Monday, October 19, 2015

Summer at the Morrison Natural History Museum

Summer has come and gone once again, and it was a record breaking year for the Morrison Natural History Museum!  We were completely swamped with visitors every day of the week, and everyone at the museum had a blast meeting and talking with everyone who came in to visit us!  We had several very fun events that we were involved with, and tons of amazing experiences as well.  Here are just a few of the fun events from the summer!
Matthew Mossbrucker and Dr. Robert Bakker on the balcony of the museum, posing for a picture for their Reddit AMA in June.
In June, the Director and Chief Curator of the Morrison Museum, Matthew Mossbrucker, starred in the National Geographic special “T. rex Autopsy.”  To celebrate his success, Greg and Meredith Tally, co-owners of the Best Western Denver Southwest Dino Hotel, decided to throw him a big party at the hotel’s bar, Paleo Joe’s.  It was a great get together for all of the people involved with the museum!
Volunteers, family, and friends all congregate at Paleo Joe's for the premiere of "T. rex Autopsy," starring Matthew Mossbrucker.  
Museum Coordinator Doug Hartshorn rocks the scrubs.
One of the most exciting (and delicious!) dinosaur cakes I have ever seen, made special in honor of Matthew's National Geographic program.
As a follow-up to both Matthew's "T. rex Autopsy" program, as well as Dr. Robert Bakker's program entitled "Dino Death Match," the two paleontologists did a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), with the help of Foundation Board member Greg Tally, our go-to guy for social media and press.  To prove that you are who you say you are, all people who do an AMA are required to upload a picture with them holding a sign with "Reddit" on it.
Dr. Robert Bakker and Matthew Mossbrucker posing in front of Stan, our Tyrannosaurus rex skull cast, for the AMA.
Dr. Robert Bakker and Greg Tally in front of the Morrison Natural History Museum trying to figure out the best place to take the AMA picture.
Dr. Bakker and several stuffed dinosaur plushes. 
Matthew Mossbrucker and Greg Tally on the balcony of the museum.
We are pretty excited about our recently renovated gift shop, as well!  We started our in-house renovations of our gift shop and front office in December 2014, and completed the project in February 2015.  Ever since then, we've had a ton of fun going through different catalogues and websites, selecting our favorite dinosaur merchandise for sale in our shop.
Tons of used and new dinosaur books line our shelves, and we have a nice little reading nook for those who want to take a load off and peruse the selection,
There's always some sort of activity in the gift shop!
While going through some old files, I came across some old historical photos of the museum building.  Originally in the way of the C-470, the old museum building was moved through the town of Morrison, and put up on stilts where it is today.  Then, the lower level was built underneath.  It was originally built in the 1950s by the Cox family.  The building was moved in the late 1980s, and first opened its doors on October 22nd, 1989.
The museum building, hanging a left onto Colorado Highway 8.
Driving up Colorado Highway 8.
The museum building in its present position, prior to the building of the lower level underneath the historic cabin.
Our live reptiles have been doing great, and you can see all of them on display at the museum.  Most Fridays, our Curator of Live Animals Ann Sarg feeds the herps, which is always very entertaining to watch.
One of our volunteers, Alex Kalinowski, helped me get this shot, a reference to the mosasaur scene in the new Jurassic World movie.
This shot does an excellent job of showing off Herkimer's tongue.  Herkimer is our Dumeril's monitor lizard (Varanus dumerilii), and always a pleasure to observe.  His forked tongue enables him to home in on prey.

Another shot of Herkimer and his fantastic forked tongue.
Not only does he have a forked tongue, but he has a third eye on the top of his head, just like his extinct Cretaceous cousins, the mosasaurs.  The third eye is used as a little bit of extra warning, in case a predator tries to sneak up on him from above.
On top of our monitor lizard, the museum is currently home to a trio of snakes, a milk snake, garter snake, and bull snake.
This is our milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) Sylvia, one of our friendliest museum ambassadors.  Milk snakes, like all of our museum snakes, are non-venomous, although they have evolved to mimic the venomous coral snake, such as the eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius), the main difference being in the pattern of the colored bands on the snake's body.  "Black on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend to Zack."  In this shot, you can see Sylvia is partially illuminated by a "Rainbow on the Ceiling," which at that point in time temporarily became a "Rainbow on the Ceiling and the Milk Snake."
Jeffy, our western terrestrial garter snake (Thamnophis elegans) is as elusive as ever, but occasionally will make a rare appearance, immediately swamped by paparazzi and onlookers.
Jeffy, the western terrestrial garter snake (Thamnophis elegans).  Unlike many other colubrid snakes, garter snakes actually give birth to live young!
Aunna Thomas is one of our volunteers who helps out taking care of our live reptiles on Tuesdays.  Here, Aunna is handling Jim, our enormous bull snake (Piutophis catenifer sayi) who, despite his size, is really quite friendly, and makes a great museum ambassador as well!
Several times over the summer, we had a wild bull snake stop by and say hello.  Here, the snake pays a visit to our outdoor Dig Pit, where kids can dig around for real fossils and a dinosaur skeleton!  Despite having no arms or legs, many snakes are quite capable at digging.
Here we have one of our three adorable little western box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata).  I've learned over the years that if you point at them too close to the glass, they will sometimes mistake your finger for a worm, and do their very best to make a snack out of it.  But don't worry, in all our years with our box turtles, we've never had any confirmed fatalities associated with a turtle attack.
In the picture below, Curator of Live Animals Ann Sarg talks with a tour group from The Gardens at Columbine in Littleton.  Ann feeds our collection of live animals almost every Friday, and it's always a treat to watch!
Our clean-up day and volunteer barbeques are always a big success, and this year was no exception.
Several of our volunteers created brilliant shirts in order of the director.
Volunteer Bryan Turner and director Matthew Mossbrucker talk fossils in the Paleo Lab.
Speaking of the museum volunteers, it's always important to emphasize just how critical to our operation the volunteers are!  Without them, the museum experience simply would not be the same, and we are always indebted to them for their service.  Below is a picture of our volunteer board, which features most of our currently active volunteers.  Since our volunteers come and go, and we always have new volunteers as well, inevitably I fall behind in updating the board.  Following that are pictures of only a few of our volunteers.
Max Todd, an excellent tour guide and paleontology interpreter.  Max is standing next to our Pteranodon skeleton cast in our Cretaceous Colorado exhibit.
Eron Richmond, one of our paleo technicians, who helps up slowly uncover secrets of the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation that have been locked away for nearly 150 million years.  Eron is gesturing towards some of those very bones, including bones from an ancient sauropod.
Jill Hutchison, another one of our paleo technicians.  Jill also helps out a lot at the front desk, checking visitors in and getting them oriented to what they will see in the museum.  Here, Jill poses next to our allosaur skull cast in our Jurassic Exhibit.
Chenoa Ellinghaus, our resident paleo-artist.  Chenoa also works with me at the Best Western Denver Southwest Dino Hotel.  Our Tylosaurus skull cast is seen in the foreground.
One of Chenoa's current projects is a line of paleo-plushies called "Paleo Pals."  Chenoa recently released the first of these plushies, Andy the Anomalocaris, pictured below.  Check out the Paleo Pals website by clicking HERE, and enjoy a brief description of the plush in the video below, featuring Dr. Robert Bakker, Chenoa Ellinghaus, Matthew Mossbrucker, and Greg Tally.
Chenoa's fantastic new plush, Andy the Anomalocaris!
Here, Chenoa Ellinghaus and Matthew Mossbrucker prepare for a film segment for Chenoa's Kickstarter video in our Time Garden, which you can enjoy in its entirety below.

Everyone here had a great summer, and we look forward to having an incredible fall and winter as well!  Here's just a few more pictures from the summer.
Our allosaur skull cast in our Jurassic Exhibit.
Our enormous wooden reconstruction of an Apatosaurus ajax, out behind the museum.  Unfortunately, we ended up taking this down at the beginning of the summer.
Dr. Robert Bakker and Doug Hartshorn investigate one of our blocks of Late Jurassic, Morrison Formation rock from Quarry 5, right in Morrison.

My friends Zach Evens, Mona Kamath, and Masaki Kleinkopf came up with me to visit in August, which was a ton of fun!
Our cast of the skull of the North American lion (Panthera atrox), on display in our Ice Age Colorado exhibit.  The North American lion is the largest cat known to science, an enormous feline the size of a modern polar bear!
On an historic day, a rainbow was projected on the ceiling of our Cretaceous Colorado Exhibit from the water in Herkimer's tank.  Here, you can see our Pteranodon skeleton cast dramatically backlit by the rainbow.
The scouring rush (Hippochaete hyemalis) flourished in the Jurassic Garden, out in front of the museum.  It's quite likely that the diet of Stegosaurus and other Late Jurassic herbivores would have included something similar to this scouring rush.
Dr. Robert Bakker poses in front of the museum sign with several dinosaur plushies.
Our Uintatherium skull cast, on display in our Ice Age Colorado exhibit.  This enormous mammal lived during the Eocene Epoch, and despite it's deadly-looking fangs was an herbivore!  The tusks, as well as the six ossicones on its head, almost certainly served a role in attracting a mate, like modern walrus and giraffes.
Several members of the Model T Association of Colorado came by in their cars for a tour, which was a very fun day in the parking lot!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Dino Tootsies and the Reverend Hitchcock

Dinosaurs and birds share many things in common, and one of the most important characteristics that links the two is their feet.  Looking at the foot of a chicken and a tyrannosaur, you can see a number of fascinating similarities.  In both animals, you can see that the toe bones, the metatarsal bones, form a surface with which the tibia, astragalus, and calcaneum. This is one of the most important defining characteristics of the dinosaurs, and a fascinating link with modern birds! 
Above is a leg of a Gorgosaurus, a type of tyrannosaur that lived about ten million years prior to the famed Tyrant Lizard King. You can see the flat section at the top (or proximal) end of the fused metatarsals, and you can just see the bottom of the astragalus and calcaneum at the top of the photo. This leg is currently on display at the Denver Gem and Mineral Show, and can be rented or purchased from The Dinosaur Brokers. 

Gorgosaurus, ballet dancers, cats, penguins, and hobbits all share one thing in common: they spend a lot of time on their toes. When you walk on the balls of your feet, you are walking like a dinosaur, cat, dog, or deer. For all of these animals, the metatarsals rarely, if ever, touch the ground, and instead help to make the leg just a bit longer. Ever wonder why a flamingo's knee bends backwards? It actually doesn't, they just have an extremely long ankle!
Here's how I would walk if I was a dinosaur, dog, cat, bird, or deer....
....and here's how I would walk if I was a human, bear, or raccoon. 

During the 1800s, a man named Alfred Hitchcock was able to glean fantastic insight into dinosaur anatomy simply by studying their fossil footprints in the Connecticut River Valley. Reverend Hitchcock determined that these animals looked like modern birds, walking on their toes, and their tails held well off the ground. Some critics of Hitchcock point out that the good Reverend never actually said that his bird-like track makers were dinosaurs. At the time, however, the best scientific minds in Europe believed dinosaurs were colossal, lumbering quadrupedal behemoths, with sprawling legs, a crocodile-like gait, and mammal-like paws. No one in their right mind would have put the two together, and Hitchcock was clearly blessed with a brilliant, highly analytical mind. 
The foot of the primitive, Late Triassic dinosaur Herrerasaurus, also from The Dinosaur Brokers. Notice that, unlike the Gorgosaurus (who would live nearly 160 million years later), the metatarsal bones have undergone fusion to a much lesser degree. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Prominent Cheekbones: Abe Lincoln, Peter Cushing, and Archaeotherium

Today at the Morrison Natural History Museum, I ended up talking with Dr. Robert Bakker about the development of pronounced cheekbones in various groups of animals.  The flared cheekbones of the animals presented in this post would have almost certainly been used primarily for display, both to attract a mate and to appear larger against rivals and predators (i.e. a bull elephant flapping its ears, or your cat arching her back and raising her hair to appear larger and more intimidating).  What's interesting is that, unlike some display structures (think the plates on the back of stegosaurs and the fin on the back of Spinosaurus and Dimetrodon), most of these cheekbone structures are derived from the same bone, the jugal (or as we refer to it in mammals, the zygomatic).  Dr. Bob suggested that the cheeks might consistently evolve for display due to the fact that they are so close to the eye, and eyes can be pretty dang important for behavioral interactions.  Given the frequency with which the flared cheekbones has evolved, and the enormous disparity between the animals who have evolved it, there has to be some explanation!  Here's a look at some animals with those prominent cheekbones, arranged in order from oldest (geologically speaking) to youngest.  And a special shoutout to Dr. Bob for helping me out with this post, and for letting me use his images of Hypsognathus (apparently pronounced with a silent "g"), and Archaeotherium!
Bradysaurus, a large pareiasaur reptile from the Middle Permian Period of South Africa.  You can see both the flaring cheekbones, as well as two smaller bumps pointing downwards from the jaw, on this specimen.  I got to see this guy six days ago at the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) in Chicago, Illinois!  As requested by the Field Museum, this photo is Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (CC BY-NC-SA 2.5).
Scutosaurus karpinskii, another pareiasaur, but from the Late Permian Period of Russia.  Although the skull looks slightly crushed, you can still easily see the massive, sharply pointed cheekbones of the animal.  Specimen on display at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York
An illustration of Hypsognathus, a procolophonid reptile from New Jersey.  This animal lived during the Late Triassic Period, at the same time as the earliest dinosaurs.  Check out those crazy massive cheekbones!  Thanks again, Dr. Bob, for letting me use this photo.  Photo Credit and Copyright: Dr. Robert T. Bakker
A skull of the small, primitive ceratopsian dinosaur Psittacosaurus, from the Early Cretaceous of Asia.  I originally took this picture to compare the braincase of different ceratopsian dinosaurs (note the interesting ball-and-socket joint where the head articulates to the neck), which is why it's from behind.  But it does a nice job of demonstrating the flaring of the cheekbones.  The ceratopsian dinosaurs often have very nicely flared jugals, and in later ceratopsians, they would actually evolve the epijugal, a separate bone, like the nasal horn of the same group.  This specimen cast is in the collections of the Morrison Natural History Museum
Head-on view of a Protoceratops andrewsi skull cast at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming.  Although not as pronounced as the cheeks of Psittacosaurus, Protoceratops, from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia, does still have those flared cheekbones.
Skull of Ceratops montanus, on display at the Best Western Denver Southwest "Dino Hotel" in Lakewood, Colorado.  Noticeable jugal flare, but not as pronounced as it is in other ceratopsian dinosaurs like Psittacosaurus or Pentaceratops.
The most famous ceratopsian dinosaur of all, Triceratops.  Triceratops has decent-sized jugal flares, but nowhere near as pronounced as those of Pentaceratops, whose name actually derives from those two extra horns on the cheeks, bringing their grand total of horns up to five (versus the two brow horns and the nasal horn of Triceratops, the "three-horned face").  Triceratops, from the Late Cretaceous Period of North America, was first found in Denver, Colorado, and this skull cast can be seen on display at the Morrison Natural History Museum.
A skull of the ankylosaur dinosaur Ankylosaurus magniventris from the Late Cretaceous of Alberta, Canada.  Although flared cheeks are visible, they aren't as pronounced as they are in many of the animals we have looked at in this post.
Side-view of the skull of Archaeotherium, an entelodont mammal from the Late Paleogene.  Two morphs of Archaeotherium have been discovered, one with more pronounced cheekbones, the other with less pronounced cheekbones.  Most paleontologists suspect that the male Archaeotherium had the pronounced cheekbones, and the females had the less pronounced cheekbones, a classic case of sexual dimorphism.  Skeleton on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS).
Female Archaeotherium, also on display at the DMNS.  Compare the cheekbones with the male in the picture above, and you can definitely see a difference.
A dramatic, frontal view of the male Archaeotherium, and you can immediately see how pronounced those cheekbones are.  Peter Cushing wishes. 
An illustration of the skeleton of Archaeotherium.  You can see how pronounced the cheekbones of the animal are, even in profile.  Much thanks to Dr. Bob for letting me use this illustration as well!  Photo Credit and Copyright: Dr. Robert T. Bakker
Another entelodont, Dinohyus, also on display at the DMNS.  Dinohyus, from the Early Neogene, is much larger and more robust than Archaeotherium, and still has some nicely pronounced cheekbones.
A skull of the Neogene Macrogenis crassigenis, an extinct peccary from Nebraska.  I really wish that I'd gotten a picture of this skull straight-on, but even in profile you can see how strange the enormous cheeks of this animal are.  On display at the AMNH.
The skull of the massive, armadillo-like glyptodont Panochthus frenzelianus, from the Pleistocene of Argentina.  Some glyptodonts, as well as their cousins the giant ground sloths, have large cheekbones.  Also on display at the AMNH.
Finally, even some modern animals have the enlarged cheekbones!  Here, we have a common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) at The Snake Farm in New Braunfels, Texas.  It's difficult to see the left cheek of the animal, but the right cheek is nicely delineated against the background of the picture.
As you can see, the prominent cheekbones have evolved many times over the last several hundred million years.  Display seems like the most obvious and the most likely answer to the evolution of these structures, and it would have been quite exciting to see a pair of pareiasaurs squaring off during the breeding season.  Instead, to get your daily dose of prominent cheekbones, you'll just have to find something starring Peter Cushing.
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