Texas Retirement for World Famous NYC Dinos

A 1964 New York Times photo of the Sinclair Dinosaur and Stegosaurus passing by the Empire State Building on their way to the Queens fairgrounds

A 1964 New York Times photo of the Sinclair Dinosaur and Stegosaurus viewing the Empire State Building on their way to the Worlds Fair fairgrounds

The Sinclair dinosaur was a sensation when he arrived in New York City to star in the 1964 World’s Fair. Millions of visitors queued to have their pictures taken with him and get a glimpse of life-size replicas of the scale and scope of the Mesozoic megafauna.

T. Rex, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Trachodon…never mind that they lived millions of years apart – just to see them inspired science geeks, wonder seekers, and future paleontologists – an unforgettable childhood impression.

It may surprise you to learn that Sinclair and T. Rex are living a blissful retirement in Texas where there are no Unispheres, freeways, lines of tourists, or ticket booths…about 75 miles southwest of Fort Worth in a state park with another unique connection to New York.

Sinclair relaxes in a Texas corral

Sinclair relaxes in a Texas corral

The gargantuan dinosaur trackway up on the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History is from the Paluxy River in Dinosaur Valley State Park, where these two former New Yorkers have retired.

Back in the Thirties, AMNH field explorer Roland T. Bird told his boss, Barnum Brown, about the Texas trackways. In 1940, aided by WPA crews, the submerged tracks were excavated, cut into 1,200 pieces and shipped off to the AMNH, the Smithsonian, the University of Texas, and a few other places.The excavation was a media sensation, with chronicles appearing everywhere.

In New York, the jigsaw-puzzle track pieces were eventually reassembled and placed under the Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus, where they remain today.

Apatosaurus atop Paluxy trackway in New York at AMNH

Apatosaurus atop Paluxy trackway in New York at AMNH

The big, round blobby tracks that appear to match those of Apatosaurus are reckoned to be those of Sauroposeidon and the three-toed tracks running right alongside are those of Acrocanthosaurus, a predator.

Even though this spectacular trackway got moved to New York, there are still plenty in in the park. There are at least five big sites, which have all been documented in the Dinosaur Valley State Park footprint-mapping project. See the results here. When you click on each photo mosaics or track overlays, they will open in Google Earth. Find the R.T. Bird site under Track Site Area 2.

But how did the New York dinosaurs get to Glen Rose? The entire dinosaur group toured the United States for a few years after the Fair, right around the time that Texans lobbied to have the Paluxy Trackway declared a state park. No dinosaur fossils at the time, but there were lots of footprints, mostly underwater but a few on the shoreline. Neighboring ranchers donated the land, hoping to keep the site intact and spur tourism dollars.

Sauropod footprints underwater at the Paluxy River, Glen Rose, Texas

Sauropod footprints underwater at the Paluxy River, Glen Rose, Texas

When the Sinclair tour concluded, Atlantic Richfield’s idea was to donate all the dinosaurs to the Smithsonian, but when the Smithsonian said they didn’t want the group, the band broke up. One went to Vernal, one to Cleveland, but Glen Rose was the only location that managed to get the two biggest stars. Did the New York connection make the difference?

It’s hard to know, but the recently opened Perot Museum of Nature and Science features a pop culture corner in its dinosaur hall with replicas of all of the NYC’s World’s Fair dinosaurs!

For the complete story, check out this video of the tracksite and an introduction to the Google Earth mapping project, old videos of Mr. Bird’s historic 1940s excavation, and cameos by the Sinclair dinosaur and friends.

World’s Fair T Rex enjoying a quiet life in Texas

World’s Fair T Rex enjoying a quiet life in Texas

Pterosaurs Leave New York

AMNH illustration of Mary Anning’s Dimorphodon. Courtesy: AMNH.

AMNH illustration of Mary Anning’s Dimorphodon. Courtesy: AMNH.

They came from all over the world to hang out for the ball drop, but will be gone by the time of the Super Bowl. Yes, the crazy cast of characters in the American Museum of Natural History’s show, Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of the Dinosaurs, will decamp for their hometowns tomorrow, January 4 just like everyone else who came to New York and had a blast.

Quetzalcoatlus, Tropeognathus, and “Dark Wing” have been putting on quite a show for AMNH visitors since April, and only time will tell if New Yorkers have learned to stop calling them “dinosaurs.” They are flying reptiles.

AMNH illustration of super-tiny Nemicolopterus from China (10 inches) proves that not all pterosaurs were giants. He lived in the forest.

AMNH illustration of super-tiny Nemicolopterus from China (10 inches) proves that not all pterosaurs were giants. He lived in the forest.

The show features life-sized replicas of these flying machines and the big celebrity “Dark Wing” from Germany – the only pterosaur fossil yet found with impressions of the amazing wing membrane that contains layers and layers of thin muscle, all suspended from a single finger.

Get to know more about these amazing animals in the intro to the show, complete with a peppy soundtrack created by the Museum’s digital divas:

 

When Mary (“She Sells Sea Shells…”) Anning went scouting along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast in 1828, she found little Dimorphodon and sold it to Mr. Buckland, starting a scientific quest to determine the exact nature of these enigmatic creatures.

Happy Ptreranodon in the Vertebrate Origins hall before the crew made him a star of the show inside the Lefrak Gallery.

Happy Ptreranodon in the Vertebrate Origins hall before the crew made him a star of the show inside the Lefrak Gallery.

Most of the press at the time went gaga for the pterodactyl found in Bavaria during the 1830s and 1840s, named Pterodactylus by Mr. Cuvier. Pterosaur fossils have been around so long that it’s hard to believe that this New York show is the first time that these non-dinos have gotten the full star treatment.

Co-curators Mark Norell and Alexander Kellner and the AMNH exhibitions squad took on the jumbo challenge of mounting this first-ever museum show devoted solely to the vertebrates who “invented” flight. Yes, before birds (or bats) took to the skies, fuzzy-bodied pterosaurs were dive-bombing Mesozoic fish, launching from beaches, and leaving their unmistakable footprints on mudflats all over the ancient world.

Click here to see paleontologists searching for pterosaur footprints on an ancient Upper Jurassic beach in central Wyoming.

Pterosaur tracks in the Wyoming sandstone. Crooked forelimb print (L), hindfoot print (R). Taken on a 2006 trackway field trip with the Tate Museum.

Pterosaur tracks in the Wyoming sandstone. Crooked forelimb print (L), hindfoot print (R). Taken on a 2006 trackway field trip with the Tate Museum.

We couldn’t take photos inside the AMNH show of the beautiful pterosaur trackway from the Utah Field House of Natural History in Vernal, Utah, so this Flickr slide show gives you the idea. The shots were taken ten years ago, when paleontologists were still debating whether pterosaurs were bipedal or quadrupedal. As you can see, these Jurassic pterosaurs left quadrupedal tracks.

It’s doubtful that these flying marvels stayed on the beach for long. Watch here to see how gigantic Quetzalcoatlus and friends took off via the animations by the AMNH digital team, based on Michael Habib’s analytics and simulations. You’ll be surprised by what airplanes and pterosaurs have in common:

Poison Packs Punch at AMNH Night at the Museum Adult Sleepover

The sleepover site under the Blue Whale

The sleepover site under the Blue Whale

The first-ever adult Night at the Museum sleepover at the American Museum of Natural History last night was a hit, thanks to the enthusiasm and star power of Dr. Mark Siddall, the curator of the fantastic exhibition, The Power of Poison, closing August 10.

Early in the evening, Siddall mingled with sleepover guests at dinner in the Powerhouse and later in a series late-night talks from the Victorian theater inside the Poison show where costumed performers normally show visitors how to gather clues to solve a period murder mystery involving poison. (Think “I’ve got poison in my pocket” from A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.)

After dinner, the adventurers, some in costumes themselves, made quick trips with their stuffed animals to the cots under the Blue Whale and bounded up the stairs through the low-light galleries to reach the shark IMAX, live animal demos, fossil tours, and Siddall’s Poison briefings.

The Victorian theater inside Poison. Photo: AMNH/D. Finnan

The Victorian theater inside Poison. Photo: AMNH/D. Finnan

You had to pass through the always eerie Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians (hello, Komodo dragons!) to enter the magical kingdom of the Poison galleries.

Once inside, you were transported to a tropical rainforest, with golden poison-dart frogs under a dome, huge models of dangerous insects, and a toxin-eating Howler Monkey lurking on a branch.

Beyond the tropics, the show morphed into a land of make-believe…or was it? Tableaux with a sleeping Snow White, the witches of Macbeth, and the Mad Hatter were captivating, with the label copy bringing you back down to earth by explaining the role played by poisons and toxins in these scenes and what exactly witches’ brew contained.

Supplies for the toxic witches’ brew. Source: AMNH

Supplies for the toxic witches’ brew. Source: AMNH

A Chinese emperor (the one with the terra cotta army, no less!) ingests mercury in one diorama, thinking it’s going to give him immortality. Wrong move. Glancing down, you find out that as recently as 1948, mercury-laced teething powder was still being used on babies in the United States.

A spectacular illusion along the way is a magical set of Greek vases whose painted figures came to life to tell stories of how poison helped Hercules and doomed Ms. Medea.

The Magic BookThe lively vases are a prelude to the exhibition team’s greatest wonder – the Enchanted Book – a gigantic tome where ancient illustrations leap to life as you turn big, think parchment pages. Visitors could not get enough of that magic book. Somehow the AMNH digital team replicated it on the website, so click here to take a look at The Power of Poison: An Enchanted Book and turn the pages on line.

Here’s a glimpse of one story from the belladonna page, providing the backstory on how witches fly:

A lot of Siddall’s spectacular, magical, immersive, theatrical exhibition explains the science behind venoms, the “arms races” in the natural world, poison’s role in children’s stories, and how to analyze clues in solving murder mysteries.

Check out the Victorian-style introduction to Poison with Dr. Mark Siddall, its creator, and get a little taste of what the sleepover guests saw and heard.

To ward off any bad dreams about toxins or creepy crawlers, a lot of the late-nighters nestled in to watch vintage Abbott and Costello and Superman films and post Instagrams from the cozy, pillow-lined pit in center of the Hall of Planet Earth.

See the Today show’s recap (video after the commercial).

PS: If you can’t get to this show before August 10, download the iPad app, Power of Poison: Be a Detective that allows you to experience the last portion of the show. It’s been nominated for a 2014 Webby Award in the Education and Reference category.

Tiny Natural History Show Has Eyes Bugging Out

Asaphus, from St. Petersburg, has eyes bugging out (Ordovidian, 490-440 mya). Photo: ©AMNH/R.Mickens)

Asaphus, from St. Petersburg, has eyes bugging out (Ordovidian, 490-440 mya). Photo: ©AMNH/R.Mickens)

Confined to a tiny case in the “canoe” rotunda at the American Museum of Natural History, some extinct species from more than 400 million years ago are putting on quite a show, thanks to two trilobite lovers from the heavy-metal music and vert paleo worlds.

Andy Secher and Martin Shugar went through their massive trilobite collections (Andy has 4,000 in his Manhattan apartment and Martin turned over 200,000 fossils and shells to AMNH) and picked out fifteen “best of the best” from each of the six geologic periods that hosted these little waterway critters – from the Cambrian to the Permian (521 to 240 million years ago). It’s quite something, considering there are over 20,000 recognized species lingering in 281 million years of rocks around the world!

When the exoskeleton of Dicranurus disintegrated in the Lower Devonian, it left a fossilized cast that is so perfectly prepared you think you’re watching him in action

When the exoskeleton of Dicranurus disintegrated in the Lower Devonian, it left a fossilized cast so perfectly prepared you think you’re watching him in action

The tiny show, which is in an open-ended run,  is a “wow” due to the spectacular preservation and preparation of each of these little snubs of rock containing fossilized “casts” of animals whose exoskeletons disintegrated soon after they expired millions of years ago. The state of preservation of even the most delicate features is pretty remarkable.

Consider Asaphus kowalewskii from Ordivician rocks near St. Petersburg (490-440 mya), whose long eye stalks are truly a wonder of nature, evolution, and behind-the-scenes prep that make this character’s eyes pop. Trilobites invented complex, multi-lens eyes, and this Asaphus provocatively suggests the ability to check things out above the sediments where they burrowed, sort of like a horseshoe crab equipped with a modern submarine periscope.

The little Olenoides on display hails from British Columbia’s famous Burgess Shale and has long antenna curving back along its sides. He’s also found in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Utah, and other places in Cambrian rocks 450-490 million years old.  For all those AMNH visitors asking where they can see the Burgess Shale, here’s your chance to commune with a critter and some rock from the same formation that so inspired uber-naturalist Stephen Jay Gould.

Olenoides of British Columbia’s Burgess Shale (Cambrian 450-490 mya) has curve-back spines

Olenoides of British Columbia’s Burgess Shale (Cambrian 450-490 mya)

Walliserops has a full trident sprouting out of his head –a unique apparatus that adapted him for who-knows-what in Devonian life in what-is-now Morocco. Is this where Neptune got the idea of what works best down under the sea?

The hometown favorite is Arctinurus boltoni, first found in upstate New York in the early 1800s during the construction of the Erie Canal. The AMNH has an entire website showcasing these upstate wonders from the Rochester Shale. See them all and take a peek behind the scenes into the AMNH collection drawers on the image gallery.

Andy and Martin’s enthusiasm for trilobites puts them in good company. Tom Jefferson and Ben Franklin are said to have collected them. Trilobite fossils were hawked on 15th century European streets and several trilobite websites say that 25,000-year-old European burials were found with these fossils, too.

Trilobites with tridents and horns. Walliserops is found in Morocco’s Lower to Middle Devonian strata.

Trilobites with tridents and horns. Walliserops is found in Morocco’s Lower to Middle Devonian strata.

Although AMNH has terrific trilobite blog and a page with “Twenty Trilobite Fast Facts,” why not go for the slick YouTube video tour? Watch as AMNH’s Neil Landman, Andy, and Martin talk about their passion and show the cabinet-sized exhibit in close-up.  You really need to come, meet the trilobites, and journey back to a time on Earth before animals had even colonized land.

 

When Whales Walked Explained at AMNH

Whales exhibit tells the evolution story. Courtesy: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Whales exhibit tells the evolution story. Courtesy: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Right inside the exhibit, Whales: Giants of the Deep, the American Museum of Natural History answers two questions that have stumped centuries of nature lovers – how did the world’s largest sea-loving mammals ever evolve from land animals, and who are their closest relatives?

In the last 20 years, DNA experts and paleontologists have been hacking away at these questions, and the show provides some startling visuals and answers: Whales (a group that includes dolphins and porpoises) came from four-legged animals that hovered close to shore lines, snapping up fish. Oh, and their closest relatives on the Mammal Tree of Life are…get ready…hippos. See the show before January 5.

Clue to solving the mystery – the skull of Andrewsarchus, three feet long, found in 1923 by Kan Chuen Pao on AMNH’s second Gobi expedition. Courtesy: AMNH/R. Mickens

Clue to solving the mystery – the skull of Andrewsarchus, three feet long, found in 1923 by Kan Chuen Pao on AMNH’s second Gobi expedition. Courtesy: AMNH/R. Mickens

The first thing you’ll see is a massive skull of Andrewsarchus, a 45-million-year-old whale cousin, who would have stood over six feet tall at the shoulder. He was found in Mongolia on the famous AMNH Central Asiatic Expedition in the 1920s (remember the dinosaur eggs?) and to this day is the only one found.

The paleo team compared the features on his skull to other mammals, ran their analysis through cladistics software, generated a family tree, and learned that Andrewsarchus falls somewhere near the evolutionary point where whales and hippos had a common ancestor, a key clue.

Artist Carl Buell’s depiction of Pakicetus, the oldest known ancestor to  whales

Artist Carl Buell’s depiction of Pakicetus, the oldest known ancestor to whales

A huge discovery in Northern Pakistan in 1983 began to unlock the rest of the mystery. Found in 50-million-year-old Eocene rocks, remains of the enigmatic, four-legged, fish-eating Pakicetus were discovered at the edge of what was once an ancient sea. It was deemed by scientists to be the earliest known modern-whale ancestor. Many specimens were unearthed, with ear bones looking like modern-day dolphins, but ankle bones more like a pig’s, giving scientists a reason to place his ancestry in the “artiodactyl” category, which includes hippos, pigs, antelopes, camels, and other even-toed hoofed animals. Subsequent finds and DNA analysis of modern whales further solidified the hippo-relation hypothesis.

Cladogram showing family relationships of whales and artiodactyls from the AMNH guide for students in grades 6-8

Cladogram showing family relationships of whales and artiodactyls from the AMNH guide for students in grades 6-8

The show includes a full replica of his skeleton, along with other fossils from the subcontinent showing the transition of four-legged wolf-sized animals to the streamlined bodies that we now associate with ocean- and river-going cetaceans. You’ll see a terrific video that animates the transition from longer-snouted, web-footed fish-eaters that paddled through estuaries (Ambulocetus), to more streamlined sea-going mammals whose front legs became flippers and back legs disappeared nearly completely. Kutchicetus (43-46 million years ago) shows evidence that it probably did some deep dives, and Durudon (37 mya) had nostrils at the top of his head, flipper-hands, and apparatus at the end of his tail that suggests a support for flukes.

A clue from India. Artist Carl Buell’s depiction of Kutchicetus, dweller in ancient tropical seas

A clue from India. Artist Carl Buell’s depiction of Kutchicetus, who lived in ancient tropical seas

The show was originally organized by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and features a mix of AMNH and Te Papa artifacts and insights.

There are many other wonderful biological, historical, and cultural details to the whale story, as the YouTube below shows (84K hits and counting), but shout-outs must be given to the two stars — large Sperm whale skeletons (think Moby Dick) on display, lovingly named and transported here by the Maoris, who found the stranded duo, prepared, and blessed them for special appearance in New York.

Don’t be Sad, He’s Irish!

Apatosaurus holds court on the Fourth Floor of AMNH. Source: Scott Robert Anselmo

Apatosaurus holds court on the Fourth Floor of AMNH. Source: Scott Robert Anselmo

There’s no way to count the number of times that people get upset because his actual scientific name is no longer Brontosaurus.

He’s one of the most famous dinosaur celebrities in the world and you may know him as Brontosaurus from your Flintstone days, but his real name is the Apatosaurus.

So just think about it….It’s the perfect day for you to learn to say his “Irish” name — A-PAT-o’saurus. Isn’t that better? Go over to wish him well this weekend.

ModelHe’s the largest dinosaur on display in New York. He came here all the way from Wyoming, and he’s been standing here since 1905, when J.P. Morgan and the AMNH crew unveiled him. It was the first time that a really big dinosaur was ever mounted in 3D anywhere in the world.

To the left is the “architect’s model” that the 1905 crew used to figure out how to weld together enough steel to keep the tons of rock up in the air. A-PAT-o’saurus, Happy Irish Day!

Virtual Ancestor Cornered in High-Tech Tree by AMNH

Carl Buell’s rendering of the hypothetical placental ancestor, a small insect-eating animal. Source: AMNH

Carl Buell’s rendering of the hypothetical placental ancestor, a small insect-eating animal. Source: AMNH

Who says dinosaurs get all the attention?

One of the big front-page science stories of the last few weeks is that a global team of researchers has mapped our ancestor tree back in time to a hypothetical small, furry critter that emerged just after the dinosaurs went extinct. The big news is that through a giant high-tech, data-crunching technique, 15-20 molecular-data scientists collaborating in six countries around the world figured out that the hypothetical ancestor to nearly all the mammals alive today emerged 200,000 to 400,000 years after the comet crashed to Earth 65 million years ago.

Ok, it wasn’t the first mammal (the ancestor to platypuses, opossums, kangaroos, and a lot of other extinct things came much earlier), but let’s applaud the American Natural History Museum for telling this story so clearly to a writer at The New York Times that it made it to the front page.

Column on AMNH Fourth Floor exhibit space that marks the spot where the virtual critter emerged along the evolutionary pathway in the Hall of Primitive Mammals.

Column on AMNH Fourth Floor exhibit space that marks the spot where the virtual critter emerged along the evolutionary pathway in the Hall of Primitive Mammals.

At Thursday’s Social Media Week event on how to tell stories in science, panelists repeatedly emphasized how hard it is to make clarity emerge from a morass of data.  In a way, this “story about the rat” reached a social-media science storytelling trifecta: over 240 comments “about the rat” on the NYT web site, a neat little video that’s racked up over 11,000 views in just two weeks, and an exhibition layout for the vertebrate paleo collection on the museum’s Fourth Floor that lets you stand in the exact spot on the evolutionary pathway where this tiny hypothetical ancestor emerged. (See the photo with the Giant Sloth, to the left.)

Great job, AMNH and Stony Brook storytellers for giving us this video view into deep time, showing how MorphoBank crunches data, and creating another social-media star out of a virtual ball of fur.

PS: The fossil background talent in this video appears to be a model of Gobiconodon, an actual Cretaceous mammal from 110 million years ago who’s not directly related to the star of this show, but looks good on camera.

Prehistoric Book Debuts

The art biography that the paleo community has been waiting for is here – Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. It’s about the artist who was the first to take us all into his time machine, back to the time of the cave people, saber-toothed cats, and the Cretaceous through his paintings and murals that we grew up with at the AMNH and Chicago’s Field Museum.

At this month’s New York Paleontological Society meeting, we got to meet his granddaughter Rhoda Knight Kalt and author Richard Milner, who provided stories, recollections, and art works of the 19th-century sculptor and painter. Milner took us back in time, reminding us that Knight (1874-1953) came of age when North America’s mammals (like Bison, which were down to 1,100 in 1889) and birds were being hunted into extinction – a call to arms that stuck with Knight throughout his life, as he painted over 800 species in his lifetime, giving priority to the most endangered first.

In addition to the murals at the AMNH and the numerous paintings gracing the halls, Knight also drew the Bison on the old $10 bill, the sculptures on the Bronx Zoo’s Heads & Horns house, and dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs, inspired initially by a three-week visit with Cope.

Milner reminded us that in Knight’s day, there were no museum dioramas or 3-D dinosaur skeleton mounts — just a Brooklyn artist with a classical education with a love of animals and a commission from AMNH to create dramatic, convincing images based upon the boxes of bones in the basement.

P.S. We would be remiss if we didn’t tell you to check out Milner’s Broadway-oriented tribute to the life, times, and philosophy of Charles Darwin at The New York Times video site.

Struthiomimus Gets No Respect —

— From The New York Times. Although it was a fantastic article in yesterday’s Science Times about the real reasons for “the death pose”, no one saw fit to give our friend, S. altus credit for his amazing contortion.  Yes, the photo is of a cast, but still…c’mon people…AMNH 5339 is one of the most-seen, most admired dinosaur fossils on the Fourth Floor of the American Museum of Natural History.  Why not slap a name on him in the NYT “Twisted” caption

To add insult to injury, check out the hyperlink title:  “archeopteryx fossils appear twisted but not because of agony”. Maybe I’m being sensitive, but some long-limbed Saurischian residents of Manhattan (Ornithomimids) deserve their “15 minutes of fame” truth-in-reporting as others. Do 12,000 visitors each weekend pay as much attention to S. altus (genuine and nearly complete skeleton) as to our Archeopteryx casts? Absolutely, so give this guy some credit, please.NYC Upper West Side resident Struthiomimus

Check out the nice story and obscured (and wrong in the metadata) pictoral identity of Struthiomimus online:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/science/archaeopteryx-fossils-appear-twisted-but-not-because-of-agony.html?_r=1&ref=science