Category Archives: field work

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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Filed under citizen science, Dinosaur Park, dinosaurs, education, exhibits, field work, mammals, museums, reptiles, reviews

A Trio of Tyrants

The frentic search for North American dinosaur fossils in the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be divided into three phases. First came O.C. Marsh and E.D Cope, whose infamous rivalry resulted in literal trainloads of fossil material and laid the groundwork for our present understanding of dinosaur diversity. Next, teams sponsored by the newly-formed American, Carnegie, and Field museums returned to the same hunting grounds in the western interior to secure display-worthy specimens for their great halls of exhibition. The final phase was smaller in scale but yielded dinosaur specimens so spectacularly complete that most have gone unmatched to this day.

This third fossil rush occurred not in the United States but in Canada, along the cliff-like banks of Alberta’s Red Deer River. Fossil hunting in this region was pioneered in the late 1800s by George Dawson, Joseph Tyrell, and Lawrence Lambe, all working for the Canadian Geological Survey. This success did not go unnoticed by the the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1910, the museum mounted an expedition led by Barnum Brown to the Red Deer River. Rather ingeniously, Brown’s team acquired a pair of 30-foot floating barges, which were used as mobile platforms from which they could excavate the steep river banks. The barges also served as floating campsites and a handy means of transportation in a region without reliable roads.The adventurous Brown was already a media favorite, and the publicity surrounding his Alberta expeditions only increased when the team started bringing back fully articulated and nearly complete dinosaur skeletons (including several with skin impressions).

Under pressure from constituents concerned that the Americans were hauling away so much of their natural heritage, the Canadian government formed its own team of fossil collectors in 1912. The new Canadian Geological Survey team was headed by independent fossil hunter Charles H. Sternberg (a veteran collector who had once worked for Cope) and his sons George, Levi, and Charles Jr. The Canadian and American teams worked in the same region for the next five field seasons. Their rivalry was usually good-natured, but on more than one occasion Brown saw fit to grumble about the Sternbergs’ ethics (never mind that he was the one permanently removing fossils from their country of origin).

Gorgosaurus at AMNH

Three tyrannosaurs mounted in relief at AMNH. Image courtesy of the AMNH Research Library.

All of this is so much preamble for the actual topic of this post – three remarkable Gorgosaurus skeletons* collected near the Red Deer River during the Canadian fossil rush. All three were eventually mounted in relief by AMNH preparator Peter Kaisen, and for a time they were displayed together in the Hall of Fossil Reptiles. These specimens are on the short list of most complete large theropod dinosaurs ever discovered, and in their day they provided researchers an unprecedented look at the physiology of these amazing animals. Nearly a century later, the three mounts are virtually unchanged. Locked behind glass for decades and largely inaccessible to researchers, the mounts themselves are now relics of a fascinating transitional period in the history of dinosaur studies.

*AMNH also recovered a fourth tyrannosaur during this period – Gorgeous George the Daspletosaurus.

As usual, a brief explanation of nomenclature is required. William Matthew and Barnum Brown originally described these specimens as Gorgosaurus, a genus that Dale Russell sank into Albertosaurus in 1970. Most specialists no longer support this synonymization, but the specimens at AMNH are still labeled as Albertosaurus.

Gorgosaurus libratus – USNM 12814

gorgo

A recent photo of USNM 12812 from the ongoing renovation of the national fossil hall. Source

USNM 12814 (originally designated AMNH 5248) was excavated by Brown’s company in 1913 and prepared for display in 1918. Kaisen elected to recreate the death pose in which the Gorgosaurus was found, with its head swept backward over its body. All told, the finished mount included a skull, a complete set of cervical and dorsal vertebrae, complete forelimbs, and a single femur – the pelvis and the rest of the hindlimbs were filled in with casts from other specimens. Since the skeleton was mounted in relief, Kaisen simply painted the tail onto the backdrop.

After at least a dozen years on display at AMNH, the Gorgosaurus was traded to the National Museum of Natural History as part of a complicated deal between the two museums. While surveying fossil collections throughout the United States, Brown realized that a single Barosaurus skeleton from Dinosaur National Monument had been divided among three different institutions. NMNH had the neck and part of one forelimb, the Carnegie Museum had the tail, and the University of Utah had the rest. Between 1929 and 1933, Brown arranged a series of trades in order to unify the Barosaurus at AMNH. The Smithsonian in particular drove a hard bargain – the museum had already invested $3400 in preparing their Barosaurus section, and paleontology staff wanted a good return for their investment. Brown’s initial offer was the fully prepared and mounted Gorgosaurus. Although AMNH valued the field and prep time spent on the fossils at $4573, it was at that point a duplicate specimen taking up valuable space in their increasingly crowded exhibit hall.

NMNH dinosaur specialist Charles Gilmore confided in Brown that he was okay with this trade, but fellow Smithsonian paleontologist Alexander Wetmore wasn’t sold. For years, NMNH staff had been trying to acquire one of the many Moropus specimens AMNH had collected at the Agate Fossil Beds in Nebraska. NMNH had offered a variety of specimens to trade, even sending AMNH a set of brontothere skulls at one point, but AMNH was adamant the Moropus fossils could only be exchanged for cash. Brown really wanted that Barosaurus neck, so in January of 1933, he finally relented and offered the Smithsonian a largely complete Moropus in addition to the Gorgosaurus. Not long after, the Gorgosaurus relief mount found its way into the Hall of Extinct Monsters at NMNH.

Gorgosaurus sp. – AMNH 5458

albertosaurus

A technician (probably Kaisen) adjusts the steel strap holding the femur in place. Source

Brown’s team found their second Gorgosaurus near Steveville, Alberta in 1914. Complete save for the left leg, right arm, and parts of the rib cage and tail, the mount was ready for display in May of 1921. At 24 feet long and 14 feet high, this was by far the largest relief mount at the museum. In fact, it was too big to fit through the workshop doorway in one piece, so Kaisen constructed it in eight sections that were sealed together in the exhibit hall. Each section had its own wooden frame for support, and the bones themselves were held in place with steel straps. The skull, jaw, and left forearm could be removed for individual study. This was unusual for the period (most contemporary fossil mounts were designed to be permanent) and speaks volumes about this specimen’s unique scientific value.

This mount is particularly notable for its awkward running pose. Directly contradicting many narratives of early 20th century paleontology, Matthew and Brown envisioned Gorgosaurus as an animal that “walked and ran much like a gigantic bird.” The AMNH team posed this mount after studying photos of bipedally running lizards, particularly the western tiger lizard*. However, Matthew and Brown noted that the dinosaur’s  limb proportions and range of motion more closely resemble a bird than a lizard, and adjusted the pose accordingly. They also advised a more conservative stride length to compensate for the animal’s considerable weight.

*Matthew and Brown do not provide a scientific name, and the common name “western tiger lizard” doesn’t seem to be used any more. Anyone know what it’s called today?

The final pose was a compromise between the elevated torso of a running lizard and the comparatively tight gait of a bird. It looks more than a little strange, but AMNH 5458 is certainly closer to our present understanding of theropod posture than most mounts of the era. Matthew and Brown’s interpretation of Gorgosaurus turned out to be ahead of its time. Some contemporary researchers, including Lawrence Lambe, declared the running pose to be highly improbable, and virtually all theropod mounts constructed over the next 60 years returned to the tail-dragging posture of the 1915 AMNH Tyrannosaurus.

Gorgosaurus sternbergi” – AMNH 5664

gorgo sternbergi

Gorgosaurus “sternbergi” as it was discovered and originally mounted. Source

The most complete tyrannosaur from the Red Deer River was not collected by the AMNH party, but by the Sternbergs. The elder Charles Sternberg discovered the specimen in 1917, entirely intact save for the left arm and the very end of the tail. In fact, this was the most complete large theropod ever found in North America until it was surpassed by yet another Gorgosaurus, TCM 2001.89.1. Sternberg first attempted to sell the specimen to the British Museum. They weren’t interested, but AMNH was. In 1918, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology bought the skeleton for $2000, thus completing the tyrannosaur trio.

Matthew and Brown described AMNH 5664 as a new species – Gorgosaurus sternbergi. In their 1921 publication, they describe the skull as longer and shallower than other Gorgosaurus specimens, with rounder orbits. However, Brown and Matthew recognized that these could be juvenile characteristics, noting as well that the unfused pelvic bones were an indication of immaturity. As early as 1970, this specimen was suspected to be a juvenile Gorgosaurus (or Albertosaurus) libratus.

Kaisen prepared the relief mount in 1921, this time assisted by Carl Sorenson. The photo above shows the original version of this mount, with the tail projecting straight back from the body. This was how Sternberg discovered the skeleton, and Kaisen wanted to keep the death pose intact. In the 1950s, the tail was “corrected” to make it drag on the ground. Although the display has not been altered since, the revised tail posture is now considered inaccurate. Indeed, the vertebrae apparently had to be angled unnaturally to make the dragging tail work at all.

AMNH 5027 was restored and remounted in 1995.

The Gorgosaurus plaque mounts hide behind Tyrannosaurus rex at AMNH. Photo by the author.

All three Gorgosaurus specimens were first displayed in the cramped quarters of the Hall of Fossil Reptiles (now the Hall of Primitive Mammals) with the rest of the growing AMNH dinosaur collection (USNM 12814 and the tail of AMNH 5664 are barely visible in this photo). 5458 and 5664 moved to the newly opened Great Hall of Dinosaurs in 1922. They flanked the gallery’s rear doorway for 70 years before being moved to the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs in 1994. Meanwhile, the Gorgosaurus transferred to the Smithsonian first appeared in the Hall of Extinct Monsters in the 1940s, displayed behind glass on the north wall. It switched to the south side in 1962, and moved about 30 feet up the wall in 1981, where it could only be properly seen from the mezzanine ramp.

Aside from the aforementioned alternation to AMNH 5664’s tail, the Red Deer River Gorgosaurus trio has not been modified since they were first built. This may well change in the not-to-distant future. The NMNH crew is hard at work on a thorough renovation of the national fossil hall, dismantling and restoring all of the classic dinosaur mounts. Meanwhile, the current AMNH paleontology exhibits are now 20 years old, and will soon be due for a similar overhaul. Both institutions will need to decide whether or not to free the Gorgosaurus specimens from their plaster substrate. This would be an extremely difficult process, but not impossible – Phil Fraley Productions recently rebuilt the Carnegie Museum’s Corythosaurus, Dryosaurus, and Camptosaurus as free-standing mounts. Dismantling the relief mounts would give a new generation of scientists access to these important specimens, and it would allow for the skeletons to be given more accurate poses. In addition, a standing Gorgosaurus mount alongside either museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex would be both informative and awesome.

Nevertheless, remaking these mounts would also destroy significant historical context. The carefully restored death pose of USNM 12812 seems like something worth preserving, and the AMNH specimens represent an important transitional period in the history of dinosaur science. In the past, museums have often taken a “science marches on” approach when updating aging displays, but in these mounts might be unique enough in their current form to be left as-is. What do you think?

References

Carr, T.D. (1999). Craniofacial Ontogeny in Tyrannosauridae (Dinosauria, Coelurosauria). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19: 497-520.

Colbert, E.H. (1968). Men and Dinosaurs: The Search in Field and Laboratory. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.

Gilmore, C.W. (1946). Notes on Recently Mounted Reptile Fossil Skeletons in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum Vol. 96 No. 3196.

The Long Road to a Fossil Swap. Digging the Fossil Record, March 19, 2015. http://nmnh.typepad.com/smithsonian_fossils/2015/03/gorgosaurus-and-moropus.html

Matthew, W.D. and Brown, B. (1923). Preliminary Notices of Skeletons and Skulls of Deinodontidae from the Cretaceous of Alberta. American Museum Noviates 89: 1-10.

Russell, D. (1970). Tyrannosaurs from the Late Cretaceous of western Canada. National Museum of Natural Science Publications in Palaeontology 1: 1–34.

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Filed under AMNH, dinosaurs, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NMNH, reptiles, theropods