The World’s Largest Dinosaurs @AMNH
April 21, 2011
[This is a guest post by frequent commenter Heinrich Mallison. Heinrich is maybe best known to SV-POW! readers for his work on digital modelling of sauropodomorphs, though that may change now that his paper on sauropod rearing mechanics is out. Read on ...]
Maybe this post should have been titled “How sauropods breathed, ate, and farted”. Or maybe not. But breathing, eating and fermenting the food will play an important role.
Last week held a special pleasure for me. I spent it in New York, digitizing sauropods bones in the American Museum of Natural History’s Big Bone Room. Treasure trove that this room is, the museum still held something even better: the opening of a new special exhibit titled The World’s Largest Dinosaurs. While all such exhibits are of general interest to me, this one is special. Mark Norell, famous palaeontologist and curator at the AMNH, had a co-curator for this exhibit, Martin Sander of Bonn University, who is the head and speaker of the German Research Foundation Research Unit FOR 533 “Sauropod Biology”. As a member of FOR 533, and having received funding for both my PhD work and my first post-doc project, I am obviously somewhat biased, so please take this into account when you read this report.
The exhibition does not show a large amount of sauropods material. Not that it wouldn’t make for a nice exhibit, as the AMNH’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs doesn’t really have that many sauropods (one Apatosaurus mount, to be exact, with a mashed up Barosaurus vertebral column half-hidden away and a wonderful but obviously depressed “prosauropod”, my old friend Plateosaurus, thrown in to make up a bit for the many, many stinkin’ theropod specimens). But instead of showcasing some of the usually hidden-away bones of the AMNH collection (and believe me, there is some wonderful stuff there), it rather focuses on those parts of the animal that are usually missing: the soft tissues. “How did sauropods get so big?”, or, reversing the question: “Why did and does no other group of terrestrial vertebrates reach such gigantic body sizes?” These were the questions our research group has been busily investigating for the last six years, and the answers to these question are what the exhibit now tries to communicate to the public. And it does so quite successfully!
The centrepiece is a full-sized, fleshed out model of a sauropod (Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis), but on one side the skin and superficial musculature has been cut away. The visitor can see the neck vertebrae, the trachea, the carotid artery, and the ribcage. And the ribcage is also a projection area, on which a video is played that shows the internal organs and how they work.
With a voice-over that explains the actions in simple terms, the principle of the avian-style unidirectional lung and the air sacs is explained (albeit with a small error, as lung physiologist and FOR 533 member Steve Perry was quick to point out – the AMNH has promised to fix things), as well as the basic principles of sauropod reproduction (high number of offspring). Many things are not said or shown here, which is a good thing as it allows for the normal short attention span of the average museum visitor for one piece of exhibit. Instead, interesting stuff like how much fodder a sauropod needed per day (or even per hour), a comparison of a sauropod’s and an elephant’s heart, and of a giraffe’s and a sauropod’s neck vertebra (wow, how light the sauropod one is!) are explored at small science stations spread around the room. I won’t go into a detailed description here, you can find that elsewhere on the web. The AMNH did a blogger’s preview a while ago, and invited the press for a press conference and walk-through of the exhibit with the chance to interview the scientists present on Wednesday, so much info has already been plastered all over the web. Instead, I’ll just show you some pics and talk a bit about the concept of the exhibition, and how various issues were handled that can make or break a show.
One thing is how to catch the attention of visitors and direct it to the content of the exhibit. You don’t want people just going “aw, sh*t! That is one HUGE bone/animal!” and wandering off into the next room. If you want to educate them (and that, may I remind you, is the central purpose of a museum exhibit), you need to get them interested in stuff. Get them to read texts, look at stuff (not just let their eyes wander across it for a few seconds), try to get their brains going. The sauropod exhibit manages this by, first of all, being behind a closed door you can’t see through. Usually, the AMNH halls are accessible either through an open doorway, or in a few cases through glass doors. Secondly, the exhibit, especially the rather confined area you enter first, is dark. Very dark. Again a marked contrast to the AMNH’s usually well-lit halls. Just a few plants greet the visitor, and it takes a second to adjust to the dark – enough time to look around a bit and notice the neck and head of Argentinosaurus (fleshed out model) above.
Next, the visitor is channeled along, with only a very few specimens to catch his attention. Well done, because these few pieces (sauropod leg, Komodo dragon skeleton, human skeleton, etc.) focus on getting the main message across (sauropods = way larger than everything else), aided by the largest animals (or their silhouettes) or various groups painted on the wall. Only once the message has been driven home, as I could detect from the comments I overheard, are the visitors released into the main area that contains the sauropod model and the various detail exhibits around it.
The next thing is giving people time to check things out. If you herd them too much, they will get driven along by the masses. That’s why the larger, opener area around the sauropod model and the smaller bits around it works so well: people can sit down to see the projected videos on the sauropod belly, or they can drift around from one specimen or science station to the next.
The stations are not just glass cabinets with some bones in them. Instead, at many of them you can DO things. One allows you to measure either an adult or baby sauropod femur or your own, and then calculate how heavy a sauropod of that size was. At another you can pump a sauropod’s and an elephant’s lung. One I liked very much simply had an unpainted sauropod model, and two sets each (adult and children height) of oculars. One showed a colorful “show-off” version, the other a “camouflage” one. “Which one is true? We don’t know!” is how I’d paraphrase the text that goes with it. One that innocently hides in the corner is among the most impressive: a 5 ½ ft cube (1.7 m, for the civilized) made from Plexiglas filled with sauropod food. A serving sufficient for one day! On it, also, the various plant groups available in the Mesozoic were rated for various factors, getting an easily understood rating in stars. That’s another big thing: make things easily understandable, visualize them!
With all these things well done, there remains only one more thing: make things fun for kids! And the AMNH did just that by adding a kids’ dinosaur dig. OK, it is one of those cheesy things where you use brushes and stuff to brush sand off fossils (cast), but it was done well enough that kids lined up like there was no tomorrow.
Overall, the exhibit gets two big thumbs up from me. If you make it to NY while it is on, or to any of its future stations, go see it! However, as FOR 533 member Steve Perry was quick to point out: if you’re in it only for the size, you’ll be disappointed! Aside from a few isolated bones, not much of the largest dinosaurs (Argentinosaurus and Amphicoelias) is to be seen in bone. It is the biological details that matter! But don’t get me started about the tail musculature, especially the caudofemoralis, of the big model.
And then, there is the other thing about it that is closely tied to shameless self-promotion: the AMNH did not produce a catalogue or anything similar. Instead, the latest book from the “Life of the Past” series (Editor: James Farlow) of Indiana University Press was presented at the press conference. The lucky reporters all even got a free copy! The title is Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants, edited by N. Klein, K. Remes, C. T. Gee and P. M. Sander. And by now, I am sure, you have figured out who the authors are … It is intended to be a summary of the research findings of the first (and part of the second) funding period of FOR 533, and yours truly has two chapters in it. The first doesn’t really give much new information; most is already contained in my two papers here and here. The second, however, presents novel research that didn’t make it into the AMNH exhibit. But hey, why spoil the surprise – go and buy our book!) Overall, it is quite a technical book, so laypeople beware, but we did try to make the research as accessible as possible while retaining a high standard. For the even more technically minded there is the summary of our research group’s work (which cost the DFG ~€6.000.000) to be found in Sander et al. 2010. However, reading that paper is not half as much fun as the book, or the exhibit.
- Sander, P. Martin, Andreas Christian, Marcus Clauss, Regina Fechner, Carole T. Gee, Eva-Maria Griebeler, Hanns-Christian Gunga, Jürgen Hummel, Heinrich Mallison, Steven F. Perry, Holger Preuschoft, Oliver W. M. Rauhut, Kristian Remes, Thomas Tütken, Oliver Wings and Ulrich Witzel. 2010. Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs: the evolution of gigantism. Biological Reviews 86:117-155. doi:10.1111/j.1469-185X.2010.00137.x