In 2012, Matt and I spent a week in New York, mostly working at the AMNH on “Apatosaurus” minimus and a few other specimens that caught our eye. But we were able to spend a day at the Yale Peabody Museum up in New Haven, Connecticut, to check out the caudal pneumaticity in the mounted Apatosaurus (= “Brontosaurus“) excelsus, YPM 1980, and the bizarrely broad cervicals of the Barosaurus lentus holotype YPM 429.
While we there, it would have been churlish not to pay some attention to the glorious and justly famous Age of Reptiles mural, painted by Rudolph F. Zallinger from 1944-1947.
So here it is, with the Brontosaurus neck for scale:
Click through for high resolution (3552 × 2664).
And here is a close-up of the most important, charismatic, part of the mural:
Again, click through for high resolution (3552 × 2664).
That’s your lot for now. We’ve long promised a proper photo post of the Brontosaurus mount itself, and I’ll try to get that done soon. For now, it’s just scenery.
February 10, 2015
Go to Google and do a picture search for “natural history museum”. Here are the results I get. (I’m searching the UK, where that term refers to the British museum of that name — results in the USA may very.)
In the top 24 images, I see that half of them are of the building itself — rightly so, as it’s a beautiful and impressive piece of architecture that would be well worth visiting even if it was empty. Of the rest, ten are of specimens inside the museum: and every single one of them is of the Diplodocus in the main hall. (The other two photos are from the French natural history museum, so don’t really belong in this set. Not coincidentally, they are both primarily photos of the French cast of the same Diplodocus.)
The NHM’s Diplodocus — I can’t bring myself to call it “Dippy” is the icon of the museum. It’s what kids go to see. It’s what the museum used as the basis of the logo for the 2005 SVPCA meeting that was held there. It’s essentially the museum mascot — the thing that everyone thinks of when they think of the NHM.
And rightly so: it’s not just a beautiful specimen, it’s not just sensational for the kids. As the first cast ever made of the Carnegie specimen CM 84, it’s a historically important object in its own right. It was the first mounted Diplodocus ever, being presented in 1905 before the the original material was even on display in Pittsburgh.
As a matter of fact, this cast was the very first mounted sauropod to be publicly displayed: that honour is usually given to the AMNH Apatosaurus, but as museum-history expert Ilja Nieuwland points out:
The London ‘Dippy’ was in fact the first sauropod on public display, if only for three days in early July of 1904, in the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall.
There you have the Natural History Museum Diplodocus: the symbol of the museum, an icon of evolution, a historical monument, a specimen of great scientific value and unparalleled symbolism.
So naturally the museum management want to tear it down. They want to convert the Diplodocus hall into a blue whale hall. Because the museum doesn’t already have a blue whale hall.
Or, no — wait — it does already have a blue whale hall. That’s it. That’s what I meant to say. And very impressive it is, too.
I don’t mind admitting that the whale hall is my second favourite room in the museum. Whenever I go there as a tourist (rather than as a scientist, when I spend all my time in the basement), I make sure I see it. It’s great.
The thing is, it’s already there. A museum with a whale hall does not need another whale hall.
Obviously anticipating the inevitable outcry, the museum got all its ducks in a row on this. They released some admittedly beautiful concept artwork, and arranged to have opinion pieces written in support of the change — some by people who I would have expected to know better.
One of the more breathtaking parts of this planned substitution is the idea that Diplodocus is no longer relevant. The NHM’s director, Sir Michael Dixon says the change is “about asking real questions of contemporary relevance”. He says “going forward we want to tell more of these stories about the societally relevant research that we do”. This “relevance” rhetoric is everywhere. The museum “must move with the times to stay relevant”, writes Henry Nicholls in the Guardian.
There was a time when Diplodocus was relevant, you know: waaay back in the 1970s. But time has moved on, and now that’s 150,000,035 years old, it’s become outdated.
Conversely, the rationale for the whale seems to be that they want to use it as a warning about extinction. But could there ever be a more powerful icon of extinction than a dinosaur?
The thing is, the right solution is so obvious. Here’s what they want to do:
Clearly the solution is, yes, hang the whale from the ceiling — but don’t remove the Diplodocus. Because, seriously, what could be a better warning about extinction than the juxtaposition of a glorious animal that we lost with one that we could be about to lose?
All this argument about which is better, a Diplodocus or a blue whale: what a waste of energy. Why should we have to choose? Let’s have both.
I’ve even had an artist’s impression made, at great expense, to show how the combination exhibit would look. Check it out.
(If anyone would like to attempt an even better rendering, please by my guest. Let me know, and I’ll add artwork to this page.)
So that’s my solution. Keep the museum’s iconic, defining centrepiece — and add some more awesome instead of exchanging it. Everyone wins.
November 14, 2014
So how did the YPM come to make such a monstrosity? What was it based on? Tune in next time for the surprising details!
I told him at the time that I’d soon get around to writing a post. But before I did, he wrote a post on this himself: Bully for Camarasaurus. And it’s excellent. Go and read it!
I don’t have a lot to add to what Ben has written, except regarding this:
What Marsh had instead [when restoring the skull for his 1891 “Brontosaurus” reconstruction] were a few fragmentary bits of Camarasaurus cranial material, plus a snout and jaw (USNM 5730) now considered to be Brachiosaurus.
Here’s what Marsh came up with:
But what of the supposed Brachiosaurus skull that he used as a reference? It was finally described 107 years later by Carpenter and Tidwell (1998), in a paper that helpfully also lays out the history behind it. Here’s how it looks:
The skull was found by a crew under the supervision of M. P. Felch in the western part of his Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. Felch reported it to O. C. Marsh in a letter of 8 September 1883. It was found by a meter-long cervical vertebra that probably belonged to Brachiosaurus “which was destroyed during attempts to collect it” (McIntosh and Berman 1975:196). [Of course, Felch and Marsh could hardly have been expected to identify this vertebra correctly, as Brachiosaurus would not be discovered and named for another twenty years (Riggs 1903), and the nature of its neck would not become apparent until Janensch (1914) described the related brachiosaurid Giraffatitan (= “Brachiosaurus“) brancai.]
The Felch skull, along with other material from the quarry, was shipped to Marsh at Yale in October of that year, and was initially assigned the specimen number YPM 1986. At that time it was only partially prepared, hence the rather poor resemblance between the restored version above and Marsh’s hypothetical “Brontosaurus” [= Apatosaurus] skull that was based on it.
It’s notable that Holland (1915) was quite certain that this was not a skull of Brontosaurus, and that a Diplodocus-like skull found with the A. louisae holotype belonged to it. It’s worth reading the skull section of his paper to see just how solid his reasoning was. And it’s extraordinary to think that Osborn’s power, all the way over in New York, was so great that he was able to successfully bully Holland, 370 miles away in Pittsburgh, into not putting the evidently correct skull on the Carnegie Museum’s Apatosaurus mount. That mount remained sadly headless until after Holland’s death.
Aaanyway, YPM 1986 was pretty much ignored after Marsh’s abuse of it as a reference for the Brontosaurus reconstruction’s skull. After Marsh’s death in 1899, much of the material collected by Felch was transferred to the Smithsonian (US National Museum of Natural History). The skull was among these specimens, and so was re-catalogued as USNM 5730.
As so often, it was Jack McIntosh who rediscovered this skull and recognised its true affinities. Some time after his tentative identification of the skull as pertaining to Brachiosaurus (presumably on the basis of its resemblance to that of Giraffatitan), Carpenter borrowed the skull, had it more fully prepared, wrote the description, and had a restored model constructed from casts of the preserved elements and models of the missing ones.
Carpenter and Tidwell (1998:fig. 2) also handily showed the restored Felch quarry skull alongside those of other sauropods:
By re-ordering the top row, we can see what a neat intermediate it is between the skulls of Camarasaurus (left) and Giraffatitan (= “Brachiosaurus” of their usage):
I provisionally accepted USNM 5730 as belonging to Brachiosaurus in my re-evaluation of 2009, and included it in my reconstruction (Taylor 2009:fig. 7):
But as noted by Carpenter and Tidwell (1998:82), the lack of comparable parts between the Felch skull and the Brachiosaurus holotype (which remains the only definitive Brachiosaurus material) means that the assignment has to remain tentative.
What we really need is a more complete Brachiosaurus specimen: one with both a skull and good postcervical elements that let us refer it definitively to Brachiosaurus altithorax by comparison with the holotype. And heck, while we’re at it, let’s have a specimen with a good neck, too!
The real question remains: how did Marsh, using a brachiosaur skull as his basis, come up with this?
And stranger still, how someone at the Yale Peabody Museum — we don’t know who — used it, or more likely Marsh’s reconstruction, as a basis for this sculpture:
The Yale mount didn’t go up until 1931 — the last of the Big Four Apatosaurus mounts after the AMNH, Carnegie and Field Museum, which is surprising as it was the first of those specimens to be found. So by the time the skull was sculpted, sauropod skulls were actually reasonably well known. It’s not clear quite how anyone working from a decent reconstruction of, say, a Camarasaurus skull — the one in Osborn and Mook (1921:figure 30), say — could come up with this monster.
The last thing to say is this: it does credit to the YPM that they display this historically important sculpture rather than hiding it away and pretending it never happened. For me, part of the fascination of palaeontology is seeing not just how organisms evolved through prehistory but how ideas evolved through history. It’s great that we can still see important mistakes, alongside their corrections (i.e. the new and lovely skull on the YPM Apatosaurus mount.)
- Carpenter, Kenneth, and Virginia Tidwell. 1998. Preliminary description of a Brachiosaurus skull from Felch Quarry 1, Garden Park, Colorado. Modern Geology 23:69-84.
- Holland, William J. 1915. Heads and tails: a few notes relating to the structure of the sauropod dinosaurs. Annals of the Carnegie Museum 9:273-278.
- Janensch, Werner. 1914. Ubersicht uber der Wirbeltierfauna der Tendaguru-Schichten nebst einer kurzen Charakterisierung der neu aufgefuhrten Arten von Sauropoden. Archiv fur Biontologie, Berlin III, 1(1):81-110.
- Marsh, O. C. 1891. Restoration of Triceratops (with plates XV and XVI). American Journal of Science, 3rd series 41(244):339-342.
- McIntosh, John S., and David, S. Berman. 1975. Description of the palate and lower jaw of the sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus (Reptilia: Saurischia) with remarks on the nature of the skull of Apatosaurus. Journal of Paleontology 49(1):187-199.
- Osborn, Henry Fairfield, and Charles C. Mook. 1921. Camarasaurus, Amphicoelias and other sauropods of Cope. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, n.s. 3:247-387, and plates LX-LXXXV.
- Riggs, Elmer S. 1903. Brachiosaurus altithorax, the largest known dinosaur. American Journal of Science 15(4):299-306.
- Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806.
July 16, 2014
I was at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County yesterday to do some research in the ornithology collection. After lunch I was working on this pelican skeleton and I thought, “Geez, there is just no way to do this thing justice with still photos. I should make a video.” Here it is. You’ll want to see it full-screen–this being my first time out making a video, I didn’t realize that I was holding the phone the wrong way for efficient viewing on other devices.
The specimen is LACM Ornithology 86262. I’m posting this video with the knowledge and kind permission of the ornithology collection staff.
For previous things in this vein, please see:
- There’s almost nothing but nothing there, Brachiosaurus edition
- There’s almost nothing but nothing there, Sauroposeidon edition
If you like it that stuff like this exists, please support your local natural history museum, especially the LACM, which has some really fantastic education and outreach programs.
In recent photo posts on the mounted Brachiosaurus skeleton and its bones in the ground, I’ve lamented that the Field Museum’s online photo archive is so unhelpful: for example, if it has a search facility, I’ve not been able to find it.
But the good news is that there’s a Field Museum Photo Archives tumblr. Its coverage is of course spotty, but it gives us at least some chance of finding useful brachiosaur images. Like this one of the sixth presacral vertebra (i.e. probably D7 in a column of 12 dorsals):
It’s instructive to compare that with Riggs’s (1904: plate LXXII) illustration of the same vertebra in the same aspect, in which he almost literally airbrushed out the jigsaw-puzzle complexity of the preserved bone surface:
More disturbing still, compare that old photograph with my own (terrible) 2005 photo of the same vertebra:
It looks very much as though the vertebra itself — not just Riggs’s illustration — has been “improved” since the older photo was taken exactly a century earlier in 1905. This is a constant problem when dealing with old fossils.
Here are three more interesting photos from the Tumblr. First, the Brachiosaurus fossils in the field:
This is evidently from later in the excavation process than the previous photo of this area, since much of the material is now jacketed. That’s the femur in front of shot, here seen in anteromedial view, with the top towards the right.
Next up, this photo purports to be “Thirteen men including Security Guard unloading dorsal vertebrae of type specimen Brachiosaurus fossil”:
But in fact it’s not Brachiosaurus — the neural spines are too tall and slender. I am pretty sure this is Riggs’s Apatosaurus — the rightmost dorsal has that distinctive notch on the dorsal aspect of the neural spine. And indeed, checking his monograph on that specimen (Riggs 1903: plate XLVI), I see that its dorsals were distorted in this way, and that the front-centre vert is a fine match for its D10.
Finally, there’s this one of the prep room:
On the far left, we have the still-jacketed Brachiosaurus femur; next to it stands Harold W. Menke, who discovered the fossil; and to his right is Elmer S. Riggs, who wrote the description.
Those are all the Brachiosaurus-related images I’ve been able to find on the tumblr. But do let me know if you find any others.
- Riggs, Elmer S. 1903. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part I: Apatosaurus Marsh. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series 2:165-196.
- Riggs, Elmer S. 1904. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part II, the Brachiosauridae. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series 2:229-247.
Here is the wonderful Brachiosaurus altithorax mount in its original location, in the main hall of the Field Museum in Chicago. (Click through for full resolution.)
I scanned this from Don Glut’s Dinosaurs: The Encyclopedia, page 215. There must be better quality versions somewhere, because this is one of the Field Museum’s own photos — negative #GN 86962 — but I can’t find it in their singularly unhelpful online photo archive.
I’m posting it because there’s an astonishing lack photos of this mount on the Internet. As I noted last time, I was only able to find this striking image:
at the miserably low resolution shown here (358×248). More generally, almost every photo of a mounted Brachiosaurus out there seems to be from either the picnic area outside the museum, or O’Hare Airport. If anyone’s able to find decent-resolution examples of this skeleton indoors, please do drop the links into a comment.
I mentioned this to Matt, and he commented:
I think that the mount got moved outside just a bare handful of years before digital cameras went from rare to ubiquitous. If the move had happened even five years later, I’ll bet there would be loads of photos of the old mount.
I’m sure he’s right. But someone must have half-decent photos from back then?
Of course, the real question is: why did they shove the Brachiosaurus outside? It was mounted in 1994, and taken down again in 1999, so this marvellous mount — by any objective standard the single most awesome exhibit in the museum’s history — was only actually in residence for five paltry years.
The standard explanation is that it was removed “to make space for” Sue, the vulgar overstudied theropod. But a glance at the photo above shows that there was plenty of space to put in half a dozen T. rexes without needing to move the brachiosaur. I can only assume that someone realised having a brachiosaur next door would make Sue look feeble. It’s a tragedy.
Thanks to Dean for finding this one: small, but beautiful.
Glut, Donald F. 1997. Dinosaurs: The Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. 1076 pages.
After P.A.S.T president Gilles Danis commented on our post about the Chicago airport Brachiosaurus mount, I got into an interesting email conversation with him. Here, posted with his kind permission and only lightly edited, are his thoughts on the Brachiosaurus mount.
The story of this mount (s) is chequered. The casts of real material include the sacrum, the caudal, a number of dorsals, some rib fragments, one femur, a very badly eroded humerus and a coracoid. [Update: also the right ilium, as Gilles subsequently confirmed by email.]
On the mount that was in the museum and later was moved to the airport, we had a peculiar situation to deal with. Because museums like to have people walking under the rib cage of high sauropods, this becomes a safety hazard for two reasons. The first is that it cannot be allowed to fall on the people (obviously) and even though the cast was of light plastic, the engineers insisted in overbuilding the support (namely the legs and arms). Also because while in the Field Museum, it stood in the path of a fire exit, we had to have a certain amount of distance between the front and hind limbs (I forget the exact measurement). The only way that we could achieve that was to add two vertebrae for a total of 12 dorsals. We chose to duplicate two of real vertebrae at the lower end of the dorsal section.
The funny thing is only one person figured that one out and that was Bill Simpson the collections manager. Also to support this structure, we were asked to used way oversized steel in the limbs which meant that we had to “inflate” the real humerus and femur to accommodate the material. This is why the cast is so bad; it is half stuffing.
It is interested to see how a lie perpetuates itself. The following year, the Hayashibara museum ordered a mount of the same skeleton and they were very interested in getting the distance between the feet and manus. So we, again, had to make a Brachiosaurus limoensis.
Not satisfied with this silly situation, Disney came to us in 1996 and ordered that very same skeleton again with the stretch limo factor for another dinosaur that you walk under for the Wild Animal Kingdom park in Orlando. Up to that point, only Bill Simpson had realized the error. But I had just had it up to there with these stretch dinosaurs and revealed the problem. After that, in 1999, we replaced the skeleton in Stanley Field Hall with one on the terrace to make room for Sue the T. rex. On this Brachiosaurus, we have the normal 10 dorsals. The last Brachiosaurus we mounted is in the North American Museum of Ancient Life (N.A.M.A.L.) at Thanksgiving Point, Lehi, Utah, again a normal skeleton.
If this was not enough we restored Seismosaurus halli (now Diplodocus hallorum). This project was sponsored by a Japanese company who was to get the first mount. They took Gillette’s publication and read that the skeleton would have been 150′ long or 50 meters. We soon realized that there was a mistake, that the tail was not missing a huge section but had simply drifted away from the sacrum and the skeleton would not be even close to the predicted length. The Japanese would have none of it. After months of negotiations, we arrived at a compromise and we made the skeleton 40 meters long, 133’+ by adding some whiplash vertebrae until it was that long. By then I had had enough and threw in the towel but not before mounting another Seismosaurus for the museum is Albuquerque which is correct.
As for the Berlin brachiosaur: I spent some time in Berlin measuring, photographing and drawing (Donna Sloan did the drawing) the original material there, but they would not allow us to mould it. What I found interesting is that in 1992 when I was there, most of the skeleton of the mount was not original but it was not cast either. It was sculpted wood.
I have many more tails (pun, ha,ha) about sauropods. I should write them down sometime.
Many thanks to Gilles for allowing us to reproduce this important information.
Gilles’ list of real material that was cast for the mount includes very nearly all of the holotype FMNH P25107 — assuming that “a number of dorsals” means seven, the number that Riggs excavated and had prepared. The only fossil elements not apparently appearing are the fragmentary first caudal and the right ilium. But it seems to me from some of my photos of the airport mount (see the image at the top) that a cast of the right ilium was used. [Update: yes, Gilles confirmed by email that the right ilium was indeed cast from real material.]
Regarding the number of dorsal vertebrae: it may have been circumstances that forced P.A.S.T to give the mount 12 dorsals, but Migeod’s pre-description of the NHM’s Tendaguru brachiosaur gives good reason to think this is likely the correct count.
Similarly, although the torso was therefore longer than Gilles had intended, it might have ended up correct, as careful comparison of the lengths of the Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan dorsals suggests that the torso of the former was about 23% longer.
To my shame, I’d not realised that the Brachiosaurus at the airport has two more dorsals than the one in the Field Museum picnic area, despite Matt having posted a ventral-view photo of the airport mount that clearly shows the twelve dorsals and a lateral-view photo of the museum mount that clearly shows ten.
When Gilles says “most of the skeleton of the [Berlin] mount was not original but it was not cast either”, I assume he’s referring to the presacral vertebrae, which as Janensch explained in his 1950 paper about that mount were too heavy and fragile to mount. The sculptures in Janensch’s mount were not particularly good, but they have been replaced by much better ones in the remount.