The humerus of Brachiosaurus altithorax, part 2: the museum mount
May 21, 2014
As we noted yesterday, the humerus of the Brachiosaurus altithorax holotype FMNH P25107 is inconveniently embedded in a plaster jacket — but it wasn’t always. That’s very strange. I have an idea about that which I’ll come to later.
Anyway, although the humerus is now half in a jacket and fully inside a cabinet, we can see it from all angles thanks to the cast that’s part of the mounted skeleton outside the Field Museum. (I can definitively state that this is the greatest picnic area in the universe).
As noted in the previous post, Matt and I were idiots back when we visited Chicago, so our photos are mostly useless. We have lots that show the mounted skeleton as art, but very few that are scientifically useful. But what you can make out from the photo above (especially if you click through) is that the textures of the two humeri are very different.
You can see it more clearly from in front:
(There I am, microscopic and easily overlooked, on the left.)
Here’s a close-up of the humeri from that photo, sharpened and contrast/brightness-balanced so you can more easily see what’s going on:
Contrast the scarred, pitted surface of the right humerus (on the left of the picture) with the much cleaner and bone-like texture of the left one (on the right of the picture). What’s going on here is that the right humerus of the mounted skeleton is a cast of the original element (bad preservation and all) whereas the left humerus is a sculpture. (Or possibly a cast of one of the Giraffatitan humeri, but I doubt that — it’s a bit too clean and seems more robust than those bones.) The real humerus is very distinctive, especially in the progressive flaking away on the lateral side of the distal end.
Of course you can walk all around the cast humerus and photograph it from every angle — both the posterior that is apparent in the jacket, and the anterior that’s face down and inaccessible.
You can walk all around the cast humerus and photograph it from every angle. But we didn’t. Because, as noted here and yesterday (and previously, come to think of it) we used to be idiots back then. As Matt has pithily observed:
“About every three or four months I realize that I’ve spent my entire life up until now being a dumbass; the problem is that ‘now’ keeps moving and every time I think I’ve finally got everything figured out, I later determine that I was/am still a moron. I distinctly remember having this feeling for the first time in third grade, age of eight, and I keep hoping it will eventually go away, but that hope seems increasingly unfounded.”
That is a hauntingly familiar feeling.
It seems that this cast-right, sculped-left humerus combo is common in Brachiosaurus mounts — I guess because they’re all cloned from the Field Museum’s original. Here, for example (from this post) is the mount at
BYU the North American Museum of Ancient Life:
Once you’ve seen that humerus mismatch, you can’t miss it.
Finally, then — what about this historical oddity that the humerus was once out of its jacket but is now back in? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I can’t really imagine why you’d do that.
So maybe that never happened? We’ve been taking it for granted that the humerus in the old Field-Museum photo is real, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it was a cast, and that cast is still somewhere in the museum (or indeed incorporated into the mount). Maybe when the fossil humerus was brought back from the field, the jacket was removed from the anterior face and that was cast; then this face was rejacketed, the bone was flipped, the posterior face was exposed (as it still is today) and that was cast. Then the two casts were joined together to make an apparently whole humerus.
If that speculation is right, then it should be possible to detect a join running down the lateral and medial faces of the cast humerus that’s in the mount (and apparently in all other mounts). That’s something I’ll look closely for the next time I’m lucky enough to be in Chicago.
I wish it was possible to know this kind of thing. I’d love it if every time a museum mounted a skeleton they published an account of how it was done, as Janensch (1950b) did for the original Giraffatitan mount in Berlin, and Remes (2011) did for the recent remount. Unfortunately I’ve never heard of such a paper regarding the Chicago mount, and I don’t even know how long ago it was done (or if anyone who was involved is still alive). The Wikipedia page says the mount went up in 1993, but gives no reference for that and doesn’t say who did it. Does anyone know?
Thanks to Ben (no surname given), whose comment below points to a useful 1993 Chicago Tribune article, “Brach To The Future“. This confirms the date of the mount as 1993, unveiled on Saturday 3rd July. The mount is the work of PAST (Prehistoric Animal Structures, Inc.), who bizarrely don’t seem to have a web-site. PAST president Gilles Danis was involved in the process, so he’d be the person to contact about how it was done.
Oh, and here’s another relevant Tribune article: “Out Of The Past“. Steven Godfrey is the key player in this account, so he’s someone else to track down.
- Janensch, Werner. 1950b. Die Skelettrekonstruktion von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Supplement 7) 3:97-103, and plates VI-VIII.
- Remes, Kristian, David. M. Unwin, Nicole. Klein, Wolf-Dieter Heinrich, and Oliver Hampe. 2011. Skeletal reconstruction of Brachiosaurus brancai in the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin: summarizing 70 years of sauropod research. pp. 305-316 in: Nicole Klein, Kristian Remes, Carole T. Gee, and P. Martin Sander (eds.), Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.