The stupidest head

August 21, 2019

Left: Homo sapiens, head, neck and upper trunk in right lateral view (unprepared specimen). Right: Camarasaurus sp., skull in left lateral view. Photograph at the Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. 2016.

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Last September I spent a day in the LACM Herpetology collections with Jessie Atterholt, looking at weird features in crocs, lizards, snakes, and salamanders. I’ll have more to say about the specific things we were looking for in a month or so, after Jessie’s given her talk at SVPCA. This was just an incidental hit. We were looking at cryptobranchid (literally “hidden gill”) salamanders, because they’re big enough that you don’t need a microscope to see all their weird features. Cryptobranchids include the North American hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, and the giant salamanders of China and Japan, Andrias davidianus and Andrias japonicus, respectively, plus a raft of fossil taxa.

This is the mandible of LACM 162475, a specimen of Andrias davidianus, in right lateral view. I’d never spent quality time with the skeleton of a giant salamander, and I was impressed with how evil their teeth are. Just in terms of general outline, these little murder-sticks wouldn’t look out of place in the jaw of a dromaeosaur. Click to enfangenate.

Jessie did an Instagram post on the upper jaw of Cryptobranchus a few months ago, and as long as you’re over there, have a look at the half a pig head that she just plastinated for our colleagues in WesternU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s not the same pig as the one we hemisected last December, but I think it got cut at the same time.

My friend and frequent collaborator Jessie Atterholt has her office in the next building over from mine. When you walk in, you see something that looks approximately like this. Not exactly like this, because I took these photos in February and she’s changed a few things (and I’m rubbish about getting stuff posted in a timely fashion).

The last time I showed an office full of amazing stuff like this, it was Peter Dodson’s. It will come as no surprise that Jessie was Peter’s student at UPenn before she went to Berkeley for her PhD.

The far case holds mostly books and skulls. Dr. A has her own plastination setup for making preserved organs and organisms, and the snake on the second shelf here is one that she prepped herself. One side of the snake still has the skin on, the other half has been skinned to show the muscles. This is crunch week for me so I don’t have time to ID all of the stuff, but alert readers should have no problem spotting some digitally-resurrected Haplocanthosaurus bits.

Mostly skulls on the middle rack. The sirenian skull on the second shelf and the cave bear on the fourth are both casts, but almost everything else is real bone. The bighorn sheep on the middle shelf is a natural mummy.

Here’s a close-up of the top shelf. Other than some 3D-printed human skull bones sitting in front of the brain slice on the left, everything here is real bone, including the lion, baboon, and human skulls, and the giraffe cervicals winding across the top. Jessie’s been collecting since she was a kid and the African megafauna are gifts from a globe-trotting family friend.

The upper shelves here have quite a few of Jessie’s plastinated specimens, both whole organisms and things like hearts and kidneys from various critters.

A close-up of some of Jessie’s coolest anatomical preparations. In back is an internal cast of the lungs and bronchial tree of a cat. The baby rattlesnake died after eating a proportionally gigantic lizard — I was dumb and forgot to flip the snake over to show the lizard inside, plastinated along with its predator. The ground squirrel on the right is another half-fleshed, half-skinned plastinate, and the mouse up front is a classic dissection presentation, preserved forever through plastination.

I’ve heard it said that the difference between a collector and a hoarder is curation. As someone who definitely lurks more on the hoarder end of that spectrum (to paraphrase Dave Barry, if you could see my office you’d be blinded or driven insane), I’m pretty darned jealous of both the breadth of Jessie’s collection, and the skill and taste with which it is displayed. She’s featured some of these specimens on her Instagram, which I strongly recommend.

This is a Galeamopus, roughly two feet long, sculpted by James Herrmann (who also made the life-size Aquilops sculpture and bust) for the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Here’s what it looks like on the other side.

From behind.

And from the front.

I dig this. I’m sure someone else must have done this half-skeletal reconstruction, half-fleshed life restoration style of sculpture before, but I can’t think of any museum-quality examples. The bronze is a nice touch.

Here’s a convincingly chunky Allosaurus.

About the sculpting process, James wrote (in an email with permission to cite):

I worked on all of the museum pieces with Glenn Storrs, Ph.D., vertebrate paleontologist with the Cincinnati Museum Center. He would tell me what he envisioned and provide me with reference material, I would sculpt it, take the clay to Glenn for his critique, take it back and make revisions. We went through several cycles of this for each piece and when I received the final approval I took each piece to the foundry.

Tyrannosaurs are to museums what roller-coasters are to amusement parks. Here’s Daspletosaurus.

My favorite thing about these sculptures is why they’re done in bronze. It’s not just for posterity. James again:

The idea was to provide a small sculpture of each skeletal reconstruction on display for people to touch and feel. It was felt that this element of touch would be particularly important to accommodate the needs of the visually impaired museum visitor. I will feel like I have achieved success when the patina is rubbed off parts of the bronze.

One more, a life-size bust of Galeamopus.

In addition to having these on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center, James will be producing these sculptures as limited editions. If you’re interested, please visit http://www.herrmannstudio.com/.

Here’s a bit of light relief, in the middle of all those looong posts about Supersaurus and its buddies. When Matt and I were at NAMAL on the last day of the 2016 Sauropocalypse, we took a bunch of tourist shots. Two of them were of a skull and first three cervical vertebrae from what I take to be Diplodocus or something close, and happened to be from sufficiently close angles that they make a pretty good anaglyph. Here it is!

(If you don’t have the 3D glasses that you need to see this, get some. Seriously, how many times do I have to tell you?)

If anyone out there is familiar with NAMAL (on indeed with diplodocid skulls) and can confirm or contradict my identification, I’d appreciate it. Best of all would be a photo of the signage associated with this specimen, such as I should have taken.

By the way, if you’re not used to the ways of sauropods, you might be thinking “Mike, you dummy, there are only two vertebrae there”. But in saropods, the atlas (1st cervical) is a tiny, inconsequential element that frequently fuses to the axis (2nd cervical). So what looks like the first cervical here is really 1+2. If you look closely, you can see the blades of the atlas projecting backwards and upwards, across the surface of the axis.

Derrrrr

March 13, 2019

Separated at birth.

Left: Apatosaurus lousiae holotype CM 2018, cast skull associated with specimen. Right: Matt Wedel. Scientists have long wondered how such a bloated beast could etc. etc.

DarrenĀ covered this briefly on the Scientific American version of Tetrapod Zoology, but the photos seem to have gone down and who knows how much longer any of that stuff will be up. Plus, he had other things to discuss, so the story has never been told in its entirety. This happened back in April, 2014. Here’s the full writeup I sent to Darren and Mike about it back when:

This happened Sunday afternoon and I thought you’d be interested. London and I let our box turtle, Easty (Terrapene carolina triunguis), crawl around the front yard on sunny days — with supervision, of course. She loves to dig around the edge of the sidewalk and flower bed and eat wood lice, worms, and whatever else comes her way. Sunday we saw her biting this biggish thing that from a distance looked like crumpled up paper. She was really going at it, so I got close to see what she was munching on. It was the head of a rat that our cat, Moe, had killed last week. Easty was snapping off bits of the braincase and eating them.

I had read of turtles scavenging carcasses for minerals but this was the first time I had observed it myself. She kept at it for about 20 minutes, until all of the thin, easily broken parts of the braincase were gone. She didn’t attempt to eat any of the facial skeleton or basicranium. Once she was done, she was done — I tossed the skull in front of her a couple of times and she would stop to smell it, but then walk past it, or even over it on one occasion.

So, there you have it, turtle eats part of rat skull. In keeping with my resolution to blog more about turtles, I’ll try to get some video of Easty feeding later this year. Right now she’s hibernating in a plastic tub on the bottom shelf of our refrigerator, so the hot turtle-feeding action will have to wait. Watch this space!

P.S. The gray ring on Easty’s shell in these photos is a sort of bathtub ring, from soaking in her water dish with just the top of her shell exposed, which she does for about six hours a day when she’s not hibernating. For pictures of Easty with a cleaner shell, please see the previous post. She really is a beautiful turtle.