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Archive for the ‘Museums are Cool’ Category

If you’re in London, you still have almost one week left to hurry to the Valence House in Dagenham and see a great exhibit on Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs and other cool “Dynamation” stop-motion models and art!

This blog post is a photo tour of what I saw, in case you cannot go.

Like it? Click it. Bigger pic.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10 nice stop-motion animation models. Medusa won’t hurt you here.

I loooooooooooove Ray Harryhausen’s work, ever since I was a child and saw “Jason and the Argonauts” and many other films, plus “Clash of the Titans” once it came into theatres. There is the attention to detail in anatomy and locomotion, and the wondrous fantastic nature of even the more mundane creatures he animated, and the rich mythology that he drew from to inspire his creations. Modern CGI is great in a different way, but nothing I can think of in recent special effects truly beats (1) the skeleton battle in ‘Jason, and (2) the Medusa encounter in ‘Clash (to name what might be my top two faves). And so when I learned that several of the original (restored) models from those films were on exhibit in northeastern London, I requested to go there with my family for Fathers Day. Results:

Boom! Ole’ stony-gazed, snaky-haired gorgon of yore.

No deadly bow here, but the rattlesnake tail is.

Medusa concept art by Harryhausen; the “bra” was there for American censors but Ray thought it looked wrong and removed it in the final version.

Look out, Jason! Here come the Children of the Hydra! Yep, original (restored) articulated models. Joints are visible. They look ready to kick some Iolcusian butt!

Context of the exhibit- local chap befriended Harryhausen and convinced him to let him restore his models; and so here we are. On with the dinosaurs! (and other palaeo-things)

Gwangi model made in resin; non-poseable but made around time of the “Valley of Gwangi” film to help design the poseable models.

Gwangi climactic scene in church; concept art by Harryhausen.

Other ‘Gwangi characters: “Eohippus” (Hyracotherium), Ornithomimus and boy.

Cowboy lassoing an Ornithomimus as per the movie scene in ‘Gwangi? Yes please. (Harryhausen original)  Jurassic Park had its T. rex lurching out of a forest to grab a Struthiomimus, intentionally mirroring the scene in ‘Gwangi where the titular AllosaurusTyrannosaurus hybrid chomps the Ornithomimus.

Poseable “Eohippus” original- with real fur! Great Dynamation too; very lifelike in the film.

Original Harryhausen concept art of the “Eohippus” show demo.

Suddenly, Ceratosaurus! (from “One Million Years BC”)

Styracosaurus original resin model. (from “One Million Years BC”)

Old school Polacanthus art by Alan Friswell. SPIKEY!

Old school Iguanodon art by Alan Friswell. MUSCLEY!

Panoply of archosaurs by Alan Friswell: pterodactyl, Tenontosaurus (made for the Frame Store special effects company in 2001) and tyrannosaur head (made at age 9).

Pterodactyl made at age 12, so don’t laugh.

Back to the fantastic beasts– original poseable hydra from ‘Jason!

Original Pegasus from ‘Clash! What a seamless blend of fur and feathers.

Original R2, I mean Bubo, from ‘Clash!

I forget the scene (the 1-eyed fates in ‘Clash?) but I like it. Original Harryhausen concept art.

Lunar leader from “First Men in the Moon.” (original)

Non-original (but based thereon) model by Alan Friswell, of nautiloid thingy from “Mysterious Island”.

Fiji mermaid by Alan Friswell.

“Hand of Glory” by Alan Friswell.

Pithecanthropus by Alan Friswell. Very Harryhausen in spirit.

Oddly, but somehow appropriately, there are ?350 year old whale bones on display in the hall next door, with a mysterious history.

WW2 bomb shelter in a “Victory Garden” outside the House. And the house is supposedly haunted. So take care when you visit…

What can I say? I loved it! Almost a religious experience; like seeing holy relics. Awesome in every sense of awesome.

Downside: you cannot grab the precious Dynamation models and play with them hands-on. I wanted to enact a furious Hydra-Gwangi battle. But alas, only in my imagination…

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One of my favourite museums in the world, and certainly one of the best natural history museums in the UK, is Cambridge’s Museum of Zoology, AKA “University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge” (UMZC). It is now nearing a lengthy completion of renovations; the old museum exhibits and collections were excellent but needed some big changes along with the re-fabbed “David Attenborough Building” that houses them. As a longtime fan of the exhibits and user of the collection (and microCT scanner), I hurried to see the new museum once it officially opened.

And that makes a great excuse to present a photo-shoot from my visit. This focuses on the “mammal floor” below the entrance- the upper floor(s?) are still being completed and will have the birds, non-avian tetrapods, fish, etc. But the UMZC is strong in mammals and so it is natural for them to feature them in this chock-full-o-specimens display. Less talk, more images. Here we go!

All images can be clicked to mu-zoom in on them.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10; bones and taxidermy and innocuous jars.

The building. The whale skeleton that hung outside for years is now cleaned up and housed right inside; you walk under it as you enter.

Entrance.

First view past the entryway: lots of cool specimens.

View from the walkway down into the ground/basement level from the entry. As specimens-per-unit-volume goes, the UMZC still scores highly and that is GOOD!

Explanation of frog dissection image below.

Gorgeous old frog dissection illustration; such care taken here.

Leeuwenhoek’s flea woodcut; I think from Arcana Naturae Detecta (1695). There is an impressive display of classic natural history books near the entryway.

Dürer/other rhino art image and info.

Darwin was famed for collecting beetles when he should have been studying theology at Cambridge as a youth, and here is some of his collection. Dang.

Darwin’s finches!

Darwin kicked off some of his meticulous work with volumes on barnacles; specimens included here; which helped fuel insights into evolution (e.g. they are “retrograde” crustaceans, not mollusks).

Darwin’s voyage: fish & other preserved specimens.

I think this is a solitaire weka (flightless island bird; see Comment below). I’ve never seen them displayed w/skeleton + taxidermy; it’s effective here.

Eryops cast. More early tetrapods will surely be featured on the upper floor; this one was on the timeline-of-life-on-Earth display.

I LOVE dioramas and this seabird nesting ground display is very evocative, especially now that I’ve visited quite a few such islands.

Mammal introduction; phylogenetic context.

Monotreme glory.

UMZC is well endowed with thylacines and this one is lovely.

“TAZ FEEL NAKED!”

Narwhal above!

Rhinocerotoidea past, present, and fading glory. 😦

Ceratotherium white rhino. The horn is not real; sadly museums (and even zoos) across the world have to worry about theft of such things, given that some people think these horns are magic.

Ceratotherium staring match. You lose.

Ceratotherium stance.

Foot of a Sumatran rhino juxtaposed with a horse’s for Perissodactyla didaction.

A tapir. As a kid, I used to wander around the house pretending to be a tapir but I did not know what noise they’d make so I’d say “tape tape tape!”.

Big Southern Elephant Seal.

Squat little fur seal.

Hippopotamus for the lot of us. (baby included)

Hippo facedown.

Skull of a dwarf Madagascar hippo.

Cave bear and sabretooth cat make an impressive Ice Age demo.

It’s a wombat.

Ain’t no don like a Diprotodon! (also note its modern miniature cousin the wombat, below)

Diprotodon facial.

Diprotodon shoulder: big clavicles bracing that joint region.

Diprotodon knee: even in big marsupials, the “parafibula”/lateral sesamoid of the knee is still generally present. And why it is there/what it does deserves much more study.

Diprotodon hip. I just find this animal’s anatomy fascinating head-to-tail.

Diprotodon front foot. Absolutely freakish.

Diprotodon hind foot. Even weirder.

Your view after having been trampled in a supine position by a Diprotodon. Not a good way to go.

Diprotodon got back.

Elephant seal’s butt continues my series of photos of big animals’ bottoms.

Asian elephant’s butt view.

African elephant butt.

Sectioned elephant skull to show pneumatic resonating chambers.

Paenungulates: hyraxes, Sirenia, elephants & kin (evolutionary demo).

AND MY HYRAX!
Sorry. Had to.

Megatherium side view.

Megatherium. Yeah!

Megatherium hindlegs fascinate me. Well-heeled.

Tamandua duo.

Silky anteater; wonderful.

Armadillos.

Anteaters round out a fab display on Xenarthra.

The UMZC has everything from aardvarks to zebus. Here, conceptualized with other Afrotheria.

Golden moles: the more I read about them, the more they fascinate me.

We can all use some more solenodons in our lives!

Example of the phylogenetic context used throughout exhibits.

If you’ve got a good Okapi taxidermy, you’d better use it.

It’s a giraffe. Did you guess right?

Gerenuk showing off its bipedal capacity.

Warthogs have an inner beauty.

Pangolin. Glad to see it back on exhibit.

Nice little brown bear.

Double-barrelled shot of hyenas.

Colugo!

Nice to see some Scandentia featured.

My brain says this is a springhare (Pedetes) so I am going with what my brain says and anyway I really like this display.

When I saw this I thought, “That’s a nice… rodent thingy.” And so “rodent thing” it shall be labelled here. Enjoy the rodent thingy. Some serious taxidermy-fu in action.

Moonrats– now there’s something you seldom see a full display of. Well done!

That’s part I of this sneak peek at the evolving exhibits- I will put up a part II once the upper floor exhibits open. I highly encourage a visit!

For Mike: gimlet

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Back in November 2016 I got an exciting email from colleague Dr. Richard Thomas, who was building a team of experts for a proposed documentary on Jumbo the elephant; the famed proboscidean of the Victorian era (and arguably most famous elephant of all time, first international celebrity animal, etc.). I knew him from social media and from our mutual interests in chicken anatomy and evolution. And that exciting email, for once, worked out! Over coming months I chatted with the film producers and they could see a place for me in the programme, contributing my expertise in elephant (postcranial) anatomy, locomotion, health/welfare etc. Lo and behold, in May 2017 I met Sir David Attenborough at Heathrow and we flew out to New York City to film with the skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History. And to cap it off, I got to meet another childhood science communication hero: Professor David Suzuki of CBC’s “The Nature of Things“– my adrenaline levels were sky high!

Brooklyn neighborhood by our hotel. Lots to do!

The show has aired in the UK and is coming very soon to Canada and the world (details below). Here’s my part of the story.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10– bad bones but no blood.

We filmed from 15-19 May 2017 at the AMNH’s warehouse of mammalian skeletal remains, which is housed deep in the Brooklyn Army Terminal; a picturesque site in and of itself. And it is a site with a lot of history— WWI and II, Elvis and more.

It was a hectic week of the usual documentary stuff: repeat the same lines and motions again and again from different angles and with different paces and intonations (I cannot help in these cases but think about the Simpsons “Fallout Boy” episode), from ~9am-5pm, with plenty of downtime watching setup or other bits being filmed. I’m used to all that. But having the time to peer around the collection and chat to Richard and colleague Dr. Holly Miller (handling the tissue isotopes side of the story) about Jumbo’s skeleton was a lot of fun during downtime and filming itself. Not to mention the utter joy of studying one of the most famous museum specimens ever, and an animal widely held to be one of the largest of its kind, with much mystery surrounding its history despite its fame. (Wikipedia does a fair job of summarizing some of this)

Here are some photos to tell the story:

Photo of the team, courtesy of Infield Fly Productions (CBC production, “Jumbo: The Life of An Elephant Superstar”.

The Brooklyn Army Terminal, with a view of the harbour beyond.

Inside the terminal: old army staging area and an evocative wooden Liberty/tank artwork.

Army terminal cat. Shipping still comes through the terminal so I guess there are plenty of rats and handouts from cat-lovers to keep it going. I miss our cats when I travel so this moment was appreciated.

Whale skulls and other specimens inside the AMNH warehouse.

First view of Jumbo’s remains.

Photo opp with Sir David.

Photo opp with Prof Suzuki.

That’s the setup. I’ve done ~15 other documentary episodes/shows but this was like nothing else– simply an awesome experience.

Now the delivery: we set to studying those bones. We’d seen photos before, and Henry Fairfield Osborn had illustrated the specimen as his type of “Elephas africanus rothschildi” (Sudanese elephant; no longer valid but those were different times– it’s now just a nicely preserved Loxodonta africana africana), so we knew some of what to expect.

Looking at Osborn’s classic monograph. Oddly he didn’t address the GLARING MASSIVE PROBLEMS WITH THE TEETH!

Skull with terrible tooth pathologies– and let’s play spot Mumbo, my daughter’s toy elephant! He might even appear in some TV footage!

We had noted some serious issues with some bones (pathologies). I won’t spoil the message here but will show some images. I know some experts have voiced issues with how the tooth pathologies/growth were explained in some footage but I can’t address that here; it’s not my expertise. The important point to me is that the teeth are incredibly messed up and that can easily be linked to bad diet and other management/health issues, as the documentary explains.

Jumbo’s torso in left side view. Glorious preservation.

Right forelimb, showing that the “growth plates” (epiphyses”) were not all fused, consistent with Jumbo still growing– as expected for an African male elephant in his 20’s.

Right elbow with some pathologies consistent with degenerative joint disease.

Surprisingly, Jumbo’s feet were not in nasty condition in terms of pathologies. I’d expected to see that. They’d been painted and drilled for mounting, but were not riddled with arthritic changes that I could see.

Strange bony plaque on the left pelvis (hip) region; something I’d never seen before in any elephant (and I’ve seen many). Why? The programme offers a reasonable explanation.

Jumbo’s right hip, with bad erosion of the bone and thus presumably the overlying cartilage. Ouch!

Strange extra prong on one right rib in Jumbo- we didn’t figure that out. It could conceivably be natural variation.

So, poor Jumbo suffered some jumbo-sized problems, and in complex ways. That’s just scratching the surface of what his skeleton tells us, and there’s plenty more in the show plus plenty more we can say later– there’s real science that came out of this programme! I was surprised to find how little had been stated anywhere in the scientific literature about Jumbo’s pathologies.

Sad as Jumbo’s skeletal story is, the broader story of his life and death is sadder still. For purposes of time I don’t think any of the three versions of the show will get to delve into how Jumbo’s mother may have been slashed to death by a broadsword, as the story below describes was the ancient practice:

I’d hate to be “so pestered by a popinjay”, too.

Adding insult to injury, we can reflect on how Jumbo was taken from the Sudan to the east (across the Suez), then on boat to Italy and then overground to Paris, where he lived for a little while until the zoological garden sold him to London. Luckily Jumbo avoided becoming a meal to starving Parisians during the Prussian siege of 1870-1. So he did not become elephant consommé like some of his co-captives did. The more one learns about Jumbo’s life and the life of elephants in captivity in the 1800s, the more harrowing the tale becomes.

Jumbo is THE celebrity elephant. His name has come to mean ‘big’ and ‘bombastic’, from applications to jumbo jets to hot dogs and other (darkly ironic) forms of consumption and extravagance. He has had a jumbo effect on Western culture, but also symbolizes the complex human-elephant relationship, such as the inspiration for “Dumbo’s” own sad story. We love elephants but our fascination with them can also be their undoing, such as poaching for the ivory trade or mistreatment in captivity. Jumbo’s story writ large is also the story of elephants, and our story to learn from. If anything comes out of my participation in the Jumbo documentary for the public’s benefit, I hope it is increased empathy for how we interact with elephants. They are like us in many ways (maybe over-emphasized with anthropomorphism in many accounts), but also unlike us (maybe even unfathomable) in not only their size and anatomy but also in aspects of their prodigious intellect, emotions and social structure. Elephants aren’t just jumbo spectacles. They are jumbo responsibilities for humans now that we dominate the planet so much.

Want to catch a version of the Jumbo show? I’ll try to keep this list up to date:

BBC iplayer now: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09jcxrj/attenborough-and-the-giant-elephant

BBC One: 5:05pm on January 31st

CBC: 8pm on January 7th– trailer is here:

http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1115035715562

And the international version is coming soon, plus the above versions surely will circulate globally in some ways.

Have a jumbo time (in a good way) in the rest of 2017 and onwards into 2018!

-John

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It has been almost three months since my last post here, and things have fallen quiet on our sister blog Anatomy to You, too. I thought it was time for an update, which is mostly a summary of stuff we’ve been doing on my team, but also featuring some interesting images if you stick around. The relative silence here has partly been due to me giving myself some nice holiday time w/family in L.A., then having surgery to fix my right shoulder, then recovering from that and some complications (still underway, but the fact that I am doing this post is itself evidence of recovery).

Stomach-Churning Rating: 4/10; semi-gruesome x-rays of me and hippo bits at the end, but just bones really.

X-ray of my right shoulder from frontal view, unlabelled

X-ray of my right shoulder from frontal view, unlabelled

Labelled x-ray

Labelled x-ray

So my priorities shifted to those things and to what work priorities most badly needed my limited energy and time. I’ve also felt that, especially since my health has had its two-year rough patch, this blog has been quieter and less interactive than it used to be, but that is the nature of things and maybe part of a broader trend in blogs, too. My creative juices in terms of social media just haven’t been at their ~2011-2014 levels but much is out of my control, and I am hopeful that time will reverse that trend. Enough about all this. I want to talk about science for the rest of this post.

My team, and collaborators as well, have published six recent studies that are very relevant to this blog’s theme- how about we run through them quickly? OK then.

  1. Panagiotopoulou, O., Pataky, T.C., Day, M., Hensman, M.C., Hensman, S., Hutchinson, J.R., Clemente, C.J. 2016. Foot pressure distributions during walking in African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Royal Society Open Science 3: 160203.

Our Australian collaborators got five African elephants together in Limpopo, South Africa and walked them over pressure-measuring mats, mimicking our 2012 study of Asian elephants. While sample sizes were too limited to say much statistically, in qualitatively descriptive terms we didn’t find striking differences between the two species’ foot pressure patterns. I particularly like how the centre of pressure of each foot (i.e. abstracting all regional pressures down to one mean point over time) followed essentially the same pattern in our African and Asian elephants, with a variable heelstrike concentration that then moved forward throughout the step, and finally moved toward the outer (3rd-5th; especially 3rd) toes as the foot pushed off the ground, as below.

African elephant foot COP traces vs. time in red; Asian elephant in orange. Left and right forefeet above; hindfeet below.

African elephant foot COP traces vs. time in red; Asian elephant in orange-yellow. Left and right forefeet above; hindfeet below.

Gradually, this work is moving the field toward better ability to use similar techniques to compare elephant foot mechanics among species, individuals, or over time– especially with the potential of using this method (popular in human clinical gait labs) to monitor foot (and broader musculoskeletal) health in elephants. I am hopeful that a difference can be made, and the basic science we’ve done to date will be a foundation for that.

  1. Panagiotopoulou, O., Rankin, J.W., Gatesy, S.M., Hutchinson, J.R. 2016. A preliminary case study of the effect of shoe-wearing on the biomechanics of a horse’s foot. PeerJ 4: e2164.

Finally, about six years after we collected some very challenging experimental data in our lab, we’ve published our first study on them. It’s a methodological study of one horse, not something one can hang any hats on statistically, but we threw the “kitchen sink” of biomechanics at that horse (harmlessly!) by combining standard in vivo forceplate analysis with “XROMM” (scientific rotoscopy with biplanar fluoroscopy or “x-ray video”) to conduct dynamic analysis of forefoot joint motions and forces (with and without horseshoes on the horse), and then to use these data as input values for finite element analysis (FEA) of estimated skeletal stresses and strains. This method sets the stage for some even more ambitious comparative studies that we’re finishing up now. And it is not in short supply of cool biomechanical, anatomical images so here ya go:

fig5-vonmises

Above: The toe bones (phalanges) of our horse’s forefoot in dorsal (cranial/front) view, from our FEA results, with hot colours showing higher relative stresses- in this case, hinting (but not demonstrating statistically) that wearing horseshoes might increase stresses in some regions on the feet. But more convincingly, showing that we have a scientific workflow set up to do these kinds of biomechanical calculations from experiments to computer models and simulations, which was not trivial.

And a cool XROMM video of our horse’s foot motions:

  1. Bates, K.T., Mannion, P.D., Falkingham, P.L., Brusatte, S.L., Hutchinson, J.R., Otero, A., Sellers, W.I., Sullivan, C., Stevens, K.A., Allen, V. 2016. Temporal and phylogenetic evolution of the sauropod dinosaur body plan. Royal Society Open Science 3: 150636.

I had the good fortune of joining a big international team of sauropod experts to look at how the shapes and sizes of body segments in sauropods evolved and how those influenced the position of the body’s centre of mass, similar to what we did earlier with theropod dinosaurs. My role was minor but I enjoyed the study (despite a rough ride with some early reviews) and the final product is one cool paper in my opinion. Here’s an example:

fig6a-bates-sauropod-com-evol

The (embiggenable-by-clicking) plot shows that early dinosaurs shifted their centre of mass (COM) backwards (maybe related to becoming bipedal?) and then sauropods shifted the COM forwards again (i.e. toward their forelimbs and heads) throughout much of their evolution. This was related to quadrupedalism and giant size as well as to evolving a longer neck; which makes sense (and I’m glad the data broadly supported it). But it is also a reminder that not all sauropods moved in the same ways- the change of COM would have required changes in how they moved. There was also plenty of methodological nuance here to cover all the uncertainties but for that, see the 17 page paper and 86 pages of supplementary material…

  1. Randau, M., Goswami, A., Hutchinson, J.R., Cuff, A.R., Pierce, S.E. 2016. Cryptic complexity in felid vertebral evolution: shape differentiation and allometry of the axial skeleton. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 178:183-202.

Back in 2011, Stephanie Pierce, Jenny Clack and I tried some simple linear morphometrics (shape analysis) to see how pinniped (seal, walrus, etc) mammals changed their vertebral morphology with size and regionally across their backbones. Now in this new study, with “Team Cat” assembled, PhD student Marcela Randau collected her own big dataset for felid (cat) backbones and applied some even fancier techniques to see how cat spines change their shape and size. We found that overall the vertebrae tended to get relatively more robust in larger cats, helping to resist gravity and other forces, and that cats with different ecologies across the arboreal-to-terrestrial spectrum also changed their (lumbar) vertebral shape differently. Now Marcela’s work is diving even deeper into these issues; stay tuned…

fig2-randau-measurements

Example measurements taken on felid vertebrae, from the neck (A-F) to the lumbar region (G-J), using a cheetah skeleton.

  1. Charles, J.P., Cappellari, O., Spence, A.J., Hutchinson, J.R., Wells, D.J. 2016. Musculoskeletal geometry, muscle architecture and functional specialisations of the mouse hindlimb. PLOS One 11(4): e0147669.

RVC PhD student James Charles measured the heck out of some normal mice, dissecting their hindlimb muscle anatomy, and using microCT scans produced some gorgeous images of that anatomy too. In the process, he also quantified how each muscle is differently specialized for the ability to produce large forces, rapid contractions or fine control. Those data were essential for the next study, where we got more computational!

mouse-mimics

  1. Charles, J.P., Cappellari, O., Spence, A.J., Wells, D.J., Hutchinson, J.R. 2016. Muscle moment arms and sensitivity analysis of a mouse hindlimb musculoskeletal model. Journal of Anatomy 229:514–535.

James wrangled together a lovely musculoskeletal model of our representative mouse subject’s hindlimb in the SIMM software that my team uses for these kinds of biomechanical analyses. As we normally do as a first step, we used the model to estimate things that are hard to measure directly, such as the leverages (moment arms) of each individual muscle and how those change with limb posture (which can produce variable gearing of muscles around joints). James has his PhD viva (defense) next week so good luck James!

mouse-simm

The horse and mouse papers are exemplars of what my team now does routinely. For about 15 years now, I’ve been building my team toward doing these kinds of fusion of data from anatomy, experimental biomechanics, musculoskeletal and other models, and simulation (i.e. estimating unmeasurable parameters by telling a model to execute a behaviour with a given set of criteria to try to perform well). Big thanks go to collaborator Jeff Rankin for helping us move that along lately. Our ostrich study from earlier this year shows the best example we’ve done yet with this, but there’s plenty more to come.

I am incredibly excited that, now that my team has the tools and expertise built up to do what I’ve long wanted to do, we can finally deliver the goods on the aspirations I had back when I was a postdoc, and which we have put enormous effort into pushing forward since then. In addition to new analyses of horses and mice and other animals, we’ll be trying to push the envelope more with how well we can apply similar methods to extinct animals, which brings new challenges– and evolutionary questions that get me very, very fired up.

Here we are, then; time has brought some changes to my life and work and it will continue to as we pass this juncture. I suspect I’ll look back on 2016 and see it as transformative, but it hasn’t been an easy year either, to say the least. “Draining” is the word that leaps to mind right now—but also “Focused” applies, because I had to try to be that, and sometimes succeeded. I’ve certainly benefited a lot at work from having some talented staff, students and other collaborators cranking out cool papers with me.

I still have time to do other things, too. Once in a while, a cool critter manifests in The Freezers. Check out a hippo foot from a CT scan! It’s not my best scan ever (noisy data) but it shows the anatomy fairly well, and some odd pathologies such as tiny floating lumps of mineralized soft tissue here and there. Lots to puzzle over.

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I have an impression that there is a large disparity between how the public views museums and how scientists who use museums view them. Presumably there are survey data on public attitudes, but surely the common impression is that museums mainly exist to exhibit cool stuff and educate/entertain the public. Yet, furthermore, I bet that many members of the public don’t really understand the nature of museum collections (how and why they are curated and studied) or what those collections even look like. As a researcher who tends to do heavily specimen-oriented and often museum-based research, I thought I’d take the opportunity to describe my experience at one museum collection recently. This visit was fairly representative of what it’s like, as a scientist, to visit a museum with the purpose of using its collection for research, rather than mingling with the public to oggle the exhibits — although I did a little of that at the end of the day…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 4/10; mostly bones except a jar of preserved critters, but also some funky bone pathologies! Darwin hurls once, totally blowing chunks, but only in text.

Early camel is sitting down on the job at the NHMLA.

Early camel is sitting down on the job at the NHMLA.

About two weeks ago, I had the pleasure to spend a fast-paced day in the Ornithology collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA or LACM). I arranged the visit (you have to be a credible researcher to get access; luckily I seemed to be that!) via email, took an Uber car to the museum, and was quickly cut loose in the collection. I was hosted by the Collections Manager Kimball Garrett, who is an avid birder (adept at citizen science, too!) and a longtime LA native.

Amongst museum curators and collections managers (there can be a distinction between the two but here I’ll refer to them all as “curators”), there is a wide array of attitudes toward and practices with museum collections, regarding how the curators balance their varied duties of not only making the museum collection accessible to researchers (via behind-scenes studies) and the public (via exhibits and behind-scenes tours etc.), but also curation (maintaining a record of what they have in their collection, adding to it, and keeping the specimen in good condition), research, admin, teaching and other duties.

Most curators I’ve known, like Kimball, are passionate about all of these things, and very generous with their time to help scientists make the most of the collection during their visit, offering hospitality and cutting through the bureaucracy as much as possible to ensure that the science gets done. There are those few curators that aren’t great hosts because they’ve had a bad day or a bad attitude (e.g. obsession with paperwork and finding obstacles to accessing specimens for research; or just not responding to communication), but they are few and far between in my experience.

Regardless, the curator is the critical human being that keeps the wheels of specimen-based museum research rolling, and I am appreciative of how deeply dedicated and efficient most curators are. Indeed, I enjoy meeting and chatting with them because they tend not only to be fun people but also incredibly knowledgeable about their collection, museum, and area of expertise. Sadly, this trip was so time-constrained that I didn’t get much time at all for socializing. I had about five hours to get work done so I plunged on in!

Images, as always, can be clicked to emu-biggen them. Thanks to the NHMLA for access!

My initial look down the halls of the osteology storage. Rolling cabinets (on the right) are a typical sight.

My initial look down the halls of the osteology storage. Rolling cabinets (on the right) are a typical sight.

Freezers ahoy!

Freezers ahoy! With Batman watching over them.

A jar of bats? Why not? Batman approves.

A jar of bats? Why not? Batman approves.

The curator cleared a space on a table for me to set bones on. Then the anatomizing and photographing began!

The curator cleared a space on a table for me to set bones on. Then the anatomizing and photographing began!

On entering a museum collection, one quickly gets a sense of its “personality” and the culture of the museum itself, which emerges from the curator, the collection’s history, and the museum’s priorities. There are fun human touches like the ones in the photos below, interspersed between the stinking carcasses awaiting skeletonization, the crumbling bone specimens on tables that need repair or new ID tags, or the rows upon rows of coffee cups ready to fuel the staff’s labours.

Yet another reason why Darwin kicks ass.

Yet another reason why Darwin kicks ass. And fine curator-humour!

Ironic bird pic posted on the wall.

Ironic bird pic posted on the wall.

Below a typical wall-hanging of a bovid skull, an atypical display of a clutch of marshmallow peeps. Contest to see whether the mammalian or pseudo-avian specimens last longest?

Below a typical wall-hanging of a bovid skull, an atypical display of a clutch of marshmallow peeps. Contest to see whether the mammalian or pseudo-avian specimens last longest?

The NHMLA’s collection is a world-class one, which I why I chose it as the example for this post. When I entered the collection, I got that staggering sense of awe that I love feeling, to look down the halls of cabinets full of skeletonized specimens of birds and be overwhelmed by the vast scientific resource it represents, and the effort it has taken to create and maintain it. Imagine entering a library in which every book had the librarian’s hand in writing and printing it, and that those books’ contents were largely mysteries to humanity, only some of which you could investigate during your visit. Museum collections exist to fuel generations of scientific inquiry in this way. Their possibilities are endless. And that is why I love visiting them, because every trip is an adventure into the unknown– you do not know what you will find. Like these random encounters I had in the collection’s shelves:

Sectioned moa thigh bones, showing thick walls and spars of trabecular bone criss-crossing the marrow cavities.

Sectioned moa thigh bones, showing thick walls and spars of trabecular bone criss-crossing the marrow cavities.

My gut reaction was that this is a moa wishbone (furcula)- not often seen! It is definitely not a shoulder girdle (scapulocoracoid), which would be larger and more robust, and have a proper shoulder joint. It could, though, be a small odd rib, I suppose.

My gut reaction was that this is a moa wishbone (furcula)- not often seen! It is definitely not a shoulder girdle (scapulocoracoid), which would be larger and more robust, and have a proper shoulder joint. It could, though, be a small odd rib, I suppose. EDIT: Think again, John! See 1st comment below, and follow-ups. I seem to be totally wrong and the ID of scapulocoracoid is right.

A cigar box makes an excellent improvised container for moa toe bones- why not?

A cigar box makes an excellent improvised container for moa toe bones- why not?

Moa feet: all the moa to love!

Moa feet: all the moa to love!

May the skull of the magpie goose (Anseranas semipalmata) haunt your nightmares.

May the skull of the magpie goose (Anseranas semipalmata) haunt your nightmares.

Double-owie: headed shank (tibiotarsus) bone of a magpie goose (Anseranas semipalmata). No mystery why this guy died: vet staff at the zoo tried to fix a major bone fracture, and it had time to heal (frothy bone formation) but presumably succumbed to these injuries/infection.

Healed shank (tibiotarsus) bone of the same magpie goose as above. It had its own nightmares! No mystery why this guy died: vet staff at the zoo tried to fix a major bone fracture (bracing it with tubes and metal spars), and it had time to heal (see the frothy bone formation) but presumably succumbed to these injuries/infection.

Kiwi (Apteryx australis mantelli) hand, showing feather attachments and remnant of finger(s).

Kiwi (Apteryx australis mantelli) hand, showing feather attachments and remnant of finger(s).

Now that I’m in the collection shelves area, it brings me to this trip and my purpose for it! I wanted to look at some “basal birds” for our ongoing patella (kneecap) evolution project, to check which species (or individuals, such as juveniles/adults) have patellae. Every museum visit as a scientist is fundamentally about testing whether what you think you know about nature is correct or not. We’d published on how the patella evolved in birds, but mysteries remain about which species definitely had a patella or how it develops. Museum collections often have the depth and breath of individual variation and taxonomic coverage to be able to address such mysteries, and every museum collection has different strengths that can test those ideas in different, often surprising, ways. So I ventured off to see what the NHMLA would teach me.

Shelves full of boxes, begging to be opened- but unlike Pandora's box, they release joyous science!

Shelves full of boxes, begging to be opened- but unlike Pandora’s box, they release joyous science!

Boxes of kiwis, oh frabjous day! A nice sample size like this for a "rare" (to Northern hemispherites) bird is a pleasure to see.

Boxes of kiwis, oh frabjous day! A nice sample size like this for a “rare” (to Northern hemispherites) bird is a pleasure to see.

Well, in my blitz through this museum collection I didn’t see a single damn patella!

As that kneecap bone is infamously seldom preserved in nice clean museum specimens, this did not surprise me. So I took serendipity by the horns to check some of my ideas about how the limb joints in birds in general develop and evolve. One thing I’ve been educating myself about with my freezer specimens and with museum visits (plus the scientific literature) is how the ends (epiphyses) of the limb bones form in different species of land vertebrates (tetrapods). There are complex patterns linked with evolution, biomechanics and development that still need to be understood.

Left side view of the pelvis of a very mature, HUGE Casuarius casuarius (cassowary). The space between the ilium (upper flat bone) and ischium (elongate bone on middle right side) has begun to be closed by a mineralization of the membrane that spanned those bones in life. A side effect of maturity, most likely. But cool- I've never seen this in a ratite bird before, that I can recall.

Left side view of the pelvis of a very mature, HUGE Casuarius casuarius (cassowary). The space between the ilium (upper flat bone) and ischium (elongate bone on middle right side) has begun to be closed by a mineralization of the membrane that spanned those bones in life. A side effect of maturity, most likely. But cool- I’ve never seen this in a ratite bird before, that I can recall.

Hatchling ostrich thigh bones (femora), showing the un-ossified ends that in life would be occupied by thick cartilage.

Hatchling ostrich thigh bones (femora), showing the pitted, un-ossified ends that in life would be occupied by thick cartilage.

A more adult ostrich's femora, with more ossified ends and thinner cartilages.

A more adult ostrich’s femora, with more ossified ends and thinner cartilages.

Rhea pennata (Darwin's rhea) femora (thigh bones), left (top) one with major pathology on the knee end; overgrown bone. Owie!

Rhea pennata (Darwin’s rhea) femora; right (top) one with a major pathology on the knee end; overgrown bone (osteoarthritis?). Owie!

Also very-unfused knee joints of a Darwin's rhea. Cool Y-shape!

Also very-unfused knee joints of a Darwin’s rhea hatchling. Cool Y-shape!

In birds, most of the bones don’t have anything that truly could be called an epiphysis– the bone ends are capped with thick cartilage that only gradually becomes bone as the birds get older, and even old-ish birds can still have a lot of cartilage (see photos above)– no “secondary centre” (true epiphysis) of bone mineralization ever forms inside that cartilage. However, there are two curious apparent exceptions to this absence of true epiphyses in avian limbs:

(1) in the knee joint, something like an epiphysis forms on the upper end of the tibia (shank bone) and fuses during growth (shown below). Sometimes that unfused epiphysis is confused with a patella, as our recent paper discussed; in any case, where that “epiphysis” came from in avian evolution is unclear. But also:

(2) in the ankle joint, several bones on both sides (shank and foot) of the joint fuse to the long-bones of the limbs, acting like epiphyses. It is well documented by the fossil record of non-avian and avian dinosaurs that these were the tarsals: at least five different bones (astragalus, calcaneum and distal tarsals) were individual bones for millions of years in various dinosaurs, then these all fused to form the “epiphyses” of the shank and foot, eventually completing this gradual fusion within the bird lineage. Modern birds obliterate the boundaries between these five or more bones as they grow.

These are worthwhile questions to pursue because they show us (1) how odd, little-explored features of the avian skeleton came to be; and (2) potentially more generally why limb bones develop the many ways they do in vertebrates, and how they might develop incorrectly — or heal if damaged.

Images below from the NHMLA collections show how this is the case. Fortunately(?) for me, they supported how I thought the “epiphyses” of avian limbs develop/evolved; there were no big surprises. But I still learned neat details about how this happens in individual species or lineages, especially for the knee joint.

Juvenile kiwi's shank (tibiotarsus) bones viewed from the top (proximal) ends, showing the bubbly nubbins of bone (very bottom of each bone image) that are the "cranial tibial epiphyses" often mistaken for patellae.

Juvenile kiwi’s shank (tibiotarsus) bones viewed from the top (proximal) ends, showing the bubbly nubbins of bone (very bottom of each bone image; lighter region) that are the “cranial tibial epiphyses” often mistaken for patellae.

Subadult kiwi's tibiotarsi in same view as above, showing the epiphyses fusing onto the tibiae.

Subadult kiwi’s tibiotarsi in same view as above, showing the smooth triangular epiphyses fusing onto the tibiae.

Adult kiwi's tibiotarsi (sorry, blurry photo) in which all fusion is complete.

Adult kiwi’s tibiotarsi (sorry, blurry photo) in which all fusion is complete.

Looking down at the top/ankle end of the tarsometatarsal (sole) bones in a hatchling ostrich: the three bones are separate and hollow, where "cartilage cones" would have filled them in.

Looking down at the top/ankle end of the tarsometatarsal (sole) bones in a hatchling ostrich: the three bones are separate and hollow, where “cartilage cones” would have filled them in. The left and right bones have different amounts of ossification; not unusual in such a young bird.

Ossified tendons (little spurs of long, thin bone) on the soles of the feet (tarsometatarsal bones) of a brush-turkey (Alectura lathami)- seldom described in this unusual galliform bird or its close relatives, and thus nice to see. These would be parts of the toe-flexor tendons.

Ossified tendons (little spurs of long, thin bone) on the soles of the feet (tarsometatarsal bones) of a brush-turkey (Alectura lathami)- seldom described in this unusual galliform bird or its close relatives, and thus nice to see. These would be parts of the toe-flexor tendons. Another nice thing about these two tarsometatarsus specimens is that their fusion is basically complete- each is one single bone unit, as in normal adult birds, rather than five or more.

My visit to the NHMLA bird bone collection was a lot of fun, because I got to do what I love: opening box after box of bone specimens, with bated breath wondering what would be inside. In this case, familiarity was inside, but my knowledge of avian bone development and evolution still improved. I got to look at a lot of ostriches, rheas, cassowaries and kiwis, more than I’d seen in one museum before, and that broadened my sample of young, juvenile and adult animals that I’d seen for these species. Their knees and ankles all grew in grossly similar ways, supporting this assumption in my prior work and building my confidence in published ideas. It’s always good to check such things. Each box opened takes some careful observation and cross-checking against all the facts and ideas swirling around in your head. You take notes, scale photos, measurements, do comparisons between specimens, and just explore; letting your curiosity run unleashed as you assemble knowledge, Tetris-like, in your mind.

And I had a lot of fun because a museum collection visit is like swimming in anatomy. You’re surrounded by more specimens than you could ever fully comprehend. Sometimes you run across an odd specimen whose anatomy tells you something about its life, like pathologies such as the terrible fractured magpie goose leg shown above. Or you see some curatorial touch that makes you chuckle at an apparent inside joke or mutter respect for their careful organization in tending their charges. That feeling of pulling open a museum drawer or box lid and peering inside is like few others in science — there might be disappointment inside (e.g. “Crap, that specimen sucks!”), boredom (“Oh. Another one of these!?”) or the joy of discovery (“Holy *@$£, I’ve never seen that before!”). My first scientific publication (in 1998) came from rummaging through the UCMP museum collections as a grad student and spotting an obscure pelvic bone that turned out to be highly diagnostic for the equally obscure clade of bird-like dinosaurs called alvarezsaurids. I happened to open that drawer with the alvarezsaurid specimen at the right time, shortly after the first ever specimen of that dinosaur had been described in the literature (~1994). Before then, no one could have identified what that bone was!

There is time for hours of quiet introspection during museum collection studies, immersed in this wealth of anatomical resources and isolated in a silent, climate-controlled tomb-like hall. It is relaxing and overwhelming at the same time. Especially in my case with just five hours to survey numerous species, you have to budget your time and think efficiently. It’s a unique challenge to explore a museum collection as a researcher. If you don’t learn something — especially in a good museum collection — you’re doing it wrong. In this time of tight finances and trends to close museums or stow away precious collections, it is important to vocally celebrate what a vast treasure museum collections are, and how the people that maintain them are vital stewards of those treasures.

I set the cat amongst the pigeons by also visiting the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in LA, to study fossil cats-- like this American lion (Panthera atrox) code-named "Fluffy", that we CT scanned during my LA visit-- more about that later!

I set the cat amongst the pigeons by also visiting the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in LA, to study fossil cats– like this American lion (Panthera atrox), code-named “Fluffy”, that we CT scanned during my LA visit– more about that later!

EDIT: I hurried this post off during my free time today, and still feel I didn’t fully capture the deep, complex feelings I have regarding museum collections and the delight I get from studying them. Other freezerinos, please add your thoughts in the Comments below!

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Construction of the Phyletisches Museum in Jena, Germany began on Goethe’s birthday on August 28, 1907. The Art Nouveau-styled museum was devised by the great evolutionary biologist, embryologist and artist/howthefuckdoyousummarizehowcoolhewas Ernst Haeckel, who by that time had earned fame in many areas of research (and art), including coining the terms ontogeny (the pattern of development of an organism during its lifetime) and phylogeny (the pattern of evolution of lineages of organisms through time) which feature prominently in the building’s design and exhibits (notice them intertwined in the tree motif below, on the front of the museum). Ontogeny and phylogeny, and the flamboyant artistic sensibility that Haeckel’s work exuded, persist as themes in the museum exhibits themselves. Haeckel also came up with other popular words such as Darwinism and ecology, stem cell, and so on… yeah the dude kept busy.

Cavorting frogs from Haeckel's masterpiece Kunstformen der Natur (1904).

Cavorting frogs from Haeckel’s masterpiece Kunstformen der Natur (1904).

I first visited the Phyletisches Museum about 10 years ago, then again this August. Here are the sights from my latest visit: a whirlwind ~20 minute tour of the museum before we had to drive off to far-flung Wetzlar. All images are click-tastic for embiggenness.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10 for some preserved specimens. And art nouveau.

Willkommen!

Willkommen!

Frog ontogeny, illustrated with gorgeous handmade ?resin? models.

Frog ontogeny, illustrated with gorgeous handmade ?resin? models.

Fish phylogeny, illustrated with lovely artistry.

Phylogeny of Deuterostomia (various wormy things, echinoderms, fish and us), illustrated with lovely artistry.

Phylogeny of fish and tetrapods.

Phylogeny of fish and tetrapods.

Slice of fossil fish diversity.

Slice of fossil fish diversity.

Plenty of chondryichthyan jaws and bodies.

Plenty of chondrichthyan jaws/chondrocrania, teeth and bodies.

Awesome model of a Gulper eel (Saccopharyngiformes).

Awesome model of a Gulper Eel — or, evocatively, “Sackmaul” auf Deutsch (Saccopharyngiformes).

Lobe-finned fishes (Sarcopterygii)- great assortment.

Lobe-finned fishes (Sarcopterygii)- great assortment including a fossil coelacanth.

Lungfish body/model and skeleton.

Lungfish body and skeleton.

Coelacanth!

Coelacanth!

Coelacanth staredown!

Coelacanth staredown!

Fire salamander! We love em, and the museum had several on display- given that we were studying them with x-rays, seeing the skeleton and body together here in this nice display was a pleasant surprise.

On into tetrapods– a Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra)! We love ’em, and the museum had several on display- given that we were studying them with x-rays, seeing the skeleton and body together here in this nice display was a pleasant surprise.

A tortoise shell and skeleton, with a goofball inspecting it.

A tortoise shell and skeleton, with a goofball inspecting it.

In a subtle nod to recurrent themes in evolution, the streamlined bodies of an ichthyosaur and cetacean shown in the main stairwell of the museum, illustrating convergent evolution to swimming locomotor adaptations.

In a subtle nod to recurrent themes in evolution, the streamlined bodies of an ichthyosaur and cetacean shown in the main stairwell of the museum, illustrating convergent evolution to swimming adaptations.

Phylogeny of reptiles, including archosaurs (crocs+birds).

Phylogeny of reptiles, including archosaurs (crocs+birds).

Gnarly model of an Archaeopteryx looks over a cast of the Berlin specimen, and a fellow archosaur (crocodile).

Gnarly model of an Archaeopteryx looks over a cast of the Berlin specimen, and a fellow archosaur (crocodile). The only extinct dinosaur on exhibit!

Kiwi considers the differences in modern bird palates: palaeognathous like it and fellow ratites/tinamous (left), and neognathous like most living birds.

Kiwi considers the differences in modern bird palates: palaeognathous like it and fellow ratites/tinamous (left), and neognathous like most living birds.

Echidna skeleton. I can't get enough of these!

Echidna skeleton. I can’t get enough of these!

Skulls of dugong (above) and manatee (below).

Skulls of dugong (above) and manatee (below), Sirenia (seacows) closely related to elephants.

Fetal manatee. Awww.

Fetal manatee. Awww.

Adult Caribbean manatee, showing thoracic dissection.

Adult Caribbean manatee, showing thoracic dissection.

Hyraxes, which Prof. Martin Fischer, longtime curator of the Phyletisches Museum, has studied for many years.  Rodent-like elephant relatives.

Hyraxes, which Prof. Martin Fischer, longtime curator of the Phyletisches Museum, has studied for many years. Rodent-like elephant cousins.

Old exhibit at the Phyletisches Museum, now gone: Forelimbs of an elephant posed in the same postures actually measured in African elephants, for the instant of foot touchdown (left pic) and liftoff (right pic). Involving data that we published in 2008!

Old exhibit at the Phyletisches Museum, now gone: Forelimbs of an elephant posed in the same postures actually measured in African elephants, for the instant of foot touchdown (left pic) and liftoff (right pic). Involving data that we published in 2008!

Gorilla see, gorilla do. Notice "bent hip, bent knee" vs. "upright modern human" hindlimb postures in the two non-skeletal hominids.

Eek, primates! Gorilla see, gorilla do. Notice the primitive “bent hip, bent knee” vs. the advanced “upright modern human” hindlimb postures in the two non-skeletal hominids.

Phylogeny of select mammals, including the hippo-whale clade.

Phylogeny of artiodactyl (even-toed) mammals, including the hippo-whale clade.

Hand (manus) of the early stem-whale Ambulocetus.

Hand (manus) of the early stem-whale Ambulocetus.

Carved shoulderblade (scapula) of a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), which apparently Goethe owned. Quite a relic!

Carved shoulderblade (scapula) of a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), which apparently Goethe owned (click to emwhalen and read the fine print). Quite a relic!

One of Haeckel's residences. There is also a well-preserved house of his that one can visit, but I didn't make it there.

One of Haeckel’s residences, across the street from the museum. There is also a well-preserved house of his that one can visit, but I didn’t make it there. I heard it’s pretty cool.

Jena is tucked away in a valley in former East Germany, with no local airport for easy access- but get to Leipzig and take a 1.25 hour train ride and you’re there. Worth a trip! This is where not just ontogeny and phylogeny were “born”, but also morphology as a modern, rigorous discipline. Huge respect is due to Jena, and to Haeckel, whose quotable quotes and influential research still resonate today, in science as well as in art.

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This is the mammoth image I remember, from a 1971 book, with no artist credited. It's actually not as good as I remember, by modern standards at least.

This is the mammoth image I remember, from a 1971 book, with no artist credited. It’s actually not as good as I remember, by modern standards at least.

Mammoths and I go way back, not quite to the Ice Age but at least to the late 1970s with my family’s visits to the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum, and Milwaukee Public Museum, to name two prominent places that inspired me. And one of my favourite science books had a colourful mammoth painting on the cover (above), an image that has stayed with me as awesomely evocative.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10. But there’s a butt below, but that’s too late for you now. And there’s poo and other scatological (attempts at) humour. Otherwise, bones and a baby mammothsicle.

Fast forward to the 2000’s and I’m studying mammoths, along with their other kin amongst the Proboscidea (elephants and relatives). I even bumped into a frozen mammoth in Sapporo, Japan, nine years ago–

Yep. That's what it looks like. Nope, not the front end. That orifice is not the mouth. This is the XXXXX mammoth.

Yep. That’s what it looks like. Nope, not the front end. That dark orifice is not the mouth. This is a mammoth that was found on Bolshoi Lyakhovsky island, in the east Siberian arctic (New Siberian Islands archipelago), in 2003. Just think of finding this and being all excited then realizing, “Jackpot! Wait… Oh man, I just found the ass. I’ve discovered a mammoth bunghole, dammit.” Still, it’s pretty damn amazing, as frozen Ice Age buttocks go. I’d love to find one. I would not be bummed.

found on Bolshoi Lyakhovskiy island in 2003

What I know now that I didn’t realize as a kid, is that a mammoth is an elephant in all but name. Mammoths are more closely related to Asian elephants than either is to African elephants, and all of these elephants are members of the group Elephantidae. If we saw a smallish Columbian mammoth, we’d probably mostly look upon it as similar to a slightly hairy Asian elephant (but a scientist would be able to spot the distinctive traits that each has). Only woolly mammoths adopted the uber-hirsute state that we tend to think of as a “mammoth” trait. Think about it: a big animal would benefit most from a thick hairy insulation in an extremely cold habitat, and Columbian mammoths ranged further south than Woolly ones. No mammoths were radically different from living elephants, unless you count the dwarf ones. But as a kid, like most people do, I saw them as something else: an exotic monster of the past, eerily unlike anything today, and bigger too. And mammoths have the added mystique of the extinct.

Now I see mammoths as neither exotic nor that far in the past. Giant ground sloths, now those are still alien and exotic to me. I don’t get them. I know elephants pretty well, and I can understand mammoths in their light and in light of mammoth fossils. Various mammoth species persisted as late as maybe 10,000 (for the Woolly and Columbian species; the latter seeming to vanish earlier) to <4000 (for isolated Siberian forms) years ago, into quasi-historic times. And only some mammoths got larger than African elephants (Loxodonta) do, such as Columbian mammoths (~10,000 kg or more maximal body mass; Loxodonta is closer to 7-10 tonnes at best).

Lately, coincidence has brought me new knowledge of – and even greater interest in – mammoths.

First, a fortunate last-minute visit to Waco, Texas’s “Mammoth Site” (see my Flickr photo tour here) two weeks ago during a short visit to give a talk in that fine central Texan city.

Second, the subject of today’s post: the Natural History Museum’s new special exhibit “Mammoths: Ice Age Giants“, which is open until 7 September. The exhibit was created by the Field Museum in Chicago, but the NHM has given it a special upgrade under the expert guidance of mammoth guru Prof. Adrian Lister of the NHM, who was very kind to give me a tour of the exhibit.

What follows is primarily a photo-blog post and review of the exhibit, but with some thoughts and facts and anecdotes woven through it. Dark setting, glass cases, caffeination, crowds, and mobile phone camera rather than nice SLR in hand means that the quality isn’t great in my images– but all the more reason to go see the exhibit yourself! All images can be clicked to em-mammoth them.

On entry, one views a mammoth skeleton with a timelapse video backdrop that shows how the landscape (somewhere in USA) has changed since ~10,000 BCE.

On entry, one views a mammoth skeleton with a timelapse video backdrop that shows how the landscape (somewhere in USA) has changed since ~10,000 BCE.

The first part of the exhibit does a nice job of introducing key species of Proboscidea (elephants and their closest extinct relatives), with a phylogeny and timescale to put them into context, starting with the earliest forms:

The first part of the exhibit does a nice job of introducing key species of Proboscidea: from early species like Moeritherium...

from species like the tapir-sized Moeritherium

Skull of Moeritherium, reconstructed. Not that different from an early sirenian (seacow) in some ways, and general shape.

Skull of Moeritherium, reconstructed. Not that different from an early sirenian (seacow) in some ways, and general shape, whereas still quite a long way from a modern elephant in form– but the hints of tusks and trunk are already there.

...To the early elephantiform Phiomia, here shown as a small animal but I'm told it actually got quite large. And continuing with giant terrestrial taxa...

…To the early elephantiform Phiomia, here shown as a smallish animal but I’m told it actually got quite large. And continuing with giant terrestrial taxa…

I was awed by this reconstruction of the giant early elephantiform relative Deinotherium, with the short, swollen trunk and downturned tusks-- so bizarre!

I was awed by this reconstruction of the huge early elephantiform-relative Deinotherium, with the short, swollen trunk and downturned tusks– so bizarre!

Looking down onto the roof of the mouth of a NHM specimen of Deinotherium.

Looking down onto the roof of the mouth of an NHM specimen of Deinotherium. Big, sharper-edged, almost rhino-like teeth; far from the single mega-molars of modern elephants.

The lower jaw (top) and fairly straight tusk (bottom) of the widespread, early elephantiform Gomphotherium.

The lower jaw (top) and fairly straight tusk (bottom) of the widespread, early elephantiform Gomphotherium.

The big "shovel-tusker" elephantiform Amebelodon. This was one of the earliest stem elephants I learned of as a kid; the odd tusks still give me a sense of wonder.

The big “shovel-tusked” elephantiform Amebelodon. This was one of the earliest stem elephants I learned of as a kid; the odd tusks still stir wonder in me.

Amebelodon lower jaw, sans shovel tusks.

Amebelodon lower jaw, sans shovel tusks. Extended chin looks like some sort of childrens’ fun-slide. To me, anyway.

Next, there are some fun interactive displays of elephant biomechanics!

How would a mammoth hold up its head? This lever demonstration shows how a nuchal ligament helps.

How would a mammoth hold up its head? This lever demonstration shows how a nuchal ligament helps. Tension on the nuchal ligament is a force that acts with a large lever (represented by the big neural spines on the vertebrae around the shoulders, forming the mammoths’ “hump” there), creating a large moment (i.e. torque; rotational force) that holds the head aloft.

I love this robotic elephant trunk demonstration. It captures some of the weirdness of having a muscular hydrostat attached to your lip.

I love this robotic elephant trunk demonstration. It captures some of the weirdness of having a muscular hydrostat attached to your lip and nostrils. Not so easy for a human to control!

But forget the myths about elephants having 40,000 to 150,000 muscles in their trunk. They have three muscle layers: a circumferential one, an oblique one and a longitudinal one. Like any muscles, especially ones this large, the layers each consist of many muscle fibres. That’s where the 40-150k myth comes from, but muscle fibres (cells) are at a more microscopic level than whole muscles (organs). Elephants do have excellent control of their trunks, but it’s not magical. It’s just different.

Then we come to the centrepiece of the exhibit, the ~42,000 year old Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) baby “Lyuba“, which the NHM added to the original exhibit in this new version, as a star attraction — and a big win. Adrian Lister related to me how he’d never seen Lyuba in person before (access to it was tightly guarded for years). So when the NHM received the crate and held a press event to open it and reveal Lyuba, a journalist asked Adrian to act excited, to which he responded something like, “I don’t need to act! I’m very excited!” I would be, too! Full story on Lyuba’s arrival, by NHM site here. A key paper on Lyuba by Fisher et al. is here.

Studies of tooth growth in Lyuba reveal her gestation period (like living elephants, around 22 months), season of birth (early spring), and age at death (1 month), among other information.

Studies of tooth growth in Lyuba reveal her gestation period (like living elephants, ~22 months), season of birth (early spring), and age at death (~1 month), among other information.

Here we can see the right ear, which was gnawed off along with the tail by dogs of the reindeer herders that found and retrieved Lyuba. Regardless, there's loads of anatomy preserved! A hump of juvenile "brown fat" atop the head, very strange flanges on the trunk (also visible in 1 other frozen mammoth specimen, but here preserved very clearly!), and more visible postcranially...

Here we can see the right ear, which was gnawed off along with the tail by dogs of the reindeer herders that found and retrieved Lyuba in 2006. Regardless, there’s loads of anatomy preserved!

A hump of juvenile “brown fat” sits atop the head and neck of Lyuba. This probably was  metabolized during growth to warm the baby; brown fat is packed with mitochondria and thereby conducts what is called “non-shivering thermogenesis”. Furthermore, Lyuba has very strange flanges on the trunk (also visible in 1 other frozen mammoth specimen, but here preserved very clearly! What were they used for?). More details are visible postcranially…

The body was naturally “freeze-dried”, with the addition of later rounds of soaking in formalin and ethanol, leaving the body dessicated and stiff, permanently stuck in a lifelike pose as seen below:

Whole view from an exhibit panel (you cannot photograph the specimen but these are fair game!). Here we see hair on the right forearm and remnant of the ear, and the labia and nipples showing it is a female mammoth are also preserved. The head-hump is lost during growth, and the shoulder changes to change the Asian elephant-like convex curvature of the back into the characteristic humped-shoulder form of a mammoth. But ontogeny still reveals the evolutionary connection of Elephas and Mammuthus.

Whole view from an exhibit panel (you cannot photograph the specimen but these are fair game!). Here we see hair on the right forearm and remnant of the ear, and the labia and nipples showing it is a female mammoth are also preserved. The head-hump is lost during growth, and the shoulder changes to change the Asian elephant-like convex curvature of the back into the characteristic humped-shoulder form of a mammoth. But ontogeny still reveals the evolutionary connection of Elephas and Mammuthus.

Lyuba and scientists studying her, which also shows how rigid the carcass is.

Lyuba and scientists studying her, which also shows how rigid the carcass is; one can almost stand it up. Inside the digestive tract, researchers found chewed up plant material that was probably dung eaten by the baby to gain vital bacterial digestive flora, and Lyuba had plenty of body fat and ingested milk, indicating that she did not starve to death. Rather, vivianite in the respiratory tract indicates drowning as the cause of her demise. Perfusion of the body by these vivianites may have helped to preserve the body.

Answering an question the public may be wondering about: is the hype about cloning a mammoth very soon true? Nope. Well addressed, including what to me is the urgent question: would cloning a mammoth be ethical?

Answering a question the public may be wondering about: is the hype about cloning a mammoth very soon true? Nope. Well addressed, including what to me is the urgent question: would cloning a mammoth be ethical?

The fourth part of the exhibit takes on a largely North American focus to first illustrate what mammoths were like biologically, and second to wow the visitor with some huge beasts in full body, full scale glory, as we shall see!

Mammoth hair! These samples and recent molecular studies show that mammoths were not ginger-coloured as we long thought, but rather the ginger color comes as the dark grey-brown-black colour fades postmortem, as a preservational artefact. I didn't know that; cool.

Mammoth hair! These samples and recent molecular studies show that mammoths were not ginger-coloured as we long thought, but rather the ginger color comes as the dark grey-brown-black colour fades postmortem, as a preservational artefact (story here). I didn’t know that; cool.

Mammoth chow!

Mammoth chow! I liked this addition to the exhibit. This brought mammoth ecology closer to home for me.

Mammoth poop!

Mammoth poop!

After the biology explanations, let there be megafauna!

Mammoth skull! A nice one, too.

Mammoth skull! A nice one, too.

Top predators of Ice Age North America: Arctodus (short-faced bear) and Homotherium (sabre-toothed cat).

Top predators of Ice Age North America: Arctodus (short-faced bear– does the short face mean they were happy, unlike a long face? Sorry but they never are shown as very happy, unless it is the joy of whupass) and Homotherium (the other sabre-toothed cat; not the longer-toothed Smilodon).

Skulls of North American megafauna: left to right, top to bottom: horse, short-faced bear, giant sloth, then camel, sabretooth,  rabbit, direwolf (viva Ned Stark!), and pronghorn antelope.

Skulls of North American (mega)fauna: left to right, top to bottom: horse, short-faced bear, giant ground sloth, then camel, sabretooth cat, rabbit, direwolf (viva Ned Stark!), and pronghorn antelope.

Mastodon skeleton!

Mastodon (Mammut americanum) skeleton!

Mammoths seem to have been wiped out by a combination of climate change and habitat fragmentation, combined with what this item symbolizes: human hunting. This beautiful piece is the main part of an atlatl, or javelin-hurling lever. It would give Ice Age hunters the extra power they'd need to penetrate mammoth hide and cause mortal injuries.

Mammoths (and perhaps mastodons, etc.) seem to have been wiped out by a combination of climate change and habitat fragmentation, combined with what this item symbolizes: human hunting. This beautiful piece is the main part of an atlatl, or javelin-hurling lever. It would have given Ice Age hunters the extra power they’d need to penetrate mammoth hide and cause mortal injuries. It is also a great tie-in to my recent post on the British Museum’s odd-animals-in-art.

Finally, the exhibit surveys the kinds of mammoths that existed- there is a huge reconstruction of a Columbian mammoth near the mastodon (above), then smaller kinds and discussions of dwarfism, which is another strength of NHM mammoth research:

Woolly mammoth lower jaw (right) and its likely descendant, the pygmy mammoth of the Californian coastline, Mammuthus exilis.

Woolly mammoth lower jaw (right) and its likely descendant, the pygmy mammoth of the Californian coastline, Mammuthus exilis.

The world's smallest mammoth (left), molar tooth compared with that of its much larger ancestor Palaeoloxodon. The status of Mammuthus creticus as a dwarf mammoth from Crete was cemented by Victoria Herridge and colleagues, including Adrian Lister at the NHM.

The world’s smallest mammoth (left), molar tooth compared with that of its much larger ancestor Palaeoloxodon. The status of Mammuthus creticus as a dwarf mammoth from Crete was cemented by Victoria Herridge and colleagues, including Adrian Lister at the NHM.

Pygmy mammoth reconstruction. Shorter than me. I want one!

Pygmy mammoth reconstruction. Shorter than me. I want one!

In the end, from all that proboscidean diversity we were left with just 2 or 3 species (depending on your species concepts; it's probably worth calling the African forest elephant its own species, Loxodonta cyclotis). The exhibit closes with a consideration of their conservation and fate. Ironically, this elephant skull could not be mounted with its tusks on display, because that would be commercializing ivory usage-- even though the whole point of the exhibit's denouement is to explain why elephants need protection!

In the end, from all that glorious proboscidean diversity we were left with just 2 or 3 species of elephantids today (depending on your species concepts; it’s probably worth calling the African forest elephant its own species, Loxodonta cyclotis). The exhibit closes with a consideration of their conservation and fate. Ironically, this elephant skull could not be mounted with its tusks on display, because that would be commercializing ivory usage– even though the whole point of the exhibit’s denouement is to explain why elephants need protection!

Reactions to the exhibit: the photos tell the tale. It’s undeniably great, in terms of showing off the coolness of mammoths, other proboscideans and Ice Age beasties, to the general public. I felt like the factual content and learning potential was good. It didn’t feel at all like pandering to the lowest common denominator like some other exhibits I’ve seen (cough, Dino Jaws, cough). I loved the reconstructions, which were top quality in my opinion. I could have done with some more real skeletons, yet more realistically the exhibit hall was already large and full of cool stuff. But give me a break: Lyuba. This trumps everything. Going to see a real friggin’ frozen mammoth baby buries the needle of the awesomeness meter on the far right. That’s pretty much all I need to say. The spectacle was a spectacle.

This exhibit shows a lot of work, a lot of thought, and a personalized NHM touch that reflects the actual research (even very recent work!) that NHM staff like Prof. Lister are doing with collaborators around the globe. What more could we want, a herd of cloned mammoth babies frolicking around and tickling guests with their flanged trunks? Don’t hold your breath.

You’ve got just over 2 months to see the exhibit. Don’t come complaining on September 8 “BBBBBbbbut I didn’t know, I didn’t think it would be that cool! I just thought there’d be a guy in a Snuffleupagus suit signing autographs!” You have a duty as a Freezerino to go bask in the frozen glory of these Ice Age critters. There may be an exam at the end. 🙂

Is the exhibit kid-friendly? More or less. The text is more targeted at teenager-level or so, but the visual impact is powerful without it. I’d warn a sensitive child about the withered baby mammoth body before showing it to them, so they aren’t caught off guard and scarred by the experience. I saw plenty of kids in the exhibit and they all seemed happy. Parents may want to linger longer and absorb all the interesting information, whereas kids may blitz through or goof around, so plan accordingly if you’re inbound with sprogs.

You know what I was eyeing up in the gift shop...

You know what I was eyeing up in the gift shop…

Aside: The frozen mammoths get me wondering- what else does the Siberian (or extreme northern Canadian/Scandinavian) permafrost conceal? There are a lot of awesome Ice Age megafauna I’d cut my left XXXXX off to study quasi-intact… think about how amazing it would be to find a giant ground sloth (not bloody likely), sabretooth cat, or other species. There’s a lot of north up north. A lot of space and ice. A lot could happen. And climate change will make discoveries like this more likely, while the melting (and humanity) lasts…

Wool we ever find the Lyuba of woolly rhinos? It could happen.

Wool we ever find the Lyuba of woolly rhinos (Coelodonta)? Cast of a mummified woolly rhino from the NHM’s entry hall. More of these finds are likely, I’d say.

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