Sunday, September 30, 2012

Crystal ROM

Now that I've talked about the ROM's current offerings of temporary special dinosaur exhibits, I thought I'd turn my attention to the permanent fossil galleries. The ROM has long been one of my favourite museums, and as a student of palaeontology the only museum I have visited more often for my research is the Tyrrell. The last five years have seen some major renovations at the ROM, including the construction of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

The former entrance to the museum was grand and ornate and ushered you into the entrance hall known as the Rotunda, which featured a mosaic dome ceiling. The last time I visited the ROM's previous dinosaur galleries was in 2003, before I had a digital camera, so I'm afraid I don't have any photos of the old exhibits. Although I was fond of the dinosaur skeletons in fake-foliage jungle setting, it was clear that the fossil halls were in need of updating to reflect current ideas in palaeontology.

In 2007, the ROM opened a new addition to the museum, called the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, which houses (among other things) the Mesozoic and Cenozoic fossil halls. Although at first I had mixed feelings about the crystal, I've come to really like the way it sprouts from the original museum building, and it certainly attracts attention.
The most recent iteration of the dinosaur galleries are housed within the bright, white rooms of the crystal. A lot of specimens are on display, in particular the ROM's large collection of Cretaceous Albertan dinosaurs.

The dinosaur exhibit does not overwhelm with a lot of text, but there is good information about each specimen (what's cast, what's real, etc.) provided nearby. In particular, I like the display of ontogenetic changes in the hadrosaurs Corythosaurus (shown here) and Lambeosaurus.

The ROM has one of the more extensive collections of ankylosaurid material, and a little bit is on display. The skull on display is the very nice ROM 1930, and the tail club, ROM 788, at 59 cm wide, is the second largest tail club referred to Euoplocephalus. I CT scanned this club before it was put on display, for my research on ankylosaur tail club swinging and impacts, and it only just fit through the aperture of the scanner.
The ROM also has a very nice collection of fossil mammals, including this really unusual Desmostylus....
...and wonderful South American megafauna, like this giant armadillo (foreground) and glyptodont (towards the back).
Another thing that is much appreciated about the ROM's new galleries is that extra care was taken to make sure that all of the specimens that are on display are accessible to researchers! One of these days I'll try to dig out some of my photos of the old galleries for comparison...

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Remarkable ROM

The ROM has another temporary dinosaur exhibit on display right now, Dinosaur Eggs & Babies: Remarkable Fossils from South Africa. It showcases nests and embryos of the prosauropod dinosaur Massospondylus, which were described by ROM and University of Toronto scientists in 2005 (with a subsequent paper in 2010).
The nests were found in Golden Gate National Park, South Africa.
Preparation of the eggs revealed wonderfully preserved embryos! In addition to the nests, eggs, and embryos, there is a nice set of cast skulls showing growth changes in Massospondylus, and a very cute sculpture of a hatchling.
There's a nice mount of the related prosauropod Plateosaurus (shown here in correct bipedal posture!).

I've always loved prosauropod hands. Check out that thumb claw!

It's always fun to add new dinosaurs to my list of stuff I've seen - here is the snout of a juvenile Dracovenator, a Dilophosaurus-like theropod that lived alongside Massospondylus. The exhibit also has some adult skull fragments, and a panel-mounted Dilophosaurus skeleton.
I'm not sure how long this exhibit is on display, but it's well worth checking out if you're visiting the ROM for Ultimate Dinosaurs. It's located between the Jurassic and Cretaceous galleries.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Ultimate ROM

This summer, the Royal Ontario Museum unveiled a brand-new exhibit all about the dinosaurs of Gondwana. When Pangaea rifted apart during the Triassic, it split into two continents - Laurasia, represented by the modern northern continents of North America, Europe, and Asia, and Gondwana, represented by the modern southern continents of South America, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica, plus India, Madagascar, and New Zealand. The dinosaurs and other extinct terrestrial vertebrates of Gondwana differed from their northern neighbours, and we don't often see them in exhibitions in North America.
Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants of Gondwana features lots of interesting and sometimes obscure dinosaurs, some really great artwork, and some neat technological things (of which I am sometimes skeptical, but can wholeheartedly endorse here).
After a brief but informative introduction to plate tectonics, we're introduced to some of the earliest dinosaurs, like Herrerasaurus, Eoraptor, and the early ornithischian Pisanosaurus. In an exhibit that is definitely dominated by saurischian dinosaurs, it was neat to see this little fellow! Take note of the beautiful murals in the background, painted by Canadian palaeoartist Julius Csotonyi.
Ah, Cryolophosaurus. My second favourite dinosaur from Antarctica! ;)
This restoration of Cryolophosaurus definitely seems to have a more Dilophosaurus-y look to the skull, perhaps a result of recent phylogenetic analyses recovering a close relationship between the Antarctic taxon and other early, crested theropods.
As we move into the Cretaceous, the dinosaurs are arranged by geographic area on platforms. First off are African dinosaurs, including Malawisaurus, Nigersaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, and (shown here), Suchomimus.
I was super excited to see a mounted skeleton of Ouranosaurus, a bizarre sail-backed iguanodontian.
Ok, hands-down my favourite critter featured in this exhibition was one of the smaller skeletons, and not a dinosaur! I am sorry, dinosaur colleagues! But his adorable stubby tail and marvelous coat of osteoderms stole my heart. This is Simosuchus, a herbivorous crocodilian from Madagascar.
 I'll perhaps also add that the Madagascar 'pod' of Majungasaurus, Rapetosaurus, Masiakasaurus, and Rahonavis was probably my favourite part of the exhibition, just because I've never seen any of these taxa as mounted skeletons before, and because they're just so, so weird. Also, Majungasaurus just wants a hug, WHY DON'T YOU LOVE ME, RAPETOSAURUS?
I was very fortunate to get to see a lot of Patagonian dinosaurs last November during my visit to Argentina, but I'd never seen Austroraptor before. He is BIG! This 'pod' also features Buitreraptor, Carnotaurus, and Amargasaurus.
Although the dinosaurs are the main attraction, the main take-home messages of the exhibition are 1) continents move and 2) evolution happens. The dinosaurs are just the vehicle for delivering an exhibit that is actually all about the effects of plate tectonics on evolution, and I think that's awesome. Palaeogeography is prominently featured throughout the exhibition, and there's even an interactive team puzzle where you reassemble the continents into Gondwana. However, one of the most incredible things in the exhibit were the two giant Blakey palaeomap globes, animated to show the drifting of the continents. As you enter the exhibit, Pangaea breaks apart, and as you leave, the continents assemble into their current positions, and then keep going into the future! The video projections are staggeringly beautiful.
Honestly, I think this is one of the best dinosaur exhibits I have seen. It is bright, colourful, up to date, and packed with really good information not just about dinosaurs, but about broader themes in geology and evolution as well. Ultimate Dinosaurs is at the ROM for a limited time (I think until the end of 2012) and then it (hopefully!) goes on tour. GO SEE IT!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Fine Feathered Friends

The Royal Alberta Museum is also currently hosting a temporary exhibit on the use of feathers in hat-making (millinery!) and fashion, called Fashioning Feathers. I'm not usually all that into the history of costume and fashion in museums, and so I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting I found this particular exhibit. I think it was the intersection of biology and fashion that was so neat.
There was a wide variety of taxidermied bird specimens showing what species were used for different styles, like in the photo above.
Besides the usual pheasants and roosters, there were some really unusual birds on display, like this Western Crowned Pigeon (Goura cristata).
I was pretty shocked to learn that many brilliantly coloured tropical birds, like birds of paradise, were dyed black for use in hats.  These three parrots are actually dyed Carolina parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis), which, through a combination of hunting, habitat loss, and the plume trade, went extinct in 1918.
Audubon's Carolina parakeets, via Wikipedia.
Why not use naturally black or dark-coloured birds? Whatever would possess someone to harvest such colourful birds only to dye them black, when there are SO MANY shiny black birds present in North America? The mind boggles.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: From Wolf to Woof

I had a chance to visit "Wolf to Woof", a travelling exhibit hosted by the Royal Alberta Museum this summer. This exhibit does a nice job covering the biology and evolution of dogs, and the relationships between canids and humans, and overall I was pretty happy that I got to see it.
The exhibit opens with the wolf ancestry of domesticated dogs and showed the variety of shapes and sizes of modern dog breeds. I liked these creepy cutaway dog skeletons, which show some of the differences in the skeletons of a St. Bernard, saluki, and French bulldog. There were quite a few models of dogs throughout the exhibit which were just slightly uncanny - I think it might have been the way that fur was sculpted and textured, that just made them feel slightly...slimy. It's hard to describe.
The domestication of dogs from wolves was explained in detail, but there was actually very little on the evolution of canids as a whole. A single station had a few replica skulls of Hesperocyon (an early canid), Canis dirus (the dire wolf), and Borophagus (the bone-crushing dog), and a cladogram showing the relationships of fossil and extant canids. I would have liked to have seen a bit more about the fossil history of dogs, but I guess I'm probably biased.
A real treat was the chance to see some taxidermied specimens of canid species you just don't really see in zoos or even in most museums, like this bush dog (Speothos venaticus)...
And a maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyuris). There were also several foxes, a coyote, and a wolf.
There was a great station where you could listen to a variety of canid vocalizations and their 'translations'. But much of the remainder of the exhibit, on dog senses and roles in society, fell a little bit flat for me (e.g., a recreation of what it would be like to be rescued by a St. Bernard via crawling into a plastic snow pile; acute sense of smell in dogs demonstrated by wafting weird simulated bacon smell at your face, etc., and some out of place art pieces about dogs in media and life as a wolf). A final criticism was that the exhibit is clearly showing its age, with a lot of scuffed and scratched surfaces and some truly ancient interactive computer stations with roller balls. But the exhibit was reasonably popular on the summer day that I visited, and kids seemed to be getting a lot out of it, so perhaps I'm not exactly the target audience for something like this. I could see this exhibit working very well as a school field trip.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Take the Left Turn at Albuquerque

I visited the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in June for a couple of days with my friend and colleague Mike Burns to look at [top secret specimen yet again, sorry!]. OH MAN was Albuquerque toasty in June. But we had a very fine time indeed eating southwest food and visiting the museum.
In part I liked the museum because it has such a large collection of Triassic vertebrates, which I don't really see too much of in my travels to look at Late Cretaceous dinosaurs. I hadn't really realized just how BIG Placerias was.
There was a wonderful big block of Ghost Ranch Coelophysis, which you could definitely spend a good amount of time poring over.

And I also enjoyed the various walls-o-Triassic-skulls, like these phytosaurs.
I know Stegosaurus is a staple of many dinosaur halls, but the subdued yet modern pose of this particular mount is really pleasing. Note also that the manus is correctly mounted!
The Jurassic gallery is dominated by this Seismosaurus and Saurophaganax pair, as well as a deliciously weird but detailed mural. Many of the original bones used to create these mounts are laid out on the bases of the mounts, and there are helpful skeletal diagrams to show what original material is known.
A temporary exhibit celebrating 100 years of discovery in New Mexico reveals a new exhibit case each month. One month featured a relatively recently named tyrannosaur called Bistahieversor.
The Cretaceous hall was pretty neat, with lots of living trees and other plants and a mural of the seaside enveloping the room. Two life reconstructions of marine vertebrates of the Cretaceous, a mosasaur and the swimming bird Hesperornis, were particularly cool. I really liked the grebe feet on the Hesperornis! I'm not sure if there's any evidence for it, and now I want to find out!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Happy Campers

This is Happy Jack's (or as it used to be called, Old Mexico Ranch), an old homestead occupied by Happy Jack Jackson from 1903 to 1942. There are a couple of log cabins, some with cacti growing on the roof. Happy Jack's is found on the north side of the Red Deer River in Dinosaur Provincial Park, and is the home base for the Currie Lab when we do fieldwork in DPP.
The cabins are full of rattlesnakes, so rather than camping right out in the field, we have a really nice spot in the cottonwood grove near the river. The night I took this photo there were 18 people in camp, but most of the time our crew is around 10 people. 
The badlands around Happy Jack's have been very productive for the last five years, and we've collected several very nice skeletons that unfortunately I can't say anything about yet (but I promise they're good). This year we didn't have any major finds, but we did a lot of prospecting and collected lots of interesting small things. In the photo above, a bunch of us are checking out an articulated hadrosaur, that was unfortunately too far gone to be salvageable or worth collecting. It was a nice spot on a sunny day, however, so nobody minded too much. There are always more bones in Dinosaur Provincial Park.
And when I say there are always more bones, I mean it. Dinosaur Park is kind of a ridiculous place. There are so many bones that we only collect things that are complete and well-preserved, so I didn't bring back the vertebra you can see in the lower left of this picture (although I did get a hadrosaur frontal from this spot). There are many places where you can't help but walk all over bone fragments, because they are just so numerous.

And then there are bones that look like they're straight out of a 'How to be a Palaeontologist' book, like this femur my friend Scott found.  
We have some awfully nice scenery in camp.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Danek Bonebed

The summer is over and school is back in session. Here in Edmonton the leaves already started to turn yellow last week. And somehow the summer got so busy that I hardly posted anything at all here. So, it's nice to fix that up and talk about what I did on my summer 'vacation', by which I mean the time that undergrads are not at university but grad students are.
The 'summer' (which doesn't really start until mid-June in Edmonton, but whatevs) started up with the PALEO 400 field school in early May. For three weeks, students help excavate the Danek Bonebed, a hadrosaur bonebed located right in the city (but in a secret location, to prevent vandalism). Over the course of those three weeks, they get to do everything: shoveling lots of dirt, uncovering bones with fine tools, plaster jacketing, carrying heavy things back to the truck, quarry mapping, field identification, you name it. Each student comes up with a research project related to the bonebed and writes a paper and/or presents a talk in October. This year we had five enthusiastic students and I am looking forward to hearing all about their projects later this fall.
The Danek Bonebed is in a protected nature area, and as such we have to follow special rules to protect the surrounding environment. To prevent sediment runoff into the adjacent creek, we have to be careful about how we dispose of our unwanted dirt and rocks. This involves clearing an area in the forest nearby and removing and saving the topsoil. All of our dirt is evenly distributed in the cleared area, and at the end of the fieldwork the topsoil is places on top of the spoil pile. This helps the vegetation regrow more easily.

Once the spoil area is prepared, we can beginning digging in the actual quarries. We have been excavating this bonebed since 2006, and our three quarries are starting to get pretty large. This part is really hard work and quite time consuming, but luckily there are always lots of hands to take turns shoveling, carrying buckets, and hauling the wheelbarrow.
Here's the main quarry as of this year. The notch cut out in the foreground is the newly excavated area for 2012. Most of the sediment overlying the bonebed is glacial till and/or fluvial sediments, much of which is fairly easy to shovel except for the large boulders sitting immediately above the bonebed. The trickiest part this year was getting through some of the frozen soil, which required pickaxing. Yup, in May the ground was still frozen.
The original quarry, shown here, was first excavated by the Royal Tyrrell Museum in the late 1980s. We have expanded it a little over the last few years, and it proved to be the most productive area this year.
Almost all of the bones in the bonebed are from a large hadrosaurid (duck-billed dinosaur). We don't really find articulated skeletons, but lots of isolated, jumbled elements. The sediment around the bones is really easy to remove - no hammers and chisels required, just garden trowels and dental picks. The bonebed is within the Horseshoe Canyon Formation, although I'm not sure exactly which unit.
Once the bones come back to the university we have a pretty dedicated team of volunteers who help clean them up during our evening volunteer prep program.