20 December 2018
19 December 2018
The Collections & The Exhibits: I've been presenting exhibits and collections separately this far, but it's impossible to do so at the University of British Columbia's Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Many museums have (correctly, I think) embraced the idea of showcasing how scientists actually work, and none has done so more completely than the BBM. That's because the museum's exhibits are, quite literally, the collections vault, with some storage cabinets containing built-in display cases. I've travelled to the museum for research twice, once to look at North American carnivores and once to look at marsupials. In both cases, I really enjoyed working in full view of the public and being able to interact and talk about my research with them. While most of the museum is underground, the main atrium of the building contains a massive blue whale skeleton that, thanks to an all-glass outer wall, appears to be "swimming" along UBC's main pedestrian mall. Cross this mall, incidentally, and you'll find the Pacific Museum of Earth, which contains a very nice Lambeosaurus skeleton from Alberta and a handful of other fossils. Also, by all means give yourself a chance to stroll around the campus, one of the most beautifully situated you'll ever see. In particular, make time for the UBC Museum of Anthropology, widely agreed to be one of the world's great museums.
18 December 2018
The Collections: What brings a mammal researcher to a collection internationally famous for its dinosaur skeletons? Well, in my case it was a single (gorgeously preserved) fossil dog skull (and the fact that I was passing through between collections visits in Missoula and Pocatello. Let the record reflect that it's a really nice dog skull and made the stop entirely worthwhile.
The Exhibits: As hinted at above, while the Inland Northwest is known for its Cenozoic mammal fossils, the flanks of the Rockies are rife with dinosaur fossils. Fittingly, the MOR is one of the word's great dinosaur museums. The particular focus is on Cretaceous specimens from the Hell Creek Formation, including favorites such as Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and a diversity of duck-billed dinosaurs. I am an especially big fan of the displays on dinosaur growth and physiology, long a specialty of MOR researchers. If towering dinosaurs aren't your thing, the museum also has a really cool display on the microvertebrates of Hell Creek and some excellent dioramas and fossils that bring to life the rocks that now form the peaks of the Rockies.
17 December 2018
The Collections: It was only natural that a site rich in carnivores of all shapes and sizes, from aquatic otters to giant predatory cats, would draw me in at some point. I visited the collections at HAFO in 2010 with a particular eye towards the giant cat end of the carnivore spectrum, in which the Hagerman collections are especially rich.
The Exhibits: It was carnivores that brought me to Hagerman, but the site was set aside as a national monument for its abundance of fossils of the Hagerman Horse, a Pliocene equid that was likely a close relative of modern zebras and is now Idaho's state fossil. Remains of these horses grace the major natural history museums of the world, as well as in the visitor center in the town of Hagerman.
16 December 2018
The Collections: From here on out, I'll be highlighting collections from right here in the Northwest. The IMNH on the campus of Idaho State University sits at the edge of the region and has an especially impressive collection of Pleistocene mammals from American Falls Reservoir. My favorite fossils in the collection, though, are not mammals at all, but the spiral jaws of the whorl-toothed "shark" Helicoprion, found in especially large numbers in Idaho.
The Exhibits: The exhibit hall of the museum rotates displays through with some frequency, but there are always at least a few fossils on display, again most notably including sloths, saber-toothed cats, and short-faced bears from the Pleistocene of Idaho. Of particular note are the skulls of the long-horned bison, Bison latifrons, featured prominently in the museum's logo.
15 December 2018
The Collections: UCMP is the premier collection of fossils on the West Coasts, and I've spent more hours than I can count delving through its drawers of specimens from North and South America and Australia. The collections go far beyond Cenozoic mammals, though, and encompass fossils from across the globe and throughout geologic time scale.
The Exhibits: UCMP is one of the world's great research collections and the outwork conducted by the staff and students there is exceptional, but the museum's public displays are fairly minimal. There are a few fossils on exhibit in the main hall of the massive Valley Life Sciences building; you'll know you're there when see the Tyrannosaurus cast in the stairwell. If you finding yourself wanting to see more natural history exhibits in the Bay Area, I also strongly recommend the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
The Collections: I visited the SDSMT collections while they were in the midst of moving into their new paleontology center, but even with many specimens packed up to move, the wealth of Eocene and Oligocene mammals from South Dakota (and, oddly, Miocene fossils from Oregon) were a major component of my PhD research. Now that the shiny new building is up and running, I'll have to find an excuse to go visit again at some point.
The Exhibits: If you're visiting the Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore, odds are good you'll pass through Rapid City. Do yourself a favor and check out the Museum of Geology, tucked away in a second floor hall on the SDSMT campus. Marine reptiles (and a few dinosaurs) from the Dakota Cretaceous make up the centerpiece of the museum, but the impressive mammal material from the nearby White River Badlands are what really set it apart (a case at the west end of the exhibits houses a particularly spectacular rhino-like brontothere). While in town, be sure to check out Dinosaur Park on a hill above Rapid City, home to some wonderfully retro dinosaur statues created by the WPA during the Great Depression.
13 December 2018
The Collections: High schools are generally not associated with natural history collections, but the Alf Museum is a glorious exception. The Barstow Formation of the Mojave Desert has yielded one of the most important mid-Miocene faunas in the world, and the Alf Museum, thanks to an active student research program, has one f the best Barstow collections out there. It was these mammals that brought me to Claremont, but the museum has also become a focal point for research on the Kaiparowits Plateau of Utah. If that name sounds familiar, it may be because a large chunk of it is located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument currently under assault by the Trump administration. It's unrelated to the Alf Museum, but I feel compelled to highlight the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's efforts to lead the charge against the destruction of our priceless national treasures, which you can read about here. If you're looking for a charity to support at the end of the year, SVP would most certainly put your donation to good use...
The Exhibits: Fair warning: all the photos in the video above are a bit dated. The Alf Museum, as I understand, has recently undergone a major renovation, meaning that my photos do not do the current displays justice. What I am certain has not changed, though, is that the RAM is an underappreciated gem. I especially recommend the displays in the basement (assuming the floor plan hasn't changed too much), which feature Barstow fossils and a world-class collection of fossil trackways.
12 December 2018
The Collections: The LACM ranks high on my list of most-visited collections, and for good reason. Southern California is rich in Cenozoic fossils, and this is the largest collection of them in the region. I've spent countless hours working through drawer upon drawer of horses, dogs, and squirrels from the LA area and far beyond. As with many collections along the west coast, it's full not just of terrestrial fossils, but a variety of marine organisms as well.
The Exhibits: There are bigger collections along the Pacific slope, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say the LACM is the west coast's premier museum for fossils on display. The paleontology exhibits occupy the entire, recently remodeled east wing of the museum, and while the dinosaur exhibits are the headliner, my (strongly biased) opinion is that the fossil mammal hall is the highlight. Among other things, it includes the only skeleton I've ever seen of the giant dog Epicyon and a wealth of regional marine mammals, including the bizarre desmostylian (and possessor of one of the all time great genus names) Paleoparadoxia. If the LACM fossil halls don't leave you sated on local paleontology, the museum also administers the tar pits of Rancho La Brea, home of one of the world's great paleontology site museums.
11 December 2018
The Collections: This is the most recent visit on my list this year, as I was just down in Albuquerque this October for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's annual meeting. While there, I spent some time in the NMMNS collections to look at their Miocene mammal material from around New Mexico. I was far from the only paleontologist there, but I was in the minority in terms of what I was looking for: pretty much everyone else there was visiting the extensive Triassic collections, as New Mexico preserves some of the best and most important fossils from this period.
The Exhibits: The exhibits in this museum were all designed at the same time (in the '90s, I believe), making them a remarkably coherent (if occasionally slightly outdated) overview of New Mexico's geologic past. The Triassic hall is especially good, with a block of New Mexico's State Fossil, the early dinosaur Coelophysis, and an excellent collection of crocodile-like phytosaur material on display. I was also a big fan of the Ice Age hall, which was ahead of its time in integrating information on climate change through time. Other highlights include a reconstruction of the giant sauropod "Seismosaurus" (actually a big Diplodocus), and a Cretaceous conservatory. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the museum is its fantastic collection of paleoart, which includes the likes of important work by Margaret Colbert (depicting Triassic life in New Mexico), Ely Kish (including an imposing mural of Jurassic titans and a charmingly prosaic reconstruction of fish in a Jurassic lake), and Jay Matternes (whose famous Eocene mural painted for the Smithsonian wound up here, somehow).
10 December 2018
The Collections: Few places in the world are rich in fossil mammals of the same age as the John Day Formation in central Oregon, long a cornerstone of my research, and San Diego is one of the places that does. This means that it was probably inevitable that I'd wind up there at some point, and I'm glad I did. I only spent a brief time in the collections, but the Oligocene rodents and dogs from the Sespe Formation were impressively well preserved and a valuable addition to my data set.
The Exhibits: I'm a sucker for museums that focus on telling the in-depth story of the paleontology of their region, and the SDNHM does as good a job of this as anywhere I've ever been. It starts with dinosaurs from the two Californias (Alta and Baja), showcasing both a great bloat-and-float ankylosaur (complete with attached oysters!) and the international nature of scientific inquiry. Following this is a great overview of Eocene and Oligocene ecosystems of San Diego County and the highlight of the exhibits, a wealth of Pliocene and Pleistocene marine mammals (including walruses, sea cows, and and impressively large and complete whale) and terrestrial megafauna. What really sets the exhibits here over the top are the works of art that accompany them. The paleoartist William Stout was commissioned to create a series of murals as backdrops to the fossil exhibits, and the colorful results collectively represent one of the greatest feats of modern paleoartistry.
Gift Ideas: On the topic of William Stout, his book on the creation of the SDNHM murals is not only lavishly illustrated, but gives some great insight into how paleoartists work.
09 December 2018
The Collections: One of the perks of working in Iowa was easy access to the University of Nebraska State Museum. If you're interested in Cenozoic mammals, Nebraska is a veritable gold mine. I've spent an especially long time working with carnivore specimens in the museum, of which there are a great many, but it's equally strong for hoofed mammals and proboscideans - elephant relatives - of which it has the world's largest collection.
The Exhibits: For those outside the paleontological world, the richness of the Nebraska fossil record on display at Morrill Hall may come as a surprise. Particularly surprising for many is "Elephant Hall," with its skeletal parade of mammoths and mastodons. Adjoining rooms and hallways are packed with horses, rhinos, camels, and beavers (both of the burrowing and giant varieties). Also well worth the visit is the room full of Cretaceous marine fossils, which not only shows off another strength of Nebraska's fossil record, but makes really creative use of space as well. I'm also a big fan of the Jurassic dinosaurs upstairs and the zoology displays highlighting Great Plains ecosystems in the basement. If you have time to travel a bit further afield, the museum also administers Ashfall Fossil Beds in northeast Nebraska, a unique moment in time from the Miocene captured by ash from a distant volcanic eruption.
08 December 2018
The Collections: I was a regular visitor to the Field Museum collections during my Iowa days. The main focus of my work while there was marsupial material from the Pleistocene Madura Cave locality in Western Australia and carnivore material from the White River Badlands of South Dakota. I spent a day in the mammalogy collections as well, where I measured fossil marsupial teeth and encountered perhaps the saddest specimen I've ever seen, a pelt of the recently extinct thylacine. I also had one especially motivated student who developed a project on pathology in teeth of the giant shark C. megalodon in the Field's extensive fossil fish collection. I sadly haven't spent time in perhaps the most impressive of the Field's collections consisting of material from the Green River lagerstätte in Wyoming.
The Exhibits: I could wax rhapsodic about the Field Museum exhibits for hours on end, but I'll try to restrain myself. During my college years in Chicago, I routinely felt very isolated and alone, but the Field Museum (and the magnificent Shedd Aquarium next door) always felt like home. The fossil hall is one of the best in the world, featuring world-class displays of Paleozoic invertebrates, Carboniferous coal forests, Permian synapsids, dinosaurs (including the notorious Tyrannosaurus Sue, soon to open in a new exhibit), Green River fossils, and Pleistocene megafauna from both Americas. It is also home to the single greatest work of paleoart ever created, the murals of Charles R. Knight. The rest of the museum is equally wonderful. The botany hall is unique in its size, scope, and the quality of its plant models, the extensive zoology halls are the birthplace of modern taxidermy (the Hall of Asian Mammals is particularly great), the Northwest Coast hall has an incomparable forest of totem poles through which you can wander, and the other anthropology exhibits are integrative and extensive. This treasure trove is housed inside what is, for my money, the most impressively imposing museum building in the world and centered around the Stanley Field Hall, that feels like the sanctum sanctorum of a scientific temple.
Gift Ideas: Given that I've twice mentioned the Green River Formation, I feel I should advertise the beautifully-illustrated book on Fossil Lake by Field Museum curator Lance Grande. I have it on my bookshelf and it remains one of my favorites to leaf through!
07 December 2018
The Collections: In 2010, Pittsburgh hosted the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's annual meeting (for my money the best meeting SVP's ever had, if anyone out there on the Internet cares about my opinion on such things) and I had the opportunity to visit the Carnegie Museum's collections. Though especially well known for its dinosaurs (see below), the Carnegie has some top-notch fossil mammals as well, and unusually among the big eastern natural history museums is especially rich in fossil rodents.
The Exhibits: When dinosaur mania seized the US during the Gilded Age, industrialist Andrew Carnegie didn't want his adopted home left in the dust. Upon the discovery of the first giant sauropods from the American west, he directed his curators to "get one for Pittsburgh," no matter the cost. The result was the discovery of the quarry at what is now Dinosaur National Monument, one of the most visually impressive and scientifically important windows into the Jurassic world anywhere in the globe, and the excavation of several largely complete skeletons. These include the type specimen of Diplodocus, of which Carnegie had casts made and sent as gifts to international museums. One of these casts made it to London where, I am informed on good authority, it was the first fossil I ever saw and became the starting point of the career path on which I now find myself. Another important type specimen in the Carnegie is that of the most famous of all dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex. I had the pleasure of visiting the Carnegie's dinosaur hall both in its old form, when it was a true "museum of a museum," and in its modern format as one of the most impressive fossil displays out there, and I've included pictures of both in my video. The fossil mammal hall may draw fewer crowds, but has its share of gems as well, including a rare skeleton of the giant entelodont Daeodon. The Carnegie is unusual in thaht it also houses a very nice art museum, as well as some excellent anthropology exhibits. I particularly recommend the integrative-before-it-was-cool Hall of Arctic Life.
06 December 2018
The Collections: The American Museum of Natural History is the first museum in which I did collections work (in high school, due to the efforts of a truly outstanding biology teacher) and I've spend many hours in it since. I'm especially familiar with the floor housing carnivores and rodents. And yes, I did mean floor: the ten-story building in which the AMNH houses its mammal fossils is bigger than the entirety of most museums.
The Exhibits: Pass beneath the towering Barosaurus or the Haida canoe in the AMNH's entrance halls and you've truly entered an enchanted world. The big draws are the incomparable vertebrate fossil halls on the top floor and the many halls of wildlife dioramas that act as windows on the world for nature-starved New Yorkers, but one could spend days exploring the wonders on display throughout the museum (which, of course, make up only a tiny fraction of its collections). I am especially fond of the many anthropology halls that tend to get overlooked by locals and tourists alike and make for an excellent day of museum-going.
Gift Ideas: The museum has several excellent in-house authors and a press that has released some really stunning collections of scientific illustration. Its library is also one of the best resources natural history resources out there, with all its its scholarly publications freely available.
05 December 2018
The Collections: The collections in UNAM's Instituto de Geologia are the main storehouse for all Mexican fossils, making it a treasure trove of specimens from throughout Earth history. I visited during my PhD to measure horse and canid specimens from the Miocene, which are particularly abundant from the southern state of Oaxaca. The collections are housed on UNAM's main campus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and easily the most spectacular setting for any of the research I've done, and I had the pleasure of staying in the nearby colonial neighborhood of Coyoacan, making my visit to Mexico City one of the best work trips I've ever taken.
The Exhibits: UNAM's fossil exhibits are housed in the Museo de Geologia, a long but very worthwhile trip north from the main campus. As with the Paris' natural history museum featured a few days ago, a large part of the museum's charm is its classical setting, making it a worthwhile trip even for those that aren't fossil enthusiasts. That said, the fossils are well worth a visit in and of themselves and heavily feature fossil mammals from the Pleistocene, when Mexico was a migratory crossroads between North and South America. The museum is also a must-see for anyone interested in paleoart, as it is, to my knowledge, the only place in the world to see the prehistoric landscapes of José María Velasco, for my money one of the greatest (and certainly the most underappreciated) painters of ancient life.
04 December 2018
The Collections: I visited Gainesville for 2014's North American Paleontological Convention, and while I nearly didn't make it due to snowstorms in Atlanta (my flight was rerouted through Tampa, forcing me to drive up the coast and visit the manatee sanctuary of Crystal River Springs during peak wildlife viewing season; serendipity can be pretty great sometimes) I'm glad I did. Florida's fossil record is a surprisingly rich one and the carnivore fossils I was able to measure and photograph in the collections there are still paying dividends in my ongoing work on the evolution of cat skeletons,
The Exhibits: People don't tend to think of Florida as a fossil treasure trove, but this museum will change your mind. Florida was a crossroads of continents following the growth of the Isthmus of Panama, and the wonderfully designed fossil hall at the museum showcases South American migrants such as ground sloths, armadillos, and terror birds as well as home-grown North American taxa including a mind-boggling array of carnivores. If you like fossil sharks, I cannot imagine a better place to visit. Beyond the fossils, the museum does a better job than any other I've visited of blending its natural and cultural history exhibits, including a truly eye opening display on the enigmatic Calusa civilization.
03 December 2018
The Collections: Visiting the MNHN collections this summer was one of the highlights of my academic career. I was interested in South American sloths and European cats, but as one of the world's great natural history museums, the collections spans the globe and the history of life. Many of the specimens here were collected and described by Georges Cuvier, preeminent comparative anatomist and the developer of the concept of extinction.
The Exhibits: The Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology is a museum of a museum, much of it still organized the way Cuvier designed it. Highlights include a rhino from Louis XIV's menagerie, the "Cetaceum" of whale skeletons, phosphatized frogs from Quercy, and an impressive diversity of Pleistocene birds and mammals (as well as a personal favorite, a rare specimen of the giant dragonfly relative Meganuera). If fossils and skeletons aren't your thing, the MNHN also administers a series of museums and a zoo (and an extinct animal carousel!) in the Jardin des Plantes, as well as the Musee de le Homme at the Trocadero, which not only is chock full of important Cro-Magnon and Neandertal fossils but has about the best view of the Eiffel Tower that you'll find anywhere in the city.
Gift Ideas: Christine Argot, the collections manager at the MNHN, recently published the gorgeously illustrated Dinosaurs: A Journey to the Lost Kingdom. I have a copy and can attest that it's absolutely beautiful!
02 December 2018
The Collections: I visited the museum in my Australia trip in 2014 to collect more data for my marsupial ecology project. The Queensland Museum has an impressive collection of Pleistocene fossils from sites throughout the state, including specimens from coastal caves and the Riversleigh localities of the interior. Particularly remarkable are the large numbers of small marsupials, as opposed to the megafauna that make up the bulk of other collections.
The Exhibits: The Queensland Museum has a lovely riverfront setting and displays some impressive local fossils. These include the giant marine reptile Kronosaurus, the similarly gigantic monitor lizard Megalania, dinosaur footprints from the Winton "stampede" tracksite, and a variety of Pleistocene megafauna. There are also excellent exhibits on local organisms and ecosystems as well as indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. Brisbane will be hosting the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's annual meeting next year, giving paleontologists from around the world a chance to appreciate one of Australia's great museums.
Gift Ideas: The Queensland Museum operates a press that should be your first stop if you're traveling to the area and want any information on regional biology, geology, and history.
01 December 2018
The Collections: I visited the Melbourne Museum in August of 2014 to collect data for a project comparing Australian and North American carnivores. The collections are rich in Pleistocene megafauna from Victoria, notably including the "marsupial lion" Thylacoleo and non-Tasmanian Tasmanian devils, with which I spent most of my time. The collections are also known for their Victorian marine fossils, including some important specimens documenting the evolution of whales. As a bonus, when I visited the paleontology collections were housed in the basement of the Royal Exhibition Building, a world heritage site and one of the more impressive buildings I've ever worked in.
The Exhibits: The Melbourne Museum is a modernist masterpiece set amidst Victorian-era Carlton Gardens, so it's worth a visit for the architecture alone. There's an obligatory dinosaur hall featuring casts of Chinese species, but the most interesting fossils are Australian and range from Precambrian banded iron formations representing some of the earliest evidence of photosynthesis to a mass grave of Paleozoic fish to polar dinosaurs to a trackway of the giant marsupial Diprotodon. If fossils aren't your thing, you're probably reading the wrong blog, but you should still visit the Melbourne Museums for its gorgeous biodiversity displays, its indoor forest, and its overview of human history and culture ranging from the earliest Australians to the present day.
Gift Ideas: Museums Victoria runs a publishing company that prints several titles on history, culture, and science. I can especially recommend the beautifully illustrated The Art of Science.