Thoughts on the future of things

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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.

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#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.

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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Vertebrae from the Suuwassea holotype.

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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.

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