’s mounted skeleton was a surprise reveal in December 2014, alongside a trove of open access research covering the animal’s locomotion, bite force, and more.

References

Barrett, P., Parry, P., and Chapman, S. 2016. Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon. Natural History Museum, London.

Getty, T.A. and Crane, M.D. 1975. A Historical Account of the Palaeontological Collections found by R.W. Hooley (1865 to 1923). Newsletter of the Geological Curators Group. 4 (September 1975) :170-179.

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

Maidenment, S.C.R., Brassey, C., and Barrett, P.M. 2015. The postcranial skeleton of an exceptionally complete individual of the plated dinosaur Stegosaurus stenops from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Wyoming, USA. PLoS One. 10:10: e0138352.

Nieuwland, I. 2019. American Dinosaur Abroad: A Cultural History of Carnegie’s Plaster Diplodocus. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Noe, L. and Flinney, S. 2008. Dismantling, painting, and re-erecting of a historical cast of dinosaur Iguanodon in the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge. NatSCA News 14:41-48.

Swinton, W.E. 1936. Notes on the Osteology of Hypsilophodon, and on the family Hypsilophodontidae. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. 106:2:555-578.

Tanke, D.H. 2003. Lost in plain sight: Rediscovery of William Cutler’s missing Eoceratops. In New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, field work, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, museums, NHM, ornithopods, sauropods, theropods, thyreophorans

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 2

After visiting the La Brea Tar Pits and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we headed to Claremont to check out the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. I had heard lots of good things about the Alf Museum and have been wanting to check it out for some time. Many, many thanks to Curator Andy Farke (as well as Lucy Herrero and Gabriel Santos) for generously taking the time to show us around!

The Alf Museum is housed in a distinctive circular building, with a peccary mosaic over the door.

The Alf Museum is extremely unique. Located at the Webb School in Claremont, it is the only nationally accredited museum on a high school campus. The museum grew out of the collection of Webb teacher Raymond Alf. Though he was not a paleontologist by training, Alf became hooked on fossils after finding a Miocene peccary skull on a 1936 trip to the Mojave Desert. Alf continued to take students fossil hunting year after year, building a sizable collection in the basement of the library and any other storage space he could find. In 1968, alumi and school administrators came together to establish the non-profit Alf Museum, with Raymond Alf himself serving as its first director. Alf passed away in 1999, but lived long enough to see his museum become an internationally recognized research institution.

Webb School students continue to take an active part in collecting and research at the museum. All students go through a paleontology course in 9th grade, and about a fifth of the student body remains involved afterward. 95% of the museum’s 140,000 fossils were found by students on “peccary trips” to California, Utah, and Arizona. Students also lead tours and work in the state-of-the-art fossil prep and digitization labs. To date, 28 students have co-authored technical papers before graduating, all of which are proudly displayed at the museum.

Alf and a group of students collected this Permian reptile trackway in 1967 near Seligman, Arizona.

In the Hall of Footprints, mounted skeletons are cleverly placed over real fossil trackways.

There are two exhibits at the Alf Museum, each taking up one of the two floors. The lower level houses the Hall of Footprints, which was last renovated in 2002. This exhibit showcases one of the largest fossil trackway collections in the United States. Trace fossils on display range from Permian reptiles and insects to Cenozoic elephants and camels, as well as important holotypes like the world’s only known amphicyonid (bear-dog) trackway. To quote Dr. Farke, much of the footprint collection was acquired by “being stupid.” Despite being miles from any road, Alf and his students would cut colossal track-bearing slabs out of the bedrock by hand. Between the logistical problems and the availability of digitization techniques like photogrammetry, few modern ichnologists would condone Alf’s practices. On the other hand, his recklessness ensured that these fossils are available for study today, even after many of the source localities have weathered away or been vandalized.

The main level’s Hall of Life is a more traditional walk through time, but with an Alf Museum spin. Visitors follow the circumference of the annular building, starting with the origin of the universe and progressing chronologically through the major milestones in the evolution of life on Earth. The bigger, showier aspects of the exhibit are not unique to the museum. There’s a cast of the Red Deer River Centrosaurus from the American Museum of Natural History, and a composite cast of a Cleveland-Lloyd Allosaurus. A model of the famous transitional fish Tiktaalik has an identical twin at the Field Museum. Like many modern exhibits, walls are filled in with large murals and a varied color palate is used to demarcate themed sections. Different audio tracks throughout the exhibit are subtlety employed in the same way (the sound of buzzing prairie insects symbolizing the rise of grasslands in the Cenozoic is particularly inspired).

Showy dinosaur casts undoubtedly draw visitors’ attention.

Original and cast specimens from the Paleozoic are illustrated by one of several murals by Karen Carr.

Once one looks past the more ostentatious parts of the display, the Alf Museum really gets interesting. Since Dr. Farke was involved in the Hall of Life’s 2011 renovation, he could explain the design choices in detail. Some of these follow Farke’s own sensibilities. For instance, the scientific method and the evidence for evolution are strongly emphasized. Most labels are implicitly written to answer the question how do we know? Interactives tend to be of the analog variety, and multimedia is only used to illustrate things that could not be effectively shown with a static display. One example is a video where a computer model of a pterosaur skeleton demonstrates the quadrupedal launch hypothesis.

Expressive Dinictis and Hyaenodon mounts welcome visitors to the Cenozoic.

“What are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Nevertheless, in both large and small ways the main themes of the exhibit are modeled after Raymond Alf’s own teaching philosophies. Following Alf’s lead in trusting students to treat specimens mindfully and respectfully, many objects are not in cases and within arm’s reach. The circular halls harmonize with the “spiral of time,” Alf’s preferred metaphor for the geological record (and circles and spirals are a recurring visual motif throughout the museum). Perhaps most importantly, the Hall of Life’s walk through time doesn’t end in the past but in the present. This final section includes nods to the archaeological record, as well as cases featuring new research and discoveries by Webb School students. The message is that despite our short time on Earth, humans have had a profound impact on the planet and every individual has a part to play in the larger story of the universe. As Alf repeatedly asked his students, “what are you going to do with your moment in time?”

Student stories and quotes can be found throughout the exhibits.

The most thought-provoking thing that Farke told me was that the Alf Museum is intended for three distinct audiences. There are the regular museum visitors, seeking a generalized look at paleontology. Then there are current Webb School students, who make use of the museum as part of their classes. Finally, there is the larger cohort of Webb alumni, who want to see specimens they remember from decades past (including fossils they collected themselves) and to reflect on their time at the school and on Raymond Alf himself. It is the nods to this third group that make the Alf Museum’s exhibits uncommonly special. Even as an outsider who had never met a Webb student and was just learning about Alf’s legacy, I found that the museum has a palpable sense of community.

Between the photos of beaming students on peccary trips to the unattributed Raymond Alf quotes printed high on the walls, the shared experiences of the Webb School community are intractably situated within the exhibits. Objects on display are illustrative specimens, but they are also more. Each one represents a rich tapestry of people, places, and experiences, and embodies a sort of collective memory starting with its discovery and extending into the present day. For me, at least, this is what natural history is all about.

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work, mammals, museums, reviews, science communication

Paleontology Exhibits of California – Part 1

I’ve spent the last week on a whirlwind tour of southern California, visiting natural history museums, zoos, and botanic gardens, as well as seeing a fair assortment of marine mammals. Suffice it to say, my (endlessly patient) travel partner Stephanie and I ended the trip with a bit of sensory overload. I had planned to start off with a brief travelogue post and save more thorough analysis for later, but as usual I’ve gone and written much more than I intended.

La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum

Howard Ball’s famous mammoth statues in La Brea’s lake pit.

The La Brea Tar Pits (a.k.a. the the tar tar pits) is an iconic fossil locality in downtown Los Angeles. I visited  in my single-digit years, but I remember the site better from documentaries like Denver the Last Dinosaur. The region’s asphalt seeps have been known to local people for thousands of years, and they were first commercially mined in the 1700s, when Rancho La Brea was a Mexican land grant. The animal bones commonly found in the asphalt were seen as a nuisance until 1875, when William Denton of Wellesley College identified a large tooth from Rancho La Brea as belonging to an extinct saber-toothed cat. Several years of largely unrestricted fossil collecting followed, until the Hancock family that had come to own the land gave exclusive collecting rights to the Los Angeles County Museum (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) in 1913.

Within two years, museum paleontologists had collected about a million bones, mostly from large Pleistocene animals like mammoths, ground sloths, wolves, and saber-toothed cats. This enormous abundance meant that the La Brea fossils were useful not only as research specimens but as trade goods. The LACM amassed much of its present-day fossil collection by trading La Brea fossils to other museums.

The Hancock family donated the 23 acres around the La Brea asphalt seeps to Los Angeles County in 1924. From that point on, the area functioned as a public park, where visitors could learn about ice age California and even watch ongoing excavations. Park facilities and exhibits expanded gradually over the ensuing decades. Sculptures of bears and ground sloths by Herman Beck were added to the grounds in the late 1920s. In 1952, a concrete bunker over one of the excavation sites became the first La Brea museum. The LACM board commissioned the site’s most iconic display – the trio of mammoth statues – in 1965, and sculptor Howard Ball installed them in 1968.

The George C. Page Museum, plus a man who wouldn’t move.

Finally, after years of planning and fundraising, the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries opened in 1977. The remarkable Brutalist building is adorned by a fiberglass frieze depicting ice age animals in a savanna environment. The aluminum frame holding up the frieze also contains an atrium of tropical plants, which the indoor exhibit halls encircle. Architects Willis Fagan and Frank Thornton designed the museum to fit organically into the established park setting, and to subliminally reflect the fossil excavations it celebrates. The building appears to be erupting from the ground, much like the asphalt and the fossils therein. The entrance is below ground level, so visitors must descend a ramp to meet the fossils at their point of origin.

The giant camel Camelops hesternus (front) with adult and juvenile mastodons (back). Those logs were also hauled out of the asphalt seeps.

Panthera atrox was apparently more like a giant jaguar than a lion. Small-by-comparison Smilodon fatalis in the back.

In many ways, the Page Museum is now a museum of a museum. Most of the interior exhibits, including the fossil mounts designed by Eugene Fisher*, are the same as they were in 1977. Photos show that the exhibit halls, prep labs, and collections areas have changed little in the last 40 years. And that’s okay! The museum building and the outdoor displays around it have been part of the Los Angeles landscape for decades, and cherished by generations of visitors. To the museum’s credit, the 1970s exhibits were well ahead of their time. Windows onto the prep lab and collections would be right at home in modern “inside out” museums, and an oft-repeated message that microfossils (such as insects, birds, rodents, and pollen) are more informative than megafauna fossils vis-à-vis paleoclimate and ancient environments is still very relevant to the field of paleontology today.

That isn’t to say there is nothing new to see. Newer signage around the park grounds does an excellent job re-interpreting older displays, especially those that are now considered inaccurate. For example, Howard Ball’s mammoth statues are probably among the most photographed paleoart installations in the world, but they completely misrepresent the way most of the animals found at La Brea actually died. Ball’s female mammoth is hip-deep in a man-made lake filling in an old asphalt quarry. As the signage (and tireless tour guides) explains, the animals trapped here thousands of years ago actually became stuck in asphalt seeps that were six inches deep or less. Meanwhile, while the classic friezes and murals throughout the Page Museum depict savanna-like landscapes, more recent analysis of microfossils demonstrates that the area was actually a fairly dense woodland.

Turkeys, condors, eagles, and storks are among the more unusual fossil mounts at the Page Museum.

There are two main reasons that the Page Museum is a must-see. First, it provides an in-depth view of a single prehistoric ecosystem. As mentioned, LACM traded La Brea fossils to all sorts of other museums, so chances are you’ve already seen a La Brea Smilodon, Paramylodon, or dire wolf. The Page Museum has these animals, but it also has rarely-seen creatures like ice age turkeys, condors, and coyotes. I counted 25 mounted skeletons in total, to say nothing of the hundreds of smaller specimens. My favorite display was a Smilodon skull growth series, where you can see how the adult saber teeth erupt and push out the baby sabers. In addition, the Page Museum stands right next to the La Brea fossil quarries, past and present. The museum and the park that preceded it were conceived as places where the public could see science in action. Researchers have been uncovering fossils at La Brea for over a hundred years, and visitors have been watching over their shoulders the entire time. That alone makes La Brea a very special place.

*All the La Brea mounts (at the Page Museum or elsewhere) are composites. To my knowledge no articulated remains have ever been recovered from the asphalt seeps. As Stephanie pointed out, the skull of the Equus occidentalis mount actually belonged to a significantly younger animal than the mandible. 

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

This Tyrannosaurus growth series is the centerpiece of the LACM Dinosaur Hall.

Our next stop was the Page Museum’s parent institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (which I will continue to abbreviate as LACM for consistency). LACM actually features two fossil exhibits: the 2010 Age of Mammals Hall and the 2011 Dinosaur Hall. Both were part of a $135 million project to restore and update much of the LACM building, which first opened in 1913. While the two halls were developed concurrently by different teams, they are architecturally very similar. Parallel mezzanines flank spacious central aisles, which maximizes usable space in the two-story rooms and allows visitors to view most of the mounted skeletons from ground level or from above.

The primary strength of both the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall is that they look really good. New skylights and newly uncovered bay windows yield plenty of natural light. Primary-colored panels provide interesting backdrops for the specimens, and fossil mounts on the ground and in the air keep visitors looking in all directions. These exhibits were clearly designed to look incredible from the moment you enter the room, and the abundant natural light means they photograph quite well.

Suspended skeletons make use of the vertical space and keep visitors looking all around the exhibit.

Triceratops and Mamenchisaurus at the front end of the Dinosaur Hall.

LACM’s mammal collection has been built up over the last century, while the dinosaur specimens were mostly collected by Luis Chiappe’s Dinosaur Institute in the decade preceding the exhibit’s opening. Nevertheless, both exhibits feature an uncommon diversity of beautifully-prepared fossils. I was particularly taken by the metal fixtures constructed to display incomplete skulls of Augustynolophus and Tyrannosaurus. The mounted skeletons were handled by two different companies: Research Casting International did the mammals and Phil Fraley Productions did the dinosaurs. I actually like the mammal mounts slightly better. There’s a greater range of interesting poses, and they don’t suffer from Fraley’s signature exploding chests.

The Poebrotherium, Hoplophoneus, and Hyracodon mounts are full of life and character.

A metalwork frame artfully shows the missing parts of this Augustynolophus skull.

All that said, there is a surprising divergence in the quality of interpretation between the Age of Mammals Hall and the Dinosaur Hall. On this front, the Age of Mammals Hall is better by far. There is an open floor plan that visitors can circulate freely, but everything comes back to three main ideas posted near the entrance: continents move, climates change, mammals evolve. In no particular order, the exhibit demonstrates how Cenozoic mammals diversified in response to the environmental upheaval around them.

On the ground floor, one tableau shows how dogs, horses, rhinos, and camels evolved to move swiftly across the emergent grasslands of the Miocene. Another area covers how mammals grew larger to adapt to an ice age climate. Overhead, a whale, sea cow, sea lion, and desmostylian illustrate four independent lineages that evolved to make use of marine resources. Exhibits on the mezzanine level focus on how paleontologists learn about prehistoric mammals. One area compares different sorts of teeth and feet. Another explains how pollen assemblages can be used to determine the average temperature and moisture of a particular time and place, while drill cores illustrate how a region’s environment changed over time. Although the exhibit as a whole has no time axis, it does an excellent job conveying how evolution works at an environmental scale.

The addition of dogs, camels, and rhinos makes for an informative twist on the classic horse evolution exhibit.

Struthiomimus is accompanied by a modern ostrich and tundra swan.

By comparison, the Dinosaur Hall doesn’t have any obvious guiding themes. The exhibit is a grab-bag of topics, and to my eyes, specimens and labels appear to be placed wherever they fit. Jurassic Allosaurus and Stegosaurus are surrounded by displays about the end-Cretaceous extinction. Carnotaurus of Cretaceous Argentina is paired with Camptosaurus of Jurassic Colorado. Mamenchisaurus shares a platform with distantly-related Thescelosaurus, which lived 80 million years later on the other side of the world. An explanation of what defines a dinosaur is confusingly juxtaposed with non-dinosaurian marine reptiles. If there’s any logic here, I didn’t see it. This is accentuated by the fact that the label copy is no more specific than a run-of-the-mill dinosaur book for kids. It all feels very generalized and unambitious, especially compared to the Age of Mammals Hall. I would have liked to see more information on what makes these particular specimens special, as well as how they were found, prepared, and interpreted. I suppose it’s up to the visitor whether an exhibit like this can get by on looks alone.

And so concludes day one of our trip. Next time, the Raymond M. Alf Museum and places south!

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The Great Mammoth of Lincoln

Lincoln, Nebraska is home to a legendary giant. The University of Nebraska State Museum, known locally as Morrill Hall or Elephant Hall, has the largest mammoth skeleton on display anywhere in the world. “Archie” the columbian mammoth is literally a giant among giants. 14 feet tall and striding on bizarre, stilt-like legs, he towers over the twelve other extinct and extant proboscidians (ten skeletons and two taxidermy mounts) in the museum’s great hall.

Like the Field Museum’s Sue the Tyrannosaurus, Archie is not only a scientific specimen, but something of a mascot. The mammoth is regularly cited as the museum’s star attraction. Its image adorns museum merchandise, and a dancing costumed Archie shows up at local schools and on game days. A bronze sculpture of a fur and flesh Archie created by local artist Fred Hoppe was placed outside the museum’s entrance in 2006, and it is apparently traditional for students to slap its outstretched forefoot for luck. At the center of it all, though, is the real mounted skeleton, which has been on display for 84 years and admired by generations of visitors.

The bronze Archie statue outside the University of Nebraska State Museum. Source

Archie’s skeleton was famously discovered by chickens. In 1921, southwest Nebraska farmer Henry Kariger noticed that his chickens were pecking at some white minerals eroding out of a hillside. Thinking the substance would be a good source of lime for his flock, Kariger started collecting it and adding it to their feed. Eventually the hill eroded further, and Kariger realized he had something more impressive than lime deposits – it was the jaws and teeth of a giant animal.

On November 14, Kariger sent a brief handwritten letter to Erwin Barbour, director of the Nebraska State Museum, describing his find. A geologist and paleontologist, Barbour started his career as O.C. Marsh’s second-in-command at the United States Geological Survey. In 1891, Barbour took the dual posts of Director of the Department of Geology at the University of Nebraska and Nebraska State Geologist. He was appointed Director of the State Museum shortly thereafter, and spent the next fifty years scouring the Nebraskan countryside for fossils to build the museum’s collection. Barbour replied to Kariger two weeks after receiving his letter, informing the farmer that he had found a mammoth, and that he was “entirely sure of this without seeing it.”

Barbour typically received dozens of letters about fossil finds every year, and he gave Kariger the same instructions he gave everyone else: avoid handling the fossils, and absolutely refrain from attempting to extract more bones from the ground. Barbour had seen countless fossils destroyed by overeager members of the public trying to pry them out by hand, or with crowbars. He informed Kariger that the museum would pay for an important find, but only if it was kept intact. Barbour requested that Kariger leave the fossils until the spring, when a museum crew could come out and assess them.

Archie the mammoth in 2010, with the author looking characteristically ridiculous.

Barbour soon discovered that Kariger had contacted a number of other museums, shopping his find around in an effort to get the best price. In a letter, Kariger informed Barbour that he had been told he had a giant sloth, and that it was exceptionally rare. Barbour held firm, repeating that the find was certainly a mammoth and that he could look at it in the spring. Apparently impatient, Kariger decided to ignore Barbour and got to work excavating the rest of the skeleton, hauling the bones out of the hillside with a team of horses. Miraculously, Kariger did not completely destroy the fossils in the process. With a good portion of a mammoth skeleton in his possession, Kariger brought his find to Lincoln the following summer to display it at the state fair. It was here that Barbour met Kariger – and his mammoth – for the first time. Barbour was suitably impressed, and immediately wrote to Henry Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, describing the skeleton as complete save for its tusks and the lower portions of its limbs.

According to an account by Walter Linnemeyer (who was about six years old at the time), local authorities discovered that Kariger was selling bootlegged whiskey out of the back of his tent at the state fair, and confiscated both the whiskey and the fossils. Although this makes for an exciting story, Vertebrate Paleontology Collections Manager George Corner confirms that the skeleton “was not confiscated by the Museum or anyone else and then given to the Museum.” In fact, documents in the museum archives confirm that Barbour paid Kariger $250 for the fossils, and that the entirely amicable transfer occurred at the fair in 1922. Since no other documentation about Kariger being involved in illicit sales has surfaced, we must assume that the story is, as Corner puts it, “a product of the times.” Prohibition was the law of the land in 1922, and rumors about sources of illegal liquor must have been common. One might also speculate that anti-government sentiments in rural communities may have played a role in the myth-making.

Barbour poses with Archie’s legs in 1925. Source

Another reason to discount the notion that Kariger’s fossils were seized is that he and Barbour maintained a friendly relationship for years afterward. In December 1922, Kariger wrote to Barbour to inform him that he had found one of the missing tusks, but that he had damaged it while removing it from the ground (it didn’t help that his pigs had chewed on it a bit). Barbour once again asked that Kariger leave any further finds buried, reminding him that the museum would pay more for undamaged fossils. Barbour and his student William Hall made the two-day journey to Kariger’s farm the following June. They stayed with the Kariger family for five nights, paying them for room and board, as well as the services of a draft team. Even after resorting to dynamite to blast away the rest of the hill, Barbour went back to Lincoln empty handed. Still, both he and the Karigers enjoyed the experience, and they fondly reminisced about the trip in subsequent letters.

Barbour initially published the Kariger mammoth as a new species, Elephas maibeni, after museum donor Hector Maiben. Osborn’s monograph on proboscidian evolution, posthumously published in 1936, redescribed it as Archidiskodon imperator (hence “Archie”). Archidiskodon has since been folded into Mammuthus columbi, or the columbian mammoth, a species which ranged throughout the western United States and Central America.

Barbour oversees his impeccably-dressed staff as they mount Archie’s skeleton. Source

When the University of Nebraska State Museum acquired Archie in 1922, space was severely limited. Collections were already stuffed into attics, cellars, and even the steam tunnels between university buildings. Nevertheless, Barbour ensured that at least part of the record-sized mammoth was on display. In 1925, he mounted the forelimbs and part of the torso, forming an archway at the museum’s entrance. A new, larger museum building funded by donor Charles Morrill was completed two years later, and the Kariger mammoth was immediately a candidate for display as a complete mounted skeleton. Barbour sent preparator Henry Reider out that summer to collect isolated mammoth bones that could fill in Archie’s incomplete legs. Soon work on the full mount was underway, with contributions from Reider, Eugene Vanderpool, Frank Bell, and others. The 14-foot tall, 25-foot long mount took years to construct, but was finally completed in the spring of 1933.

Even before Archie was complete, it was clear that the new museum’s central hall would be a showcase for fossil elephants. The lineup of mounted skeletons, which has not changed significantly since the mid-20th century, includes two columbian mammoths, an American mastodon, Stegomastodon, Gomphotherium, Amebelodon, Eubelodon, a pygmy mammoth, and contemporary African and Asian elephants. Elizabeth Dolan provided two parallel background murals which depict elephants around a forested watering hole in an impressionistic style. Today, a contemporary mammoth mural by Mark Marcuson adorns the far wall.

The spectacular elephant hall (Archie is along the left wall, blocked by the taxidermy elephants from this angle). Source

84 years after it was first assembled, the skeleton of Archie the mammoth is a Nebraska icon. Indeed, this mount and the hall it resides in have become a time capsule, a landmark to return to again and again for generations of visitors. Nevertheless, even the most beloved icons are not completely safe. The Nebraska state legislature has repeatedly hit the State Museum with budget cuts, including an astonishing 50% cut in 2003 accompanied by the dismissal of several tenured curators. Thanks to inspired leadership by Director Priscilla Grew, the museum re-earned its accreditation in 2009 and became a Smithsonian Affiliate in 2014. Still, the series of events is a sobering reminder that while museums exist as a public service, they are also dependent on public support. Funding museums must be a top priority if we want legendary displays like Archie to be on exhibit for generations to come.

Many thanks to George Corner for answering my questions about Kariger’s mammoth. Any factual errors are my own.

References

Barbour, E.H. 1925. Skeletal Parts of the Columbian Mammoth Elephas maibeniBulletin of the Nebraska State Museum. 10: 95-118.

Corner, R.G. 2017. Personal communication.

Debus, A.A. and Debus, D.E. 2002. Dinosaur Memories: Dino-trekking for Beats of Thunder, Fantastic Saurians, “Paleo-people,” “Dinosaurabilia,” and other “Prehistoria.” Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press.

Knopp, L. 2002. Mammoth Bones. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. 9:1: 2002.

Linnemeyer, W. and Nutt, M. 2009. Mammoth Bones and Bootleg Whiskey. The Mammoth: A Newsletter for the Friends of the University of Nebraska State Museum. August 2009.

Osborn, H.F. and Percy, M.R. 1936. Proboscidia: A monograph of the discovery, evolution, migration, and extinction of the mastodonts and elephants of the world. New York, NY: American Museum Press.

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Filed under exhibits, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, paleoart

National Fossil Day 2017

Everyone knows fossils are cool. They are the earthly remains of giant, fierce, fantastical, but very much real monsters from our planet’s distant past. But since today is National Fossil Day, it’s a good time to remember what else fossils are.

Fossils are cool: Alamosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Mammuthus, and Quetzalcoatlus at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Fossil plants and animals provide us with a long view of the Earth. After all, the past and the present are not different places, but parts of a single continuum. Fossils tell us how life has evolved and diversified in response to a changing planet, and ultimately tell us how the world we know came to be. We cannot hope to understand the world around us, much less how to preserve and protect it, without the fossil record. With the information provided by fossils, we can explore ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and other anthropogenic planetary changes by studying how life has responded to similar challenges in the distant past.

The fossil-filled painted desert at Petrified Forest National Park.

It’s also a good time to think about the institutions that make it possible for us to learn about the past through fossils. The United States has a noble tradition of establishing public lands – protected wilderness spaces that can be enjoyed by everyone. Land administered by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal and local agencies is the source of a plurality of the fossils found in the United States. Fossils found on public lands belong to the American people, and the aforementioned agencies keep those fossils safe and accessible by running interpretive programs and issuing collecting permits. They ensure that fossil collection on public lands is orchestrated in a professional way that will preserve all relevant contextual information.

The National Museum of Natural history has protected these rare Maryland sauropod fossils since the 1890s. 

Fossils recovered from public lands live in museums. There are many words that are routinely used to characterize museums – mysterious, cavernous, prestigious, dusty. But to quote Stephen Weil, museums are also “rationally organized institutions directed toward articulable purposes.” Museums exist as a public service, with two clear aims: to protect and preserve objects that are worth protecting and preserving, and to provide opportunities for life-long learning in the communities they serve. Behind the scenes, small armies of skilled staff keep track of the specimens in their care, and protect them from the effects of light and pests and time. Indeed, a well-run museum collection is anything but mysterious and dusty – the precise location of each of the thousands or millions of objects is known, and each object is kept in good condition. Without museums, fossils would weather away, or would be hidden and eventually lost in a private collection. Museum collections exist to be used – they are made available to students and researchers seeking to learn new information about those specimens, and the most remarkable or informative examples are put on display.

And with that, I’ve said my piece. When you’re thinking about how awesome fossils are today, remember to thank the stewards of public lands and collections managers that have made our discovery of past worlds possible. Happy National Fossil Day – Peace, love, and fossils.

Reference

Weil, S.E. 2002. Making Museums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

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A Tour of Dinosaur Park

I generally use this blog to write about other people’s work, but today I’m going to turn the tables and share a project I’ve been involved with for the past couple years. As of this month, the new interpretive area at Laurel, Maryland’s Dinosaur Park is (just about) complete. I’m proud of my own contributions, and ecstatic with all the work my immeasurably talented and dedicated colleagues have done to bring this project to fruition.

Introductory sign at Dinosaur Park.

Dinosaur Park is a 41-acre site operated by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission that preserves the most productive dinosaur fossil quarry in the eastern United States. Historically known as the Muirkirk quarry, this location has been a known source of dinosaur material since 1858. Fossils were first discovered by ironworkers collecting siderite for processing at the nearby Muirkirk ironworks. Later, O.C. Marsh, John Bell Hatcher, Charles Gilmore, Richard Lull and other prominent paleontologists would collect or study fossils from this deposit. The site was largely forgotten for most of the 20th century, but in the 1980s Peter Kranz, Tom Lipka, and others relocated it and began unearthing new material. Highlights included a massive sauropod femur, basal ceratopsian teeth, and the only Mesozoic mammal fossils ever found east of the Mississippi River.

The Muirkirk quarry produced some of the first dinosaur fossils to be scientifically studied in North America, and as such conceptions of its position in geologic time have understandably changed over the years. Marsh assumed the site was Jurassic in age because of the presence of sauropods, but Gilmore later revised it to Cretaceous. Based on pollen data, we can now place the site (and the Patuxant Formation as a whole) at the Aptian-Albian boundary in the Lower Cretaceous. Contrary to older proposals, the Muirkirk dinosaur fauna has more in common with the middle strata of the Cedar Mountain Formation in Utah than the Wealden Group in England.

Excavating a sauropod femur at the future site of Dinosaur Park in 1991. Photo courtesy of Pete Kroehler.

Dinosaur Park fossils aren’t much to look at, but they are remarkable for their diversity. This is a record of a complete ecosystem.

Thanks to some determined lobbying, the M-NCPPC (a bi-county organization that administers parks and urban planning) acquired the Muirkirk site and formally dedicated Dinosaur Park in October 2008. From its inception, Dinosaur Park was conceived as a citizen science project. During school programs and regularly scheduled open houses, visitors are invited to take part in ongoing prospecting for fossils. These programs emphasize stewardship of natural heritage, rather than treasure hunting, and to date visitors have discovered thousands of specimens. All of these fossils are accessioned into the county’s collection for research and education, and important specimens are turned over to the National Museum of Natural  History for final curation (search the NMNH Paleobiology collections database for “Arundel” to view this material).

Citizen scientists prospecting for fossils at Dinosaur Park.

Back in 2008, there wasn’t much to Dinosaur Park beyond the fossil site, a protective fence, and a small gravel parking lot. There were always plans to further develop the site, however, and thanks to the Park’s ongoing popularity we were able to kick off the phase II construction in 2016. The project involved developing the entrance area with exhibits and visitor amenities. There wasn’t a lot of space to work with, and the new facilities would have to do double duty: they needed to be useful both during guided programs and for drop-in visitors during the week (when the fossil site is closed). We ended up with an integrated, multipurpose space incorporating a series of exhibit signs, a garden of “living fossil” plants, a presentation area, a climbable dinosaur skeleton, two picnic benches, and a restroom and drinking fountain.

A number of additions were – to the probable annoyance of my colleagues –  the result of me piping up with a last-minute “wouldn’t it be cool if…” suggestion. That’s how we ended up with a life-sized image of the Astrodon femur discovered by the Norden  family in 1991, a trail of sauropod footprints, and a series of displays about baby sauropods (perhaps there’s a theme there?).

The garden, play area, and other new facilities at Dinosaur Park.

One of several new interpretive signs.

The content of the exhibit signs was directly informed by formal and informal visitor surveys. We took note of visitors’ most frequent questions, as well as which parts of our old displays were being ignored or misunderstood. For example, lots of visitors wanted to know about the biggest or most important fossils found at the Park. These weren’t illustrated on our old signs, but they’re integral parts of the new ones. Meanwhile, very few visitors were engaging with content about local geology, so those sections ended up being cut.

A section of Shoe’s masterful Cretaceous Maryland mural. Artwork by Clarence Schumaker, courtesy of the M-NCPPC.

For me, and hopefully many visitors, the highlight of the new displays is the spectacular mural created by Clarence “Shoe” Schumaker. Shoe has produced artwork for numerous parks and museums, including several National Park Service facilities, but to my knowledge he had never painted dinosaurs before. Nevertheless, he approached the project with unquenchable enthusiasm, determined to get every detail correct. Working with Shoe was a fantastic experience – I would send him my hasty sketches and random ideas and he would somehow turn them into spectacular imagery. Our goal was to produce an image that would be at home in any nature center. This is an overview of an ecosystem, and the presence of dinosaurs is only by happenstance. The final piece is mesmerizing, and I think its hyper-detailed placidity gives it a certain Zallinger-like quality.

The finished mural was so cool that I couldn’t help but ask for more. One under-reported virtue of the Dinosaur Park collection is that we have sauropod remains from a variety of ages and sizes – from 70-foot adults to tiny hatchlings. I suggested a single image of a baby sauropod to help illustrate these animals’ remarkable growth potential. Shoe turned around and produced two full paintings and a life-sized model. The man is seriously unstoppable.

Shoe’s 2D and 3D baby Astrodon art. Artwork by Clarence Schumaker, courtesy of the M-NCPPC.

It’s been a wonderful experience seeing the Dinosaur Park interpretive area come together, and the few places where compromises were made are vastly overshadowed by the many prominent successes. Dinosaur Park is an important resource, both for growing our knowledge of prehistory and for introducing the local community to the process of scientific discovery. I can’t wait to see it continue to grow!

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Dispatch from SEAVP2016

Wow, it’s been awhile. The real world has been keeping me busy, but I’ve been researching a couple new museum  history stories that I will write up with all haste. In the meantime, I’d like to share some brief thoughts on the Southeast Association of Vertebrate Paleontology conference at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, which I attended earlier this week. SEAVP has a reputation for being fairly laid back, even as gatherings of paleontologists go. No frantic networking or jostling to introduce oneself to celebrity researchers, just a bunch of enthusiastic people excited to share their work.

Acrocanthosaurus is photobombed by some legless mammal.

Acrocanthosaurus is photobombed by some legless mammal.

With 50-some attendees, nearly everyone was either speaking or presenting a poster. Miranda Armour-Chelu took on the challenge of reconstructing the taphonomic circumstances surrounding historically collected dugong fossils. Marcelo Kramer shared his adventures prospecting for Quaternary fossils in unexplored caves in northern Brazil. Julie Rej explained the difficulty of identifying Australian agamid fossils when most modern comparative collections in museums consist of pickled lizards, rather than bones. My own talk was a show-and-tell session of some of the cool new fossils discovered by visitors to Maryland’s Dinosaur Park. If I had to pick a standout session, it would be C.T. Griffin’s fascinating research comparing the growth trajectories of early dinosaurs to modern birds and crocodillians. Not as straightforward as one might expect.

Splitting shale at the Solite Fossil Site.

Splitting shale at the Solite Fossil Site.

tanywhatsit

Max’s tanywhatsit fossil.

The following day, we visited the famed Solite Fossil Site, one of the most fossiliferous terrestrial Triassic localities in the world. These shales are best known for preserving an abundance of unique insects, but vertebrates and diagnostic plant fossils are also known. In particular, the site has produced hundreds of the tiny long-necked reptile Tanytrachelos. It only took 20 minutes for my colleague Max Bovis to find a “tany”, and an hour later he reportedly found a fossil fish. Both will be entered into the VMNH collection. We also visited Virginia Tech, where Michelle Stocker and Sterling Nesbit provided a tour of the paleobiology department facilities. We saw unique fossils from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico and the extant comparative specimen lab, but I was most envious of their 3-D printing set-up!

An immersive

An immersive habitat diorama featuring the Ice Age beaver Castoroides.

What of the exhibits at VMNH? They’re fantastic. Despite the museum’s small size, the production quality on all the displays is really top notch. The Uncovering Virginia hall highlights several fossil sites around the state, including the Ice Age mammals from Saltville, the coal seams of Grundy, and the aforementioned Solite quarry. In addition to original specimens and reconstructions of the excavations, there are a number of inspired hands-on activities. Visitors can put a whale jaw back together and articulate a femur with a pelvis, mirroring challenges actually faced by fossil preparators (nary a sandbox dig in sight!). I also liked a multimedia display where pressing a button (labeled “press here to go back in time”) pulls back an image of the Grundy coal mine and reveals a moving diorama of a Carboniferous coal swamp.

The central Hall of Ancient Life features local whale and Ice Age fossils, as well as some visiting dignitaries like a cast of Big Al the Allosaurus. Don’t forget to check out the second floor balcony, which contains Morrison Formation dinosaur bones and a secret Tenontosaurus mount.

aww

Group photo courtesy of Alex Hastings, VMNH.

All in all, an excellent conference – hats off to Alex Hatings, Christina Byrd, and everyone else involved in arranging it. I’m looking forward to next year’s meeting, which will be hosted by the Gray Fossil Site Museum in Tennessee!

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