The Burmite Diaries: what’s all this about?


Image from Xing et al 2016b, supplementary information.

If you’ve spent any time in the palaeo corners of the internet within the past week, you’ve probably heard at least a little bit about amber – perhaps some vague descriptions, perhaps accompanied by pictures – and in particular, some seemingly unbelievable specimens from the burmite mines of Myanmar. And when I say “the past week”, I mean it, because all of this has somehow flown under the radar until recently.

This is as good a time as any to disclose that I emailed Chris Meehan – the man responsible for the main website going around and many of the specimens themselves – this past Thursday regarding the pictures and the overall situation, with what I think was a healthy mix of curiosity and skepticism. Since this was a private email exchange between the two of us, I don’t see any good reason to share details unless a) it becomes necessary to do so at a later date to provide possible context and b) I get permission to do that. But at least you can get a better idea of where I’m coming from.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the topic in the past week, particularly on Twitter, but as several parties have pointed out, it’s not really the best medium to promote the longform, nuanced discussion that this issue probably needs. So I figured I’d post about it. I’ve tried to structure this as best as possible, but I’ve got a lot going on with university and work, so forgive me if this gets a bit disjointed and ramble-y. (EDIT 1/26/18: I’ve also just received permission to post pictures from the Living Amber website here – which is cool, since the second half of the post was looking a bit dry up until now.)

For the uninitiated…

The published works


A military map of the Hukawng, created during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Public domain image.

The Hukawng Valley of northern Myanmar harbors one of the most productive amber localities in the world. From what I’ve been able to find, Cruickshank & Ko 2003 provides a good overview of the geological setting of the area – current consensus is that the amber is mid-Cretaceous (either Albian or Cenomanian).

Most of the amber mines are located near the village of Tanai in Kachin State. Aside from being extremely plentiful, the fragments of “burmite” often preserve inclusions of plant or invertebrate material – indeed, the specimens have been recognized as “the most important amber for studying terrestrial diversity in the mid-Cretaceous” (Guo et al. 2017) and “one of the most diverse Mesozoic microbiotas now known” (Grimaldi et al. 2002). Both of these papers provide excellent summaries of the flora and fauna collected from the region, as well as their significance to modern paleoecology.


A wonderful collage of microphotographs from Xing et al. 2016a.

I first heard of the Hukawng Valley back in mid-2016, when the wings of a primitive enantiornithean bird were described in Nature Communications (Xing et al. 2016a). The images briefly took the internet by storm, and I remember being super excited. We had only dreamed about this before: real bits of dinosaur preserved in amber! And a little bittersweet – a find so rare that it could only be an isolated occurrence.


Don’t touch that dial now, we’re just getting started. Image (photos and microCT reconstructions) from Xing et al. 2016b.

Except it wasn’t. Because only a few months later, news emerged of a small piece of theropod tail from the same locality and preserved the same way (Xing et al. 2016b). To reiterate: a small piece of nonavian dinosaur in amber. Once again, the internet is set alight with interest and enthusiasm. The comparisons to Jurassic Park are predictably beaten to death. And I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more down the pipeline.


Spoilers: there was. Image from Xing et al. 2017.

And mere months later, we end up with the body of a hatchling enantiornithean, complete with soft tissue, plumage, and pigmentation (Xing et al. 2017). Which I think speaks for itself.

At the time, I made the same, somewhat ambitious (and perhaps overambitious) comment to myself and a couple friends: we’re looking at the future of modern paleontology. With each new photograph published, we gaze directly through the lens of deep time at soft tissue, feather development, taphonomic settings, and so much else in such a way that a scant few years ago, it would have been regarded as improbable fantasy. But the future was on its way, and it was only a matter of time.

I did not expect it to arrive so soon, and in such an unconventional manner.

“Living amber”

I seem to have a knack for getting interrupted from important assignments by odd and unexpected paleontological stories. Last year, it happened with Ornithoscelida. Now…it’s this. And in both instances, Twitter was the messenger of chaos.


Down the rabbit hole. Image courtesy of Chris Meehan,

At dinner on Wednesday the 17th, I’m linked the above image and a number of thoughts immediately cross my mind:

1. How in the hell have I not heard about this yet?
2. What’s this doing in Commons instead of a published journal?
3. Green????

A brief, frenzied episode of Internet digging later and I find the website that’s been the subject of much discussion lately: Set aside some time and read through the pages yourself. If I could describe the site in one word, ignoring any connotations, it would be “fascinating”. And I think that’s an accurate description, regardless of whether the details presented are accurate or not.

It seems unbelievable in the most literal sense, and after the initial high wore off I started to look at things with a considerable dose of skepticism. Some of the pictures were good, and some of them were…not so good. If you squint at pixels for too long, the diminishing returns start to reveal themselves. So I sent a note over to Chris Meehan, the person seemingly behind all these images and fantastical claims.

As I said at the top of the post, this was a private exchange, but our discussion was (and remains) pleasant and good-natured, and worthwhile from my perspective. I have many thoughts.

This purported pterosaur is obviously the most provocative specimen to many people, but I don’t actually have too much to say about it. Meehan makes an effort to label the images and point out certain features of note – but I think this is a case where observing the specimens in person would be much more conducive than staring at pictures. Since Meehan and crew have done so, it seems worth giving them the benefit of the doubt, but I remain healthily skeptical, especially given the numerous nods to David Peters hypotheses. For those out of the loop, this Tetrapod Zoology article should serve you nicely. I remained so far unconvinced with the ideas of skin membrane morphology and pterosaurian ancestry presented by Meehan on the website – but I will at least concede that he and crew are working with actual specimens, instead of grabbing photographs and running them through various Photoshop layers in a methodologically questionable manner. CT scans of this one are apparently in progress so we’ll see where that goes.


Closeup of the “pycnofibres”. Image courtesy of Chris Meehan,

The same goes for the color of the pycnofibres – the image of a tiny green pterosaur covered in shiny fuzz is delightful in a number of ways. But as I understand it, green is a helluva color to try and pull off. If SVP 2017 taught me anything, it’s that structural coloration is a hot button topic right now, so who knows what the consensus in the near future will be, if one will actually exist at all (and this is completely ignoring pigments and melanosomes, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish that I have deliberately been trying to sidestep). Interestingly, according to a friend of mine who actually knows this stuff far better than I do, blue feathers/integument can actually appear green through varying amounts and qualities of amber, so I suppose that’s another possibility. In the meantime, I recommend this post by Matt Martyniuk about feather color. Although perhaps not quite as relevant for this purported pterosaur, it should come in handy when considering some of the other feathery structures seen and imaged.

It’s the “reptiles” that admittedly intrigue me the most – the ones with clear skeletal structure and CT data to go along with it. I imagine this is no coincidence, as the site seems to indicate that Meehan is working directly with Juan Daza, a herpetologist from Sam Houston State University who has published on Burmese amber before, on these specimens.


Image courtesy of Chris Meehan,

And that’s about it, really. I have very little else to say about these specimens until more/better pictures or more/better data appear (and ideally, of course, a paper).

And that, I suppose, is the paradox at the heart of the matter. As I understand things, the Living Amber website is deliberately intended to be a recruitment effort of sorts: to provide information to interested parties and encourage potential collaboration to study these specimens. But I haven’t seen many people do so, precisely because no independent party has seriously investigated these claims yet.

There’s really no easy answer for this. It’s quite the conundrum, and I’m still not happy with the above paragraph attempting to explain this conundrum after retyping it several times. The best conclusion I can offer is an honest one: Many of Meehan and co.’s claims are quite fantastical in nature, and based on what has so far been presented, I’m not convinced by all of them yet. But it IS clear that the horizon from which all this amber hails in the first place is a significant one. Incredible inclusions from the Kachin have been and continue to be published, and they all have fascinating implications for paleobiology and paleoecology. All identities aside – pterosaur or not at all – it may be worth taking a look.

Comments and feedback appreciated. I didn’t cover nearly all that I wanted to, so there may be more on this topic from me in the future.


  • Cruickshank, R.D., Ko, K. Geology of an amber locality in the Hukawng Valley, northern Myanmar. Journal of Asian Earth Sciences, 21: 441–455 (2003).
  • Grimaldi, D.A. et al. Fossiliferous Cretaceous amber from Myanmar (Burma): Its rediscovery, biotic diversity, and paleontological significance. American Museum Novitates, 3361: 1–72 (2002).
  • Guo, M.X. et al. A catalogue of Burmite inclusions. Zoological Systematics, 42(3): 249–379 (2017).
  • Xing, L. et al. Mummified precocial bird wings in mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber. Nat. Commun. 7, 12089 (2016a).
  • Xing, L. et al. A feathered dinosaur tail with primitive plumage trapped in mid-Cretaceous amber. Curr. Biol. 26, 3352–3360 (2016b).
  • Xing, L. et al. A mid-Cretaceous enantiornithine (Aves) hatchling preserved in Burmese amber with unusual plumage. Gondwana Res. 49, 264–277 (2017).

Year’s end

sievers ans

Who’s that Pokemon? (Photo: Ben Seal)

2017 is finally over. Most of it felt like this. But a lot of excellent things happened as well, and I want to talk about them while I still have the chance to do it in the same year.

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology 2017

calgary quetz

Calgary International Airport is best airport n/a.

Naturally, my planned post for this never happened so this brief recap will have to do. If you want more extensive coverage of the posters and presentations, there are plenty of other blogs that took care of that.

After getting my feet wet at ISPH a month earlier, I decided to go straight off the conference deep end by heading to Calgary and meeting pretty much every vertebrate paleontologist currently working in the field. I was quite literally flying solo (sending regular updates to the paleo crew back home), and I guess I was kind of the lone ambassador for Drexel and the Academy this year. No pressure right?

It’s been fifteen years since I went to Canada, and immediately after a midnight landing in Toronto I was welcomed back with an unscheduled six-hour layover where I sat half-asleep, wholly dazed, and somewhat broken before the excruciatingly long journey over the entire country. When I finally arrived at the hotel, I had just enough time to drop my luggage off before kicking things off with the Paleo Education workshop hosted by the wonderful and eponymous Facebook group. And I went out for dinner that night with the workshop organizers at an Irish pub in the middle of downtown Calgary.

So just to make things clear: wake up > finish up last-minute obligations at the Academy > watch the solar eclipse > head straight to the airport > flight > overnight layover > flight > hotel > workshop > out on the town. With little to no sleep during that time at all. Believe it or not, an auspicious start.


L-R: Meig, Arthur, Alb, moi, Scott, Austin. The rest have gone missing. Legend has it they still roam the streets of Calgary, searching for the perfect Timmie’s. (Photo: whoever’s phone this was, I honestly can’t remember)

I met up with old friends and met many new ones. It was great to finally catch up with the Palaeoblr crew in person, and I look forward to next year’s shenanigans, with or without the kazoos. (But preferably with.)

Albuquerque is next, and you bet I’ll be there, classes or expense be damned. If I present there they have to let me go, right? Right?

Or maybe if I talk about the Space Yam at length they’ll let me go just so I shut up about it.

Tiktaalik lives

I haven’t talked about it on the blog at length, but over the summer I was conducting paid undergraduate research in the Academy’s vertebrate paleontology and ichthyology collections – on Tiktaalik, of course, evolutionary superstar and our museum’s darling. The fossils themselves are back in Canada but when we have casts and CT scans waiting for their secrets to be uncovered, that’s no problem at all.

I’ll be presenting this research at NEGSA 2018 this March, so I won’t go into exceptional depth – but basically I was looking at CT data from the lower jaw of one of the lesser-known specimens in order to determine the orientation and sutures of the individual bones. The results have some potentially interesting implications, especially in the context of independent stem tetrapod research published earlier in the year…but more on that later.


Kevin & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, ft. a squishy Tiktaalik.

Immediately after SVP, I presented this research at Drexel’s freshman research conference – their maximum poster size was way too small so I had to improvise and MacGyver myself a poster with pullout tabs, a Kindle, and a plushie Tiktaalik. Myself and a friend ended up winning a thousand dollars for our lab’s research, so that was pretty cool.

Over the next few months I’ll be polishing this data up for NEGSA – I might get a paper out of it, I might not. We’ll see what happens. There are a couple of other research topics of note that have caught my eye…

Resurrecting the dead


The lab. Or as I like to call it, home.

And as the school year begun again, I started my new position in the Academy’s fossil prep lab. The job is simple: we have a bunch of sauropods, a few theropods, and a smattering of Stegosaurus toes from our field sites that were collected over the summer. We clean them up, and then we head back in 2018 to get the rest.

I suppose it’s a good time as any to note that during the spring/summer I will officially be under the wing of the BBPI, spending the field season in Montana and Wyoming freeing the dead from their stone tombs and bringing them back to life with air scribes and paintbrushes.

In one of those delightful moments where it all comes together, there was a presentation at SVP about one of our new field sites, which has some potentially novel implications for our work in Montana and back home at the lab. As always…we wait for the paper. But I am very excited for the future.

In some respects, the future has already crept up on me.


It me. (Photo: Ben Seal)

I was interviewed recently by a campus magazine about my work and research at the Academy. In it, I bring some old memories out to the surface. It was published earlier this month, and the piece has gained a startling amount of traction – it’s been making the rounds throughout the university circles, the museums, and even the vert paleo community at large.

I look back at what I’ve done so far, and forward at what the future holds, and despite all the shit that’s been going on – our national monuments are being threatened, hurricanes are only getting worse, all the snakes are about to die – I can’t help but be hopeful.

Rest assured, the best is yet to come.

See you next year.

The 2017 International Symposium on Paleohistology: a “brief” recap

isph logo

The excellent conference logo designed by the NJSM.

Once again, it’s been a while, but I have some decent excuses this time. For most of them you’ll just have to wait a little while to get explanations, but this one’s pretty cool, because last month I attended my first official academic conference and it was great.

The International Symposium on Paleohistology is held every two years, and true to its name it really is international – past venues range from Barcelona to Bonn, and they’ll be in Cape Town next. But this year, they ended up in Trenton, at the New Jersey State Museum. Somehow. But since it was basically right next door from both my university and my hometown, I really had no excuse but to go. And it basically shaped the entire previous year – my summer research project initially came to life this past September as a potential foray into Devonian paleohistology, and I was signed up to attend months in advance. (SVP, on the other hand…) And then just like that, it was gone as soon as it arrived.

There’s a lot to say.

Day -1: Hello, New York


Dr. Santiago Gomez at work in the lab. Photo credit: Lance Schnatterly.

I was already putting myself to work two days before the main conference actually started. New York University was kind enough to host a series of methodology-based workshops for attendees, revolving around thin sectioning technique and microscopy. So at 5am on a Saturday I set off for 30th Street Station, en route to the city.

Not only did I and a small group of others have the opportunity to work with some very cool and very expensive equipment to create thin sections of modern and fossil bones, but we also go to take our samples home with us. I don’t have decent pictures of them for some reason, but rest assured I now have resin blocks and microscope slides filled with random cow and hadrosaur bits laying around my dorm room. As it should be.

Day 0: Princeton


Snacks at Guyot Hall. Not pictured: giant spinning globe. Photo credit: Kevin Sievers.

Official lodging for the conference was in Princeton. Because it was so close to my hometown, I was able to make other arrangements, but that didn’t stop me from attending the opening reception at Princeton University.

Princeton is an old haunt of mine – I’ve got friends near there, I’ve visited often, and I’ve gone to many a hockey game at Baker Rink during the chilly New Jersey winters. But I never really considered the academics that much. I knew that the university had a significant history in the field, and that they used to have a geology museum of some kind, but for whatever reason I was under the assumption that the departments had been gutted and the museum specimens donated to other institutions or put in storage.

As I discovered, that was not the case.


Exhibit A. Photo credit: Kevin Sievers.

As a matter of fact Princeton seems to have a thriving geology department that has recently been integrated with environmental science and similar curricula (I wonder where they got the idea from). And Guyot Hall, home to their museum, is still filled with exhibits in a delightfully retro aesthetic. Their Allosaurus centerpiece (pictured above) is old enough that it used to have the old name Antrodemus, and it looks the part, too.

Everyone who showed up got their goodie bags – and whoever was in charge of filling them knew their audience, because the free bottle of PaleoBond was a highlight of the entire week. That, and the lanyards with built-in USB drives. Which I still can’t believe. Whoever came up with that idea should get millions in royalties.

Day 1: A Tale of Teeth


Greg Erickson delivers the first keynote of ISPH 2017. Photo credit: Lance Schnatterly.

Initially, I was pretty much flying solo for ISPH – but two colleagues from the lab got their registration costs funded, so all three of us set out to Trenton for the first day of talks.

Greg Erickson of bite force mechanics fame started the day off with a keynote discussion on hadrosauroid dental batteries, among other things. It turns out they’re among the most histologically complex teeth currently known. (A special highlight: a slide on Archard’s wear modeling titled only “Science?”)

The first session was all focused on ontogeny and development:

  • Oscar Cambra-Moo talked about identifying human rib age classes through histomorphology
  • Holger Petermann aged three Anchisaurus specimens based on lines of arrested growth and other skeletal features
  • Daniel Barta took a look at the basal ornithopod Haya and found that we don’t actually have any adults yet so we may have to reconsider their diagnostic characteristics
  • Eli Amson schooled the audience on xenarthran forelimbs (those’d be sloths, armadillos, and anteaters for the uninitiated) and found that a high degree of anisotropy in the humeri was generally consistent with a more restricted range of movement
  • Sophie Sanchez presented some life history data on the tristichopterid fish Hyneria based on histology via synchrotron, also this is exceptionally relevant to my current research and my lab managers are literally coauthors so I feel all warm and happy inside
  • After a generous 90 minute lunch break Megan Whitney brought us back with some cute baby emus and started a discussion about the so called “hatching line” purportedly seen in long bone thin sections of dinosaurs extinct and extant, which led directly into…
  • Mateusz Wosik’s work on ostriches and hadrosaurs which specifically names this line as the “neonatal signal”, defined as a dark, parallel-fibered zone corresponding with a significant reduction in vascular canal size, and more importantly you can sometimes see raccoon faces in there
  • Edina Prondvai sought to identify precocial or altricial habits in a variety of “dinobird” taxa (read: basal avialans), and found that there was a much greater range of intraspecimen variability than one might expect (and it didn’t help that the Jeholornis in the study turned out to be half fake)
  • Jennifer Botha-Brink dove straight into prozostrodontian cynodonts from Brazil, a lot of which went a bit over my head because mammals aren’t quite my thing (a line of my notes literally reads “cynodonts, how do they work”), but being able to thin section these tiny bones is really impressive
  • Carmen Nacarino-Meneses returned to the idea of birth being histologically visible, and found a corresponding non-cyclical cortex growth mark in young horses that had not yet remodeled their bones

I took the opportunity to score some of the sweet chocolate chip cookies the organizing committee provided before heading back to the next session on dental tissues. And this is where things got really interesting.

  • Julia Audije-Gil reviewed a Cretaceous Lagerstätten in Spain and found iron precipitating between the growth lines of crocodile teeth, which has some interesting preservational implications for the site
  • Mike D’Emic reaffirmed to everyone in the room that Majungasaurus was Really Freakin’ Weird, and it turns out its tooth replacement rates are more similar to ornithischians than anything else. Also, he went over van Ebner lines, which really do reflect daily dentine deposition because the alternative is ridiculously implausible and would take too long
  • Yara Haridy gave a great presentation on Opisthodontosaurus teeth, and it turns out that while it may appear to have acrodont dentition, extant taxa skew our interpretation of what that term really means, and this guy actually grew replacement teeth in the soft tissue of the jaws, leaving remnants of old teeth visible in layers in the alveolar bone
  • Aaron LeBlanc was up next and talked mosasaur teeth, where upon examination it turns out that the different tooth attachment structures seen in squamates, archosaurs, and mammals may actually be homologous. Also, mushroom jokes
  • Guillem Orlandi-Oliveras gave us a rundown on the many species of Hipparion, and how the small size seen in a few morphotypes is likely a consequence of a fast life history influenced by ecological and dietary pressures
  • And finally, Barbara Grandstaff talked about this fish called Cylindracanthus that we still know next to nothing about even after slicing it into bits, and still somehow made it one of the most entertaining and insightful presentations during the entire day.

One down, two more to go.

Day 2: Bottled Sunshine


Phil Manning charms the crowd. Photo credit: Lance Schnatterly

Our opening keynote lecture for Tuesday was by Phil Manning, who gave an updated and expanded version of his talk on synchrotrons, fossil imaging, and “chemical ghosts”. Let it be stated on the record that I love this man and his work to death. As I was saying to my friends and colleagues afterwards, the guy’s a total powerhouse and publishes on absolutely everything. He was still in the field trenching out giant sauropods the previous morning before flying over to Jersey for the day, and he would be back at it the next day. (He then proceeded to be interviewed by a podcast over the phone in the middle of the dig, then fly to Stanford to do some synchrotron work, and as I write this post he’s in a cave somewhere looking for subfossil mammals. I rest my case about the powerhouse thing.)

We were able to catch up with him and Peter Dodson later in the day and had some good discussions. If you weren’t aware, Manning likes to give out little tidbits and secrets peppered throughout his presentations, but he and his team are working on stuff that I legitimately can’t even mention offhand because of paperwork and press releases. All I can say is that from a perspective of education, outreach, and data collection, I am so incredibly excited about the announcement within the next few months, which at the bare minimum will necessitate literal decades of future research.

On that bombshell, onto the first session of the day on biomechanics:

  • Alida Bailleul showed us evidence of avian-style cranial kinesis in Tyrannosaurus, based on preserved cartilage implying the presence of synovial joints
  • Jordi Estefa explained how a salamander-like posture isn’t really a good model to reconstruct stem amniotes, and made a convincing case based on humerus morphology that we should really be using echidnas instead
  • Lucas Legendre gave us a whirlwind overview of aardvark long bone histology, and suggested that their high-energy digging lifestyle can be seen within ontogenetic changes. Also the man wrapped up with a relevant set of Louis C.K. gifs and I have nothing but respect
  • We moved right into a short session on practical methodology where the chief preparator at the Yale Peabody Museum Marilyn Fox gave us some best practices and things to look out for
  • Alexandra Houssaye went over the methods she used for quantitative 3D analysis of mammal bone, and reaffirmed to everyone that R is The Best Program

After lunch at the local BBQ (when a native Texan compliments the food you know it’s good), we moved onto physiology:

  • Tim Bromage showed us some cool pictures of Spinosaurus bone showing osteons and preserved collagen fibers, work that I think is especially useful given the hoo-ha about the genus in recent years (out-of-context quote of the day: “we need more birds”)
  • Maïtena Dumont noted a decrease in cortical vascularity percentage with development and bone remodeling among sauropod dinosaurs, which was work done via synchrotron
  • Zachary Boles (one of our own colleagues) talked about turtle types within the Late Cretaceous of New Jersey, and showed that habitat and probable life history could be determined based on shell histology
  • Rodrigo Pellegrini brought out some samples of the New Jersey crocodyliform Hyposaurus and gave us a sneak peek into the preliminary histological work being done on a wonderfully intact specimen

The next session was a special one focused around archaeology, so at that point our group went off to explore the New Jersey State Museum. Somehow, the week of the conference was the first time I’d ever set foot in the place, despite living in the state for all of my life. It was well worth it.


Leaping Laelaps, reborn! Photo credit: Kevin Sievers

Day 3: Family

Then came Wednesday, the third and final day of talks. Peter Dodson kicked things off with the first of two keynotes. Since he’s “admittedly not a histologist” he decided to give a half-historical half-philosophical talk regarding the way in which we view the world – specifically through lenses, both literal and metaphorical. He also made a brief note which stuck out to me about academic lineages – how we can all trace our mentors back to the days of Cope & Marsh and beyond, and how that history is still being written.

Then we broke out for the poster sessions, where presenters from all three days were in attendance. I noticed there were quite a few focusing on medullary bone – turns out it’s a lot more difficult to properly identify than previously assumed.

After lunch we reconvened for the second keynote by Allison Tumarkin-Deratzian, who gave an overview of paleohistological work in the Philadelphia area. UPenn, Temple, and Drexel were all represented, and many of those mentioned were even in the audience. It was nice to realize the existence of such a tight-knit community, a community which I am now a part of, whose history is still being written.

A short session on phylogeny followed:

  • John Rensenberger showed the audience how to compare total cell cytoplasm and surface area in a variety of taxa using only some thin section images and a quick primer in Photoshop
  • Donald Davesne talked about the repeated evolution of acellular bone in teleost fish, and how he was able to identify which families secondarily evolved cellular bone

And then from there, we were off to Asbury Park for the closing festivities.


Photo credit: Kevin Sievers.

The organizers were able to get dinner covered for the entire conference at a fairly fancy restaurant overlooking the waves. And at the end of the night – I’m still not sure if this is an ISPH tradition or what – seemingly out of nowhere, people started throwing paper airplanes back and forth, and pretty soon the room was filled with them flying past our heads.

In that single and surreal moment after three full days of thoughts and theories and opportunity, there could have been no better way to end it.


The attendees of ISPH 2017. Special mention goes to two of the main organizers, Rodrigo Pellegrini (kneeling at left) and Dave Parris (standing at far right). Photo credit: NJSM.


Dinner. From left to right: Zachary Boles (Rowan), myself and AR Ciccariello (Drexel), Wayne Callahan (AMNH). Photo credit: Lance Schnatterly.


The Philadelphia crew. From left to right: Peter Dodson (UPenn), Erika Goldsmith (Temple), Lance Schnatterly (DVPS), Allison Tumarkin-Deratzian (Temple), Barbara Grandstaff (UPenn), some guy that looks like me (Drexel), AR Ciccariello (Drexel).

Epilogue: Farewell from New York

Or, at least, that was originally supposed to be the end.

Wayne Callahan, one of the organizers, is a longtime volunteer at the AMNH in New York, and was able to score some vouchers for any attendees who wanted them. So that Friday, I was once again setting off for 30th Street Station, en route once again to the city, this time with a friend.

The AMNH is one of my favorite places in the world. It has been for over a decade, and I expect it will remain so for a long time. I’ve been there enough times that the familiar setting might start to become tired and weary – but it never does. As museums tend to do, it continues to surprise and amaze.

I was here last in December, and that was also my first time seeing the new titanosaur on display. It takes a lot to impress me these days, but this one was on the verge of crisis-inducing, to say the least. And it’s just as impressive the second time around.

We arrived at the museum bright and early to beat the inevitable crowds and ensure we would be inside at 10am on the dot – and that was the right decision, because when we arrived on the fourth floor there was barely a soul in sight. The room was empty and quiet, save for the echoes of an ancient behemoth, a tremendous ghost that lived on in the hearts and minds of the Earth’s new self-proclaimed kings.

That was the end of the week, and the beginning of a lifetime.


Photo credit: Kevin Sievers.

A tangled bank


“We are threads in the tapestry of life on earth…”

Short post tonight. Much will be said about in the March in the coming years, and it will be said better than I could hope to do.

I’m happy with how many people came out today. Friends, colleagues, professors, and the city of Philadelphia. As of now (~6pm on Saturday night), initial estimates put attendance somewhere in the vicinity of twenty to twenty-five thousand. As only one march of 600+ around the globe – this feels good.

My day began at 5:30 this morning, partly to pack, and partly because sleep was out of the question at that point. Three months had led up to the next few hours, and it had to count. The world is watching.

One image I will never forget is that of the City Hall courtyard, before the rain arrived, filled with signs and people and a collective mission, as cherry blossom petals drift down upon the crowd, a calm before the storm…


“As much as we want to believe that the value of science is self-evident, it seems we cannot take it for granted…”

As speakers came and went, the steadily growing drizzle started to thin the crowd, but there was a good crop of people who stayed it out until the end. Even those without raincoats braved the weather and cheered on. (If I keel over from pneumonia in the next few weeks, you’ll know why.)

There was an excellent, diverse, passionate group of people speaking for Philly. Scientists, teachers, organizers, House Representatives. From what I can see, there were similar lineups in DC and New York and Chicago and elsewhere. Antarctica was somewhat limited to the first two groups – but what can you do, eh?

Of course the TED (Daeschler) talk was the best from a totally objective and unbiased he’s-definitely-not-my-professor perspective, and a few highlights have been interspersed throughout the page. Video of it probably exists somewhere (EDIT: see this one, the official version posted by ANS). If I dare to say it, the paleontologists always have the best and most profound messages. (Astronomers, you’re free to argue. Come at me.)

To say the least – today was cathartic in the best way.


“…Get out into the classrooms, the town halls, the corridors of democracy…”

Those who conceived of the March have said time and time again that this is nothing more than a beginning. Today was fun, despite the weather, but it’s pretty pointless if we all just collectively decided to walk home, take a nap, and go on with our lives as if this was just another day. Follow through. Back up your words. Get out there. Do whatever it takes. To hell and back again.

Don’t touch that dial now, we’re just getting started.

T-Minus: 48 hours


Treasures from the ends of the earth. Photo creds: ANSP Instagram.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a pizza party. This in and of itself is not unusual – I’m in college, and you can find a pizza party somewhere every night without looking very hard. However, some of us like to party differently – which is how I ended up in a quaint study tucked away in the twisting hallways of the Academy, chowing down on slices with a good majority of Philadelphia’s paleontologist population and discussing salamander Terminators (among other things).

In case you’re not aware, the team that brought you Tiktaalik was down in Antarctica last Christmas, hunting for fossil fish under a starless sky. Within the past month, the samples have finally made it back to the labs where preparation and cataloging can begin. Dr. John Long from Flinders University in Adelaide was here for a few days to take a look at the fossils he helped collect, so the decision was made to invite all manner of paleo professors, grad students, and undergrads from the Philly universities over to hang out for an evening. The night was enough of a success that it was decided this would be the first of many similar events (and it’s official too. There’s a mailing list and everything). All in all, six pies, various beverages, and a productive evening well spent.

I mention this because, as a group of scientists, we all do different things with similar interests and mindsets. We had plenty of fish workers there, some mammal workers, general geologists and stratigraphers. We had a couple people doing CT work. (Including, perhaps, yours truly. As always, stay tuned.) Some biomechanics. Preparators and curators and phylogeneticists. And we all came from a variety of backgrounds with different experiences and perspectives, over different amounts of time. There were real lineages representing themselves. People who had just started their academic careers, and people who had been at it for fifty years.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that each and every one of us could agree on a single thing: this Saturday the 22nd would be a very important day for all of us.

I’ll be joining many of them this weekend, convening at City Hall to kick off the Philadelphia March for Science. One will even be a keynote speaker. (It’s Dr. Daeschler, obviously. Because honestly, who else would it be?) The past three months have been building up to this very Saturday and I think it’ll be a paradigm shift of some kind.

I first joined the March for Science Facebook page back in January, when only a few thousand people had joined and there wasn’t even an official name yet. The spark was a tweet from the Badlands National Park account concerning climate change, which was swiftly and suspiciously deleted soon afterwards. It was a pretty big deal. But everyone was astonished when the movement literally grew tenfold overnight, and it was no longer a pipe dream. It was real, and it was huge.

Though I was there in its infancy, I haven’t contributed as much to it as I really wanted to, starting out. Winter term was pretty brutal and I wouldn’t have had the time to put in the work that it deserved. To be clear, I’m not working for the March in any official capacity, although I discussed volunteering possibilities. It never panned out though. Thankfully, others have stood up to the task, and two days out I am thoroughly impressed by what has been accomplished thus far.

Of course, it’s far from perfect. I’ve heard about multiple problems with the Washington DC and/or New York Marches – social discrimination and bureaucracy interfering with the organization process, and privacy issues regarding email consent of the participants (or lack thereof). Which I’m a bit peeved about, to be frank. Particularly regarding the question of politics, which I have previously touched upon – yes, in a perfect world, science would remain unbiased and apolitical, but guess what? We don’t live in a perfect world, and when your funding gets slashed by an incompetently hostile administration, that should be your wakeup call that science is not separate from the rest of the world. I’ve always been reluctant to use the “ivory tower” analogy, but I think it rings true in this case.

Aside from that, however, I’m happy. I haven’t seen/heard any issues with the Philly March. The Chicago March is shaping up to be a barnstormer. Within the past few days, the social media presence of the Marches seems to have skyrocketed again – you’ve got videos from Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye and Emily Graslie showing up. Our modern day Muses are speaking up about this. We’ve got geologists running for Congress. I see no signs of complacency any time soon.

My one major concern with the whole thing was that science is such a broad topic, with so many components that deserve equal attention – how do you communicate all that in a single movement? I was sure it could be done, but I had no idea how. Until this morning, when I found this quote by Hahrie Han, a UC Santa Barbara political scientist interviewed in The Atlantic:

“…we typically don’t think of scientists as a political constituency. Seniors are a constituency, or gun owners, or demographic groups. The March for Science is trying to develop scientists as a political constituency with a collective voice.”

If one were to impossibly boil down the March for Science to its most basic form, to a single & easily digestible sentence…I would be happy with that explanation.

We’re two days away from the main event. Hopefully, it will only be a beginning, a glimpse of what’s to come. And if you don’t see why it matters, well…


More after the weekend.


Thoughts on the future of things


A tooth of Rutiodon sp. from the Triassic-age Bull Canyon Formation in New Mexico.

I attended two lectures in the past week that were of exceptional interest, and I need to tell you about them.

On Thursday night I was over at the Academy for a Delaware Valley Paleontological Society meeting. It was quite fun, and I ended up acquiring a Rutiodon tooth from New Mexico (picture above). But the main event of the evening was a talk by Jason Schein, formerly of the New Jersey State Museum, and his work in the Bighorn Basin. I was already well acquainted with this – the current project had been running for several years, and I followed the team’s progress pretty regularly. But it’s taken a new life of its own: the project is now a wholly independent organization called the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute. Go check out their website and support them if you can. I’ll explain why in a little bit, and hopefully convince you why it matters.

On Friday morning, we had a guest lecturer in our earth history class: Dr. Ted Daeschler (Devonian paleontologist, Academy curator, and official Best Dude Ever™). He gave an overview on stem tetrapods, the Red Hill site, and his work on Tiktaalik. Once again, the content is especially familiar to me, as well as the people behind the content. But all this served as a reaffirmation of sorts that I needed for a few reasons.

This should hopefully provoke a number of questions from you, the reader:

Q: Hang on, hold the phone, where the hell have you been?

A: Yeah, about that. Been a while. As a matter of fact it’s been nearly a year, which is a bit disappointing given that I’d only written two posts before sodding off somewhere else. It’s been long enough that dead links have already started showing up in the immediately preceding post to this one. My half-written Atopodentatus overview has been shelved somewhere in the inner echelons of my hard drive, and my planned overview of paleontology in 2016 is two months late to be of much use. So an update should be helpful.

  1. College. It’s a thing, and I’m doing the thing. As previously stated, I’m at Drexel for geoscience, and I’ve emerged from the first quarter with appreciable grades and a GPA that keeps the scholarships coming (for now) – which is, frankly, what matters most at this point. The stats aren’t particularly exciting…but the discussions with students and faculty have been. I can’t tell you about most of them yet. Further bulletins as events warrant, though.
  2. I’ve mentioned the Academy of Natural Sciences numerous times – I work there now. Not volunteer there. I get paid to show up there and teach people about science. I’m not just over the moon, I’m sailing through the asteroid belt at faster-than-light speed en route towards the Oort Cloud. I’m coming for you, Voyager. You can’t hide forever.
  3. There was an election, apparently.

So I’ve been a bit busy. And these three things, combined with the aforementioned lectures, meld together into this complex, wide-reaching, yet ultimately necessary discussion about the future, and our role in it – as scientists, as educators, and as citizens of Planet Earth.

Q: How do all these things fit together?

A: Bear in mind that from this point forward, my points may be quite scatter-brained – I want to talk about a lot here, and frankly I should think about it for a few more days before committing to writing it down.

Let’s turn back to the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute for a bit. Stop what you’re doing and go read their mission statements (more specifically, the second section on the page). Go on. Do it right now. I’ll wait.

Everyone on the team is quite proud of these, and I share their sentiments. On Thursday night, hearing it all laid out was a glorious, punch-the-air moment for everyone in the room. It’s a joy to see this feeling articulated so well, especially by an organization with such a wide audience. As you may be aware, the BBPI runs week-long expeditions out west to collect fossils from a number of different time periods, and opens them up for members of the public to join (for a fee to cover costs). It’s a surprisingly effective model, and perhaps a pioneer example of what Schein calls “entrepreneurial academic paleontology”. And the world at large is starting to notice. Outlets as huge as CNN and Discover Magazine have recently covered the project. It was also the first (and so far only) time when targeted advertising did its job and worked beautifully to get my attention. Imagine my surprise, scrolling through Instagram this past summer, when suddenly the Jasons showed up and started talking bones. (The video is here, by the way – it’s very well made and gives you a good look into the goings-on at the Basin.) If only that would happen more often. Despite Apple’s best efforts, I remain unfazed by the new iPhone.

These types of project matter because it is essential that, more than ever, we as scientists must be able to

  1. convey our findings to a general audience and
  2. ensure that information is accurate and rigorous.

As a new museum educator, I have a lot to say about this, to the point where I have literally written essays about it in my freshman year. (Maybe I’ll post one eventually.)

During my time at the Academy so far, I’ve interacted with thousands of individual museumgoers with various different backgrounds and levels of foreknowledge about scientific topics. Some of them know nothing at all, and are eager to learn. Some of them are exceptionally well versed, and not only do they keep up with a conversation about the melanosomes of Sinosauropteryx – they initiate it. (That was an excellent day.) They too are still eager to learn.

And we need to support that hunger for knowledge, more than ever – both for the enthusiastic folk and for those who are perhaps less hungry, because it is no less important for them.

I was first witness to the crap that went on with the Badlands National Park’s Twitter feed, and I’ve remained engrossed with the developments that have spiraled out from that at an exponential rate. I still remember a time, about a month ago now, when the March for Science was just a Facebook page of only a few thousand instead of a massive organization with the support of major agencies such as the AAAS and the various departments in the American government muzzled by the new administration. Some people have been saying that, in an ideal world, science should remain apolitical out of respect for its objective nature and processes.

Unfortunately, this is far from an ideal world.

I sort of understand where those people are coming from, though. In the past, I tried not to get too involved with politics, or indeed voice much of an opinion about anything. Yes, I was still eager to teach people about cool stuff in the natural world, but I wanted to do it independently of any societal issues or pressures. There are people who can handle that kind of thing, I thought. Let them sort it out. The sun still rises every morning.

And then within the past few years I realized that I’m one of the people who can handle that kind of thing. Which was a little bit of a wakeup call.

So we need to speak up for a number of reasons: so that science is supported by the governments of the world, so that we can continue to further our work and the scientific process, and so that people can hear what we have to say over the rest of the bullshit ringing in our collective ears from all directions.

Q: What do we do to accomplish this, and how?

A: Good question for many reasons. It doesn’t have an easy, clear-cut answer.

On the political side of things, plenty of people are taking action. I’ve already mentioned the March for Science (if things go as planned I’ll either be at the main event in Washington or at the sister march in Philly), and enough information exists that you hardly need me blathering on about it when you can find the information presented elsewhere in an exceptionally better manner than any attempt of mine. I can only hope the results will be fruitful, and that the efforts of hundreds of thousands will be worthwhile.

But much more will happen on a smaller scale. Simple outreach events may do wonders to promote reason and the phenomena of our world. New and innovative programs like the BBPI can provide people with a fresh and exciting perspective on the work scientists do, and give insight into how we know what we know. And of course we must never underestimate the power of the museum to captivate and inspire the next generation.


#WeirdThingsInJars. Get it trending.

I had the opportunity to play with dead frogs the other day. More specifically, they were frogs from the Academy’s extensive collections, and we had them out for a weekend as part of “Froguary”, born out of the traveling exhibit that is currently in residence at the museum and our intense obsession with silly puns. There were the usual suspects – the bullfrog, spotted salamanders, the American toad. But we also had some really cool, seldom-seen stuff – a handsome goliath frog, two hellbenders chillin’ in an ethanol bath, the excessively gigantic tadpoles of the paradox frog shown alongside their diminutive parents. And the visitors that walked by were enthralled. They marveled at the specimens, asked some excellent questions – and most even knew the jars were not footballs to toss around. Which is always a win in my book.

Talk to any museum professional around the world and you’ll hear similar stories. This stuff works. And it’s just one form of science communication out there – I could talk about educational television programs, stories in the press, blogs very much like the one you’re reading right now.

So the question isn’t necessarily “how do we communicate science to people”. As ever, the devil is in the details, but by and large we know the answer because we’ve been doing it for years. Basically, we know the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything Really – we just need the proper Question.

Q: What about them Tiktaaliks, then?

A: Stay tuned.


(and for the love of god don’t take that literally, you’ll be stuck here for months like last time)


The Academy of Natural Sciences – Paleopalooza 2016

2017 EDIT: Full disclosure, I wrote this about six months before I started working there. Still love the place. And if you’re ever in Philly, you should come and say hi.

So I was down in Philadelphia earlier this month for this year’s Paleopalooza – probably the largest museum-based paleontology festival in the tri-state area. I’ve become exceedingly familiar with its host location, the Academy of Natural Sciences, to the point where visiting might seem to be a lackluster experience. But it never is, because there are always new surprises to be found, and I can’t help but love the place.

Natural history museums have always been a source of fascination for me. Obviously, they’re excellent resources for bringing science to the public eye, and they curate and conserve all manner of wonderful specimens for future generations. But they also act as a window looking into the process of science – how it’s changed over time, and the people behind those changes. We can look at the work of scientists over the past couple hundred years and see how their work influenced our culture or our everyday world, and vice versa. And I would argue that the Academy is one of the most influential and historically significant natural history museums to ever exist, and continues to be so today.

From diatoms to dinosaurs


The Academy’s main entrance, still more or less unchanged after 150+ years. Image licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0 (from Wikimedia Commons).

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was founded in 1812, making it the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere. It quickly became a hub for naturalists and other scientists across the then-young United States and attracted members from all around the world. There are now a whopping eighteen million specimens in the Academy’s collection, which is especially impressive for a fairly small museum compared to figurative and literal giants such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution. Thanks to individuals such as the pioneer ecologist Ruth Patrick, the Academy has become a leader in environmental studies within the past century, and continues to conduct influential research around the planet. (Fun fact #1: the Academy possesses the second-largest diatom collection in the world.)

The Academy’s collections are full of stories, and the paleontology collection is no exception. In 1868, the museum made headlines when a mounted skeleton of Hadrosaurus went on display – the first-ever dinosaur mount in the nation. Hadrosaurus was first described by Joseph Leidy ten years earlier, and he enlisted the help of sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to restore the specimen and mount it in a lifelike position. Today, Hawkins’ Hadrosaurus looks hilarious in a pitiful sort of way. Its proportions are almost alien-esque, its tail is painfully contorted in order to rest on the ground, and its skull is pretty much that of an iguana supersized to fit the rest of the mount. But at the time, it was state of the art. Even discounting the extensive restoration that Hawkins had to apply to the specimen, it was the most complete dinosaur skeleton found so far in the entire world. And there was enough original fossil material to determine that the dinosaur’s front legs were noticeably shorter than its hind legs. At a time when history’s terrible lizards were all depicted as quadrupedal, that was big news.


Hawkins’ 1868 Hadrosaurus mount. Public domain image.

And when Hadrosaurus went on display at the Academy, attendance skyrocketed. People were fascinated by the form of this strange beast, and the museum had to move to a bigger location just to handle all the crowds. Leidy’s dinosaur would ultimately help him become known as the “father” of vertebrate paleontology in North America, and it heralded the beginning of a new era of prolific dinosaur discoveries.

In fact, Leidy’s student Edward Drinker Cope was one of those prolific scientists. The Academy was his home turf, and Cope wrote some 1400 papers based on his discoveries. Most people today remember him as a paleontologist, and rightfully so – a lot of his conclusions don’t hold up to scrutiny these days, but he was still a highly influential figure and gave us some very well-known dinosaurs (Allosaurus, anyone?). But Cope was also a talented herpetologist and ichthyologist, and described a number of living species that remain valid today. He was also, of course, a combatant in the infamous Bone Wars…but that’s a post for another day.

cope acadnatsci

A display case about Cope and the research he contributed to the Academy.

In more recent years, the Academy is still conducting valuable paleontological research. They were part of the team that helped to excavate the sauropod dinosaur Suuwassea at the turn of the century, and rumor has it they will soon be returning to the original site in order to recover additional fossils (more on that later). The Academy made headlines again in 2006 when curator Ted Daeschler, along with Neil Shubin from the University of Chicago and Farish Jenkins from Harvard, first debuted Tiktaalik the “fishapod”, now often regarded as an evolutionary icon on par with Archaeopteryx and Lucy the Australopithecus.

tiktaalik holotype

I had the opportunity to see the holotype of Tiktaalik at the Academy last June, before it left the Academy for its permanent home in Nunavut.

In 2011, the Academy was acquired by Drexel University, and its new official name is the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. When I head to Drexel in the fall I will have the excellent opportunity to volunteer here, and I couldn’t be happier to do so. But more on that when the time comes…

The Dinosaur Hall (and other fossils)

The fossils on public display at the Academy are in a couple different places, but it makes sense to start at the very beginning. When you first walk through the main entrance, you come face-to-face with a skeleton of Elasmosaurus suspended in the air.

elasmosaurus acadnatsci

Elasmosaurus in the main lobby. During the holiday season it sports a festive toque.

Elasmosaurus is somewhat of a special beast to the Academy. It was described by Cope in 1868 and the type specimen remains in the museum today. Cope also famously stuck its head on the wrong end, and was swiftly corrected by his peers in one of the first shots in the Bone Wars.

However, the Elasmosaurus is actually a relative newcomer to the room. I have fond and distinct memories from my childhood years of a much bigger monster:


Receptionist for scale. Photo by Paleos on DeviantArt.

You may recognize that hulk of a skeleton as Giganotosaurus carolinii, occasionally considered the largest theropod dinosaur to ever exist. At the time, there were only two mounts on display in North America (both casts) – the other remains at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Georgia. I might just be a little bit biased, but I’ve seen pictures, and the Academy’s mount was far superior. I can understand why they took it down: Elasmosaurus is far more significant to the museum’s history, and shouldn’t be overshadowed by a stinkin’ upstart theropod. I’m still a tiny bit peeved, though.

There is a small display case detailing the discovery of Tiktaalik further inside the museum, and a skull of the “Irish elk” Megaloceros mounted on the wall, but the main event is the Academy’s Dinosaur Hall (I have heard no other official name for it, although it might have one).


The T. rex in the center of the hall. A fairly standard sight, but who doesn’t love the classics? (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Opened in the 1990s, the current Dinosaur Hall is split into two levels, and aims to showcase the discoveries of the Dinosaur Renaissance of the late 20th century. The ground level is home to most of the fossil mounts, and most noticeable among these is Tyrannosaurus. It’s only a cast of the T. rex in New York (Fun Fact #2: it has no name per se like a lot of other famous T. rex, and is known only by its specimen number AMNH 5027), and so isn’t that unusual. Most natural history museums worth their salt seem to have a T. rex these days anyway. But you can get a good look at the entire thing from close up, and there’s a selection of other theropod skulls mounted nearby for comparison.

In fact, the majority of fossils on display at the Academy are casts – which is fine in many ways. Real bones are expensive to mount and maintain, and more often than not have to be supplemented with casts anyway in order to get a complete skeleton. Yet with the original fossils, there’s a certain kind of magic in their own authenticity. It’s difficult to accurately describe but Heinrich Mallison makes some excellent points on his own blog. And the Academy has some wonderful, genuine treasures hidden away in their collections.

corythosaurus acadnatsci

More cast skeletal mounts. Chasmosaurus at left, Corythosaurus at center, and Hadrosaurus hiding there in the back.

There are a couple other miscellaneous dinosaurs standing proud, and one wall is dedicated to Cretaceous sea creatures. In the back of the hall there’s a room where you can walk in front of a green screen and see yourself transported into a generic prehistoric jungle among unmistakably 90s dinosaurs and other creatures. Admittedly, it was probably a fun gimmick back when it was first introduced, but I don’t care for it much. Maybe if it was updated for the 21st century I might appreciate it more.

However, if you go through a door just beside the green screen setup, you head right into the Academy’s fossil prep lab. For a number of years, they were working almost exclusively on the bones of Dreadnoughtus (then-unnamed) that were shipped in from Patagonia – and I do mean years. With that gargantuan task over they’ve moved on to some of the finds of the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project. The prep lab itself is a very nice place. When I visited the Smithsonian before their renovation started, their prep lab seemed very cold and sterile (and suspiciously clean), completely enclosed by a wall of glass. Not the case here. The glass wall is much lower, which means you can talk to the preparators and ask them plenty of questions. And its small size means you can get a very close look at the fossils being cleaned up.

prep lab acadnatsci

Part of an Edmontosaurus skull recovered by the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project. In this picture, it’s in the process of being glued back together.

basilemys acadnatsci

A nearly complete example of Basilemys, a Cretaceous turtle. Its skull was resting off to the side.

The mezzanine level mostly focuses on dinosaur biology. There are several examples of dinosaur eggs, a section that emphasizes the Mesozoic origin of birds, and a really cool model of Stegosaurus with its organs showing. One particularly novel interactive exhibit is a mechanical Deinonychus skeleton. Visitors can walk on a treadmill-like contraption that powers the skeleton and allows you to see how the creature may have moved in life. In my experience it’s a bit difficult to get working properly, but it’s still a really neat feature. There’s also a mock fossil excavation site where kids can dig with hammers and chisels to find giant saurian “bones”.

As I said before, the Academy is fairly small compared to other museums of a similar caliber, and so is its dinosaur hall. But it packs a lot of punch into a small space, and is accessible to pretty much everyone. If you’re ever in Philadelphia and have a craving for dinosaurs, it’s completely worth the stop.

Paleopalooza 2016

Paleopalooza is a festival that, in the Academy’s words, “celebrates all things prehistoric” over the course of a weekend each year (usually it’s in mid-February – not sure why they pushed it back this time). I’ve been going for five or six years now, and it’s been a pleasure every time.

I always look forward to the presentations, and this year we had two of them. Dr. Phil Manning of the University of Manchester delivered the first talk on dinosaur combat. As far as I’m aware this was his first time speaking at the Academy since 2011, so it was nice to see him back. And at the time I completely forgot to bring a book for him to sign, so of course I had that immediately rectified.

I especially enjoy Manning’s talks because not only is he a fabulous presenter, but he also likes to throw in juicy paleontological secrets that haven’t yet been publicized…

  • There’s a Tyrannosaurus femur being described that preserves damage from a Triceratops horn that skewered it. The paper will (hopefully) be out soon.
  • The famous (or perhaps infamous?) “Dueling Dinosaurs” of Montana have officially found a home in a respectable natural history museum – although he’s not allowed to say which one. Very exciting news.

The second talk was given by Jason Schein of the New Jersey State Museum. Along with Academy preparator Jason Poole, he’s a co-leader of the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project that I mentioned earlier. He had plenty to say about what they were up to in the field and what lay in store for the future. It turns out that the BLM contacted them to take a look at the Suuwassea site nearby – after a partial skeleton was collected, the place was left alone for over twenty years. It turns out there’s a lot more still hidden in the ground, and the team will be coming back to collect there over the next few expeditions.

A lot more went on over the course of the day – so here’s a few pictures that I took of the displays to finish off the post.

fossil tables paleopalooza

Fossils and other goodies for sale in the downstairs commons. This year I was able to pick up a Charles Knight book that I’ve been trying to find and a rather mint condition set of Jurassic Park trading cards. I’m super happy with ‘em.

st clair paleopalooza

The Delaware Valley Paleontological Society had a number of display cases out. This one features fossil ferns from Saint Clair, Pennsylvania.

green river paleopalooza

Another DVPS case featuring the fossils of the Green River Formation.

mosasaur paleopalooza

A mosasaur skull that was brought out from the collections. I made a note to myself to remember the species, and then I promptly forgot.

suuwassea paleopalooza

Vertebrae from the Suuwassea holotype.

drawn to dinosaurs acadnatsci

Not Paleopalooza-specific, but the Academy has a temporary exhibit up with a reconstructed Hadrosaurus mount and a life restoration of the animal in chalk. It’s a cool juxtaposition.

All pictures in this post were taken by me unless otherwise noted.