A simply mind-blowing preparation of the skull of an American paddlefish, Polyodon spathula. In life the paddle-shaped snout is covered by thousands of electroreceptors that detect the swarms of zooplankton on which the paddlefish feeds.

This was on display in the gift shop at the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City when I visited in July of this year. I was relieved it wasn’t for sale, first because it truly would have bankrupted me, and second because as a fellow excavator of antiquities once said, “It belongs in a museum!”

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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.

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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.

We’ve posted a lot here about how crazy the cervical vertebrae of apatosaurines are (for example: 1, 2, 3), and especially the redonkulosity of their cervical ribs. But I think you will agree with me that this is still an arresting sight:

That’s MWC 1946, a mid-cervical from the Mygatt-Moore Quarry that was figured by Foster et al. (2018: fig. 18 A-B) and referred with the rest of the Mygatt-Moore apatosaur material to Apatosaurus cf. louisae (entirely correctly, in my view). This is a ventral view, with the condyle down by the scale bar.

Here’s the same thing cropped from the background to emphasize its unbelievableness:

and mirrored and restored a bit in GIMP to give a taste of its probable appearance in life (if you had an apatosaur, an x-ray machine, and a lot of confidence about not getting stepped on):

For obvious reasons, my nickname for this specimen is the Brontosmasher.

Keep in mind that the centrum was full of air in life, whereas the cervical ribs and the bony struts that support them are just huge slabs of bone. I strongly suspect that the volume of bone in the cervical ribs and their supporting struts is vastly more than in the centrum and neural arch. I will soon have the ability to test that hypothesis–I have this specimen on loan from Dinosaur Journey for CT scanning and 3D modeling. Watch this space.

Many thanks to Julia McHugh at Dinosaur Journey for access to the specimen and assistance during my frequent visits.

Reference

  • Foster, J.R., Hunt-Foster, R.K., Gorman, M.A., II, Trujillo, K.C., Suarez, C.A., McHugh, J.B., Peterson, J.E., Warnock, J.P., and Schoenstein, H.E. 2018. Paleontology, taphonomy, and sedimentology of the Mygatt-Moore Quarry, a large dinosaur bonebed in the Morrison Formation, western Colorado—implications for Upper Jurassic dinosaur preservation modes: Geology of the Intermountain West 5: 23–93.

The Sunday after SVP, Brian Engh and I visited the museum in Albuquerque. I was quite taken with the mounted T. rex. It’s waaaay more interesting and dynamic than any other T. rex mount I’ve seen. It even beats the “Rockette rex” in Denver (which I really like and need to blog about), by virtue of putting the body and head down at eye level where you can study them up close.

The only thing I don’t like about this mount is that it has the dumb teeth-hanging-out-too-far thing going on. Why the heck people don’t fix that, I have no idea. Like, even if that’s the way the jaws are molded, cut off the excess and glue the crowns back up where they belong. Or fix the friggin’ mold. It’s not like the problem hasn’t been obvious for decades.

On the upside, pretty much everything else about this mount is awesome. Brian and I spent a fair amount of time working through the muscle attachments and thinking about how bulky the animal would have been in life. The answer is “very”.

Pretty cool to think that a fleshier, more aggro version of this was the last thing that many animals ever saw. And by ‘cool’ I mean ‘terrifying’.

In my recent visit to the LACM herpetology collection, I was interested to note that almost every croc, lizard, and snake vertebra I saw had a pair of neurovascular foramina on either side of the centrum, in “pleurocoel” position. You can see these in the baby Tomistoma tail, above. Some vertebrae have a big foramen, some have a small foramen, and some have no visible foramen at all. Somehow I’d never noticed this before.

This is particularly interesting in light of the observation from birds that pneumatic diverticula tend to follow nerves and vessels as they spread through the body. Maybe we find pneumatic features where we do in dinosaurs and pterosaurs because that’s where the blood vessels were going in the babies. Also, these neurovascular foramina in extant reptiles are highly variable in size and often asymmetric – sound familiar?

It should. Caudal pneumaticity in the tail of Giraffatitan MB.R.5000. Dark blue vertebrae are pneumatic on both sides, light blue vertebrae only have fossae on the right side. Wedel and Taylor (2013b: Figure 4).

I am starting to wonder if some of the variability we associate with pneumaticity is just the variability of soft tissue, full stop. Or if pneumaticity is variable because it developmentally follows in the footsteps of the blood vessels, which are themselves inherently variable. That seems like a promising line of inquiry. And also something I should have though of a lot sooner.

I am still building up to a big post on vertebral orientation, but in the meantime, check out this caudal vertebra of a Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis. This is right lateral view–the vert is strongly procoelous, and the articular ends of the centrum are really tilted relative to the long axis. I find this encouraging, for two reasons. First, it helped me clarify my thinking on how we ought to orient vertebrae, which Mike wrote about here and here. And second, it gives me some hope, because if we can figure out why tilting your articular surfaces makes functional sense in extant critters like monitors, maybe we can apply those lessons to sauropods and other extinct animals.

This is LACM Herpetology specimen 121971. Many thanks again to Neftali Camacho for access and assistance, and to Jessie Atterholt for basically doing all the other jobs while I was faffing about with this Komodo dragon.

Juvenile Tomistoma schlegelii, LACM Herpetology 166483, with me for scale. It wasn’t until I picked up the skull that I realized it was the same specimen I had looked at back when. I was looking at its neck in 2011, and its tail today, for reasons that will be revealed at the dramatically appropriate moment. I was only playing with the skull because it’s cute, an intricate little marvel of natural selection. Photos by Vanessa Graff (2011) and Jessie Atterholt (2018). Many thanks to collections manager Neftali Camacho for his hospitality and assistance both times!