28 July 2016

The Paleo Travel List

Update (7/28/16) : Four years ago, I wrote this post in which I listed the paleontological sites and museums that I thought would make worthwhile trips for anyone with an interest in fossils.  Looking back at it now, I realized that I had a few additions (the University of Florida's museum and three German sites associated with the Messel lagerstätte) to make to it and that, as it might be a useful resource for people looking to plan paleo-centric travel, I should provide a permanent link to it on my main page.  I've made both changes and will try to update the list more frequently than I have been in the future.

Original Post (7/15/12): As many of you are aware, while paleontology is the main focus of this blog, I occasionally lapse into writing about places I've visited. I love to travel and I love reading travel literature, and I've noticed, as I'm sure many of you have, a recent trend in the field. If you go to the travel section of pretty much any bookstore, you'll see the usual guidebooks and travel narratives, but you'll also see books that are effectively lists of places to visit. Their titles are usually variations on the themes of "X Places to See Before you Die" and "X Places You Must Visit." I'm not altogether sure it's a healthy direction: I think travel should be about experiencing a culture or landscape different from the one you live in, not crossing items off a list (though, in fairness, "checklist travel" has a certain appeal to the more OCD aspects of my personality). Still, the popularity of these books - and the corresponding websites - is undeniable, and it got me wondering: what would a list of must-see paleontology destinations look like? My attempt at an answer can be found below.

A few places on the list were no-brainers: the big museums of the East Coast and Midwest, the grand collections of Europe, or places like Dinosaur National Monument and Petrified Forest National Park where you can see spectacular fossils in situ. I added a few other places because they do an outstanding job displaying the paleontology of a particular site (Rancho La Brea, Urweltmuseum Hauff) or region (University of Nebraska Museum, Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde). A few places made it onto the list because of their especially impressive combinations of fossils and reconstructions or paleoart (the dioramas of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science or the murals of the San Diego Natural History Museum, for example), and a few more made it on due to the historical importance of the fossils there (the first described dinosaur fossil in Oxford's Natural History Museum, for example).

Obviously, this list is incomplete. It includes only places I've visited, leaving entire continents neglected. I'd be very curious to hear what else readers of this blog think would belong on it. Bear in mind that this list is intended for members of the general public, NOT for career paleontologists; we all have our own distinct ideas of which museums or sites are particularly interesting, and many of these may hold little to no appeal for someone with a more casual interest in fossils. However, I think any of the places listed below would be worth a trip for anyone with even a slight predilection for paleontology:

Map of Sites

United States


Royal Tyrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta

Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Ontario


Humboldt Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

Grube Messel (reviewed 12/2015)/Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt/Naturmuseum Senckenberg, Messel/Darmstadt/Frankfurt, Hesse

Paläontologische Sammlung, Tübingen, Baden-Württemberg

Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde, Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg

Urweltmuseum Hauff, Holzmaden, Baden-Württemberg

United Kingdom

08 July 2016

Fossil Vertebrate of the Month: Miracinonyx

Natural Trap Cave
Photo by the author
This year being the centennial of the US National Park Service, the ecosystems and animals of Yellowstone have been on lots of peoples' minds (and itineraries).  Certainly, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remains the best place in the continental United States to see what remains of North America's megafauna, but a site roughly a hundred miles to the east attests to how much more diverse that fauna used to be.  On the hills above Bighorn Canyon on the Wyoming-Montana border sits Natural Trap Cave, one of the most important Pleistocene vertebrate localities in the world.  Then as now, the cave is a huge hole in the ground, and while a grate keeps anything too big from falling in anymore, during the Pleistocene it was a death trap for tens of thousands of animals.  I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time working at the site this month, and while my contributions consisted mainly of rodent bones and teeth, the cave has yielded fossils of a wide range of animals.  Some of these - bison, wolves, wolverines, to name a few - would be familiar to Yellowstone visitors today.  Some - mammoths, horses, and camels, for example - are now extinct but are nevertheless fairly familiar.  Others are more obscure, and perhaps the weirdest of these often overlooked animals is the American cheetah Miracinonyx.  Really, I should have quotes around the word "cheetah," as the evolutionary history of Miracinonyx has long been a bone of contention.  It was first described on the basis of fossils from Pennsylvania by the great paleontologist E.D. Cope in the 1890s, who placed it in Uncia, the same genus as modern snow leopards.  Other finds from the east led 20th Century researchers to conclude that it was closely related to modern Puma, the genus that includes modern jaguarundis and cougars.  It was specimens from Natural Trap Cave described in the 1970s that first demonstrated that Miracinonyx had extremely elongated legs similar to those of cheetahs, indicating that it too hunted its prey by chasing it down.  This was something of a bombshell, as most cats are ambush predators specialized for sneaking up on prey and pouncing; modern cheetahs are the only modern big cat that is a really effective pursuit predator.  It was widely suggested that this similarity in morphology meant that North American and African cheetahs not only hunted in a comparable and unusual way, but that they were very closely related.  Consequently, during the 1980s most authors referred Miracinonyx specimens to the Acinonyx, the genus of modern cheetahs.  All this taxonomy may seem very dry and dull, but it has an important implication: that despite their geographic distance, cheetahs in North America and Africa were similar because they were close relatives descended from a recent common ancestor, an evolutionary phenomenon known as parallelism.  However, since 1990 our understanding of the evolutionary history of Miracinonyx has changed substantially.  That was the year that Blaire Van Valkenburgh and colleagues performed an analysis of the morphology of a specimen from a West Virginia cave and showed that, in fact, the animal that paleontologists had been referring to for years as a cheetah was actually a very close relative of cougars.  This finding was later backed up by an analysis of ancient felid DNA, which likewise showed a close relationship between Miracinonyx and Puma.  The North American cheetah's evolution switched from being an example of parallelism to one of convergence, in which two unrelated species evolve similar traits due to similar environmental pressures.  It has been further argued, though with considerably less direct evidence, that the evolution of pursuit predation in Miracinonyx may have had a major impact that can still be observed today.  As "cheetahs" got faster, it would likely have put pressure on their prey to evolve traits that would allow them to run faster as well, which would in turn lead to further pressure towards speed-related traits in Miracinonyx in a process known as coevolution (or, more colorfully, an evolutionary arms race).  This could explain the blazing speed of the still-extant pronghorn Antilocapra, which has been clocked at over 60 miles per hour.  This is far faster than any living mammalian predator in North America, but well below the top speed of modern cheetahs.  So if you do make it to one of the western national parks this centennial year and you're fortunate enough to see a herd of pronghorn running at full tilt, spare a thought for the bizarre cat that may have made such velocity necessary.
Miracinonyx and Antilocapra
Reconstruction by Mauricio Antón