Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Stories in Museum Drawers

Professor Hyde White!

I have loved museums since a very young age. I remember watching reruns of  Scooby Doo's first episode about the "tall, dark, and creepy" suit of armor that chased the Gang down a museum hall. Except for the destruction involved during the chase, which I always disliked, this pilot episode captivated me. It brought me many questions regarding museum collections and dioramas that I could not answer until much later.

Figure 1: Barosaurus lentus and Allosaurus fagilis at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Museums are a crucial part of all scientific research. In them, the fruits of field and lab work are cataloged, cleaned, prepared, curated, and stored for future generation of researchers to study. To explain how this works, I will concentrate on collections in natural history museums, which I am more familiar with. Nevertheless, most museum's methods are very similar!

So let's begin the adventure. Let us say you discover a dinosaur out in Wyoming. How exciting! Once you have excavated it from the ground, and carefully encased in a plaster jacket (more like a plaster wrap), it can now be safely transported to the museum. This may look like this (although in this case your discovery is not a dinosaur but a primitive carnivoran):

Hyanodon crucians AMNH 75565. This is a skeleton of a primitive carnivore still in its jacket

Once there, the museum's collective of paleontologists and technical staff will extract the dinosaur remains you collected from the jacket, clean the remains for better study, and give it a number. This is a unique number, a specimen's social security which will always identify that one specimen. Those remains are then stored within a specific collection. In the case of your dinosaur, in a paleontology collection (often a vertebrate paleontology collection), where it will await eager scientists to pour their retinas, cameras, and calipers over them.

Some museum specimens become famous, even iconic. Many museum collections dioramas and mounts are so successful that they have transcended beyond multiple generations of museum visitors.
The specimens in figure 1 show two of my favorite. The very large sauropod dinosaur on the left of figure 1 is a young Barosaurus lentus that now resides in the Roosevelt Memorial Hall, reconstructed under the direct supervision of Henry Fairfield Osborn. Dr. Osborn (1857-1935) was a prominent paleontologist and geologist, once director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In more than a way he revolutionized the way museums mounted and exhibited specimens for the public, but there'll be more on him later (meanwhile check out Rainger, 1991). This Barosaurus specimen was excavated from Howe Quarry during the 1930s and was one of the last large sauropods collected by the museum (Norrell et al., 1995).

The specimen on the right of figure 1 is the theropod Allosaurus fagilis collected by H. F. Hubbell for E. D. Cope. Dr. Cope was another prominent excavator and dinosaur collector of the 19th century, to which our science of paleontology owes so much. This specimen was found in the Morrison formation at Como Bluff in 1877 but was not mounted until 1901. Its realistic pose was one of the first ever installed in a dinosaur mount (Norrell et al., 1995).

Both of these magnificent specimens were mounted over 100 years ago, and date to a time 140 million years ago. Then, North America was divided by a great sea where the Great Plains states are now. I have visited these specimen several times, and they always enthrall me. It is very exciting to see these famous specimens personally.

Figure 2: Collection "under construction" at the Florida Museum of Natural History, at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Figure 2 on the left shows a collection in the process of being curated or prepared for cataloging and storage. The figure on the right shows specimens that have been glued and fixed, numbered and boxed within their respective drawers. These two cases come from one of my early visits to the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH), at the University of Gainesville (UF), in northern Florida (Many thanks are due to curator Dr. Richard Hulbert Jr. for the access, and to Dr. Adrian Tejedor for the invitation). They show fossil remains of large mammals from Florida's Cenozoic era.  The large mandible or jaw bones visible on figure 2 left belonged to Floridaceras, an extinct rhinoceros of the Floridian Miocene (about 23-5 million years ago (Hulbert et al., 2001). How diverse was the fauna of Florida then!

Figure 3: Holotype of the Spotted bat Euderma maculatus (AMNH 3922/2991).

Within the collections, there are important hierarchical assignments to specimens that make them a requirement of study. Such are, for example, the holotypes. A holotype is a selected specimen from which a new organism is described. It is the key specimen from which the original description is based. Almost every revision of a given organism will require the study of its holotype. If the holotype is lost, then a replacement is found, and that replacements are called a neotype. The nomenclature gets more complicated after that. Figure 3 shows the holotype or type specimen (you can tell because of the red tag) of the Spotted bat (Euderma maculatus). This specimen was collected by Thomas Shooter in California in march 1890 and was described as a new species by J. A. Allen in 1891.This stuffed skin  is over 100 years old!

Figure 4: A) shows skins of the Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus). B) shows skins and bones (in the boxes) of the Coyote (Canis latrans) from Alberta, Canada. C) is a West Indian woodpecker (Melanerpes superciliaris) collected by J. Gundlach. A and B are from the mammalogy collection at the AMNH, and C from the ornithological collections of FLMNH at UF.

Many stories live within the belly of museums. For the most part, the real museum collections lie in their cabinets and vaults, out of the main public eye (like those of figures 2 - 4). The specimen I hold on image C of figure 3 shows one of those hidden historical specimens. This one is particularly interesting to me. This West Indian woodpecker (Melanerpes superciliaris) was collected by the German naturalist Johannes Gundlach (figure 5). He probably found this female M. superciliaris  during the mid-late 1800s, while he resided in my home province of Matanzas, northwestern Cuba. During his stay there he discovered many new and endemic species, especially of insects, bats, and birds. Caribbean mammalogy and ornithology in general, and Cuban and Puerto Rican in particular, owe a great deal to the extraordinary efforts of this scientist.

Figure 5: Johannes Gundlach (1810-1896). This is one of few known photographs.

Handling this particular specimen was an extraordinary experience. It was like making the acquaintance of Dr. Gundlach himself, who has been such a great source of inspiration in my own research. I feel in such a way, always in the presence of extraordinary specimens. It is really something.

These specimens are priceless and highlight more than the natural history and evolution of living organisms on our planet. Museum collections retell the often arduous human endeavor and sacrifice involved in their collection, maintenance, and study. It is the cumulative work of many specialists, all indispensable to the process.

Museums are great institutions. If you have one near you, go visit! The experience is educational, memorable, and rewarding.

If interested, check out my other post on unexpected museum collection discoveries. In this case resulting in a new fossil bat record for Barbuda.


Rainger, Ronald. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama.

Norrell, Mark A., Eugene S. Gaffney, and Lowell Dingus. 1995. Discovering Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History. Knopf, New York.

Hulbert, Richard C Jr. (editor). 2001. The Fossil Vertebrates of Florida. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

These sites have been a great source of  inspiration: Paleolab blog here, Caribbean Paleobiology blog here, the AMNH YouTube channel here, and the FLMNH here. Many thanks to them. Please check them out!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Welcome again update

Hello dear blog reader, and welcome to Fossil Matter again!

As an update, for future blogs I will be inviting other fellow paleontologists and archaeologists from other countries, especially the Caribbean islands, who will authoring brief posts about the latest news, or their recent findings in their respective sciences.

I'd like to mention that I will also include some of my blog posts in EspaƱol for my Spanish-speaking (and reading) audience.

Like the great Carl Sagan used to say: "when you are in love, you got to tell the world". I hope that my passion for these sciences are of your interest, and incites even more curiosity in you as they do in me.

Cheers, stay tuned, and don't let the museum-stuffed African wild dogs bite!

Lycaon pictus
African wild dog Lycaon pictus at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Welcome to Fossil Matter, a blog about paleontology, geology, archaeology, history, and other related ramblings. Often I will blog about extinct mammals and birds from islands around the world, but mostly from the Caribbean and peninsular Florida, plus added nick knacks that will range from fossil bats to antique photography and old science books!

Overall, it is my goal to incite a healthy interest for the Earth history sciences by discussing, divulging, and promoting scientific ideas and research within these fields. I hope this blog cultivates an interest in these sciences that would reach farther than my community, peers, colleagues, or fellow bloggers.

Once more, welcome, and stay tuned!