Monday, January 30, 2012

Care of Magical Creatures

The University of Alberta is currently hosting an exhibit called Harry Potter's World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine, in the John W. Scott Health Sciences Library. Let's Talk Science, a Canadian science outreach organization with a U of A chapter, was asked to organize 'classes' for a Harry Potter-themed science day, so my good friend Scott Persons and I put together "Care of Magical Creatures". You may think it would be hard to mix magic and mythology with science, but we were pretty happy with how much natural history education we were able to convey over the course of the day. For those interested in science outreach and education, here's how to do your own Care of Magical Creatures class. You might be surprised by the results!

First of all, I cannot thank enough the other BioSci grad students who volunteered to help us out during the day. We handled around 1400 people in 5 hours and it was BUSY. Everyone did a great job and we all had a lot of fun even if we mostly lost our voices by the end of the day. You might notice that the room we occupied was pretty small - in some ways this was good because it allowed for a controlled (sort of) number of people at any given time, but we also ran out of air pretty quickly. There were numerous other 'classes' held in small rooms like this - an Owlery featuring a burrowing owl from the local wildlife rescue, Ollivander's wand shop, Muggle Studies (DNA extraction), Potions (chemistry), Herbology (botany), and many more I can't remember right now.

For Care of Magical Creatures, Scott and I chose a variety of extant and extinct specimens from our zoology and palaeontology collections, using animals that either inspired mythological creatures or that resembled them in some way. We are very lucky to have access to a lot of good specimens, but if you work in a museum or university you might have access to a lot of similar items for your own workshop. We also tried to feature a lot of the animals from Harry Potter, although we didn't get everything and we had some animals that weren't mentioned in the books. Above is a golden pheasant taxidermy specimen; the golden pheasant is one of the possible inspirations for the phoenix.


Elephant skulls probably inspired the legend of the cyclops. At this station we also had a Protoceratops skull, which may been the inspiration for the griffin.


Scott makes a unicorn! The narwhal tusk was a big draw, and also allowed us to talk about conservation and how we acquire zoological specimens.


The manatee skull was also a big surprise to many people - you're looking at the face of a mermaid. We also had a mosasaur skull and real mosasaur jaw at our 'aquatic animals' station. Scott had the great idea to print out some double-sided cards with the mythological creature on one side and the real animal on the other - we would flip over to the real animal after the kids tried to guess what it was. Very helpful when you only have a skull of an unfamiliar animal!


For our dragon station, we used animals that had dragon-like qualities, since no one animal is the direct inspiration for the dragon, and because many cultures have their own dragon mythology. We used a cast of the ankylosaur Minotaurasaurus (which looks like the Hungarian Horntail), a komodo dragon skull (a real life dragon!), and our wonderful taxidermied ground pangolin. Not a single person who visited our table had ever seen or heard of a pangolin, so it was a really great opportunity to show off this unusual mammal.


We also had a werewolf station with our very weird coyote with a degenerative spinal disease, a grey wolf skull, and a dire wolf skull.


Finally, the platypus was used as an example of a chimaera-like animal.

In order to make the activity a bit more hands-on and interactive, we also gave the children a 'specimen card' I had made up. They needed to find all four items, and at the end we had a table with glue bottles for sticking the specimens on. We purchased enough supplies for 1000 people, and in total it cost about $180 CAD to buy:
12 bags of red and yellow craft feathers (phoenix feathers)
2 packs of 500 mixed googly eyes (cyclops eyes)
one paw print stamp and two stamp pads (werewolf print)
3 bags of crushed colourful shells (dragon scales)
6 bottles of sticky craft glue
(Edit: I forgot to mention that this also covered printing 1000 copies of the explorer's card, with two per page, on heavy cardstock.)

Our "Care of Magical Creatures" workshop allowed us to talk about not only the real-life inspiration for mythological and magical creatures, but also animal anatomy and functional anatomy, ecology, evolution, and conservation. I'd love to use this workshop again sometime even without the whole set of classes that were available at the event.

Have you ever tried a Harry Potter-related science workshop? Tell me about it in the comments!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Let it snow...

Well it's a balmy -37C windchill here today (but just -27C without, so it's not so bad! right?), and wonderfully snowy, and what do you know but there's an article about our day in Dinosaur Provincial Park last December.

You can read Ed Struzik's complementary (and complimentary) pieces in the Edmonton Journal:


"Dinosaur hunter Phil Currie shows no sign of slowing down." This one features a nice video of us preparing the Daspletosaurus jacket for the helicopter lift, and the helicopter lift itself.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Houston Museum of Natural Science

On my way home from Buenos Aires I had an eleven hour layover in Houston. Having just about exhausted the entertainment potential of the Houston airport on my nine hour layover on the way down, and feeling quite confident that there was no way I could stay awake the whole time if I stayed in the airport, I decided to venture in to Houston to poke around for the day. I managed to visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Houston Zoo, which are both located in the immensely pleasant Hermann Park.

The museum has a nice dinosaur hall featuring this Tyrannosaurus about to maul an Edmontosaurus to death, a Diplodocus, and an impressive Quetzalcoatlus. The museum is building a new dinosaur exhibit, and although I was sad I did not get to see it (it opens this summer), it was good to see their current display.

I also really liked this detailed information panel that showed not only which bones were real, cast, or sculpted, but what specimens they were derived from.

Whatever your feelings on the oil industry, there is no doubt that geology plays a hugely important role in locating and extracting petroleum resources. It is fitting that the Houston museum would have a large and informative gallery on petroleum. To be honest, when I looked at the museum map and saw this, I was pretty sure it would be super boring, and my background is in geology and I like stratigraphy a lot. But lo! It was tons of fun! And there were a lot of people there enjoying themselves, too! The gallery starts with a lot of geology, then moves on to the engineering side of things. I thought the introductory exhibit on stratigraphy was pretty cool - different features on this big faux rock face lit up as the narrator discussed them.

There was a cool window display showing two geologists discussing life in remote field locations. This was a pretty neat trick, because the video of the two geologists was projected onto a nearly invisible piece of glass or plastic such that they looked like they were right in the diorama. Also there was a lady geologist, HOORAY!

And there was even a giant seismic reading printout! Where do you ever see this sort of thing? Next to this was a tank with a seismic air cannon that would go BANG! every few minutes. Not too much discussion of how this affects marine life.

If I had a criticism of the gallery, it was that there was not a whole lot of discussion of the dangers of petroleum exploration and extraction or the environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels. But we hear about that in a lot of other places, and it was so refreshing to see the science on exhibit, that I guess I will forgive them for that.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Birds at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales

After finishing up with the dinosaur hall at the Buenos Aires natural history museum, I was pleasantly surprised to find more dinosaurs when I headed upstairs. I can't recall a time where I've actually seen dinosaurs in the bird gallery - often the dinosaur story ends with the origin of birds, but when the birds are on display it's usually more about extant bird diversity and conservation. So it was really nice to see the origin of birds explained right at the very beginning of this exhibit.

Right after the origin of birds we are treated to this display of extremes in bird skeletons, which really highlights the adaptations for particular lifestyles in different groups: the long, long wings of albatrosses, the oversized feet of raptorial birds, the hilariously gigantic heads of toucans and parrots, and the long legs and short arms of ostriches. They have also cleverly placed a hummingbird in front of the ostrich to highlight the great size range of extant birds.

Lots of museums have exhibits displaying birds of different habitats, but not as many include urban environments. I guess Argentina is also lucky for having such a wide array of interesting and colourful backyard birds, but I think this is something that could be done in a lot of museums. This is also particularly helpful for people who are just visiting the city who like to keep track of their birds, but don't get out into the countryside for the more 'exotic' species.

Fossils make an appearance yet again when we get to the function and diversity of feathers. There are casts of Sinosauropteryx, Microraptor, and Caudipteryx. Again, you don't often see a lot about the evolution of particular traits within exhibits featuring extant animals, so this was nice to see.

I love visiting the bird exhibits in most museums for the sheer 'ooh! cool! pretty!' factor, and there is certainly a lot of that here. But the weird and wonderful structures found in modern birds is organized such that you can learn a lot while still marveling at all the strangeness. For example, there are sections discussing how different colours are produced, how feathers on the body vary and what their functions are, and how feathers are modified to form display structures.

There's so much I love about this gallery that I could just go on and on. I'll finish here with a photo of the entrance to the museum, guarded by a pair of wise and watchful owls.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Dinosaurs at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales

After a little break over the holidays, let's finish up these Argentina posts, shall we? After my research visits to the Museo Carmen Funes, Museo Carlos Ameghino, and Museo de La Plata, it was nice to be able to visit the main natural history museum in Buenos Aires as just a tourist. If you're in Buenos Aires, it's well worth a visit.

The dinosaur hall is large and with a lot of Gondwanan dinosaurs you don't see very often. I particularly liked this sprinting Carnotaurus that fits nicely with Scott's recent paper on the tail of Carnotaurus.

Amargasaurus is one of my favourite sauropods. Who can resist those incredible cervical vertebrae? But even better is that this is one of the only dinosaurs I know of that is mounted in an egg-laying pose. It's really refreshing to see a variety of behaviours presented by skeletal mounts, and it is especially nice to see a herbivore doing something other than fleeing or eating.

Although a lot of this mount of Bonatitan is reconstructed, it is interesting to see such a small sauropod, and there was just something pleasing about the whole thing.

A bunch of early dinosaurs and dinosauromorphs are also featured, including a reconstructed Marasuchus, Hererrasaurus, and this Eoraptor.

Argentina of course has wonderful mammal fossils as well, and there was a great exhibit about the fossils found near Buenos Aires. I liked seeing this glyptodont without its carapace.

And who would have thought that ground sloths could be so dramatic?

There's also a really nice comparative osteology hall, with one of my favourite exhibits being this exploded crocodilian head.

This museum has one of the best bird galleries I've been to, so I'll save that for its own post, coming up next...