Friday, July 11, 2014

An overview of Dinosaur Exhibits part 5: The Royal Ontario Museum

I have held off talking about this museum for a while now, as it has been nearly 15 years since I’ve been there last, and not only have I forgotten a great deal of it but also it has undergone extensive renovation in 2008.  Canada, like the USA, is rich in dinosaur fossil material, and sort of acts like Mongolia to China in terms of fossils-the hotbed of Cretaceous rock. British Colombia brought us the Cambrian explosion in the Burgess Shale, but for dinosaurs, Alberta and Saskatchewan are the real treasure trove. There’s really nothing like them outside of Montana and Wyoming to the south and Mongolia across the Pacific. Lambe, Brown, and the Sternbergs found a gold mine of Cretaceous fossils, one that is still being excavated today. 

Like the southern American West, while a lot of fossils are stored and studied nearby (in this case, the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller near Edmonton), a great deal have made it to the East. While the US fossils were shipped to Chicago, Pittsburg, Washington, New Haven, Philadelphia and Washington DC,  the Canadian fossils were sent to Toronto and Ottawa. The National Canadian Museum of Nature will be covered next in the series, but today we’re looking at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The museum is an amazing colossus, with a futuristic, geometric crystal built around a neo-gothic core.  There are no less than 3 full levels, and it will take two days to see the whole thing. I spent 6 hours alone and wound up skipping a few of the less interesting exhibits. It’s second only to the American Museum in New York in terms of sheer size and scope. Archaeology, history, anthropology, paleontology, art and ecology share the spaces, from 20th century Canada back to the Triassic, from the First Nations of British Colombia to Edo Japan to Old Kingdom Egypt to the Golden Age of France.

Fortunately, I chose to make a paleontology blog instead of history or anthropology (for now), so I’ll focus on the two galleries on the second floor.

On the main floor there is a mount, however, much like the American’s Barosaurus or Field’s Tyrannosaurus. In this case, it’s of the giant Cretaceous titanosaur Futalongkosaurus. The holotype is an incomplete specimen in the Museo Ernesto Bachmann in El Chocon, Argentina, so this is a cast, using other titanosaur bones to reconstruct it. In a unique touch, all the fossils here are identified as cast, fossil, or composite, showing which are which by the display card.

The sauropod dominates the Hyacinth Gloria Chen Court and can be seen from the ticket booths, but it’s not the only dinosaur. Behind it is the Samuel Hall Currelly Gallery, linking the exhibits on the main floor. There, two more full mounts are on display, articulated but still “in situ” context,  of Sternberg’s Prosaurolophus and Edmontosaurus. They’re impressive but they are only appetizers, tempting visitors with promises of more.

On the second floor, the best way of reaching the fossils is the Stair of Wonders to the Southwest. On the way, you should appreciate the mounts of tropical birds, modern dinosaurs.  Coming in from the stairwell, be sure to look left. You’ll be looking straight at the giant beak of a mount of Quetzalcoatlus. While Austin and Pittsburg also have spectacular Quetzalcoatlus mounts, this one is the most impressive; it flies in from the main court, peering in at the visitors menacingly.

The way to view this gallery is a clockwise circle. First, you should start with the gallery of icthyosaurs, two dimensional but still spectacular, including a giant Eurhinosaurus and a pregnant Stenopterygius.  Going forward, you’ll encounter two classic Jurassic American dinosaurs-Allosaurus and Stegosaurus. Instead of being locked in combat as in Denver or in separate galleries like New York, they are side by side, more concerned with the visitors than each other. Behind them is the showcase of the gallery-Barosaurus. It’s the only such mount outside New York. However, unlike the dynamic battle against Allosaurus, this one is browsing, right next to a Camptosaurus and Compsognathus.

Cretaceous begins with Parksosaurus nearby, and leading to a truly impressive display of hadrosaurs. While a Euoplocephalus skull and mace are nearby and a Geosternbergia flies overhead, it’s these hadrosaurs that make up the next showcase. Parasaurolophus, Lambeosaurus, Corythosaurus, Maiasaura  (and infants) and Gryposaurus  are in their full splendour, their sheer size and unique shapes looming over skulls of Corythosaurus, Lambeosaurus (and their juvenile and subadult stages) and Edmontosaurus.  Returning back to the entrance are the late Cretaceous theropods of America: Full mounts of Ornithomimus, Anzu (just named this year), Gorgosaurus, and Deinonychus

The next gallery can be found by the “flying” mount of Archelon. Indeed, it’s a good transition-it continues the Cretaceous, and the next fossils are all from the great Niobrara seaway stretching from Veracruz though Eastern Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and into Manitoba, Western Ontario, and Eastern Saskatchewan. Archelon is joined by other flying mounts of Platecarpus, Xiphactinus, and Trinacromerum¸and a two dimensional Hydrotherosaurus. Below them are skulls of Tylosaurus and Platecarpus (the last with an ammonite in its mouth, a specimen with mosasaur toothmarks and punctures in its shell)

Finally, there are the Ceratopsians and the last theropods. Small display cases describe the ROM’s discovery of the pachycephalosaur Acrotholus and dromeosaur Acheroraptor. The horned dinosaurs, contemporaries of Gorgosaurus and the last space’s hadrosaurs, are represented by skulls of Arrhinoceratops, Anchiceratops, Centrosaurus and full mounts of Protceratops and  Chasmosaurus. Another case has the domes of Stegoceras, Pachycephalosaurus, Stygimoloch, and Colepiocephale.  Behind them is a Pachycephalosaurus mount and a wall display of birdlike dinosaurs, replicas of the Liaoning feathered dinosaurs, a mounted cast of Bambiraptor and a very inaccurate model of Microcraptor and a realistic model of . Of course, the real stars of the display are the centerpiece. A mounted cast of Tyrannosaurus looms over the other dinosaurs, while replica skulls of Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and Nanotyrannus

The transition to mammals is abrupt-you can just turn around from Tyrannosaurus to Hyracotherium. A Teleoceras is elevated over the Palaeogene gallery-including skulls of Barylambda, Hemipsalodon, Megacerops (several specimens), Uintatherium, early equids, full mounts of Dinictis,  Menoceras, and Hyaenodon,. The highlights are the mount of the bizarre amphibious mammal Desmostylus and the three Menoceras in different poses, a piece of their legendary bonebed below them.

The second mammal display is my personal favorite, South American mammals. Skulls of the killer bird Phorusrhacus and the mammals Interatherium, Adinotherium, Haplomastodon Thylacosmilus, Borhyaena and others are overshadowed by the mounts. The greatest of the mounts is the giant Laurillard's ground sloth (the sheer size of this animal, found only in the Gulf of Mexico, is probably why it’s here instead of the only ground sloth found in Canada, the smaller Jefferson’s Ground Sloth),  dwarfing the Macrauchenia, Toxodon, Glyptodon, Holmesina, northern sabertooth, dire wolf, and western horse.

True Canadian mammals make up the last mammal section, focused around the American Mastodon. Stag-Moose, Irish Elk (its European equivalent), giant beaver, Hagerman horse (an older, more primitive species of horse), and giant short-faced bear form up behind it. The best part of this display, however, is the display on Bergmann’s rule. Skulls of modern animals-alligator, African lion, and plains bison are compared with their Pleistocene equivalents-giant alligator (same species), American lion, and steppe bison.

Lastly, there is another gallery behind the mammals; a special exhibit. It’s focused on the Upper Elliot formation, specifically the dinosaur Massospondylus. Massospondylus is not only represented by a mount, but also fossil skulls of adult, juvenile, and hatchlings, as well as a nest. Its predator Dracovenator is also present, with its snout being compared to the replica of the full skeleton of Dilophosaurus hung on the wall.

The exhibits’ arrangement is middling, as are the mounts poses. There is a sense of linear time, albeit somewhat distorted by the clockwise manner of the first room and the abrupt transition to the Cenozoic. There are no murals or art, showing the specimens in clinical detail. They’re well-lit by the fluorescent skylights and giant windows, allowing for detailed viewing of the specimens. Like the rest of the museum, the dinosaurs are placed not in atmospheric senses, but clinical like the American museum. Thankfully, it avoids the American museum’s mistake of arranging the animals taxonomically.  While Gorgosaurus and Eurhinosaurus share a room and Anatosaurus is alongside Corythosaurus and Barosaurus while Chasmosaurus is by Tytannosaurus, at least Apatosaurus isn’t across from Tyrannosaurus. I would have come up with a better arrangement, and the clockwise arrangement of the first room’s fossils could have been more explicit so that people don’t get the idea that Quetzalcoatlus and Gorgosaurus were contemporaries of icthyosaurs, but it’s satisfactory.

I, however, recommend this exhibit and the museum. Like the American, it’s huge and complex and exhausting, and it can’t all be seen in a day, but it’s also amazing. Yeah, some displays are disorganized or could be presented better, but the sheer amount of great specimens is overwhelming.  The American museum, the pinnacle of natural history museums in the USA, is the only museum I can remember being greater than the Royal Ontario museum. I recommend it wholeheartedly. While the Canadian Museum of Nature is excellent (more on that one later) and the Royal Tyrell is a holy grail for me, the Royal Ontario is the greatest museum this side of the Alleghenies.  Go see it! The paleontology gallery is described on the museum’s website here, complete with virtual tour

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