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.

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Last week I went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the twice-yearly meet-up with my Index Data colleagues. On the last day, four of us took a day-trip out to Peggy’s Cove to eat lunch at Ryer Lobsters.

We stopped off at the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse on the way, and spotted a vertebrate, which I am pleased to present:

mike-with-whale

It’s a whale skull, but I have no idea what kind. Can anyone help out?

So much for vertebrates — it was really all about the inverts. Here are six of them:

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I have a 2lb lobster here; my colleague Jakub went for two 1lb lobsters, as did Jason and Wolfram (not pictured). That’s Wolfram’s lobster closest to the camera, giving a better impression of just what awesome beasts these were.

Peggy’s Cove: recommended. For vertebrates and inverts.

(Thanks to Wolfram Schneider for these photos.)

 

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.)

google-search-for-nhm

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.

diplodocus_nocopyright

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.

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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:

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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.

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(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.

Although it would be nice to think that our site views have octupled in the last day because of Mike’s fine and funny posts about what search terms bring people to SV-POW!, the real reason is that we were blessed by incoming links from both pages of this Cracked.com article.

Now, as any person who has ever accomplished anything whatsoever knows, it is super-important to avoid Cracked.com or you’ll still be up 23 hours from now reading, “6 Mind-Blowing Ways that Comedy Writers are Secretly Destroying Your Productivity”. (I’m kidding, that article doesn’t really exist–but if it did, I’m sure it would consist entirely of descriptions and links to six other Cracked articles). But that’s only true because most of the articles there hit the sweet spot at the intersection of funny, surprisingly informative, mercifully short, and well-written. Crack.com would be a more honest URL, but I assume it was taken.

Anyway, I’d like to return the favor, so here’s a list of the 6 SV-POW! Posts Most Likely to Blow the Minds of Cracked.com Readers. If I missed some goodies or recommended some stinkers, let me know–the comment thread is open.

Amphicoelias vert reconstruction by Mike

1.How big was Amphicoelias fragillimus? I mean, really?

Who doesn’t want to read about the bizarre real-world mystery surrounding what might have been the world’s largest dinosaur? If you’re not sold, consider that the picture above shows a single vertebra that was–or at least might have been–seven and a half feet tall.

long nerves of sauropods

2. Oblivious sauropods being eaten

The mercifully short version of this much longer post, in which I consider the consequences of the world’s largest animals having the world’s longest cells.

krayt-cervicals

3. The sauropods of Star Wars

Weapons-grade anatomical pedantry.

Umbaran starfighters

4. CONFIRMED: the Umbaran Starfighter is an Apatosaurus cervical

Yes, there is a ship in Star Wars: The Clone Wars that is basically a flying dinosaur vertebra. It took us about five weeks to unravel that story–the post linked above has links to the rest of the saga.

blue-whale-and-brachiosaurus

5. SV-POW! showdown: sauropods vs whales

Our original linkbait post. Don’t miss the shorter follow-up with more critters.

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

Is that your flexor tubercle, Saurophaganax, or are you just hungry to see me?

6. Friday phalanges: Megaraptor vs Saurophaganax

A deliberately goofy post in which I wax poetic about the largest predatory dinosaur claws ever discovered.

So, that was a big pile of superlatives and Star Wars. If you’re hungry for more substantial fare, you might start with our Tutorials page or our Things to Make and Do series on dissecting and skeletonizing modern animals. We also blog a lot about the evils of obstructive publishers and the need for open access to the scientific literature–you can find those posts on our Shiny Digital Future page.

flaming-vagabond-in-firefly-niska-station

A parting shot in my desperate quest for attention: this Star Wars ship flying around in the background in Firefly and Serenity is at least partly my fault–full story here. Oh, and my co-blogger Mike Taylor has written an insightful and affordable book about Doctor Who; read about it here.

Comparison of mammalian dental patterns showing the differences in regionalization of tooth morphology. (A) Mus musculus (B) Sus scrofa (picture is of an immature pig with an unerupted M3) and (C) Stenella attenuata. Figure 1 from Armfield et al. 2013.

Comparison of mammalian dental patterns showing the differences in regionalization of tooth morphology. (A) Mus musculus (B) Sus scrofa (picture is of an immature pig with an unerupted M3) and (C) Stenella attenuata. Figure 1 from Armfield et al. 2013.

Hi folks, Matt here. This is a ridiculously busy week for me, for reasons that will become clear by the end of the post, so I’m bundling some news items.

First, my dissertation–which has been freely available online since 2007 anyway–is now on arXiv (link). Just in case the meteor takes out both me and WordPress but leaves arXiv unscathed, or possibly some outlet will let you cite arXived works but not “unpublished” ones. It was fast, easy, and free, and you should do the same with your (completed!) thesis or dissertation. Matt Cobley just posted his MS thesis, “The flexibility and musculature of the ostrich neck: Implications for the feeding ecology and reconstruction of the Sauropoda (Dinosauria:Saurischia)“, which is very timely and important work, and which you should go read right now. Mike and I cited both Matt’s thesis and my own diss. in our recent PeerJ paper, and the bibliographic entry for my diss. includes a link to the copy posted on my CV page, but arXiv links would have been simpler, faster, and probably more stable over the long run. Oddly enough, in the first proof the citation of my dissertation was removed, presumably by an automated process, since (a) PeerJ does allow citations of theses and dissertations–we checked, and (b) we suspected that already, because our citation of Matt Cobley’s work survived unscathed. Anyway, we just wrote back and asked them to add it back in, and they did–which has consistently been our experience as PeerJ members, and indeed as human beings: it’s often a pleasant surprise how much you can get just by asking nicely.

Speaking of PeerJ, the second batch of articles arrived today, 10 this time, including one on the evolution of whale teeth (see image at top). And, as I threatened to do last week, I used PeerJ in the classroom today, in talking with the MS students about how peer review works. Not only did it feel fantastic to be able to point the students to a whole bunch of published examples of peer review “in the wild”, but I got some good questions and comments after class. I don’t pretend to be nonpartisan about PeerJ. I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. But frankly it didn’t take much selling. The interface is so intuitive and puts so much info at your fingertips that it feels very un-journal-like. What it feels like, in fact, is the first outlet (I almost said “journal”–how 2012 of me!) designed from the ground up to take full advantage of the web (feel free to quibble, PLOS fans, but I’m standing by that), and the students get that right away.

Finally, I’m giving a couple of talks here on campus later this week, and if you’re in the area and not already bored to tears by my yammering on about inflated dinosaurs, you should come by. First up, Thursday at 5:30 at WesternU’s Pumerantz Library is my family-friendly, “Flip-top heads, air-filled bones, and teenage pregnancy: how the largest dinosaurs got so big”. Then on Friday in Compatriots’ Hall in the Health Sciences Center (HSC–southwest corner of Palomares and 2nd St. in Pomona) is my more-technical-but-hopefully-not-forbiddingly-so college seminar talk, “Pneumatic bones and giant dinosaurs: an update on 5 more years of research”, or as I call it, “Thanks for giving me a job in 2008, here’s how I’ve been earning my keep”.

That’s all for now–gotta go polish those talks!

UPDATE a few hours later:

How to get to my talks, if you’re not familiar with the WU campus. Red arrows show you on what sides of these giant square buildings to find the entrances. For the library  talk, walk through the front doors and BAM! you’re there. For Friday’s talk, go left around the staircase and into the nice conference room just past the atrium. Be warned, almost all the lots you can see in the satellite view require university permits during business hours, and street parking may be hard to scare up on Friday.

WU campus satellite

Check this baby out:

I know, I know what you’re thinking. “Enough with the vulgar overexposed skull of this beast, Taylor”, you cry: “Show us its zygapophyses!”

But of course.

This is from the anterior part of the tail, in right lateral view: the vertebrae that you see here are the third to seventh of those that carry chevrons.

The hot news here is of course that sperm whales go to all the bother of developing zygapophyses, right up at the top of their neural arches, down in a region of the body where they don’t come close to articulating and are of no conceivable use.

Anyone know why? Care to hazard a guess?

For previous adventures in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, see here (monotremes) and here (bird eggs).