Museum of Osteology, June 2018 visit

December 13, 2018

Click to embiggen. Trust me.

Last year about this time I wrote:

Here’s a stupid thing: roughly 2-3 times a year I go to the field or to a museum and get hundreds of SV-POW!-able photos. Then I get back to the world and catch up on all of the work that piled up while I was away. And by the time I’m done with that, whatever motivating spark I had – to get some of those photos posted and talk about the exciting things I figured out – has dissipated.

The museum I was thinking about more than any other when I wrote that is the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. I don’t get there every year, but I stop in as often as possible, and I make it more years than not. And yet, looking back through the archives I see that almost all of my posts about the Museum of Osteology came in a brief flurry five years ago. Shameful!

This summer I was out in the Oklahoma panhandle for fieldwork with Anne Weil, then I had a very quick day in the collections at the OMNH in Norman, then I had to drop my son London with relatives (he stayed for an extra week) and hop a plane home. In between the kid hand-off and the drop-dead get-to-the-airport time I had exactly one spare hour, so of course I hit the museum.

IMG_0571

UPDATE: for the curious, here’s the signage for the hanging humpback whale skeleton.

The Museum of Osteology is easily one of my favorite natural history museums in the world. Like all my favorite museums, it just packed to the gills with actual natural history objects. The signage is tasteful, informative, and discreet, and there is a blessed absence of blaring videos, rotating 3D whatsits, and interactive geegaws to ruin the experience.* You can walk all the way around the big mounted skeletons with no glass in the way. The staff are friendly and helpful, and as you can see from the photos, they even provide comfortable benches for people who wish to sit and ponder the endless forms most beautiful.

That, folks, is a damn fine museum.

* To be clear, I don’t think all videos and interactive displays are evil. But they need to enhance the experience of natural history, not be a substitute for it, and that’s a distinction that seems lost on many exhibit designers.

I was taken by this conjunction of two water-adapted artiodactyls.

Here’s the hippo by itself if you want the whole skeleton.

And a rhino to round out the big African megafauna. I showed the giraffe in this old post.

Even familiar animals that you may think you know front-to-back are often presented in new and interesting ways. I adore this horse skull, which has the maxilla and mandible dissected to show the very tall, ever-growing teeth, which erupt continuously through the horse’s life until the crowns are entirely worn away.

The textures on this giraffe skull are pretty mind-blowing.

I strongly recommend zooming in and tracing out some blood vessel pathways, especially over the orbit, at the bases of the ossicones, and in the temporal fossa (below the ossicones and behind the orbit).

Bottom line, if you are interested in the natural world at all, you owe it to yourself to visit this museum. And you’ll want to go as heavy in the wallet as you can manage, because the gift shop is ridiculous and can easily eat 30-45 minutes and all your disposable income. Take it from a survivor.

18 Responses to “Museum of Osteology, June 2018 visit”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    That giraffe skull: it’s not cancerous or anything? That’s just regular rugosity?

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    Yeah, that’s just how giraffes are. Big adult males, anyway. If you look around online you’ll find a LOT of photos of giraffes with smaller ossicones and smoother skulls, but I think most of them are young, female, or both.

  3. Matt Wedel Says:

    And — it occurred to me right after I hit post on the last comment — it’s pretty crazy because giraffe ossicones don’t lie. That’s pretty much what the top of the head looks like. All it’s missing is some skin. In contrast to rhinos, where a comparable amount of rugosity would be anchoring horns a meter long.

    I am coming around to the uncomfortable conclusion that we are just screwed when it comes to interpreting soft tissues in the fossil record.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Dud, time for you to write a short two-picture post entitled “Rhinos lie, giraffes tell the truth, we’re screwed”.


  5. The thing that to me is most bizarre about that giraffe skull is that it’s rhinos that are doing the reasonable thing. They’ve got a gnarly rugosity on the skull that correlates with some crazy keratinous structure. That giraffe, though, has some serious overkill on rugosity for an animal that doesn’t do a whole lot with keratin in terms of life appearance.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Maybe the giraffe doesn’t do much with keratin because, having such a gnarly skull, it doesn’t need to? Maybe you need one of the other?

  7. nwfonseca Says:

    I agree, especially in light of the possible scale impressions on that Triceratops frill that they are working on at the Canadian Museum of Nature. It seems some of the correlates we are seeing aren’t that immune to scrutiny. Makes all those flame wars on social media regarding tyrannosaurus seem kind of pointless. At the very least we have a possible idea of soft tissue type from osteology; not an air tight way of telling exact appearance. One note about the heavy rugosity of the giraffes I believe that tends to be in adult male individuals. It would seem differences btwn sexes could also cloud the issue?

  8. Matt Wedel Says:

    Differences between sexes are indeed a major confounding factor, as is ontogeny. Let’s imagine how something like giraffe cranial ornamentation might look in the fossil record if it was actually happening in a dinosaur. Now, I don’t know if all male giraffes get the super-gnarly skull texture like the one in the post, or just the socially dominant bulls, but for this thought experiment let’s pretend it’s the latter — certainly there are plenty of critters in which full development of secondary sex characteristics is socially determined.

    Our sample sizes for most dinos suck. If we get, say, 20 or 30 individuals of a single species we start thinking we know that taxon pretty well, at least compared to the hordes of dinos for which we have only one or two individuals. In a group that big we might only get one socially-dominant bull with the secondary sexual characteristics in full flower. Against our “baseline” of juveniles and females, that bull is going to be so different that it may well register as a different species, or as a pathological individual. (I’m using ‘bull’ here as a carry-over from the giraffe model, but the gnarly combatant sex might well be female — another complication!)

    Note that if old males die in combat, they will tend to do so wherever they are fighting, and not in the usual bone traps like watering holes or river deltas. Any pattern of mortality that is different from the rest of the population could theoretically make those individuals easier or harder to fossilize, but I’ll bet that for most big terrestrial vertebrates the answer is “harder”. So we might not find the socially-dominant combatants at all, or at least very rarely, or maybe we only find them in a different depositional environment from the rest of the population.

    And all of that uncertainty from taphonomy and sampling is layered on top of the baseline uncertainty about precisely which soft tissues go with which bone surface textures.

    Makes all those flame wars on social media regarding tyrannosaurus seem kind of pointless. At the very least we have a possible idea of soft tissue type from osteology; not an air tight way of telling exact appearance.

    QUITE. “Consistent with scales” does not mean “definitely had scales”. More like, “We probably can’t rule out scales.” I think the recent spate of work on the soft tissues of theropod skulls is interesting, but given how remote allosaurs and tyrannosaurs are from birds and crocs in both size and biology, it’s nothing I’d want to get in a fight over.

    Air sacs, on the other hand…. ;-)

  9. nwfonseca Says:

    With regards to interactivity worming its way into object based institutions, I wouldn’t put all the blame on the designers. That is like shooting the messenger. Object based museums have had a drop in attendance in the past 30+ years, and face stiff competition from Science Centers who cater to a much broader, younger, and tech savvy audience. Museums have felt pressure to match the Science Center model and the exhibitions have followed suite. Additionally, museums “and science centers” largest audience tends to be school groups. The challenge then becomes to break down the content in digestible content that can fit into the schedule and interests of the K-12 audience. What that means is that sometimes we have to shoe horn content or interactives where we might not want them to be. I too enjoy just wandering the halls of museums and taking in the wondrous variety within. I also agree that force feeding interactives where it isn’t necessary is nauseating, but us designers have very little direct influence on the decision makers. We are required to bring to life the vision of exhibit developers, museum educators, curators, and upper level staff who have a variety of differing and often conflicting visions of what a museum exhibition should be. It is very difficult to satisfy so many different and often apposing desires. I am happy to create an almost entirely object centered exhibition but that isn’t always the reality we are presented with.

  10. Dale mcinnes Says:

    Do yourself a big favour and hire a secretary to take care of that download for ya.

  11. Matt Wedel Says:

    nwfonseca, those are good points. Thanks for making them.

  12. wolfwalker Says:

    What species of whale is that, please? I’m going to guess probably Fin Whale from the size and proportions, but I’d like to know for sure.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    “I adore this horse skull, which has the maxilla and mandible dissected to show the very tall, ever-growing teeth.”

    Horse teeth are not evergrowing. They have an extended period of crown growth but then form roots and stop growing. They continue to *erupt* throughout the animal’s lifetime, but that is not the same thing as being truly ever-growing like a rodent’s incisors. The horse eventually runs out of tooth and will starve to death without human aid.

    Among scientists who work on mammals with ever-growing teeth, horses are considered the ideal negative test case as they are very high-crowned (hypsodont) but not ever-growing (hypselodont). Bison and cattle are the same way, but I suspect horses may have more data on their dental evolution and pathology.

    If their teeth were truly evergrowing they would have no roots, whereas in that picture they clearly do.

  14. Matt Wedel Says:

    wolfwalker, the whale is a humpback. I added a photo of the signage. Should have done that right out of the gate, so thanks for the prod.

    Anonymous, thanks for the clarification on horse teeth — I’ve updated the post accordingly.

  15. Matt Wedel Says:

    Forgot to mention, one of my favorite things about that whale is that the mandibles are actually put on correctly for a whale with its mouth closed. Many, many baleen whale skeletons in museums are articulated with the mandibles splayed open as if they were lying flat on an invisible table, which is the way they work when the mouth is open to feed, but not how they are oriented when the mouth is closed. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but a welcome one.

  16. Allen Hazen Says:

    I spot two other Cetaceans, hung on either side of the Humpback’s tail, and facing the other way. (Skull of the one on the Humpback’s right is visible in side view over the Elephant skeleton.). Do you remember what they are? They both seem to have a lot of ribs, so I suspect one of them is Neocaperea (“Pygmy Right Whale,” though apparently not closely related to the Right Whales).

    It’s certainly a great room! I don’t foresee any visit to Oklahoma in the near future, but I’d love to spend an afternoon looking at the things there!

  17. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi Allen, I don’t know what the smaller cetaceans are, and irritatingly in looking back through all of my MoO photos I can’t see that I’ve recorded that info. I think, though, that they are both odontocetes. If I make it back to the museum this Christmas, I’ll check and update the post accordingly (or do a whole new post).

    I wasn’t exaggerating out of home state pride — the Museum of Osteology is simply one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. So if ever you get the chance, go.

  18. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    Just seeing this now – the giraffe looks vaguely like a pachycephalosaur: maybe it tilted its head and neck forward and they battered each other and their predators…

    I grew up (ages 3-11) with the smithsonian museums in DC. With a similar 2 hours to spare my next time back alone, age 22, armed with a fresh degrees in science and engineering, I cruised thru it again, surprised by 3 things.
    1. The “vaccination” as a child must have worked: I felt like I learned very little that was dramatically new, despite a more appreciative eye for new details; and how quickly I could actually see the whole museum to my level of satisfaction. As a reader of this blog, now I’d like to go back….
    2. …except I was struck by how antiquated much of it felt, with taxidermist specimens dominating instead of skeletons, tho there was plenty of that, too. My feeling was, nothing had changed in 11 years…
    3. …except for the one video I saw, next to the horse evolution display, that ran a quick comparative anatomy lesson of the evolution of the horse hoof, and how it’s just one particular finger left on the modern horse. That “wow, that’s AWESOME” was apparently a feeling of tech done RIGHT, that will stay with me a looooong time.


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