Tag Archives: NHM London

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. http://plesiosauria.com/pdf/Smith_2006_Dublin_seadragon.pdf

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 Pan-American Expo Triceratops Lives On UPDATE: Or does it?

Triceratops at the Natural History Museum, London.

Triceratops at the Natural History Museum, London. Source

Don’t you hate it when you miss something glaringly obvious? I’ve never seen the Triceratops skeleton at London’s Natural History Museum in person, but I’ve seen enough pictures to know that it’s a little weird. Inaccuracies like the columnar feet, dragging tail, and vertical forelimbs can be attributed the display’s age, but the head doesn’t really look like any other Triceratops skull that’s ever been found. I had assumed that the funky frill and extremely long nasal horn were sculpted flourishes, but it turns out that no part of this Triceratops is real. It’s not a heavily-reconstructed original skeleton or even a cast – it’s a papier mâché model. And not just any model, but one that I’ve already written about in a different context.

Pan American exhibition

The Lucas Triceratops model at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition. Source

Frederic Lucas, an Assistant Curator at the United States National Museum, created this Triceratops in 1900 for the Smithsonian display at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. A mix of corporate and government displays based around the themes of peace, prosperity, and technology, the Pan-American Exhibition lasted from May to November 1901 (it was cut short when President William McKinley was shot on the fairgrounds). The Smithsonian’s 7,500 square foot exhibit took nearly a year to prepare, and showcased specimens from all departments of the nascent institution. Indeed, the Smithsonian’s participation in this and other fairs around the turn of the century is significant because these attractions were the basis for the some of the first exhibits at the USNM. Displays initially created for fairs often found a home in the museum’s permanent galleries, and the fair exhibitions were generally used as a template for the first generation of Smithsonian exhibits.

The Triceratops model was meant to represent the glut of fossils from the western United States that the Smithsonian had recently acquired from O.C. Marsh. Perhaps because most of those specimens were still unpacked and unprepared (the USNM didn’t hire a dedicated fossil preparator until 1903), Lucas sculpted the skeleton freehand based on one of Marsh’s published illustrations. It’s noteworthy that Lucas was not a paleontologist – he was brought on board at the age of 21 with no formal training because of his talent for constructing taxidermy displays. At any rate, Lucas followed Marsh’s reconstruction – at the time the only Triceratops reconstruction available – religiously when constructing his full-sized model.

St. Louis Expo

The Lucas Triceratops at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Source

After the Pan-American Exhibition, Lucas’s Triceratops made a second appearance at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. It was rendered obsolete shortly thereafter when Charles Gilmore assembled the world’s first real Triceratops skeleton at the USNM. As I’ve covered before, the act of physically manipulating the Triceratops fossils into a standing mount showed Gilmore that Marsh’s straight-legged reconstruction was a physical impossibility.

My understanding was that the Lucas model was lost or destroyed shortly after Gilmore’s real Triceratops went on display in 1905. I should have been more skeptical, however, because exhibits like this are almost never wasted. For example, Gilmore reported in 1943 that the Hadrosaurus cast displayed at the USNM before his arrival had been discarded due to wear and tear, but the mount had actually been given to the Field Museum in the 1890s. A couple months ago, I found out that Albert Koch’s chimeric mastodon (what he called “Missourium”) was purchased by Richard Owen on behalf of the British Museum and remounted. And just this year, the Smithsonian’s 112 year-old Stegosaurus model began a new life at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York.


Hey, that looks familiar! Source

The above tweet from the London Natural History Museum finally clued me in that the Lucas Triceratops had been hiding in plain sight for more than a century. The NHM (then the British Museum) received their Triceratops from the Smithsonian in 1907 (confirmed in the July 1907 issue of The Museums Journal), just when the Smithsonian had an extra Triceratops on hand. The London model is plainly not a cast of Gilmore’s 1905 mount, but it does resemble the Lucas model in most every detail, from the way the legs are posed to the exaggerated horns and frill. The only clear difference I can see is in the position of the head, which is much more elevated in the photos from the Buffalo and St. Louis expositions. However, I imagine the model would have been partially disassembled for transport. Perhaps when it was rebuilt in London the head ended up lower, whether by accident or design.

Unless there’s reason to think there were two copies of the Lucas Triceratops, I’d say the most parsimonious conclusion is that the London Triceratops is the very same model that was first displayed at the Pan-American Exhibition in 1901. Much like it’s long-time companion Dippy the Diplodocus, this Triceratops model is a century-old historic icon, one that has introduced generations upon generations of visitors to the enormity of deep time and the wonders of our prehistoric past. Inaccurate sculpture or not, it’s definitely something to preserve and to celebrate.

UPDATE: Shortly after I finished this post, @NHM_London responded to my inquiry with the following:


Did I speak too soon? Source

I’m dubious that the NHM Triceratops is a copy of Gilmore’s 1905 version, but hey, it *is* their museum. I’ll leave this post up for now and follow up when I find out more. I love a good museum mystery!


Gilmore C.W. (1905).The Mounted Skeleton of Triceratops prorsus. Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum 29:1426:433-435.

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.

Howarth, E., Rowley, F.R., Ruskin Butterfield, W., and Madeley, C. (1908). The Museums Journal, Volume 7. Museums Association.


Filed under dinosaurs, fossil mounts, history of science, marginocephalians, museums, NHM, NMNH

Real or cast? If only it were that simple!

Norman Boss Brachyceratops courtesy Smithsonian archives

Norman Boss assembles  a “Brachyceratops” mount. White bones and portions thereof are sculpted. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Back in January, London’s Natural History Museum incited a flurry of debate when it announced that Dippy, the Diplodocus skeleton that has graced the museum’s entrance hall for decades, will soon be retired and replaced with a blue whale. One of the recurring arguments in favor of the change has been that Dippy is not an original specimen – it’s a cast, or as some commentators have called it, “a fake.” As I argued last month, referring to a fossil cast in this way is a flagrant misrepresentation. An excellent post by Liz Martin covers this in more detail – “fake” implies deception, or something invented outright. Fossil casts are nothing of the sort. They are exact replicas of fossils, and they could not exist without the original specimens they are based on.

Nevertheless, the idea that fossil mounts are either original bones or casts is a bit of a false dichotomy. I’m as guilty as anyone of propagating this myth – it’s a simple way to assuage the fears of museum visitors that the fossil skeletons on display aren’t real. The truth is that most mounts include some amount of straight-up sculpted material. After all, the fossilized remains of vertebrate animals, particularly large ones, are almost never found articulated or anywhere near complete. The specimens chosen for museum mounts are among the absolute best available, but even they are not perfect. For instance, the NHM Dippy (actually one of many) is mostly a cast of a single Diplodocus specimen held at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, but the forelimbs were reconstructed. When the mount was assembled, no Diplodocus forelimb material of comparable size was available, so Arthur Coggeshall and colleagues sculpted some based on smaller specimens.

Sculpted feet

The sculpted feet of the AMNH Tyrannosaurus. Photo by the author.

From Hadrosaurus, the first mounted dinosaur skeleton, to modern reconstructions like Anzu, fossil mounts as we know them would not be possible without some amount of informed reconstruction. Take the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History, assembled in 1915. The skeleton is a composite of two T. rex specimens, neither of which included any of the bones of the feet. Rather than creating a skeleton that stopped short at the ankles, Adam Herman sculpted a set of feet based on Allosaurus, another large meat-eating dinosaur. When Tyrannosaurus feet were eventually discovered, the allosaur-inspired feet turned out to be a little too bulky – tyrannosaurs actually had relatively long, gracile toes. But it’s not like T. rex turned out to have hooves or wheels. In most respects, from the basic three-toed arrangement to the shape and position of each individual bone, Hermann’s hypothesized tyrannosaur feet were spot-on. In fact, they were so close that the museum didn’t bother updating them when the skeleton was remounted in 1995.

The sculpted portions of fossil mounts aren’t wild speculation. They are very reasonable hypotheses based on a solid understanding of skeletal anatomy. As anatomist Georges Cuvier wrote in 1798:

Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged…this is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that – up to a point – one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.

Cuvier’s principle of the correlation of parts – the idea that all backboned animals are built on the same basic body plan – is fundamental to the science of paleontology. If we have the right forelimb of an animal, we know that it had a mirror-image left forelimb. If we find a skeleton with it’s skull missing, we can still be confident that it had a head. What’s more, specialists can often recognize the group an animal belongs to (and sometimes the species) from just a few bones or teeth. Salamander vertebrae have a characteristic hourglass shape. Frog limb bones have “double-barreled” cavities in cross section. Marsupial teeth have a stylar shelf. New world monkeys have an extra premolar in each quadrant of the mouth. With enough specialized knowledge of related taxa, it is entirely possible to produce an educated reconstruction of most any animal from a minority of its skeleton.

How much is too much?

Argentinosaurus and Giganotosaurus at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Source

But as far as mounted skeletons in museums go, how far can we take this? Is it reasonable to build a standing mount when only 50% of the skeleton is definitively known? What about 30%? 10%? By bone count, that’s about the percentage of fossils ever found from the sauropod Argentinosaurus. And yet, the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta has a (rather spectacular) Argentinosaurus mount in its lobby. The whole thing is, of course, a fiberglass sculpture, dutifully based on better-known relatives. This mount is probably a fair reconstruction of what a complete Argentinosaurus skeleton would look like (although see this list of inaccuracies at Paleoking), but some still might consider it misleading. Your mileage may vary.

Museums generally do a good job labeling reconstructions. In particular, The Carnegie Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum are to be commended for posting charts alongside mounted skeletons that show which bones are original, which are casts, and which are reconstructions. In other cases, a little more transparency would not be unwelcome. For example, the four skulls below appear to include at least as much plaster reconstruction as bone, but they are all labeled as original specimens.

Photos by the author.

Four heavily-reconstructed fossil skulls at AMNH. Clockwise from top: Eryops, Indricotherium, Ophiacodon, and Triceratops. Photos by the author.

This is ultimately more of a philosophical question than a scientific one. Museum mounts, regardless of the amount of sculpted material, are usually well-supported reconstructions of the animal in question. If new information shows that a mount is wrong – as sometimes happens – staff are undoubtedly aware and will correct it as soon as funding and bureaucracy allow (granted, that can take decades). But as I’ve argued before, fossil mounts are unique among museum exhibits in that they are both the specimens and the interpretive context. They are hypotheses, but are presented (or at least understood) as straightforward truth. With this paradox in mind, how much is a museum ethically obligated to share about a mount’s creation? How can we do this without spurring visitors to use the dreaded f-word?

Comments are open, as always, and I’d be thrilled to hear what readers think.


Filed under AMNH, anatomy, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, NHM, reptiles, sauropods, science communication, theropods

Missourium: Hiding in Plain Sight

A while back I wrote about Albert Koch, the 19th century showman who made a tidy profit assembling and touring chimeric composites of fossil bones. Koch’s monsters – an exaggerated mastodon called “Missourium” and two alleged sea serpents made from whale fossils – were a hit with the public but an embarrassment to scientists. At the time, ideas like extinction and the great age of the Earth were very new, and Koch’s fraudulent commodification of fossil evidence made it harder for legitimate researchers to be taken seriously.

The mastodon once called Missourium in the Mammal hall. Source

Is this mastodon at NHM actually the legendary Missourium? Source

One thing I breezed over in the previous post was the eventual fate of Koch’s creations. It is widely reported that the whales (which Koch alternatively called “Hydrargos” and “Hydrarchos”) met rather dramatic ends: one perished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, while the other was purchased by the Royal Anatomical Museum in Munich Berlin and was subsequently blown up during World War II. But what about Missourium? Following Simpson, I wrote that the mount was sold to the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum), and left it at that.

However, Mike Taylor recently asked whether Missourium might still be on display in South Kensington today:

I didn’t know that the “Missourium” was sold to the British Museum! Do you know what they did with it? I don’t suppose anyone has the specimen number? Is it possible that they got rid of all the fakery and mounted it in the mammal hall, and that it stands there today under the shadow of the whale?(Link to comment)

After some very modest digging, I found that Mike’s hunch was exactly right. General googling revealed that several authors, including McMillian, Debus, and Fuller, had concluded that the NHM mastodon and Missourium were one and the same, but none of them offered a proper citation. While I have no reason to doubt these authors, I still wanted a primary source. I eventually found that in a 1991 article by NHM preparator William Lindsay, which details the process of moving the mastodon to its current home in the Mammals Gallery, and confirms its identity as a remounted Missourium.

An insane illsutration that accompanied Koch's traveling exhibit.

This insane illustration of Missourium in its natural habitat accompanied Koch’s traveling exhibit.

As far as we know, Koch retrieved all the fossils that made up Missourium from a single Benton County, Missouri spring in 1840 (Hoy confirmed the locality and found several additional bones in 1871). Koch used the bones of at least two individuals to assemble a chimeric super-mastodon, which he displayed in St. Louis. Most notably, Koch spliced a number of extra vertebrae into the spinal column, extending the mount’s length to 32 feet. To appeal to local audiences – and to differentiate his creation from Peale’s mastodon – Koch named the beast Missourium, and proclaimed it to be the skeleton of the biblical Leviathan. In 1841, Koch sold his St. Louis showroom and took Missourium on tour, eventually winding up in the Egyptian Hall of Piccadilly, London.

Local specialists, including Gideon Mantell, were initially impressed by the display. However, attitudes soured in February 1842 when Richard Owen presented a scathing critique of Koch’s work to the Geological Society of London. In his lecture, Owen made some cursory remarks about the inaccurately articulated skeleton, but he was primarily concerned with confirming that Missourium was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill American mastodon. Owen was a trendsetter, then as well as now, and for decades afterward his fellow naturalists took every opportunity to take Koch to task. For example, James Dana allowed that “the credit is due him of having performed a great service to science by his collections”, but tore into Koch’s publications to prove that he “was quite ignorant of geology and without scientific training.”

It is therefore ironic that Owen himself gave Koch one of the biggest paydays of his life when he bought Missourium on behalf of the British Museum. In exchange for the skeleton, Koch made off with a $2000 downpayment (about $65,000 today), plus $1000 a year for the rest of his life. It seems museums have been paying extortion prices for display-caliber fossils for a long time.


Diagram of the mastodon’s internal armature. Figure 10 of Lindsay 1991.

Museum technicians, including an individual named J. Flower, disassembled Missourium and rebuilt it into a proper mastodon. Reduced to a length of 20 feet, the remounted skeleton (now OR15913) was placed in the historic fossil mammals exhibit and remained there for almost 150 years. In 1991, the mastodon was selected for inclusion in the new Mammals Gallery at NHM, which combines both fossil and modern specimens. Although William Lindsay and colleagues had only limited time to restore and move the skeleton, they gained fascinating insight into 19th century mounting practices. As shown above, the internal metal armature was virtually identical to 20th century counterparts. A hand-wrought iron beam threaded through each vertebra provided the mount’s central anchor point. Four additional iron bars skewered the appendicular elements and connected to the vertebral beam inside the pelvis and under the shoulder girdle. An enlarged foramen magnum allowed the vertebral beam to enter the back of the skull, which turned out to be composed almost entirely of papier-mâché. A real palate and set of upper teeth were buried in the paper cranium, supported by a cradle of wood and copper wire. Amazingly, an 1881 issue of The Weekly Dispatch used in a cursory repair to the skull was still legible.

historic photo of mastodon

Missourium remounted as a standard mastodon in the historic fossil mammals hall. Source

As to be expected from anything on display for a century and a half, the mastodon was in rough shape. As usual, vibration damage was the primary culprit, and Lindsay discovered that the spongy bone in the femur and cervical vertebrae had been crushed beneath the weight of the iron armature. Although NHM staff weren’t able to completely disarticulate the skeleton, they separated it into seven pieces for transport. A coating of polyvinyl acetate was applied to consolidate the fragile fossils, and larger cracks were filled in with putty. Meanwhile, the deteriorating replica skull was retired and replaced with a glass-reinforced plastic cast. The original tusks are still included in the display, however, which is unusual among proboscidian mounts.

Missourium was the third mounted fossil skeleton ever assembled, after Bru’s Megatherium and Peale’s mastodon. Although they’ve each been reconfigured and restored at various points in time, all three specimens are still on exhibit today. While any object that has been on public display for 150 years (or more) is fascinating, I find it especially compelling that so few fossil mounts have ever been taken off exhibit. Public demand, institutional inertia, and the challenges of safely disarticulating a historic mount all contribute to the incredible longevity of these displays, but time inevitably takes its toll on fragile fossils. I can’t help but wonder how many more generations of visitors will be able to view the mastodon that was once Missourium before a mounted display becomes untenable.


British Museum (1904). The History of the Collections Contained in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum. London, UK: British Museum (Natural History) and Longmans and Co.

Dana, J.D. (1875). On Dr. Koch’s Evidence with regard to the Contemporaneity of Man and the Mastodon in Missouri. The American Journal of Science and Arts 9:335-346.

Hoy, P.R. (1871). Dr. Koch’s Missourium. The American Naturalist 5:3:147-148.

Lindsay, W. (1991). “Mammoth” Task. Curator 34:4:261-272.

Owen, R. (1842). Report on the Missourium now exhibiting at the Egyptian Hall, with an inquiry into the claims of the Tetracaudodon to generic distinction. Proceedings of the Geologic Society of London 3:3:82.

Simpson, G.G. (1942). The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 86:1:130-188.


Filed under anatomy, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM

I Have Opinions About Dippy

1st cast in spot of honor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

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

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

Plus, nothing’s cooler than a sauropod.


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