North Carolina Museum of Natural Science

This pregnant right whale was killed when it was hit by a boat. Displayed with the fetus skeleton in situ, it now serves as a species ambassador.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has been on my list of must-see museums for some time, and I finally had a chance to visit over Memorial Day weekend. Founded in 1879 as the North Carolina State Museum, the institution was initially a showcase for local agricultural and mineral products. Over the years, the interests of both the curators and the visiting public gradually nudged the museum in the direction of more generalized natural history. Now the largest natural history museum in the southeast, NCSM hosts a world-class research staff overseeing a collection of 1.7 million specimens. Since 2000, the museum has occupied a four-story facility in downtown Raleigh. A second wing, called the Nature Research Center, opened in 2012. There are also two satellite nature centers outside the city (which I did not visit) that are under the NCSM banner.

An introduction to geologic time.

First things first: the paleontology exhibit is quite good, although somewhat compact. Perhaps too compact, given its popularity and the amount of exhibit space the museum has to work with overall. Coming up the escalator to the 3rd floor, visitors are strongly encouraged to enter Habitats of North Carolina, a colorful and attractive walk through time. The initial spaces cover the basics. First, a series of pillars introduce the primary stages of life on Earth. This is followed by exhibits about where fossils come from, how we know how old fossils are, and so on. I particularly liked the “What to Fossils Tell Us?” display. Here, a grid of spinning cubes each hold small, conventional fossils. Visitors can rotate the cubes around to see that even these modest-looking remains can be very informative. For example, leaves and pollen provide detailed climate information, and a large croc scute suggests that a substantial body of water was present.

Prestosuchus in the Triassic scene. This appears to be a cast of the Brazilian AMNH 3856.

Edmontosaurus and Albertosaurus casts dominate the Cretaceous tableau.

The rest of the exhibit is built around a series of tableaus in which mounts and models of charismatic animals are placed in landscapes of replica foliage. Small, illustrative fossils are in cases throughout. First up is a cast of Prestosuchus, lurking among some Triassic horsetails. Next, Edmontosaurus, Albertosaurus, and Pachcephlosaurus casts populate the Cretaceous alongside lovely ginkgos and magnolias. A baby hadrosaur model at the feet of the Edmontosaurus was apparently stolen (and recovered) in 2012. The famous Willo – a Thescelosaurus skeleton that maybe/probably doesn’t have mineralized heart tissue in its chest – is on display under glass.

Did you know that most modern fish groups evolved only 20 million years ago? I didn’t!

A ground sloth in the standard pole-dancing pose.

Moving into the Cenozoic, a set of attractive and informative cases describe the origin and evolution of modern fishes and whales. This is followed by glass tunnel through a life-sized diorama of a late Eocene sea. The models here are spectacular, but the space is altogether too dark. I found it difficult to see the diorama, much less read the signs. The final section is home to a real ground sloth skeleton. This is a composite of several specimens recovered in 1999 near Wilmington, North Carolina. Happily, the reconstructed portions of the mount are distinct and easy to see. Habitats of North Carolina ends on an eccentric note with a set of mannequins in pioneer garb discovering fossils in a creek bed. I’m not really sure what this adds to the exhibit narrative.

Acrocanthosaurus holds court in a sunny atrium all to itself.

The star fossil at NCNM is the only real Acrocanthosaurus on display anywhere in the world. Avocational fossil hunters Cephis Hall and Sid Love found this rare skeleton in Oklahoma in 1983. Unfortunately, a bad case of pyrite disease made the fossils an absolute nightmare to prepare, and it exchanged hands several times before ending up with the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota. In 1997, an anonymous donor purchased the skeleton on behalf of NCNM for $3 million, shortly after the museum came in second place in the bidding war for Sue the T. rex.

Acrocanthosaurus is a favorite of mine, and the mount is beautiful. The sunny atrium it’s situated in makes for an attractive display, but I wish it wasn’t so disassociated from the main paleontology exhibit. I’m told the mount included more original material when it debuted in 2000, but the creeping specter of pyrite disease has necessitated the removal of several bones for restoration and safekeeping. Be sure to see it soon, before the rest of the mount gets replaced with casts!

Whales: behold their majesty.

The paleontology exhibits are nice and all, but the real showstoppers at NCSM are the whales. No less than six giant whale skeletons are on display. Suspended over a corridor of sorts, the whales can be viewed from below or from a 2nd story mezzanine. Many museums have a whale skeleton or two, but I’ve never encountered this many cetecean skeletons in one place. From the utterly insane-looking right whale to the colossal blue whale, they are stunning to behold. Be sure to factor in plenty of time to simply stare. Immersive dioramas of local habitats, live animal exhibits, and a look at collecting and exhibition practices past and present round out the museum’s “old wing.”

As mentioned, however, a whole new wing of exhibits opened in 2012. Called the Nature Research Center, this is basically the interactive, citizen science-driven Museum of the Future that educators (including myself) have been demanding for years. This three story space is all about getting visitors involved in science. There are multiple drop-in “labs” where knowledgeable staff lead visitors through mini-experiments, designed to get people thinking scientifically. There’s a molecular lab where visitors can isolate and analyze DNA samples. There’s a digital imagery space where visitors can practice using GIS tools, or explore the possibilities of 3-D printing. And there’s a Q?rius-like collections library, where visitors can check out and study real bones, furs, minerals, and fossils. The Nature Research Center also includes several fishbowl-style labs where visitors can watch museum staff and volunteers at work. Even the highly interdisciplinary static displays are less about the “what” and more about the “how”: the tools, techniques, and people that make science possible.

One of the lab spaces in the Nature Research Center.

Distressingly, on the day I visited, the traditional museum exhibits were crowded with visitors, but the Nature Research Center was nearly deserted. Since I was there on a holiday weekend, I was probably seeing a skeleton-crew version of the staff that is usually facilitating the interactive spaces. Still, the Nature Research Center is the embodiment of the modular, interactive exhibits that educators dream about. To see it empty while the story and object-driven exhibits were packed is somewhat disconcerting.

As the scientists say, though, a single anecdotal experience is not data. I’d be very interested to learn how this pioneering exhibit space holds up in the long run.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, opinion

Extinct Monsters at PSW

The historic Basilosaurus at NMNH. Photo by the author.

I realize the blog has been quiet lately. The usual excuses apply – work responsibilities, preparing to relocate, and of course the crushing despair of our present political reality. I do have a fun announcement for people in the Washington, DC area, however. I’ll be speaking at the April 19th meeting of the Paleontological Society of Washington, which is held after hours at the National Museum of Natural History. Meetings are open to all. The full announcement flyer is here. Many thanks to the PSW for having me! The talk abstract is below.

Extinct Monsters: The Hybrid Identities of Fossil Mounts

Mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are an enduring symbol of natural history museums. However, fossils do not come out of the ground bolted to armatures. These iconic displays occupy a paradoxical middle ground between scientific specimens and cultural objects. Many have endured for generations, taking on second lives independent of their original purpose. This presentation will unpack the densely-layered identities of fossil mounts, tracking their scientific, artistic, and cultural significance from the 18th century to today. 

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Filed under Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, museums

Jurassic Museum

Teaser image for Jurassic Park 5, via Colin Trevorrow/Universal.

Well, this is a doozy. Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow tweeted the above image this afternoon, which is a teaser for the upcoming “Jurassic World 2” (Jurassic Park 5?). The film doesn’t have an official title yet, but apparently they started shooting on February 23rd and are aiming for a June 2018 release.

The Victorian-style museum gallery piqued my interest immediately. Since this is the first promotional image they put out, it stands to reason that natural history exhibits might play a significant role in the film. Is this a flashback to a formative experience for a main character? Or is it a brief moment of quiet before Chris Pratt smashes through the wall riding a mutant cyborg T. rex? Both are probably equally likely at this point, but there are still a few things worth noting.

First, this scene is plainly referencing the century-old association in the public consciousness between museums and dinosaurs. When we think of museums, we think of dinosaurs, and vice versa. This is no accident – as I’ve discussed here on many occasions, dinosaurs (and their mounted skeletons in particular) played a central role in defining the modern museum at the start of the 20th century. The first Jurassic Park film played with this iconography in its classic finale, when the flesh-and-blood Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor literally obliterate a pair of skeletal mounts. In that case, the implication was clear: the living, cloned dinosaurs represent new technology and scientific progress smashing the old and obsolete incarnations of paleontology to bits.

Y’know, this scene. (Universal).

Is “Jurassic World 2” pushing a similar message, casting the iconography of a museum hall as a past doomed to extinction? Maybe. The Victorian design elements – wood paneled walls, skeletons on open pedestals in orderly rows – distinctly evoke museums of the past. You’d be hard pressed to find an exhibit that looks like that today. Perhaps the filmmakers are using the Victorian iconography to enhance the impression of dusty obsolescence. Or maybe the baby boomer producers are recreating the sort of museum they remember from their childhood. The primary counterpoint is that the mise en scène on display here is stately and impressive. That dramatically-lit ceratopsian skull looks formidable, not at all like something shrinking back into history.

Let’s talk about that ceratopsian skull for a hot sec. The other skeletons are (perhaps incredibly) reasonably accurate representations of identifiable dinosaurs. We’ve got a tyrannosaur, a hadrosaur, and a dromaeosaur on the left, and what looks like Euoplocephalus, Kosmoceratops, and Protoceratops on the right. The skull in the center stands out as the sole fanciful element in the scene. It looks like an oversized, exaggerated Triceratops, with extra-long, tapering brow horns and a frill studded with spikes. Jurassic World established fantasy dinosaurs as being part of the Jurassic Park universe, so it’s possible this represents some kind of new, fictitious hybrid.

Charles Knight’s 1897 Agathaumas painting. Source

However, I was immediately reminded of Charles Knight’s classic take on Agathaumas. E.D. Cope named Agathaumas sylvestris in 1872, based on a pelvis and a number of vertebrae discovered in southwest Wyoming. It was technically the first ceratopsian dinosaur to be named and described, but without a skull, Cope had little idea of what the animal looked like (today, it’s considered a synonym of Triceratops).  Charles Knight depicted imagined the animal as a sort of spiny uber-Triceratops. His striking reconstruction was copied almost exactly for the Agathaumas that appeared in 1925’s The Lost World.

Triceratops and Agathaumas models, sculpted by Marcel Delgado and animated by Willis O’Brien. Source

It would be beyond awesome if the dramatic ceratopsian skull was meant to be a throwback or nod to the mythic Agathaumas. Or perhaps I’m reading too much in to it.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, marginocephalians, movies

Phylogenetics is Moon Man Talk

Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary history and relationships among extant and extinct organisms. More than any other organizational scheme, this is the way biologists think about the living world. In vertebrate paleontology in particular, an understanding of the evolutionary relationships of animals as identified via minute anatomical details is absolutely fundamental to our science. One might even argue that most new discoveries and inferences in this field are meaningless without some knowledge of the basic shape of the tree of life.

I’ve spent about eight years so far teaching science in museums, parks, and classrooms. And based on my anecdotal experience, most discussion of phylogeny comes across as incomprehensible babble to a plurality of people. For instance, one of the most commonly used definitions of “dinosaur” among paleontologists is “the most recent common ancestor of Triceratops and modern birds, and all it’s descendants” (there’s also the similar “most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, and all it’s descendants”). This definition is not meaningful to most people. As evidence, I submit the following set of questions, all of which I have been asked by intelligent and well-meaning adults:

  • Did whales and dolphins evolve from marine reptiles?
  • Did giraffes evolve from sauropods?
  • Are [dromaeosaurs] related to cats?
  • Are dinosaurs related to sharks?
  • How can birds be dinosaurs if dinosaurs are reptiles?
  • Did the plant-eating dinosaurs evolve into mammals?
  • Are bats a kind of bird?
  • Are pterodactyls a kind of bird?

I don’t mean to ridicule or disparage people for asking these questions. Again, these all come from educated adults – museum and park visitors, undergraduate students, T.A.s, and at least one veterinarian! While these questions clearly show unfamiliarity with evolutionary relationships and how evolution works in general, they also show an effort to build a logical framework when none is available. For example, when a person asks if whales are descended from marine reptiles, he or she is hypothesizing that all large marine animals are related. This is incorrect, but it’s a sensible connection to make (and one that past naturalists have certainly explored).

For science communicators, this deficit of phylogenetic understanding is a serious problem which continuously undermines attempts to interpret zoology and paleontology. For example, think about how little meaning a statement like “Dimetrodon isn’t a dinosaur” has to somebody who can’t articulate what a mammal is or what a dinosaur is, much less the evolutionary distance between both groups. This is what we should expect from most of our audience, which means there is always a lot of catch-up work to do when explaining something as simple as the basic identity of a given organism. By the time you’ve satisfactorily defined “dinosaur” (good luck with that), explained the synapsid-diapsid split, discussed the tree of extinct stem-mammals, and positioned each of these things in deep time, you’re five minutes deep into a lecture when all you were asked was “what is it?”

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

How can we solve this conundrum? The first step is to divide the issue into a number of smaller problems:

  • People don’t understand the fundamentals of how evolution works
  • People are unfamiliar with basic vertebrate classification
  • People lack knowledge of key evolutionary events through deep time
  • People don’t understand what traits are significant when assessing evolutionary relationships

The first problem is well known and has been discussed in-depth elsewhere (e.g. MacFadden et al. 2007, Spiegel et al. 2006, Spiegel et al. 2012), so I’m going to breeze over it and focus on the other three.

Basic Vertebrate Classification

It’s easy to toss out words like “mammal”, “reptile”, and “amphibian”, and take for granted that your audience will know what they mean. But even the most basic elements of vertebrate classification are specialized knowledge, and science communicators would do well to remember it. When I was teaching an undergraduate human anatomy course, I found that most of the class was familiar with the word “mammal”, and could name some examples. However, the students couldn’t articulate what sets mammals apart from other animals, and the relationship of mammals to other vertebrates within the tree of life was all new to them.

I think this is fairly typical, even among individuals with a background in biology. People are introduced to these categories in grade school, and you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who couldn’t tell you whether (say) a cat is a mammal or a reptile. What is missing is what that actually means. We can’t assume that just because somebody knows a cat is a mammal, they know that fur and milk glands (much less auditory ossicles, a solid mandible, and heteromorphic teeth) are things to look for when categorizing mammals. They also may not know that “mammal” is an evolutionary group – that all the animals that fall under this banner are more closely related to each other than they are to anything else. No mammal is going to spontaneously become a bird or a fish. This is obvious to specialists, but not to most of our audience.

Evolutionary History Through Deep Time

The situation is further complicated by the element of time. Somebody may know that a modern cat and lizard differ in several fundamental ways, but do they know that both groups still evolved from a common ancestor? Or that said ancestor lived more than 300 million years ago? Unfortunately, much of the public would appear to lack any knowledge of how the past is related to the present. I’ve had visitors insist on calling fossil turtles “dinosaur turtles” and Teleoceras a “rhino-saur.” For them, extinct animals (all labeled “dinosaurs”) are a category all their own, wholly independent from the categories that describe modern animals.

For specialists, it’s obvious that modern animals exist within a continuum that extends into the deep past. It’s also obvious that groups like “mammals” and “reptiles” had starting points, and are embedded within larger, more ancient groups. None of this can be considered common knowledge, but it’s critical to any discussion about the identity or categorization of a given taxon.

better than a tree

Box diagrams are a simple and intuitive way to ground students’ understanding of the diversity of life.

How can educators hope to cover so much ground without confusing, distracting, or alienating their audiences? One option is to use a cladogram, or evolutionary tree. Trees are absolutely the most precise and accurate way to portray relationships over time, but as Torrens and Barahona demonstrate, they are regularly misinterpreted by the public. When I’m dealing with a general audience, I prefer box diagrams like the one above. Boxes within boxes show tiers of relatedness in a way that is more intuitive and easily understood than a tree. Box diagrams allow educators to cover a lot of unfamiliar ground quickly, and it’s easy to test visitors’ comprehension by asking them to point to where an example taxon should be placed. While this visualization of vertebrate relationships lacks a time axis, people can at least grasp the relative order in which each group evolved (fish before amphibians, amphibians before reptiles and mammals, etc).

How Scientists Discover Evolutionary Relationships

Going back to the list of misguided questions at the top of this post, we can generally surmise the thought process that led to each inquiry. The person who asked if whales and marine reptiles are related was classifying based on shared habitat. The person who asked if giraffes evolved from sauropods was classifying based on similar body shape. We can also see classifications based on diet, and based on shared activities, like flight or attacking prey with clawed feet. All these questions reflect a misunderstanding of what kinds of traits researchers look for when working out evolutionary relationships. So how do we quickly and clearly explain which traits are relevant, and which ones are not?

This is a tricky problem, and one I have not found a perfect solution to. The most important distinction is between plesiomorphic and apomorphic traits: plesiomorphic traits are inherited from an ancestral form, while apomorphic traits are novel developments. Put simply, working out a phylogenetic tree is all about grouping organisms based on shared apomorphies. The more apomorphic traits between two species, the more closely related they are. Once introduced, this is a fairly intuitive distinction. You don’t even need to use the jargon – “old traits” and “new traits” will often suffice. Going back to our  problem of defining Dimetrodon, we can clarify that the lizardy shape and general toothiness are “old traits” – so they don’t tell us much about what the animal actually is. Instead, scientists look at “new traits”, like the number of postorbital fenestrae, to work out Dimetrodon‘s evolutionary affinities.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that relating phylogeny to the public is challenging, but very important. Too often, science educators assume visitors have more background than they do, and the discussion comes across as so much moon man talk. Alternatively, educators push past complicated parts too quickly, which leads to confusion or misunderstanding. Ultimately, being a good educator comes down to two things: knowing your content and knowing your audience. Both are equally important, and both need to be practiced and refined in equal measure to ensure successful communication.


Macfadden, B.J., Dunckel, B.A., Ellis, S., Dierking, L.D., Abraham-Silver, L., Kisiel, J., and Koke, J. 2007. BioScience 57:10:875-882.

Spiegal, A.N., Evans, E.M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2006. Museums and Social Issues 1:1:69-86.

Spiegel, A.N., Evans, E.M., Frazier, B., Hazel, A., Tare, M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2012. Changing Museum Visitors’ Conceptions of Evolution. Evolution: Education and Outreach 5:1:43-61.

Torrens, E. and Barahona, A. 2012. Why are Some Evolutionary Trees in Natural History Museums Prone to Being Misinterpreted?” Evolution: Education and Outreach 1-25.


Filed under education, opinion, science communication, systematics

The Hidden Rhomaleosaurus

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the NMNH Museum Support Center.

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the NMNH Museum Support Center. Source

Residing upon the wall of the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, Maryland is the skeleton of a giant prehistoric reptile. This is a cast of Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni, a short-necked plesiosaur from the early Jurassic rocks of England’s westeast coast. With broad jaws bristling with teeth and a length exceeding 22 feet, this specimen would surely be a crowd pleaser, and yet it has never been on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Since the MSC opened in 1983, only staff, visiting scientists, and gaggles of interns have seen it.

The original fossil from which the Smithsonian cast was taken came from an alunite mine on the Yorkshire coast. Miners unearthed the nearly  complete Rhomaleosaurus in 1848. This was a year after Mary Anning‘s death, and plesiosaurs were already well known to British naturalists. The new specimen was uncommonly large, however, and the mine’s owner, George Augustus Phipps, displayed it with pride at his residence. Five years later, Phipps gifted the skeleton to his friend Phillip Crampton, an Irish anatomist. Crampton arranged for the plesiosaur to be displayed at the 1853 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Dublin.


Illustration of the Rhomaleosaurus cast for sale from Henry Ward’s 1866 catalog.

For nearly a decade, the skeleton remained in a semi-permanent tent that had been erected for the meeting. Eventually, increasing concern that the tent structure was not protecting the fossil from the elements led to the specimen’s conditional relocation to the Royal Dublin Society Museum. It was here that Alexander Carte and William Baily published the first – albeit brief – description of the Yorkshire plesiosaur, naming it Plesiosaurus cramptoni (Harry Seely moved it to the genus Rhomaleosaurus in 1874).

Around the same time that Carte and Baily were preparing their description, the Rhomaleosaurus received another fateful visitor. This was Henry Ward of Rochester, New York, founder of Ward’s Scientific Company. At the time, Ward was a well-known and well-regarded fossil and mineral dealer. Ward first traveled to Europe in 1854 at the age of 20. He continued to venture around the world collecting geological specimens, which he sold to fund his degree at the Paris School of Mines. Ward’s timing was excellent, and the connections he made during his studies put him in an ideal position to start a company supplying specimens to the new natural history museums that were springing up on both sides of the Atlantic. Ward was also permitted to take casts of museum specimens, apparently including the Rhomaleosaurus in Dublin.

Starting in 1866, the Ward Scientific Company catalog offered a plaster cast of “Plesiosaurus” cramptoni for sale. Described as the largest plesiosaur ever discovered, the fully painted cast was listed at $150, which would be a little over $4000 today. The skull or left fore-flipper could be had for $15 and $10, respectively.

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the London Museum of Natural History.

Rhomaleosaurus cast at the Museum of Natural History in London. Source

It is unknown how many Rhomaleosaurus casts Ward sold, but five survive today. In addition to the Smithsonian copy, casts are held by Cornell University, the University of Illinois, the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute, and the Natural History Museum in London. Each of these casts varies slightly from the others. While the Smithsonian Rhomaleosaurus closely matches the catalog illustration (missing left flipper and all), the Bath version has duplicate front and back flippers, which means that they are backwards on one side. Meanwhile, all four flippers on the London cast are sculpted replacements.

Most of the Rhomaleosaurus casts are tucked away in geology departments or seminar rooms where they are not often seen by the public. The London copy is an exception, however. The Rhomaleosaurus holds court in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery, where it is the largest specimen on display. In fact, it may well be the second most-photographed object in the museum, after Dippy the Diplodocus. Somewhat anachronistically, the London Rhomaleosaurus is displayed with a placard about Mary Anning, even though it is one of the few specimens in the gallery she didn’t discover.

USNM prep lab 1913

USNM fossil preparation lab in 1913. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

The Smithsonian’s Rhomaleosaurus cast was purchased from Ward’s Scientific Company in 1895, when the United States National Museum was still operating out of the Arts and Industries building. Surprisingly, the cast is not on Curator Charles Gilmore’s list of display specimens, either in the old Arts and Industries exhibit or in the new USNM building that opened in 1910. Although the Department of Paleontology prepared exhibits for the 1896 International Exposition in Atlanta and the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, the Rhomaleosaurus was not featured in either. Indeed, the plesiosaur can only be seen in historic photographs of the fossil preparation lab. From these, we can determine that the Rhomaleosaurus adorned the wall of this space as early as 1913 and as late as 1926. The cast was not part of any of the mid-century modifications to the paleontology exhibits, and was eventually relegated to MSC in 1983. It is still intact, but its existence is not widely known, even to paleontologists.

Sadly, the original Rhomaleosaurus fossils have not fared as well as the casts. In 1877, the Royal Dublin Society Museum was incorporated into the National Museum of Ireland, at which time the institution gained permanent ownership of the specimen. During a move in the 1920s, the Rhomaleosaurus was broken up with sledgehammers for ease of transport. Afterwards, the pieces were scattered throughout the collections for decades. Adam Smith has been instrumental in reuniting and restoring this historic skeleton (video of the pieces here). It was a principal subject of his 2007 doctoral thesis, and he oversaw the complete, three-dimensional preparation of the original skull. Currently, there are long-term plans to reassemble and display the Rhomaleosaurus at the National Museum of Ireland.

Hall overview

Overview artwork of the National Fossil Hall, on display in “Last American Dinosaurs” at NMNH. Note Rhomaleosaurus in the upper left, behind the Jurassic platform.

Back in the United States, the Smithsonian’s Rhomaleosaurus cast will finally go on exhibit in 2019. It will be featured in the new National Fossil Hall, mounted on the south wall of hall 4 (roughly where the café used to be – see the upper left of the image above). It seems that 168 years after its discovery, this Yorkshire plesiosaur is poised to re-enter the realm of public display on both sides of the Atlantic.


Smith, A. 2006. Dublin’s Jurassic “Sea-Dragon.” Geoscience 17: 26-27.

Smith, A.S. 2007. Anatomy and Systematics of the Rhomaleosauridae (Sauropterygia: Plesiosauria). PhD thesis. School of Biology and Environmental Science, University College Dublin.

Smith, A.S. and Dyke, G.J. 2008. The skull of the giant predatory pliosaur Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni: implications for plesiosaur phylogenetics. Naturwissenschaften 95: 975-980.

Gilmore, C.W. 1941 A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 90.

Ward, H.A. 1866. Catalog of Casts and Fossils From the Principle Museums of Europe and America with Short Descriptions and Illustrations. Rochester, NY: Benton and Andrews.


Filed under exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, museums, NHM, reptiles

The National Fossil Hall Rejects

In April 2014, the paleontology exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History closed for a wall-to-wall renovation. The re-imagined National Fossil Hall will reopen in 2019. We are now approaching the halfway point of this journey, which seems like a fine time to say farewell to some of the more charismatic specimens that are being rotated off display.

In comparison to the old exhibit, the new version will be influenced by a less-is-more design philosophy. While there will not be quite as many individual specimens on display, those that are included will be more visible and will be explored in more detail. This combined with the significant number of new specimens being added means that many old mainstays had to be cut from the roster. Cuts occur for a variety of reasons, including eliminating redundancy, preserving specimens that were not faring well in the open-air exhibit space, and making specimens that have been behind glass for decades available to a new generation of researchers. Retired specimens are of course not going far – they have been relocated to the collections where students and scientists can study them as needed.

Stegomastodon (USNM 10707)

Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The Stegomastodon in 2014. Photo by the author.

The young male Stegomastodon is the largest single specimen that is being retired from the NMNH fossil halls. James Gidley and Kirk Bryan collected this skeleton in the San Pedro Valley of Arizona, during the same 1921 collecting trip that produced the museum’s Glyptotherium (which will be returning). While the genus Stegomastodon was erected in 1912, Gidley referred his specimen to a new species, S. arizonae, due to its more “progressive” physiology and slightly younger age. By 1925, the skeleton was mounted and on display in the Hall of Extinct Monsters. While the original mount used the real fossil tusks, these were eventually replaced with facsimiles.

There are at least two reasons the Stegomastodon will not be returning in 2019. First, there are already two big elephants on display: the mammoth and the mastodon. Elephants take up a lot of space, and a third proboscidean offers diminishing returns when compared to the amount of floor space it requires. More importantly, the Stegomastodon is a holotype specimen, and the exhibit team elected to remove most of these important specimens from the public halls. This is both to keep them safe from the damaging effects of vibration, humidity, and fluctuating temperature, as well as to make them more accessible to researchers.

Paramylodon (USNM V 15164)

Collections staff

Collections staff wheel Paramylodon out of the exhibit hall. Source

During the 1960s, Assistant Curator Clayton Ray oversaw the construction of the short-lived Quaternary Hall, which was reworked into the Hall of Ice Age Mammals. This meant creating a number of brand-new mounts, including several animals from the Rancho La Brea Formation in Los Angeles County. La Brea fossils are not found articulated, but as a jumble of individual elements preserved in asphalt. The Los Angeles Natural History Museum provided NMNH with an assortment of these bones, which preparator Leroy Glenn assembled into two dire wolves, a saber-toothed cat, and the sheep cow-sized sloth Paramylodon.

Paramylodon is another cut for the sake of eliminating redundancy: the two colossal Eremotherium completely overshadow this more-modestly sized sloth. This mount also needed some TLC. For aesthetic reasons, the Paramylodon was given an internal armature, which involves drilling holes through each of the bones. Last year, preparator Alan Zdinak took on the task of disassembling and conserving these damaged fossils with assistance from Michelle Pinsdorf.

Zygorhiza (USNM PAL 537887)


Zygorhiza cast in the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery. Source

When the Life in the Ancient Seas gallery opened in 1990, it featured a historic Basilosaurus skeleton that had been on display since the 1890s. This ancestral whale was relocated to the Ocean Hall in 2008, and a cast of the smaller whale Zygorhiza took its place in Life in the Ancient Seas. Since there is now an extensive whale evolution exhibit in Ocean Hall, this subject will not be a major part of the new paleontology exhibit. Both Zygorhiza and the dolphin Eurhinodelphis will have to go.

After the old fossil halls closed, Smithsonian affiliate Mark Uhen managed to acquire the retired Zygorhiza mount for George Mason University, where he is a professor. The whale is now on display in the Exploratory Hall atrium, suspended 30 feet in the air.

Tapirs, Horses, and Oreodonts

Photo by the author.

The tapir Hyrachyus and the mini-horse Orohippus. Photo by the author.

The last two major renovations of the NMNH fossil exhibits occurred when mammal specialists were in charge of the Paleobiology Department, and as a result the halls ended up with a lot of Cenozoic mammal mounts (at least 50, by my count). Virtually every major group was covered, often several times over. This menagerie has been culled for the new hall, which will focus on specimens that best tell the story of Earth’s changing climate during the past 66 million years. Casualties include the trio of Hagerman’s horses, the smaller horse Orohippus, the tapirs Hyrachyus and Helaletes, the ruminant Hypertragulus, and the oreodont Merycoidodon. Interestingly, the classic hall’s three large rhinos are sticking around, and will in fact be joined by at least one more.

Brachyceratops (USNM 7953)


Brachyceratops/Rubeosaurus. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The pocket-sized ceratopsian historically called Brachyceratops has been on display at NMNH since 1922. Discovered in 1913 by Curator of Fossil Reptiles Charles Gilmore, this animal is one of only a few dinosaur species excavated, prepared, described, and exhibited entirely in-house at NMNH. Assembled by Norman Boss, the mount is actually a composite of five individuals Gilmore found together in northeast Montana.

Gilmore described Brachyceratops as an unusually small but full-grown ceratopsian, but in 1997 Scott Sampson and colleagues confirmed that all five specimens were juveniles. Unfortunately, the fossils lack many diagnostic features that could link them to an adult form. According to Andrew McDonald, the most likely candidate is Rubeosaurus. Nevertheless, without the ability to recognize other growth stages of the same species, the name Brachyceratops is unusable and is generally regarded as a nomen dubium.

It is not difficult to surmise why the Brachyceratops would end up near the bottom of the list of specimens for the new exhibit. It is not especially large or impressive, it doesn’t have a recognizable name (or any proper name at all, really) and it doesn’t tell a critical story about evolution or deep time. With limited space available and new specimens being prepped for display, little Brachyceratops will have to go.

Corythosaurus (USNM V 15493)

Corythosaurus as seen in 1960s

Corythosaurus as seen in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1910, Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History launched the first of several expeditions to the Red Deer River region of Alberta. Seeing Brown’s success and under pressure to prevent the Americans from hauling away so much of their natural heritage, the Canadian Geological Survey assembled their own team of fossil collectors in 1912. This group was headed by independent fossil hunter Charles Sternberg, who was accompanied by his sons George, Levi, and Charles Jr. Having secured several articulated and nearly complete dinosaur skeletons, Brown’s team moved on five years later. The Sternbergs, however, remained at the Red Deer River, and continued to collect specimens for the Royal Ontario Museum.

In 1933, Levi discovered a well-preserved back end of a Corythosaurus, complete with impressions of its pebbly skin. The Smithsonian purchased this specimen in 1937 for use at the Texas Centennial Exposition. It eventually found its way into the permanent paleontology exhibit at NMNH. Unfortunately, the half-Corythosaurus ended up crowded behind more eye-catching displays and was often overlooked by visitors. In the new exhibit, it will have to move aside to make room for new Cretaceous dinosaurs.

Assorted Dinosaur Skulls

Triceratops skull

Original skull of Hatcher the Triceratops, one of many dinosaur skulls coming off exhibit. Photo by the author.

In addition to complete dinosaur mounts, the old NMNH fossil halls included several dinosaur skulls, ranging from the giant cast of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus to the miniscule Bagaceratops. Most of these standalone skulls have been cut, although a few (Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Centrosaurus) are sticking around, to say nothing of new specimens being added. Other retirees in this category include the original skulls of Nedoceratops (labeled Diceratops), TriceratopsEdmontosaurus, and Corythosaurus, as well as casts of Protoceratops, Pachycephalosaurus, Stegoceras, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae.

As usual, the reasons these specimens are coming off exhibit are varied. The Nedoceratops skull is a one-of-a-kind holotype that has been the subject of a great deal of conflicting research over its identity and relevance to Maastrichtian ceratopsian diversity. Putting this specimen back in the hands of scientists should help clarify what this bizarre creature actually is. Meanwhile, many of the other skulls (e.g. Protoceratops, Psittacosaurus, and Prenocephalae) come from Asian taxa. In the new fossil hall, the Mesozoic displays will primarily focus on a few well-known ecosystems in North America.

Dolichorynchops (USNM PAL 419645)

Dolichorhynchops from Montana, mounted by Arnie Lewis. Photo by Chip Clark.

Dolichorhynchops in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit. Photo by NMNH Department of Paleobiology.

The NMNH Dolichorhynchops is a relatively new mount. It was collected in Montana in 1977 and acquired in a trade with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Arnie Lewis prepared it for display in 1987. 24 years later, “Dolly” is being retired to the collections. This is not due to anything wrong with the specimen, but to make way for a bigger, cooler short-necked plesiosaur. NMNH purchased a cast of Rhomaleosaurus from the Henry Ward Natural Science Establishment in the 1890s, but it has not been on exhibit since at least 1910. This cast, which is based on an original at the National Museum of Ireland (and which is identical to the cast at the London Natural History Museum) will make its first public appearance in over a century in the new National Fossil Hall. Sorry, Dolichorhynchops.

This has hardly been a comprehensive list – just a few examples that illustrate the decisions that are made when planning a large-scale exhibit. If you are curious about other favorites from the old halls, you can check on their fate by searching the Department of Paleobiology’s online database. Just go to Search by Field and enter “Deep Time” under Collection Name to see most of the specimens earmarked for the new exhibit.


Gidley, J.W. 1925. Fossil Proboscidea and Edentata of the San Pedro Valley, Arizona. Shorter Contributions to General Geology (USGS). Professional Paper 140-B, pp. 83-95.

Gilmore, C.W. 1922. The Smallest Known Horned Dinosaur, BrachyceratopsProceedings of the US National Museum 63:2424.

Gilmore, C.W.  1941. A History of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum Vol. 90.

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.

McDonald, A.T. 2011. A Subadult Specimen of Rubeosaurus ovatus(Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae), with Observations on other Ceratopsids from the Two Medicine Formation. PLoS ONE 6:8.

Sampson, S.D., Ryan, M.J. and Tanke, D.H. 1997. Craniofacial Ontogeny in Centrosaurine Dinosaurs: Taxonomic and Behavioral Implications. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 12:1:293-337.


Filed under collections, dinosaurs, exhibits, Extinct Monsters, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, marginocephalians, museums, NMNH, ornithopods, reptiles, theropods

A Game Changer?

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

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

Somewhere in the Ancient Americas exhibit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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