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Review: Ultimate Dinosaurs at the Cincinnati Museum Center

Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana premiered in June 2012 with considerable fanfare at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. Developed by a ROM team led by David Evans and Matthew Vavrek, Ultimate Dinosaurs showcased the dinosaurs of the southern hemisphere, demonstrating how geographic isolation created Mesozoic ecosystems remarkably different from the menageries we are used to seeing in North American museum displays. The exhibit included 20 dinosaur mounts in all, including many taxa never before seen in museums above the equator.

I never made it to the inaugural showing of Ultimate Dinosaurs, but fortunately the show is now on the road. I saw it at the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) earlier this week, where it will remain through January 5th before moving on to Minneapolis. The exhibit assuredly does not disappoint…read on for many pictures and my musings on the design.

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The first room features Triassic and early Jurassic archosaurs.

Huge banners displayed outside the CMC and in the main lobby are impossible to miss, but the Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit itself is hidden away on the lower level, with the entrance at the end of a quiet corridor. Aside from a video screen showing a shifting map of Gondwana, no proper introduction is provided. Visitors immediately find themselves in the first large room of fossil mounts, featuring Triassic and early Jurassic archosaurs like Herrerasaurus, Eoraptor, Cryolophosaurus and the rauisuchian Prestosuchus. This first batch of mounts is lined up on an elevated platform that runs along the right side of the room. Like all the mounts in Ultimate Dinosaurs, these are casts, and are plainly assembled in “chunks”: numerous bone elements casted together as single pieces. While these shortcuts are obvious up close, this mode of construction does allow for remarkably dynamic poses, and there is no obstructive armature to block one’s view. Behind the dinosaurs is the first of several gorgeous Julius Csotonyi murals, a lively panorama of life reconstructions in a naturalistic setting.

In front of every mount is an array of attractive signs in bright, solid colors. Information is mostly provided in short sound bites or bullet points, highlighting sensible information like the animal’s diet, the meaning of its name, where it was discovered, and why it is scientifically noteworthy. There is also at least one touchscreen in front of each mount, which includes several more pages of information for the more dedicated visitor. I really liked the similar touchscreen displays at the Carnegie Museum, and these are equally impressive. This is technology used intelligently, contributing to but not overwhelming the primary display, while using space in an economical way. I was also impressed by the succinctness of the text. It is very difficult to condense information into short blurbs that visitors can absorb with no more than a quick glance, but the Ultimate Dinosaurs writers balanced accuracy, intrigue and brevity on every single sign. Hats off to them!

Visitors were having a hell of a time pronouncing Cryolophosaurus.

Visitors were having a hell of a time pronouncing Cryolophosaurus.

Turning left at the Massospondylus at the far end of the first room, visitors enter a long and largely empty corridor. The left wall is adorned with a series of signs explaining the historical discovery of and evidence for continental drift, and herein lies my primary concern with the exhibit as a whole. The story being told in Ultimate Dinosaurs, regarding plate tectonics and its effect on evolution, is an important one. Paleobiogeography is key to understanding how the natural world we know today came to be. What’s more, it’s a great example of science in action, consisting of a handful of intuitive, evidence-based concepts that can be applied to new situations and clarify new discoveries.  As such, paleobiogeography ought to frame the entire exhibit. I would have placed the big ideas and central questions (Why are similar organisms sometimes found on opposite sides of oceans? What happens when populations or ecosystems are isolated from one another?) at the beginning, and ensured that they were reinforced in every display with recurring terms, imagery and motifs. The paleobiogeography story should guide the visitor’s experience and understanding of the exhibit.

Instead, Ultimate Dinosaurs at the CMC relegates the big ideas to secluded corners and easily-missed signs. The text itself is very clear and well-written, and supported by attractive, intuitive graphics, but it’s hidden away and or otherwise overshadowed by lists of factoids about each dinosaur. My largely unsubstantiated suspicion is that the original designers of Ultimate Dinosaurs at the ROM intended for the paleobiogeography story to be much more explicit, but this vision was compromised somewhat in order to fit the exhibit into the space available at the CMC. The unfortunate result is that the most critical information is introduced in an unorganized manner, and the exhibit is weaker for it.

Suchomimus peers in from the right, Amargasaurus and

Suchomimus peers in from the right, Malawisaurus in the middle, Argentina in back.

After passing through the switchbacking corridor, visitors reach the primary showroom. This is an enormous space filled with huge, impressive dinosaur mounts. Like the rest of the exhibit, this gallery is quite dark, with floor lights and the occasional overhead light highlighting the dinosaurs. The darkness helps to hide the unadorned walls and ceilings of the multipurpose space being used, but thankfully does not hinder one’s view of the dinosaurs. And the dinosaurs certainly do not disappoint. Even though they are casts, this exhibit was my first opportunity to see the likes of Armagasaurus, Suchomimus, Ouranosaurus and many others in person. I could walk around them, take in their scale and compare them to one another and to myself, experiences that no image or documentary can provide.

Majungasaurus and Rapetosaurus strike an extreme pose.

Majungasaurus and Rapetosaurus strike an extreme pose.

Most of the dinosaurs are in lively poses, as though the animal was frozen midstride, but a few are especially dynamic. Little Rahonavis is suspended from the ceiling, as though leaping for prey or perhaps engaging in a controlled glide to the forest floor. The Majungasaurus and Rapetosaurus, which are the only mounts directly interacting with one another, are particularly interesting. The attacking Majungasaurus has its foot up on the flank of the Rapetosaurus, and the sauropod is in a rather unusual squatting pose, with its forelimbs at what appears to be maximum flexion. I will leave it to the experts to decide whether this extreme pose is plausible, but this nevertheless serves as a reminder of what can be learned by assembling a skeleton in three-dimensional space.

Carnotaurus

Carnotaurus and Amargasaurus.

The mounts are clustered on three islands, representing Argentina, Madagascar and Niger. I do wish this organization had been made clearer to visitors, perhaps with large banners over the islands naming the dinosaurs’ location of origin. Clustered at the feet of the mounts are small cases containing a mix of original and casted fossils. Some of those are quite relevant and provide further context to the mounts: for instance, a collection of North African fossil fish near the Suchomimus illustrate the spinosaur’s probable diet. Other cases are a bit more perplexing. A series of cervical vertebrae from the North American sauropod Suuwassea is arbitrarily situated among the Madagascar mounts, and cases of cephalopods and Carboniferous plants are similarly out of place. Most of these oddball fossil displays did not come from the ROM, but were added by the CMC from their own collections. Although these fossils are fascinating and should absolutely be on display, I don’t think randomly interjecting them among the Gondwanan dinosaurs was the way to go. These displays interrupt the primary storyline and probably should have been placed elsewhere.

CWC addition

These additions from the CMC are neat, but a bit out of place.

The final room showcases the exhibit’s two largest mounts, Tyrannosaurus and Giganotosaurus. It is undeniably exciting to see these two giant predators side by side, and compare how these ostensibly similar carnivores were nevertheless subtly adapted to tackle different prey. I would have made this point more obvious than the exhibit does, but I suppose sometimes you need to step back and let your specimens speak for themselves.

This room also features the much-ballyhooed “augmented reality” gimmick. These are tablet-sized screens found alongside the mounts. When you point these at the Tyrannosaurus and Giganotosaurus skeletons, a CG version of dinosaur appears on the screen. Panning and tilting the tablet in front of the mount causes your view of the CG version to adjust accordingly. I found these sort of interesting, but they were not nearly as impressive as the mounts themselves. Unfortunately, the CG dinosaurs simply didn’t look very good. I am all for the use of technology in museum exhibits, but only if it plays to our strengths. In this case, the CG dinosaurs are directly and unfavorably comparable to a wide range of films and television shows that people can see without leaving home. As hubs for lifetime learning, museums can and should offer more than that.

Tyrannosaurus and Giganotosaurus side by side. Eat it up, internet.

Tyrannosaurus and Giganotosaurus side by side. Eat it up, internet.

Despite my nitpicks, Ultimate Dinosaurs really does live up to its name. This is a very handsomely designed exhibit, and an great opportunity to see mounts of exotic dinosaur taxa. If you are at all interested in paleontology, catching this exhibit is a no-brainer. But even if you’re not, this is a rare chance to see what the vertebrate fossil record has to offer beyond T. rex and Triceratops, and learn a bit about how our world came to be.

Edit: I had mistakenly said the murals were created by Raul Martin. They are the work of Julius Csotonyi.

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Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, museums, ornithopods, reptiles, reviews, sauropods, theropods

Another JP4 Feathers Post

Okay, I’ll bite.

A week ago, Jurassic Park 4 director Colin Treverrow tweeted two words and a hashtag that set the corners of the internet I hang out in aflame for days afterward. The dinosaurs in the upcoming third sequel will not have feathers, in defiance of the twenty years of irrefutable fossil evidence that has come to light since the original film’s 1993 release. Reactions to this news demonstrate a clear divide among dinosaur enthusiasts: there are those who hate the idea of scientifically inaccurate dinosaurs appearing in mass media, and those who are enamored with the “classic” dinosaurs of their youth, and vocally resist any change. And in this case, I don’t really agree with either.

The problem is that dinosaurs straddle two different roles in our culture. There is the scientific reality of their existence, informed by careful scrutiny of hard evidence. Brilliant researchers collect and interpret fossils, broadening our understanding of not only the lives of dinosaurs, but how life on earth evolves and adapts to change in general. As a science educator, this is the perspective on dinosaurs I am usually invested in.

But dinosaurs also have what John Conway calls “awesomebro” appeal. From this angle, dinosaurs are appealing because they are monsters with big teeth and are generally super cool. This is coupled with an innate association of dinosaurs with early childhood that people are remarkably protective of. For example, on Brian Switek’s 10 Dinosaur Myths that Need to Go Extinct article for Tor Publishing, commenter Alan B. declares “I don’t care what anyone says, the dinos we learned about when I was in grade school were awesome! And given a choice between factual and awesome, I will choose awesome every time!” Clearly there is a a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor at play here, but comments like this appear virtually anywhere feathered dinosaurs are discussed. Many people genuinely care about their “classic” dinosaurs, and react negatively to new discoveries that threaten the dinosaur paradigm they associate with childhood bliss.

As Conway points out, the typical reaction of anyone with a vested interest actual scientific paleontology is to reject and belittle pop-culture dinosaurs whenever possible. Unfortunately, this we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong approach veers into deficit model territory, and doesn’t seem to accomplish much other than make the rift among dinosaur enthusiasts more antagonistic. It makes our audience of potential learners defensive, even angry, that scientists are “ruining” dinosaurs. And focusing conversations on the fact that popular conceptions of dinosaurs are wrong removes focus from the real benefits of researching past life.

I think it would be more helpful to recognize the validity and significance of pop-culture dinosaurs, but to work towards separating them in the public consciousness from real dinosaurs. A potential conversation: You think the Jurassic Park Raptors are cool? Great, so do I, but I think they’re cool in the way other movie monsters like the Predator or the T-1000 are cool. But perhaps you’d be interested in learning about the real animal Velociraptor mongoliensis that the movie Raptors were inspired by? My point is, the widespread appreciation/nostalgia for pop-culture dinosaurs (or fantasy dinosaurs, or classic dinosaurs, or awesomebro dinosaurs, whatever you want to call them) is potentially valuable, but I think it often gets dismissed too gruffly. If would-be educators are outright dismissing what their audience is bringing to the conversation, that audience has little incentive to learn more.

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Filed under dinosaurs, education, movies, opinion, reptiles, science communication

Drama and natural history

While running errands this morning a thought came to me: a natural history exhibit in a museum is a lot like a stage performance*. When watching a play, the viewer knows she is seeing a performance, but it willing to suspend disbelief so long as the fantasy is well-created. To varying degrees, most modern natural history exhibits engage in the same theatrical relationship with their audiences. Exhibits re-create reality within the museum environment, and visitors accept the performance as truth.

*Actually, I thought “movie” first, but theater is a better analogy because the actors are real and present.

CMNH zebra diorama. Source: amyboemig on flickr.

A rather poignant picture of the CMNH zebra diorama. Source: amyboemig on flickr.

Habitat dioramas featuring taxidermied animals are the most obvious example. Dioramas like the lovely east African savannah scene at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History pictured above are exactingly detailed microcosms modeled after actual environments. The backdrops are typically  based on photographs of real locations. The teams that collected the animal skins would also take samples of leaves and even molds of tree bark, in order to exhibit the ecosystem in toto. And of course, the mannequins on which the animal skins are mounted were sculpted by artists with a strong foundation in anatomical science. And yet, the diorama is clearly not real. Visitors know that they are not looking at an actual game reserve that has been somehow frozen in time. Many viewers might mistake the animals as being “stuffed” (they are in fact sculptures with tanned skins fitted onto them), but  they still recognize some element of artifice.  The animals clearly didn’t end up in the glass-enclosed box on their own accord. And yet, visitors accept the illusion, because they keep coming to museums to learn about the world around us.

The same holds true for most other displays. These dioramas at the New York State Museum are not literally historic Iroquois villages shrunk down to 1/20 scale. The Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops pictured below are not really fighting, nor did they die in a death struggle. Even the Apple Store-eque NMNH Hall of Mammals recreates natural behaviors against a sterile backdrop. Unless the museum is displaying completely decontextualized specimens lying prone on a shelf, there is some degree of theatricality in the exhibit.

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Source.

The theater analogy begins to go astray, however, when we consider that the performances in natural history exhibits are informed by reality. For the most part, exhibit designers do not place specimens in completely fictitious scenarios; the theatrical element serves to illustrate something real. Perhaps exhibits are more akin to a movie “based on a true story.” But like those movies, there is an undeniable selectivity in how museum workers tell their stories.  Why are the zebra in the CMNH diorama chilling amicably with wildebeest? That is certainly something that real zebra have been known to do, but zebra have also been known to drown lions, trample foals and chew on the cars of obnoxious tourists. For that matter, why does this diorama not include any sign of human pastoralists, who have lived in the same environment as these animals for thousands of years?

Exhibits have human authorship, just like any other document. The manner in which any specimen or object is displayed is inherently subjective, and there will always be emphasis and omissions, intentional or otherwise, that change the way the exhibit is interpreted. Before you misjudge me, dear reader, this is not an argument that there is no objective reality. I wouldn’t even say that it is impossible to understand and perceive objective reality. Scientists do it all the time. But when it comes time to communicate that information, we are creating something new, and choosing what we incorporate and how we express it. Getting back to my original point, we’re putting on a representational show. And that means that what we’re creating only works as long as our audience is willing to participate in the performance.

 

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Filed under anthropology, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, science communication

Extinct Monsters: Murals and Dioramas

Click here to start the Extinct Monsters series from the beginning.

Fossils are the hard evidence behind paleontology. They tell us not only that prehistoric organisms existed, but hold clues as to how they lived and behaved. However, it is only through  artwork that extinct animals and ecosystems can be brought back to life. Since Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins built the first life-sized dinosaur sculptures in 1842, skilled artists have played a critical role in visualizing the results of paleontological research and making that information available to a wider audience.

At the National Museum of Natural History, spectacular works of art have always appeared alongside displays of original fossils, firing up the viewer’s imagination and inviting them to visualize the world of prehistory. Although many of these pieces are now scientifically dated, they were on the cutting edge in their time. These artworks remain exquisite works of craftsmanship, invaluable for their decades of contribution to science education.

The Life-Sized Models

The charmingly ugly Stegosaurus is one of the oldest fixtures of the Smithsonian fossil exhibits. F.A.L. Richardson created this model for the the Smithsonian’s exhibition at the St. Louis, Missouri World’s Fair in 1904. Made from papier mâché with a foam skin, the Stegosaurus was based on small sculpture produced by Charles Gilmore. With its sagging belly, sprawling forelimbs, and head held well below the horizontal plane, this Stegosaurus is typical of reconstructions from the early to mid 20th century.

As legend had it, the paper used to fabricate the Stegosaurus was ground-up money from the National Treasury. The model had even earned the nickname “Mr. Moneybags” among some of the museum staff. Curator Emeritus Ray Rye got to the bottom of this in 1981. He contacted the Treasury to find out what was done with worn-out paper money at the turn of the century – apparently it was burned at a plant in Maryland. Nevertheless, at Rye’s request a group of historians from the Treasury took a sample of the Stegosaurus while the hall was closed for construction, and confirmed that it was made from regular paper.

This pudgy papier mache Stegosaurus has been a fixture at the Smithsonian since 1904.

This pudgy Stegosaurus has been a fixture at the Smithsonian since 1904. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

When the Hall of Extinct Monsters opened in 1910, the Stegosaurus was given a spot of honor right in the center of the room. In 1913, a real Stegosaurus skeleton was placed alongside it. Both dinosaurs would remain in place until the exhibit was renovated in 1963. In the reconfigured and renamed Hall of Fossil Reptiles, the model Stegosaurus was relocated to a corner display.  Most recently, the 1981 renovation saw the Stegosaurus model moved to the south side of the gallery, protected by a low plexiglass barrier. This time, it was given a cycad replica for company, and a mural of lush Jurassic jungle behind it. The Stegosaurus remained in this position until the fossil halls closed in 2014.

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The NMNH exhibits team with their nearly-finished Quetzalcoatlus. Image from Thomson 1985.

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The Quetzalcoatlus survived a 2010 earthquake, although the plaster molding above it was damaged. Photo by the author.

The 1981 renovation also saw the introduction of a life-sized model of the pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus. Having been discovered in 1971, the largest flying animal that ever lived was big news at that time. In-house modelmakers spent two years on the project, first sculpting the animal in clay, then casting it in lightweight fiberglass with a steel armature. Paleontologist Nicholas Hotton served as the scientific consultant. Although he was dubious that pterosaurs had any sort of soft body covering, he okayed the use of deer fur to give the model believable texture. However, Hotton nixed the idea of placing a dangling fish in the mouth of the Quetzalcoatlus. Contemporary wisdom was that even giant pterosaurs were extremely light, weighing as little as 75 pounds, so even a 5-pound fish was thought to be enough to disrupt a Quetzalcoatlus in flight.

The Stegosaurus and Quetzalcoatlus both now reside at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York.

The Murals

The first dedicated prehistoric mammal exhibit at NMNH opened in the summer of 1961. Alongside the array of Cenozoic fossil mounts, the exhibit featured four brand new murals created by paleoartist Jay Matternes (he painted two more for the Ice Age hall several years later). Still active today, Matternes is a prolific artist of both modern and prehistoric wildlife. In addition to the NMNH murals, Matternes has contributed to exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, as well as numerous publications including National Geographic Magazine.

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Matternes’ Oligocene mural as first exhibited in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Oligocene and early Miocene murals, as seen in the 1985-2014 iteration of the exhibit, Mammals in the Limelight. Photo by the author.

Each of the murals Matternes contributed to the exhibit depicts North America during an epoch of the Cenozoic, and is displayed behind corresponding fossil mounts. Most of the animals on display coincide with life reconstructions in the murals, so visitors can match the skeletons to images of how they may have looked in life. Matternes’ hyper-detailed style is particularly striking. The environments look nearly photo-real, and not too far removed from the world today. Likewise, the artist’s knowledge of anatomy plainly shows in the utterly lifelike appearances of the animals. I particularly like Matternes’ use of familiar color patterns on the relatives of modern taxa. The Pliocene and Pleistocene murals will be returning in 2019.

Cenozoic

The Cenozoic section of Kish’s 130-foot magnum opus. Source

The “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit debuted in 1990 with a monumental 130-foot mural by Eleanor Kish. From the explosion of invertebrate diversity in the Cambrian to the proliferation of aquatic mammals in the recent past, the mural spans 541 years of deep time. The project took Kish two years to complete and is, simply put, a masterpiece. Within the exhibit, this meticulously crafted image defines the space’s layout and color palate. It visually separates concepts and themes, and even directs visitor traffic with its strong leftward momentum.

The Dioramas

The dinosaur dioramas were one of my favorite parts of the old NMNH fossil halls. Norman Neal Deaton created three dioramas, representing North America during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. The Mesozoic dioramas were commissioned for the 1963 exhibit renovation, and were on display until 2014. Each 1″:1′ scale diorama is set into a recessed space in the wall and is protected by glass.  The scenes are populated by a menagerie of outdated but gorgeously detailed dinosaurs and contemporary reptiles, set among dense forests of ferns and craggy rock formations. The complexity of the dioramas allows viewers to get lost in them as their eye wanders from one static encounter to the next. I’ve been admiring these scenes since literally before I could talk and I still notice minute details I hadn’t seen before.

The diorama project began in 1963 and took four years to complete. The scenes were initially blocked out by Jay Matternes and Nicholas Hotton, the Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the time. Matternes and Hotton worked together on anatomical drawings for each of the animals to be reconstructed, and planned the basic layout of the dioramas. Deaton created the final dioramas at his studio in Newton, Iowa. Deaton had been previously employed at the Smithsonian as an exhibits specialist, but had left to found his own studio in the late 1950s, where he continued to work on projects for the Smithsonian as a contractor. In addition to the dinosaur dioramas, Deaton led the creation of the iconic Fénykövi elephant that stands in the NMNH rotunda today, and has created sculptures and dioramas for dozens of other museums. Deaton is still active today, and much of his 2-D and 3-D work can be seen at his website.

Deaton mailed these slides of his unpainted models to Hotton for approval. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Deaton mailed these slides of his unpainted models to Hotton for approval. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Deaton sculpted each of the animals in clay based on the drawings provided by Matternes and Hotton. Nearly every model went through a few incremental adjustments based on notes from Hotton, changing things like the bulk of the muscles or how visible the scapula or pelvis would be under the skin. The soft anatomy was based on modern reptiles, particularly crocodiles, although Deaton found that some of the animals had no obvious analogs. Once the clay models were approved, they were casted in rubber, then painted. Deaton also created the miniature worlds inhabited by the animals, including foliage, muddy riverbanks, and sheer cliffs. The backdrops, however, were painted by Matternes.

The completed dioramas represented the most up-to-date knowledge of the Mesozoic world at that time. Of course, our understanding of dinosaurs has been overhauled significantly since then. Compared to the active, fleet-footed, and often feathered dinosaurs we know today, the inhabitants of the NMNH dioramas at first look a bit ponderous and inert. Inaccuracies are easy to point out: the Ankylosaurus has a weird clubless armadillo tail, the torso of the Diplodocus is much too long, the Cretaceous diorama mixes Hell Creek and Belly River dinosaurs that were separated by at least 20 million years, and there are sprawly tail-draggers aplenty.

Cretaceous diorama by Norman Deaton. Source: flickr.

Cretaceous diorama by Norman Deaton. Photo by the author.

Triassic diorama

Triassic diorama by Norman Deaton. Source

Still, these issues are easy to overlook when one appreciates just how engaging these scenes are. Little details like footprints behind each animal and mud splattered on their feet fill the motionless dioramas with life and the possibility of more adventures in the imagination of the viewer. And several of the models are surprisingly energetic for 60’s dinosaurs. The Ceratosaurus face-biting the Camptosaurus (above) is full of energy, and the Elphrosaurus  is running full-tilt with its tail in the air (and even has propatagia for some reason).

Many of the works of art in the NMNH fossil halls are no longer appropriate as literal representations of prehistoric animals. But that does not mean they are irrelevant relics of mid-century science. Each model and painting is a stunning example of artistry, and more to the point, every inaccuracy is an opportunity to start up a conversation about what we know about prehistory and how we know it. These pieces are time capsules in the history of science, representing different eras of understanding and the researchers that took part in them. I, for one, would hate to see them forgotten.

A big thank you  to Norman Deaton and Raymond Rye for their assistance with this article.

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Filed under dinosaurs, Extinct Monsters, history of science, mammals, museums, NMNH, paleoart, reptiles, science communication

Beating the orthogenetic horse

According to the rad personalized 2012 review provided by WordPress, the top search engine terms leading people here over the last year were dinosours, horse evolutionary tree, horse evolution tree, horse phylogenetic tree and Daspletosaurus. It’s not too difficult to pick out the pattern there – horse evolution seems to be a major draw, even though I only mentioned it in a single post back in June. I aim to please, so I suppose a more detailed discussion of horse phylogeny is in order. First off, let me recommend Brian Switek’s thorough and thoughtful take on the subject. If you stick around here, you’re going to get more of a tirade.

Most depictions of horse evolution available online, including the one I posted a few months ago that is luring people to this site, are terrible. The typical linear presentation of horses progressively increasing in size from Eohippus to modern Equus, losing toes along the way, misrepresents not only what we know about horses as a group, but how evolution works in general.

This didn’t happen.

Evolution is, of course, neither linear nor progressive: it is primarily the result of populations adapting to thrive in their particular environments. As environments change over time species may evolve or go extinct, but there is no predetermined goal that lineages are reaching for. Modern Equus is not the most “highly evolved” horse – this is, in fact, a misleading if not meaningless concept, because a species’ success is dependent on its ability to thrive in that specific time and place. A modern horse is well adapted for grazing and running fast on open plains, but relocate one to the Eocene cloud forests where Eohippus thrived and it would do very badly.

Furthermore, it has been known for over a century that horses as a group did not consistently grow larger over time or otherwise become more Equus-like. Instead, horses diversified into a variety of forms over the group’s 55 million year existence, each group adapting to different environmental niches across the northern hemisphere. Large and small, forest-dwelling browsers and plains-dwelling grazers, these and all manner of other horses overlapped in time and space over the course of the Cenozoic. As J.W. Gidley of the American Museum of Natural History had worked out as early as 1907, horse evolution was not a linear progression but a tangled bush (just like the evolution of most other clades).

A modern horse phylogeny. From Macfadden 2005, via Laelaps.

A modern horse phylogeny. From MacFadden 2005, via Laelaps.

So where did the orthogenetic depiction of horse evolution come from, and why is it still with us today? The answer highlights the importance of museum exhibits and specimen provenance in the public’s understanding of paleontology, with a dose of jealous personalities for good measure.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which he articulated the process of evolution by natural selection virtually exactly as we understand it today. Darwin’s book incited a whirlwind of debate in both scientific and public circles because of its implication that the diversity of life could be attributed to natural forces, rather than an unknowable divine power. Within a decade, however, the vast majority of the scientific community was convinced by the soundness of Darwin’s theory, and to this day billions of individual observations of the natural world tell us that evolution is assuredly true.

One of the many lines of evidence covered in On the Origin of Species is the fossil record, with which we can trace the evolution and extinction of organisms over time, including the ancestors of modern life. However, Chapter 9 of Darwin’s book, “On the Imperfection of the Geological Record” (full text pdf) reads like like a lengthy apology for the incomplete nature of fossil preservation. Today, the use of organized, cladistic methodologies allow paleontologists to piece together detailed phylogenies from fossils, but in Darwin’s day, the evidence was patchier, and he opted to de-emphasise the fossil record’s usefulness to avoid such criticism. As Darwin put it, “we have no right to expect to find in our geological formations an infinite number of of those fine transitional forms.” Unfortunately for paleontology specialists, this led other biologists to believe that fossils could not make any independent contribution to the understanding of evolution. Largely shut out of the biggest biological discovery of all time, paleontologists became stewards of a “second-class discipline” (Sepkoski 2012, 9).

Paleontologists in the late 19th century.

Since biologists interested in evolution considered paleontology mostly irrelevant, late 19th-century paleontologists were left with three options. They could support evolution as best they could and accept that other biologists might not take notice, they could ignore theoretical discussion entirely and focus on purely descriptive studies of morphology, or they could be spiteful and seek alternatives to Darwinian evolution. The second course of action was the most popular well into the 20th century. E.D. Cope seems to be  an example of the third approach, favoring an odd sort of neo-Lamarckism in his book The Origin of the Fittest. Such conceptions of directional change, such as Cope’s Law, are counter to evolution as proposed by Darwin and as understood today. However, a handful of paleontologists stuck with it and endeavored to provide meaningful fossil evidence for evolutionary theory.

Throughout the 1860’s, paleontologist O.C. Marsh amassed an impressive array of fossil horses from Wyoming and elsewhere in the American west. Horse fossils had been found in Europe much earlier, but Marsh’s horse collection was much more complete, and was probably the best fossil record compiled for any vertebrate group at the time. In 1870, the influential British naturalist Thomas “Darwin’s Bulldog” Huxley visited Marsh in New Haven and was suitably impressed: Marsh’s fossils ranged from the Eocene up until the Pleistocene, providing a clear picture of how the horse family had evolved over time. While Darwin had been hesitant to make too big a deal about the fossil record as evidence for evolution, the horse fossils were blatant examples of animals changing over time.

During the same visit, Huxley gave a lecture in New York in which he cited the horse fossils as a fantastic new line of evidence in support of evolution. Unfortunately, Huxley’s lecture (while admittedly aimed at a general audience) tread into some severely teleologic territory. As quoted in The Gilded Dinosaur (Jaffe 2000, 162), Huxley told his audience that “the horse is in many ways a most remarkable animal in as much as it presents us with an example of one the most perfect pieces of machinery in the animal kingdom.” He went on to explain how horse ancestors, from the little four-toed Hyracotherium in the Eocene to increasingly large horses like Merychippus and Pliohippus, gradually perfected the design of the modern horse. According to Huxley, over the course of the Cenozoic horses got bigger, faster, leggier, and generally better at being horses as we know them today. Problematically, this essentialist narrative rather misses the point of evolution as described by Darwin. 

Marsh, like Huxley, was an early advocate of evolution,  but his narrative of horse evolution was more on the mark. Marsh concluded that the smaller early horses with brachydont teeth were well suited for life in the rainforests that covered the western United States 50 million years ago. Horses like we know them today emerged as a direct result of the Earth getting cooler and drier over the course of the Cenozoic, and by the end of the Pleistocene the lineages of forest horses were completely extinct. Equus is with us today not because it is the best horse for any circumstance, but because it was most successful during the ice ages that shaped the modern flora and fauna (it also helped that humans figured out that horses are useful and ensured their survival through domestication).

Unfortunately, Marsh was never enthusiastic about public education, and so the progressive view of horse evolution was the one that made it into the public sphere. The history of horses remained a popular example of evidence for evolution, trotted out over the years by prominent biologists like George Simpson and Stephen Gould. Indeed, it was the first good evolutionary story known from fossils, although by no means the last or the best. In the earliest 1900s, Henry Osborn had a major role in solidifying the orthogenetic horse evolution story in the public eye when he curated the exhibit on the subject at the American Museum of Natural History. It is on the basic premise of this exhibit that the textbook, museum, and web descriptions of linear horse evolution that persist to this day are based.

Photo by the author.

The fossil horses of AMNH. Photo by the author.

After the modern biological synthesis, paleontologists realigned with the rest of biology, and the odd pseudo-evolutionary ideas that persisted in paleontological circles began to fall by the wayside. However, orthogenetic ideas remain common in natural history exhibits on horse evolution to this day (in about 62% of them, according to MacFadden et al. 2012). The reason these exhibits have stuck around isn’t entirely clear. MacFadden and colleagues suggest suggest a lack of inertia or funding for the renovation of exhibits is a factor, but they also point out that even some newer exhibits fall back on linear horse evolution.

The biggest problem is that orthogenetic evolution makes more intuitive sense to non-specialists. We often use the word “evolution” to imply improvement, so it would follow that horses should get bigger and better over time. This is an important misconception to overcome, because, as if we need a reminder, only 15% of Americans believe humans evolved from other animals via strictly natural processes, and an even smaller number can correctly articulate how evolution works. Evolution is the fundamental principle underlying everything we see in the natural world, and it is imperative that a correct understanding of how it works is the basis of any biology education. With the proper background, the real story of horse evolution is a great example of how changing climates effect organisms and ecosystems over time. This is helpful for interpreting the ever-important subject of climate change, but it won’t click until the linear horse evolution story is trampled out for good.

References

Jaffe, M. 2000. The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

MacFadden, B.J., Oviedo, L.H., Seymour, G.M. and Ellis, S. 2012. “Fossil Horses, Orthogenesis and Communicating Evolution in Museums.” Evolution, Education and Outreach 5:29-37.

Sepkoski, D. 2012. Rereading the Fossil Record: The Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Filed under AMNH, history of science, mammals, museums, science communication, systematics

Fossil mounts: specimens, showpieces, art and more

A few days ago, Andy Farke posed the following question on twitter:

If fossils are part of our planet’s heritage, and belong to all of us, are museum restrictions on photos ethical?

Farke clarified that he was referring specifically to fossils held in collections, especially those collected on federal land and/or with public funding. Following the same sound logic that makes open access scientific publication a necessity, any scientific work using public resources should be accessible to everyone, including objects in collections.* The question had arisen because some museums bar researchers utilizing collections from using photographs in their published articles (or charge a fee for the privilege). This is a valid concern, but I don’t have enough experience with scientific publishing to explore it properly. Instead, I’d like to hijack the question in order to discuss the murky identity of fossil mounts.

*I’m going to disregard for-profit museums for the time being, suffice it to say such collections exist and can be useful for research as well.

A sampling of fossil collections and curators at the National Museum of Natural History. Source: http://paleobiology.si.edu.

As was already pointed out in response to Farke’s initial question, the public’s right to access photographs of some fossil collections should not necessarily extend to museum exhibits. Any modern museum exhibit worth its salt is far more than specimens on shelves. Exhibits are immersive experiences that use specimens to illustrate a story. A great deal of creative work goes into designing and fabricating an exhibit, and it is not unreasonable for museums to claim ownership of any reproductions, including photographs, if they so choose.

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mount in the Roosevelt rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Source: http://www.ourtravelpics.com.

Allosaurus and Barosaurus mounts in the Roosevelt rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History. Source: http://www.ourtravelpics.com.

Fossil mounts, however, are a different beast. These structures are difficult to categorize because they are intended both to educate and to entertain. They may incorporate real fossils, or casts taken directly from them, but I would argue that fossil mounts are primarily constructed pieces. With the exception of some more recently extinct mammal taxa, most mounts are composites of casts, sculpted elements and original fossils collected in different places at different times. Steel armatures are custom-made not only to support the specimens but to appropriately fill the exhibit space. Mounts like the striking Barosaurus and Allosaurus encounter in the Roosevelt rotunda at AMNH (above) are designed to make an aesthetic impression as well as to inform. Overall, mounts require a substantial investment of time, labor, money and artistic skill to create and maintain. Experienced researchers typically guide the construction process and the contributions of knowledgeable scientists cannot be overstated, but fossil specimens certainly do not come out of the ground mount-ready. There is a great deal more to making a good mount than stringing vertebrae together in the right order.

A direct comparison can be made between fossil mounts and the taxidermied animals that are also a staple at natural history museums. A taxidermy mount also incorporates a scientific specimen, the animal’s skin, which if collected using public resources should be accessible to all. Like fossil mounts, however, taxidermy pieces require extensive artistic and technical skill to create, from the steel or wood armature to the clay model that build’s out the animal’s musculature to the eyes and mouth, which are typically sculpted from scratch. It is worth quoting Rachel Poliquin’s excellent The Breathless Zoo at length:

As dead and mounted animals, [taxidermy mounts] are thoroughly cultural objects; yet as pieces of nature, [they] are thoroughly beyond culture. Animal or object? Animal and object? This is the irresolvable tension that defines all taxidermy. (Poliquin 2012, 5-6)

I firmly believe that the results of scientific inquiry belong in the public domain, and it follows that restrictions on the photographic reproduction of collections specimens are inappropriate. Nevertheless, fossil mounts and taxidermied animals are the products of artisans as much as of researchers, and the right to credit and control over this work ought to be respected. This middle ground is awkward to negotiate, and as Poliquin puts it, a means to please all parties might be “irresolvable.”

Robert Rockwell sculpts the internal model for AMNH's taxidermied brown bear. Source: Scientific American.

Robert Rockwell sculpts the internal model for AMNH’s taxidermied brown bear. Source: Scientific American.

To make a non-committal final point, I’d like to mention that it is tempting to be too uptight about copyright, particularly in a museum setting. This past October, I had the pleasure to give a presentation with Alexis Fekete at the Kansas Museum Association’s annual conference. The most interesting part of our session (which was about how web 2.0 tools can help museums) was when audience members, mostly representing small history museums, voiced concerns over making their photography collections available online. There was apprehension about making it too easy for people to copy and sell pictures without permission, which I assume is the primary reasoning behind other museums’ policies prohibiting the publication of fossil images. I’m skeptical, however, that this is the most pressing concern. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I have no problem with getting information disseminated to genuinely interested people. Creating awareness and enthusiasm for content is part of the general mission of museums, and I’d hate to see overzealous copyright barriers get in the way of that.

References

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

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Filed under collections, dinosaurs, fossil mounts, mammals, museums, science communication

Communicating Systematics, Part 2

In the previous post, I discussed how phylogenetic trees, while powerful and informative to trained eyes, can be misinterpreted by lay audiences. These misunderstandings are easy to diagnose, but actually finding solutions to the problem is challenging.

In a perfect world, every child would be introduced to evolutionary theory early and often in their obligatory science education, and everybody would be able to interpret phylogenetic trees the way scientists do. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, especially in the United States, so educators are going to have to get creative. One option is to provide additional information to aid in the interpretation of the diagram. On the surface, adding more information is always an attractive prospect, but unfortunately it does not always work as intended. Attention spans are perilously short, and the goal of a visual representation should be to make the content immediately intuitive and easier to understand.

If conventional shapes and symbols in evolutionary trees are not getting the intended message across to target audiences, then perhaps we need to rethink how we are structuring these trees. I don’t have a catch-all solution, but the following might be enough to at least start a conversation.

Change the shape of the tree

Torrens and Barahona argue that many misinterpretations of trees stem from ideas of essentialism and teleology that are deeply ingrained in and continually reinforced by western culture. Likewise, equating up with good and down with bad is a recurring, internalized motif. Therefore, trees that illustrate evolution and diversification proceeding upward or to the right only encourage presuppositions of linear, goal-oriented evolution.

One solution that has been experimented with (at AMNH, for example) is to draw trees as circles (see below). This eliminates the problem of associating up with good and bad with down, or upward movement with progress. A circular “tree” has no orientation, and thus does not imply any taxa to be better than the rest. Personally, I find circle diagrams confusing to read, but I appreciate what they are intended to accomplish. A diagram of evolutionary relationships could theoretically take any shape, since the crucial information is in the branching order, not the nature of the lines.

A circular tree. From eplanetscience.com.

Be careful with representation of ancestors

 Many phylogenetic diagrams place specific fossil taxa at nodes along the tree in order to illustrate the course of evolution. This is informative of general evolutionary trends, but it can also be confusing. As a case in point, I just did an image search for a horse evolution diagram to use as an example, and found that many of the top results came from creationist websites. These sites aren’t worth linking to (although they are easy enough to find), but they erroneously assume that fossil taxa are thought to be directly ancestral to modern Equus caballus.  Evolutionary scientists think no such thing, but looking at the image below I can see how that conclusion could be reached.

This diagram of the evolutionary history of horses can lead to the mistaken assumption that earlier species are thought to be directly ancestral to later ones. That polytomy that leads to three unlabeled nodes doesn’t help either.

In a proper cladogram, taxa are only placed at the ends of branches. Direct ancestry is (almost) never inferred, because the scarcity of the fossil record prevents us from ever knowing exactly what evolved into what when. The cladogram below shows the relationships between the seven modern-day species of Equus. Systematists have determined a series of branching relationships based on anatomical and molecular data, and even provide a suggestion of when these divergences occurred, via the time scale. Each node represents a common ancestor that definitely existed, but we will probably never find or identify their fossils.

A cladogram of modern horse species. From Hooper Virtual Natural History Museum.

In this case, I would prefer if books or exhibits for popular audiences nixed images like the first one and instead went with cladograms that do not suggest specific ancestor-descendant relationships. Obviously the cladogram could be spiced up with colors and illustrations, but it is important to use a format that represents precisely what scientists do and do not know.

Always clarify orientation

Proboscidea phylogeny from academic.reed.edu.

Individuals well-versed in evolutionary science automatically read trees from the basal node out to the tips. Typically, and in the elephant phylogeny above, that would be from the bottom up. It can therefore come as a surprise (it certainly did for me) that non-specialists frequently attempt to read phylogenetic trees from left to right. Viewers may assume that the horizontal order of taxa across the top is significant, representing either the course of evolution or time. Neither would be correct, as Mammut on the far left and Mammuthus on the far right were roughly contemporaneous, and Loxodonta africana and Elephas maximus in the middle are the only extant elephants. Although it may not occur to specialists, it is a simple and necessary precaution to label the orientation of the tree and avoid such confusion.

Avoid calling anything “more evolved”

This is more of a nomenclature issue than a visual one, but poor graphics can exacerbate this misconception. All contemporary species, from sponges to frogs to humans, have been evolving for the same amount of time. An amphibian or reptile is not “primitive”; it is just as adapted to its environment as we are. Using this sort of terminology is attractive as a shortcut when referring to less-diverse sister groups to more-diverse clades, but it misrepresents the nature of evolution and should be discouraged.

References

MacDonald, Teresa E. “Communicating Phylogeny: Evolutionary Tree Diagrams in Museums.” 2010. Paper presented at the NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching).

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

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Communicating Systematics

In case you forgot, only 15% of Americans polled by Gallup accept that human beings evolved from other animals through natural processes*. This statistic has not changed meaningfully since Gallup started asking this question in 1982. This fact should be in the back of the mind of every science educator, and for that matter, every scientist, each and every day we go to work. It is a scientifically well-established fact that all life has evolved over long periods of time, and that all forms of life are related to each other. This fact is fundamental to our understanding of life on Earth. The goal of both educators and scientists is to expand our knowledge and awareness  of our world, and it is therefore disconcerting that so few people are willing (or have had to opportunity to) acknowledge the wealth of information that an understanding of evolution provides.

 *A couple complaints about that link. First, the phrasing of the question, “human beings evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life” (emphasis mine) is poor, read on for reasons why. Second, belief that humans evolved “with God’s guidance” does not seem like a meaningful distinction to me, and does not suggest a proper understanding of evolution.

The overwhelming number of people who do not accept evolution is intimidating. The fact that our politicians and leaders are often among this number is even more troubling.  It can be tempting to retreat into academia and  whine about the problem to our peers, or perhaps ignore it entirely. However, 30 years of unchanging results on the Gallup poll indicate that the issue is not going to go away. Both educators and scientists need to take the offensive and directly address misconceptions and misunderstandings about evolution, as well as find effective means to mitigate them.

Phylogenetic Trees

In the world of science education, one of the trickiest issues is supplying appropriate context. Although all good science can be explained in clear, readily-understandable language, most research still requires some background on the Big Ideas in science. Two huge examples are evolution by natural selection and the scientific method, which I briefly discussed here and here. Without an understanding of how scientific ideas or generated or how evolution works, discussing the finer points of, say, feeding strategies of tyrannosaurs is quite pointless. Unfortunately, even among people who accept the fact that evolution is a real phenomenon, this background all too often does not exist.

Educators need to supply the public with the context they need to understand current science, and one good area to focus is the reading of phylogenetic trees. A phylogenetic tree is a branching diagram that depicts inferred evolutionary relationships among organisms. A tree implicitly shows that included organisms descended and diversified from a common ancestor. As such, phylogenetic trees are a visual embodiment of evolutionary theory, and provide an informative narrative of the history of life.

As is often the case, David Hone has already provided a wonderful explanation of how scientists construct trees and how to read them correctly, so I’ll just drop that link and move on. The problem is that although evolutionary trees are often used to convey ideas in museum displays and general interest science articles, many lay-viewers are interpreting them inaccurately. Reading a tree requires practice and expertise that shouldn’t be taken for granted, because misinterpretations only provide fodder for the anti-evolution/anti-science lobby. Let’s go through the common misinterpretations one at a time (many of these are discussed in Torrens and Barahona 2012, a few are my own additions).

Evolution is goal-oriented. In fact, evolution is not progressive, but is the product of organisms adapting to their specific environment. When that environment changes, taxa that were once well-adapted often die out. Being “well-evolved” is therefore  fluid and transitory state. The misconception of directed evolution is probably related to ingrained western religious views of human superiority over nature. Rather annoyingly, cultural anthropologists often buy into the erroneous idea of progressive evolution, and attempt to use it as evidence that science is but one of many equally correct world-views.

There is a “main line” of evolution. This is largely the product of late 19th century drawings of trees of life which used literal trees as the basis of the diagram. Most famously, German natualist Ernst Haeckel illustrated the Systematischer Stammbaum des Menschen in his book Anthropogenie in 1874. In this drawing, the diversity of life is overlaid on a tree, which has a thick trunk running straight up to humans and other primates at the top. Again, this plays into concepts of human superiority and inevitability that have nothing to do with biological evolution.

Some contemporary species are more or less evolved than others. All contemporary species, from sponges to frogs to humans, have been evolving for the same amount of time, and are just as adapted to their environments as we are. Unfortunately, placing humans or mammals at the top or the right of phylogenetic trees seems to be an unshakable habit, even for systematists, which only encourages the notion that these taxa are somehow better.

Similarity among taxa always implies relatedness. Determining evolutionary relationships is a complex process. Modern systematists use huge matrices of independent characters to calculate the most parsimonious trees. Furthermore, Hennigean cladistics requires that relationships only be determined using synapomorphies (shared derived traits) rather than plesiomorphies (shared primitive conditions). Although the salmon and the lungfish below superficially appear more like one another than the cow, similarities like a fishy shape and a lack of a neck are primitive conditions, not specializations. The synapomorphies shared by the lungfish and cow, such as jointed limbs and the ability to breathe air, inform us that they shared a more recent common ancestor than either did with ray-finned fish.

A counter-intuitive cladogram. Subjective similarity does not always mean relatedness.

Change only occurs at nodes. The nodes in a phylogenetic tree do not represent literal evolutionary events. Rather, evolution is a continuous process. This is a case where I like to ask people who make this misconception, “how could we know that?” This can get people thinking about what evidence is available to scientists, what conclusions can be reached from these data, and what isn’t known.

Example taxa illustrated lower in the tree represent direct ancestors of taxa higher in the tree. It can be helpful to use fossil species to illustrate the general state of an evolutionary lineage at varying points in time (this is done all the time with diagrams of horse evolution). However, with few exceptions, the incomplete nature of the fossil record makes it impossible to know exactly which species were directly ancestral to others.

Traditional Linnean categories are directly applicable to trees. In fact, most  (sensible) modern systematists prefer the cladistic methodology, which requires that all groups be monophyletic (that is, made up of all descendents of a common ancestor, with no exclusions). For example, the traditonal Linnean definition of reptiles, which includes turtles, lizards, snakes, tuataras and crocodiles, is not monophyletic, because any cladistic unification of these taxa would also have to include birds.

The traditional definition of reptiles, which excludes birds, is paraphyletic.

This went on a bit longer than I expected, so I’m going to leave these issues hanging for the time being. But do not fret, I will finish this train of thought soon with a discussion of potential solutions to these misinterpretations that have been attempted, and some that may be attempted in the future.

References

MacDonald, Teresa E. “Communicating Phylogeny: Evolutionary Tree Diagrams in Museums.” 2010. Paper presented at the NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching).

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

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A brief history of mounted dinosaur skeletons

Mounted fossil skeletons, especially those of dinosaurs, are common at medium and large natural history museums. These mounts play a central role in the public’s perception of not only dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, but of museums as well. However, just as dinosaurs are relatively new to science, fossil mounts have not always been a part of museums. The word dinosaur was coined in 1842 by British anatomist Richard Owen, based on a handful of fragmentary remains of large, extinct reptiles. Nevertheless, the study of dinosaurs did not start in earnest until 1865, when Joseph Leidy of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences described Hadrosaurus, the first dinosaur found in the United States, and eventually, the first dinosaur skeleton to be mounted. The western frontier of North America proved to be a richer dinosaur hunting ground than Europe had been, and so vertebrate paleontology was among the first realms of science that American researchers could claim as their own.

The American fossil rush that followed came in two waves. In the 1870s, the field was dominated by the well-publicized but ultimately counterproductive feud between Othneil Charles Marsh of Yale and Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences. While these collectors amassed enormous collections of fossils for their respective institutions, their research remained largely out of the public eye.

1868 Hadrosaurus mount at the Academy of Natural Sciences. From http://www.naturalhistorymag.com.

The second wave came at the turn of the 20th century, and was intrinsically related to the rise of the large museums that sprang up in America’s cities at this time. The American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and other, similar institutions became involved in a fierce competition to find and display the largest dinosaur (Spalding 1993). At this point, the discipline of paleontology had been marginalized in American universities, in part because of a rising interest in experiment-driven “hard” sciences like molecular biology and physics, but also because the demands of space, labor and money required by paleontological research was prohibitive.

1905 Brontosaurus mount at AMNH. From Dinosaur Tracking.

Instead, paleontologists made their homes at the large natural history museums, which were backed by wealthy benefactors who were impressed by their collections of giant fossils. At the time, it was fashionable for wealthy businesspeople to donate extravagantly to cultural institutions, including museums, in the cities where they made their fortunes. To the benefactors, there was no doubt that paleontologists and their fossil specimens could draw larger crowds than a chemist or physicist ever could. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie is credited with conceiving of the idea to display a mounted dinosaur skeleton as the centerpiece of his new museum in Pittsburgh. Carnegie gave CMNH $10,000 to find a giant sauropod dinosaur, preferably just like the Apatosaurus (then called “Brontosaurus”) collected by Marsh 30 years earlier. Patrons of the other large museums followed suit, and by 1905 the Carnegie Museum, the American Museum and the Field Museum all had sauropod mounts on display, along with a menagerie of other dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.

Unfortunately, by modern standards these displays favored spectacle over good science. As mentioned, vertebrate fossils almost never found as complete skeletons, but as scattered and isolated elements. As such, the museum collectors were not racing to find a single, perfect skeleton, but to amass enough individual dinosaur bones to complete a mount. The early 20th century dinosaur mounts are typically composed of fossils found in rocks separated by hundreds of miles and millions of years in age. The collectors did not keep good records of where the fossils came from, so modern museum workers can only guess how many individual dinosaurs make up the mounts they have inherited. For example, the Stegosaurus at the Peabody Museum of Natural History is composed of at least five individuals, and researchers disagree whether the Giraffatitan  at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde is made up of three or five different animals.

A preparator at AMNH assembles the “Brontosaurus” mount. From http://preparation.paleo.amnh.org/5/expeditions.

Additionally, the technicians that created the mounts were attempting something that had never been done before, and perhaps inevitably, poor choices were made during the construction process. Adam Hermann, lead fossil preparatory at the American Museum of Natural History during the early 20th century, used highly destructive techniques when creating fossil mounts. Fossils were connected to steel armatures by drilling screws and bolts directly into the bone, and broken bones and visible sections of the armature were hidden with liberal applications of plaster (Evander 2004). These practices turned out to be essentially irreversible, and modern workers are hesitant to attempt to dismantle old mounts for fear of destroying the fossils entirely.

The creation of the first fossil mounts was chiefly inspired by the vanity of museum benefactors, but their influence on audiences and their ability to draw crowds is undeniable. Although new dinosaur mounts have been constructed over the course of the 20th century, many, if not most, of the historic mounts remain on display, important not only as evidence of prehistoric life, but as icons of the history of science and museums in America.

References

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

Evander, Robert L. (2004.) “Armature Damage in a Mounted Specimen.” Presented at Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Conference, Bristol, U.K.

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Filed under dinosaurs, field work, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, reptiles, science communication

WTF, AAA?

Over the past couple months, as I have hoped in vain that the folks at SV-POW will post cool stuff about sauropods again, I’ve learned a great deal about open-access publishing and the Research Works Act. Kudos to them for creating awareness. The sinister implications of the RWA are well documented around the web, so I’ll just provide the short version.

At present, taxpayer funded research institutions in the U.S., namely the NIH, require that research results must be freely accessible online. This is a reasonable requirement that is hard to argue against: if the public pays for science, the public should be able to see the results. However, this open-access policy gets in the way of the profits of the academic publishing industry. Publishers like Elsevier and Springer have astonishingly high profit margins of 36% or more, dwarfing even those of Apple, and they aim to keep them that way. Academic publishers have a pretty sweet scam going, in which (largely publicly funded) researchers supply the papers and the peer review for free, while the publishers take the full copyright, and charge $30-$50 to view a single article. All the publisher does is format the manuscripts into a physical volume, which is irrelevant since most people now access papers online. Enter RWA, an effort by publishers to push back against increasing awareness of their unnecessary and monopolistic role as gatekeepers of knowledge.

Until this point, the voices of dissent from the academic community seemed to paint a fairly straightforward picture. Researchers, who know the academic publishing industry well, are more-or-less unanimously opposed to the unbridled corporate greed represented by the RWA. But then this business happened (.pdf link). The American Anthropological Association, with which I’ve taken issue before, has thrown in its lot on the side of the publishers. The previously linked AAA statement was a response to the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy’s ongoing Request for Information (check out all the responses to date here). The AAA claims that there is currently no problem with the accessibility of research, and that it is unfair to undermine the right of publishers to sell their property at market value. Here are the choice quotes:

We write today to make the case that while we share the mutual objective of enhancing the public understanding of scientific enterprise and support the wide dissemination of materials that can reach those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge (consistent with our association’s mission), broad public access to information currently exists, and no federal government intervention is currently necessary.

Mandating open access to such property without just compensation and lawful procedural limits constitutes, in our view, an unconstitutional taking of private property – copyrighted material – an expropriation without fair market compensation. In our view, such a practice cannot and will not withstand judicial review.

Both of these arguments are nonsense. If the AAA believes that “those in the public who would benefit from such knowledge” currently have appropriate access to research, then their definition of the public must end at researchers at large institutions. As articulated at Neuroanthropology, this insular view is unhelpful and unacceptable, and it is particularly surprising that it is coming from a group of anthropologists. Do the non-profit groups anthropologists work with in developing countries not require access to papers? What about the people the research is about? Interested lay-people? Under the current system, and to an even greater extent should the RWA pass, anybody not affiliated with an institution with a well-funded library* has to pay exorbitant prices out of pocket to view research. As a result, the research remains largely in the academic sphere. Given the political nature of anthropologists in general, it is shocking that the AAA deems this acceptable.

*Side note: Even as a grad student, getting access to papers can be a real problem. Even large universities sometimes only provide access to volumes of journals within a certain date range, and when I’m doing field work or an internship, I can no longer get access.

The second quote is bunk because, as explained previously, the services provided by academic publishers are minimal, if not counterproductive to the dissemination of knowledge, and do not constitute anything that researchers could not do themselves in this information age.

As they did a year ago when they removed the reference to science from their mission statement, the AAA has demonstrated that their interests are not in sync with researchers. Honestly, I don’t know who they are trying to represent. They are working against the interests of serious researchers, advocacy groups who help the people anthropologists work with, and the dissemination of knowledge in general. AAA, please stop.

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