Tag Archives: dinosaurs

A peek at the awesomeness coming in 2017

Hey, here’s a pleasant surprise!  USA Today has an excerpt from Dragon Teeth, the Bone Wars novel coming out next May by the late, great Michael Crichton.  Looks like the main character is a young man from a well-to-do Philadelphia family who joins the first big Gilded Age fossil rush.

The dust jacket looks pretty cool, although it’s a little odd to see a Tyrannosaurus on the cover of a novel set in the 1870s.  Some material now recognized as belonging to T. rex did turn up in the late 1800s, some of it discovered by fossil hunters involved in the Cope-Marsh feud.  In fact, Cope himself published a description of a couple of vertebrae from South Dakota that have since been identified as T. rex remains.  But the name Tyrannosaurus rex didn’t appear in the scientific literature until about thirty years after Cope and Marsh started duking it out.  No big deal, though—and not the first time Tyrannosaurus has made a somewhat chronologically-inappropriate appearance on the front of a Crichton novel.  After all, most editions of Jurassic Park featured a T. rex on the cover, even though the Jurassic Period ended almost eighty million years before the tyrant lizard king showed up.

While we’re on the subject of prehistoric beasties and awesome stuff coming out in 2017, have you seen the Kong: Skull Island trailer yet?  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this here before, but I’ve been a huge King Kong fan since I was about six.  (The fact that the ’33 film was chock full of dinosaurs might’ve had something to do with it.)   Maybe I should add a “Gratuitous Giant Ape Posts” category since I’m already subjecting you folks to periodic dino digressions.

The movie’s set in the Godzilla universe, and this ginormous, bipedal Kong seems to have more in common with the Toho version than the old school one that climbed the Empire State Building with a blonde in his hand.  Me, I prefer the original take on Kong, and I’m disappointed by the lack of dinosaurs in the trailer, but this is still my most anticipated movie of 2017.

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Beast in the basement

Whenever I’m down in the McClung Museum’s basement, I stop to pay my respects to an old friend.

img_2073Old, that is, in a relative sense.  This is a cast facsimile of a T. rex skull rather than the real thing.  But this bad boy (girl?) and I go back a long way.  My dad used to indulge my dino obsession by taking me to the McClung Museum on weekends so I could hang out in the old geology and fossil exhibit, where the T. rex skull went on display sometime back in the early or mid-nineties.

That exhibit has now gone the way of the specimens it once showcased.  The McClung’s current geology and fossil gallery opened in 2002 with some new dino skull casts and gorgeous dioramas, but sans tyrant lizard king.  Now the T. rex is enjoying semi-retirement downstairs, although we wheel him out for school tours from time to time.

Those of you who are fellow paleo-nerds may recognize the skull as a copy of one of the most famous dinosaur specimens in the world: AMNH 5027, excavated by the great fossil hunter Barnum Brown in Montana back in 1908.  The original skull is on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York…

By Futureman1199 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Futureman1199 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…right in front of the skeleton it was once attached to.  Fossil T. rex skulls are so heavy that it’s hard to mount them at standing height, so most museum specimens have lighter copies stuck on the ends of their necks.

By David Cornforth [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By David Cornforth [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

AMNH 5027 wasn’t the first T. rex specimen to be described.  But it was the first to be found with an intact cranium, making it a popular choice for replication.  (Check out the wonderful Extinct Monsters blog for the history of T. rex on display and the proliferation of 5027 clones in museums all over the world.)  If you’re at a museum that has a tyrannosaur cast, one easy way to tell if it’s a copy of 5027 is to look at it head-on.  The original looks a bit smashed on the upper left side, as if it’s starting to collapse inward like a rotting pumpkin.  You can see the distortion in this photo of UC-Berkely’s replica:

By BrokenSphere (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By BrokenSphere (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One other thing to take note of when you’re looking head-on at a T. rex is the position of the eye sockets.  Although they’re on the sides of the head, they’re oriented so that the eyes themselves would have faced forward, which probably meant good depth perception.  In fact, research by Kent Stevens indicates that T. rex had superb vision.  Combine an eagle’s eyesight, an exceptional sense of smell, and a bone-crushing bite, wrap it all up in a forty-foot package, and you’ve got one of the most remarkable carnivores in the history of life on this planet.  In other words, it’s probably not a good idea to stand still and hope he doesn’t notice you.

Anyway, as awesome as this guy looked in the old exhibit, I’m sort of glad he’s taken up quarters behind the scenes.  As a kid, I used to stand in front of his display case and wonder what it would feel like to run my hands across those bony protrusions and along those fearsome jaws.  Now I don’t have to wonder, and it’s one of many reasons I love my job.

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When scientific specimens become historic artifacts

In the summer of 1909, just after vacating the White House, Theodore Roosevelt killed a lion in Kenya as part of a collecting expedition for the Smithsonian.  Now the mounted cat is going back on exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History after spending twenty years in mothballs.  Here’s Sarah Kaplan’s fascinating piece at The Washington Post:

The past century has taken a toll on the majestic creature. The lion’s tawny fur is crushed in places, and his rumpled mane gives him the appearance of having bed head. A portion of his ear is clipped, chunks of fur are missing, and his glass eyes have gone foggy with age.

Conservator Ron Harvey surveyed the mount, assessing the damage, deciding what to repair and what to leave as is.

“I want him to look his best,” he explained. “But it is 100 years old. I want to maintain that sense of history too.”

The job of a natural history conservator goes far beyond simple aesthetics. Harvey must maintain the specimen’s scientific usefulness, ensuring that it can be studied by future generations. He also wants to preserve it as a historical artifact — an object that can tell us about our past and its own. When museum visitors look at this mount in six months, Harvey hopes they’ll get a sense of how it got to the museum, what it meant when they arrived, what it stills mean today.

“What story did this lion and Roosevelt want to tell us?” Harvey wondered. That’s what he aims to conserve.…

After consulting with museum conservation specialist Cathy Hawks, he decided to leave the lion’s glass eyes — which are cloudy and crizzled from a phenomenon called glass disease — as they are. They’re historic artifacts too, after all, and they’re suggestive of the lion’s old age and impressive backstory. On top of which, it would probably cause more damage to try to take them out.

“What we’re trying to do in conservation is preserve and extend the life of . . . this body that has not been sapped of all its knowledge,” Harvey said.

He noted that the specimen has been cited in scientific journal articles as recently as 2010, and that scientists are developing new tools for research all the time. There may be other stories — about lion biology, East African ecosystems, 20th century taxidermy methods — buried inside this specimen, waiting for someone with the right question and the right tools to answer it.

Roosevelt’s lion is a working scientific research specimen, but it’s also a historic artifact.  It reminds us that science is a human process embedded in the time and culture in which it takes place.  The National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Peabody Museum at Yale, and the Natural History Museum don’t just preserve the record of life on earth, but also the record of how we’ve come to understand it.

Mounted lions from Roosevelt's Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

Mounted lions from Roosevelt’s Smithsonian safari. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives (negative no. 24881 or NHB-24881) via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one of the things that makes a visit to venerable old natural history museums so special.  As I’ve said before, a stroll through the fossil galleries of the American Museum of Natural History is almost like a tour of milestones in the history of vertebrate paleontology in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Seeing any real dinosaur fossil is a treat, but at the AMNH you’re also seeing the life’s work of legendary figures like Barnum Brown, Henry F. Osborn, Charles H. Sternberg, and Roy Chapman Andrews.  You’re standing in the presence of giants in a dual sense, both the remains of long-dead creatures and the ghosts of those who brought them to light.

If you’re planning a trip to the AMNH, I heartily recommend reading Douglas Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History before your visit.  It’s an engrossing reminder that natural history and human history are intertwined, and that museums house stories as well as specimens.  Thousands of stories, millions of stories—stories behind every pair of glass eyes, mounted on every metal armature, locked away in every drawer.

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A Crichton novel on the Bone Wars is coming

I’d like to apologize for that ear-piercing noise that shattered windows all over the Western Hemisphere last night.  That was me shrieking with ecstatic delight in reaction to this:

HarperCollins Publishers has acquired World English rights to DRAGON TEETH by bestselling author Michael Crichton. Harper Publisher Jonathan Burnham and Executive Editor Jennifer Barth negotiated the deal with CrichtonSun’s Sherri Crichton through Sloan Harris and Jennifer Joel of ICM Partners and Michael S. Sherman of Reed Smith LLP. The book will be published in May 2017 in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Michael Crichton’s DRAGON TEETH follows the notorious rivalry between real-life paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh during a time of intense fossil speculation and discovery in the American West in 1878. The story unfolds through the adventures of a young fictional character named William Johnson who is apprenticed first to one, then to the other and not only makes discoveries of historic proportion, but transforms into an inspiring hero only Crichton could have imagined. Known for his meticulous research, Crichton uses Marsh and Copes’ heated competition during the ‘Bone Wars,’ the golden age of American fossil hunting, as the basis for a thrilling story set in the wilds of the American West.

Sherri Crichton has been working to honor her late husband by creating the Michael Crichton Archives through her company CrichtonSun. “When I came across the DRAGON TEETH manuscript in the files, I was immediately captivated. It has Michael’s voice, his love of history, research and science all dynamically woven into an epic tale.” She traced its genesis back to correspondence between Crichton and Professor Edwin H. Colbert, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. “DRAGON TEETH was clearly a very important book for Michael. I’m so pleased to continue the long relationship that he shared with HarperCollins with its publication.”

The “Bone Wars”—the bitter feud between rival naturalists Edward Cope and O.C.Marsh—pretty much defined vertebrate paleontology in the United States during the late nineteenth century.  As ugly as the Cope-Marsh spat was, it played a large role in bringing to light the fossil riches of the American West, since the two men financed prospecting and excavation in some of the country’s most important bone beds.  A lot of the “classic” dinosaurs that are household names first came to scientific attention in the papers they published.  Their rivalry has fascinated me since I was a kid; in fact, when I was an undergrad, I did my capstone research project on it.

Anyway, it’s Crichton. It’s dinosaurs. It’s American history.  As they used to say in the beer commercials, “Boys, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”

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Dino discoveries at the McClung Museum

Did I hit the special dino exhibit at the McClung Museum on opening day?  You better believe I did.

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Our knowledge of dinos has increased almost exponentially in the past decade or two, partly because there are more people engaged in the business than ever before, but also because of new specimens and new techniques for studying them.  New knowledge and new techniques are what the exhibition Dinosaur Discoveries: Ancient Fossils, New Ideas is all about.  Organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it offers a look at some of the things scientists have learned in the past decade or so, and explains how they’ve learned it.  If you developed an interest in dinosaurs back in the heyday of the nineties but fell out of the loop later, or if you were a dino-obsessed kid who hasn’t picked up a paleo book in decades, this exhibit will give you a taste of what’s been going on lately in the world of terrible lizards.

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Take computer modeling, for example.  Dino bones tend to be big, heavy, and fragile, which puts limits on the things you can do with them in a lab.  Researchers can manipulate a virtual skeleton in ways that would be impossible with the genuine article, so they can study, say, the neck vertebrae of a sauropod to get a sense of what the living animal’s posture might have been like.  You know those pictures of long-necked herbivores with their heads held erect like enormous giraffes?  Turns out sauropods might not have been browsing up in the treetops after all.

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Here’s a Mesozoic arsenal: stegosaur plates and a spike, and an ankylosaur tail club.  Or were some of these things intended to win over mates rather than fend off carnivores?

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We’ve all seen images of Triceratops facing off against T. rex.  But as formidable as those horns and that bony frill look…

 

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…the headgear isn’t as impressive on smaller relatives, such as Protoceratops.  That suggests ceratopsians were using their cranial adornment for something besides dueling with predators.

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And speaking of T. rex, one of the most interesting paleontological debates involves whether the tyrant lizard king was a fast runner.  (I think it’s interesting, anyway, and in the event you ever find yourself in the presence of a tyrannosaur, I dare say you’ll take an intense and sudden interest in it, too.)  How do you gauge the top speed of an animal that died tens of millions of years ago?  This exhibit will let you see how scientists crunch the numbers, and where the numbers themselves come from.  And the news is surprisingly not that bad for those of you in the habit of driving jeeps around island theme parks during power outages.

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Some of the most fascinating dino discoveries of the past couple decades have come from the early Cretaceous deposits of Liaoning Province in northeastern China.  Animals and plants either died in or washed into still lakes before volcanic ash buried them, creating a low-oxygen environment that kept the remains intact and preserved the fossils in exquisite detail.  Because of these ideal conditions, we know that some dinosaurs from Liaoning—such as Sinosauropteryx, Microraptor, and Sinornithosaurus—had a feathery covering.  These Chinese finds have shed quite a bit of light on the relationship between birds and extinct dinosaurs and the evolution of flight.

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Dinosaur Discoveries will be at the McClung until August 28.  I definitely recommend a visit for those of you in the Knoxville area.  It’s not an assemblage of original specimens, but the casts and models are lovely, and there are plenty of interactive elements.  I love the idea of an exhibit geared toward teaching not just what scientists know, but how they know it and how much remains to be determined.  It underscores the idea of science as a process—as a set of questions and contested answers—rather than an inert body of facts that just appears out of nowhere in the pages of textbooks and on Wikipedia.

History, too, is a process  of inquiry.  And I think we should more fully exploit this same approach when it comes to history exhibits and other historical media aimed at the public.  One of the big problems historians face when it comes to advocating for the discipline is the fact that so many people don’t really understand what we do or how we go about doing it.  Since exhibits are one of our primary means of communicating with the public, we should be using them not just to convey information about our subject matter, but to give people a sense of how historians go about their work, what constitutes historical thinking, and what the possibilities and limitations of historical investigation are.  We should be using exhibits to convey information, but we should also use them to demonstrate that this information is the result of historians asking questions, figuring out how to answer them, and throwing those answers into competition with one another.

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The McClung Museum will be the epicenter of awesomeness in 2016

Somebody pinch me.  Seriously.  I’m not on cloud nine; I’m on cloud twenty-seven or twenty-eight.  Maybe higher than that.

Fallen from Edenic perfection though it is, this world affords us a great many fine things, including the companionship of family and friends, sublime sunsets, good BBQ, and free access to Shakira videos on YouTube.

Of all the pleasures we’re granted in life, however, two of the greatest are undoubtedly the study of these subjects:

  1. Dinosaurs
  2. The early history of East Tennessee

Imagine, then, how ecstatic I was to learn that the next two special exhibits at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture here in Knoxville will be…

DINOSAUR DISCOVERIES: ANCIENT FOSSILS, NEW IDEAS

June 4, 2016–August 28, 2016

This exhibition showcases the world of modern paleontology, introducing a dynamic vision of dinosaurs and the scientists who study them. New discoveries and technologies reveal how dinosaurs lived, moved and behaved. Find out how advanced technologies allow scientists to look at fossils in fresh ways. Examine realistic models and casts, and see dinosaurs walk, run and move their long necks in fantastic computer simulations.

and…

KNOXVILLE UNEARTHED: ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE HEART OF THE VALLEY

September 7, 2016–January 8, 2017

In honor of Knoxville’s 225th anniversary, this exhibition explores the city’s heritage as seen through archaeological discoveries in the “Heart of the Valley.” Using historic artifacts unearthed in and around Knoxville, along with historical images, maps, documents, and oral histories, the exhibition tells the story of Knoxville’s development from a frontier settlement to an industrialized city.

Dinosaurs and East Tennessee history.  It’s like if you made a Venn diagram of awesomeness, and plopped the McClung Museum’s rotating exhibit gallery right down in the middle.

Could it get any better?  Oh, yes, indeed, it could.

A few days ago I opened an e-mail from the Department of History’s director of graduate studies.  My assistantship assignment for next semester came in, and I’ll be working for…wait for it…the McClung Museum.

I. GET. TO. WORK. AT. THE. MCCLUNG. MUSEUM.

Here’s a pretty close approximation of how I reacted.

Seriously, I couldn’t be more excited.  I haven’t been able to get my hands dirty with museum work in quite a while, and the fact that I get to do it at a Smithsonian-affiliated institution with a fossil exhibit and a special exhibition on Knoxville’s history makes me absolutely giddy.

Oh, one more thing.  The archaeology exhibit will feature some artifacts from excavations at Marble Springs, which is fantastic, because we haven’t really had an opportunity to showcase this stuff at the site.  If you’re interested in seeing some of these traces of John Sevier’s plantation, be sure to stop by this fall.  Admission to the McClung Museum is free, and it’s one of the most fascinating ways to spend some time in the Knoxville area.

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Houdini, Doyle, and dinosaurs

Perhaps you’ve heard of the new TV show Houdini and Doyle, in which history’s most famous magician and the creator of Sherlock Holmes team up to solve cases that may or may not involve supernatural forces.  The premise might sound outrageous, sort of like a steampunk version of The X-Files, but Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were friends.  And in true X-Files fashion, one member of the partnership was a skeptic, while the other was a true believer.  Doyle was a committed spiritualist who publicly vouched for the authenticity of mediums and psychics; in one case, he went so far as to pronounce a set of faked photos of fairies to be genuine.  While Houdini found the prospect of communicating with the dead intriguing, his experiences with fraudulent mediums who claimed they could put him in touch with his dead mother left him disillusioned, and he began a one-man crusade against them.

Now, twentieth-century debates over supernatural phenomena fall pretty far outside my historical wheelhouse, and when I go off on tangents like this it’s usually because there’s a dinosaur connection.  And hoo boy—is there ever a dinosaur connection to the story of Houdini and Doyle’s friendship.

It all goes back to a remarkable film Doyle presented at a meeting of the Society of American Magicians at New York’s Hotel McAlpin on June 2, 1922, during an American lecture tour on spiritualism.  After an introduction by Houdini, who was the society’s president, Doyle made a few remarks about his belief in mediums.  A decade’s worth of investigation, he said, had convinced him that one really could communicate with the dead, and he appreciated the efforts of magicians who debunked those fake mediums—”human hyenas,” he called them—that discredited honest spiritualists everywhere.  But “when a conjurer does occasionally attack spiritualism as a whole,” he claimed, “he deals in a subject which he does not understand.”

A front-page story in the next day’s New York Times described what happened next:

The author then asked permission of Mr. Houdini to give his strange exhibition.  He gave no idea in advance as to its character, but said nothing to discredit the suggestion that he considered the coming exhibition to be genuine.

“If I brought here in real existence what I show in these pictures, it would be a great catastrophe,” he said.

“These pictures are not occult,” he continued.  “In the second place, this is psychic because everything that emanates from the human spirit or human brain is psychic.  It is not supernatural.  Nothing is.  It is preternatural in the sense that it isnot [sic] known to our ordinary senses.

…”I would like to add, to save myself from getting up again, that, if permission is granted for me to show this, they will speak for themselves.  I will answer no questions regarding them either for the press or the others present.”

Doyle’s “strange exhibition” turned out to be a reel of motion picture footage.  And while it had nothing to do with spiritualism, it did involve bringing up the dead:

Monsters of several million years ago, mostly of the dinosaur species, made love and killed each other in Sir Arthur’s pictures.  Prehistoric brutes that resembled rhinoceroses magnified many times, equipped with enormous horns that pointed forward like those of the unicorn, drove dinosaurs away from feasts on one another.  One monster, like a horned toad of monumental proportions, presented an impenetrable surface of armor plate to attacking reptiles and moved along in safety.

…His monsters of the ancient world or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike.  If fakes, they were masterpieces.

While Doyle refused to answer questions about the film, he did tell the magicians, “It is the effect of the joining on the one hand of imagination and on the other other hand of some power of materialization.  The imagination, I may say, comes to me.  The materializing power comes from elsewhere.”

That “materializing power,” in fact, was stop motion animation.  The footage was a test reel of animator Willis O’Brien’s work for the film adaptation of Doyle’s own 1912 novel The Lost World, in which explorers find live prehistoric animals atop a South American plateau.  O’Brien had made short films with stop motion dinosaurs before, but the 1925 version of The Lost World was the first feature-length dinosaur movie.  (Incidentally, it was also the first in-flight movie shown to airline passengers, during an Imperial Airways flight out of London.)

Doyle’s 1922 visit to New York marked the dawn of the dinosaur movie craze, but it also marked the end of his relationship with Houdini.  That summer, the two men and their families visited Atlantic City together.  Doyle’s wife, who claimed to be a medium herself, offered Houdini an opportunity to communicate with his dead mother in a private séance.  Houdini accepted, but the results left him as unconvinced as ever.  When Houdini later admitted to Doyle that he did not think his mother had actually contacted him in Atlantic City, Doyle was offended.

A few years later, Houdini was a member of a committee appointed by Scientific American to investigate a medium Doyle had publicly vouched for named Mina Crandon.  When Houdini denounced Crandon as a fraud, it was the last straw; the two men’s already strained relationship ended.  Doyle never convinced Houdini that humans could summon the dead, at least not without the sort of trickery that allowed him to conjure up the terrible lizards that night at the Hotel McAlpin.

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