Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Species that Don't Get Enough Publicity #12: Barylambda

The Field Museum is home to many holotypes-Brachiosaurus, the Southwestern species of Parasaurolophus, Cryolophosaurus, Cacops, Secernosaurus, Varanops and Thylacosmilus (more on them later). However, one prominent specimen is a complete skeleton that puzzles visitors and scientists alike. It’s the first thing visitors see exiting the theater that in turn exits from the dinosaur hall. It’s mounted next to the tusked skulls of Coryphodon and Eobasileus in a glass case, facing across from another showing extant orders of mammals under Charles Knight’s depiction of Uintatherium and Orohippus.  It’s been displayed outside the exhibit on the gallery, and when Life Over Time opened in 1992, the mount was heralded, like the others, by a colorful circus banner by Glen C. Davies. I distinctly remember the hairy mammal in a boxer’s robe and gloves, raising his first Ali-style over a fallen dinosaur in the ring, a symbol of mammalian success as the dinosaurs fell to the mass extinction. This is Barylamdba.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Top Ten (and more!) discoveries since the last time the Cubs won the World Series

As a Chicagoan, you can bet I was quite proud of the Cubs winning the baseball World Series after 108 years. 108 years can be quite significant, especially in the 20th century’s many, many, events. The 20th century has seen atrocities, wars, tragedies, and hate, but it’s seen technological and social progress, scientific revolutions, and discoveries about ourselves and our world.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Ancient enemies: man-killers of prehistory

Happy Halloween, readers! The human psyche is full of fear. A lot of fear comes from our vivid imaginations-horror is full of hypothetical situations based on pure fantasy, but on premises that date to real situations and concepts. Murder, disaster, accident, disease-people die from horrific causes. Most monsters are humanoid-people are the leading cause of human deaths. Many of our fears come from animals. Bats are alien-looking, rats carry disease, and arthropods are alien-looking and often dangerous. 

Then there’s the fears dating from actual experiences. History is replete with examples of people by accident or malice coming into conflict with animals.  People have been killed by our own domesticated animals: dogs can be taught to be brutal attackers, and angry cattle, horses, and pigs are more than a match for an unarmed human.  

Then there’s people being killed by wild animals; every day an unlucky person runs into a dangerous animal, are perceived as predator or prey, and dispatched by deadly natural weapons honed by generations of natural selection.  Without technology, a human being is pathetic. We’re bigger than most animals, but the largest predators dwarf us. Our resistance against venom and chemical weapons is just our size alone. Our natural weapons are pathetic: we can barely outrun an elephant on a good day, our strength is feeble, our teeth are small, and our fingers and toes are tipped with sensitive pads instead of hooves or claws. We have no armor or horns or quills, we can’t fly, and are only efficient swimmers with a great deal of effort. 

Now imagine humans without our technology.  No guns,  not even a spear. We were prey.  An enemy could come at any direction, and kill us without a fight. At night, we were blind without fire, at the mercy of nocturnal predators. You could wake up at any morning and you could find a member of your family vanished. In the day, you’d be looking at the grass nervously. Every time you tried to eat or drink you would have to keep your eyes moving and eating as quickly as possible. If you scavenged from a kill, you could easily find yourself the neighboring carcass.  These are the animals we feared. Welcome to my nightmare, my friends; I think you’re going to like it. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

An Overview of Dinosaur Exhibits Part 6: The Carnegie Museum revisited

When you think of timeless fossil museums in the USA, you usually think of places like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. You think of schools like Harvard, Yale, and Drexel. You think of places where they’re found like in Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado. When you think of the city of Pittsburgh, you think the highlands of western Pennsylvania as the Appalachians cut through the state towards New York. You think of the steel and the coal and the massive factories and sweating immigrants.  You would never connect Pittsburgh with a fossil museum.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Book Review: Prehistoric Monsters

Dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts have been a big part of Western Culture, especially the dominant English, French and American cultures, for centuries. This has been acknowledged by scientists, historians, and artistic commentators, but there are relatively few overviews of it. So, it was to my delight that Allen A. Debus finally wrote a book on this obsession and its permutations, the 2010 work Prehistoric Monsters: The Real and Imagined Creatures of the Past That We Love to Fear. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Pictures At An Exhibition Part 2

Today I’m returning to my Pictures At An Exhibition. In case you haven’t read part 1, here’s the link

We continue the series of murals with one that has been restored to display after a 20-year hiatus. It’s the first one visitors see in Evolving Planet, right between the stromatolites, next to a display on banded iron, and a model of a eukaryotic cell. Those are pretty good hints, by the way, on the setting and content.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Jurassic World review

“Boy, do I hate being right all the time!”-Ian Malcolm

For years I’ve wondered why dinosaurs aren’t popular anymore. They’re second fiddle again like always. The Renaissance is over, and the Wars of Religion have begun. Paleontology’s still small and uncool, science itself is forgotten in an anti-intellectual atmosphere, hardly anyone goes to museums for the collections anymore. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe it’s just my bipolar psychology getting to me again.  I had hope for a while. Then I saw Jurassic World.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Prehistoric Warfare Episode 5: Iguanodon vs Neovenator

Now for something different. In 2004, Animal Planet showed as new series called Animal Face Off, a series reconstructing conflicts between coexisting animals. While the execution was clumsy and lacking, the concept is strong and I think easily applied to prehistoric fauna.  Ideally, there would be professionals discussing the situations, but unfortunately, you have only me. First I will compare the animals, and then depict their behavior, before concluding with the final battle.  The outcome will be my personal opinion; and there would be many times when the outcome would be decidedly different. This is not a scientific consensus, but one researcher’s opinion.

We all love dinosaur battles. They’re always a high point in a film. It’s childish, but it’s just plain fun. So, I’m hoping to use this opportunity to use this almost-universal appeal to get people thinking and talking about ecology, biomechanics, and behavior. Only one or two of these stories will be based on actual fossils-the rest are likely possibilities that must have happened sometime or another. In real life, animals usually don’t fight on even terms, but it does happen. Sometimes prey turn the tables, sometimes predators quarrel between themselves, but it can happen. I hope you enjoy this. Again, first I will have two scenes, one for each animal showing them in their habitat and showcasing their particular skills, then finally concluding with a battle between the two.