Tag Archives: natural history museum

Can a museum object be more like a dog? New post at PLOS Sci-Ed

Dog owners out there may sympathize whit this: say you are outside walking your dog and are approached by friendly strangers who ask to pet him. Your dog just mediated a conversation with a stranger that would have not happen otherwise.

Like a dog, a museum object offers an excuse for strangers to have a conversation.

drill

Giant drill at the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Photo by Lara Solt at Dallas News.

This giant drill illustrates hydro frakking at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science’s energy hall.  If this seems controversial it’s because it is: is the museum celebrating such technique, or opening up for debate among visitors?

For more examples and ideas, read the entire post at PLOS Sci-Ed.

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Now posting on PLoS blogs!

Good news everyone! I’ve been invited by Jean Flanagan and PLoS blogs to join their Sci-Ed team: a blog that focuses on science education. My contribution will be on science education in museums, zoos and aquaria. My first post is up:

It was my third time meandering the halls of the Natural History museum – and first as a volunteer interpreter – when I glimpsed a bird without arms: no wings, no arm bones, no hands, no wrists, and no fingers. Nothing. That skeleton I was seeing had once been a statuesque, NBA player-tall bird. Its neck accounted for nearly half its height; its slender legs, almost the rest, with a globular region in between. That was my first sighting of a moa.

Moa (Smithsonian Natural History Museum). Photo by the author.

The moa is a gigantic extinct flightless bird from New Zealand. Imagine an ostrich, but delete the wings and give it some serious growth hormones. This 12 ft tall, 500 lbs bird was driven to extinction in the early 13th century, when humans hunted and ate them all.

Continue reading after the jump…

For the bio- and anthropologically-curious, I’ll post more info on the moa next week!

Dire Wolves on Ice

Ghost – a Game of Thrones dire wolf (HBO).

Game of Thrones fans, rejoice: the dire wolf is real. Here’s the bad news: the dire wolf went extinct 10.000 years ago. The enormous beasts who roamed the ice wasteland beyond The Wall are based on a real North American animal, who in turn left behind thousands of fossils. I have to admit that the dire wolf Ghost and his pack are the main reason why I continue to watch that show.

Ford in a snow quasi-wasteland.

The dire wolf is a close relative of the grey wolf and also (drum roll) of the dog. Meet my toned-down version of the dire wolf: Ford. Like Ghost, my dog also loves snowy wastelands. Ford is the only canine in a small pack of three (the two other members are human beings), where I am pack leader (or at least I like to think I am). That means Ford will obey me when I tell him not to chase that delicious squirrel or pounce on that fatty pigeon.

Ford.

Ford weighs around 60 lbs, which is about half the size of a large dire wolf. Large wolves could reach 175 lbs, and the ones featured on Game of Thrones were as big as a horse (fictional wolves don’t count: they had magical powers; the evidence of magical powers has not been found in fossils yet). If Ford was a dire wolf 10.000 years ago, he would have probably hunted on a pack with 30 other buddies, and something tells me this group would not be after squirrels or pigeons. Instead, dire wolves hunted for mammoths. 

A fantastic wall of thousands of dire wolf skulls. Photo by the Page Museum.

A wall of skulls

The Rancho de La Brea, in Los Angeles, is fossil site where thousands of prehistoric ice age animals were entrapped, their bones perfectly preserved in tar. In this tar pit, fossil bones of 3600 dire wolves were found. This is the largest amount of a predator specimens ever found in one site, and it way outnumbers all other mammals found in the same site. Saber-toothed cats are next on the list, but not nearly as numerous (“only” about 2000 are found on the tar pits). Much fewer prey animals were found, about 200 horses and 300 bison, which means there’s a ratio of ten predators to each prey.

What happened here? It seems one unlucky prey animal – say, a bison – would fall in the pit and become trapped. Right after, packs of dire wolves and saber-toothed cats would believe it an easy meal and jump in. Result: prey and predator – specifically one prey and dozens of predators – die together.

Today, the Page Museum displays finds from the tar pits (including an impressive wall of dire wolf skulls). Fossils are so numerous that the Page Museum recruits and trains volunteers to help with the ongoing excavations (volunteer finds are posted on the museum’s blog).

Dire wolf artistic depiction by Mauricio Anton.

Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! (Or: the hunting habits of carnivore predators)

Before they went extinct, the dire wolf and the saber-toothed cat were as dominant predators as the lion and hyena are today in Africa. The high number of skeletons found on the tar pits suggested they (both dire wolves and saber-tooth) hunted in large packs and were able to tackle enormous prey – bison and camels, but also mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, and Irish elk. Carnivores weighing more than 46lbs need to eat prey that is as large or larger than themselves. Those predators cannot survive only on small prey, because they would spend a disproportionally higher amount of energy hunting the prey than they would get by eating it. So, the efficient way to eat is to hunt for large prey. The devised strategy adopted by many carnivores is to form a pack. Grey wolves exhaust the prey, but lions or dire wolves, who are larger and more stockish, pounce and grab them.

From left to right: dire wolf, saber-toothed cat, short-faced bear, cheetah-like cat (Miracinonyx sp.), American lion. (Modified from Turner, A., and Anton, M., The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives. Columbia University Press: New York, 1997)

Extinction

The dire wolf’s cousin, the grey wolf, is now considered a top North American predator. But the grey only reached this post after many large carnivores went extinct. Both the grey wolf and the dire wolf co-existed with 10 other species of large carnivore: the puma, jaguar, two species of short-faced bear, florida-spectackled bear, black bear, scimitar-toothed cat, saber-toothed cat, grizzly bear, and the American lion. All 12 carnivores competed for similar prey. Most of those predators became extinct 10.000 years ago (ever wondered why there are no lions, tigers, or elephants in the US? Because they died off after climate change or food depletion). Now only the puma, black bear, and grizzly bear remain.

Compared to the grey wolf, dire wolves had shorter stouter legs and smaller brain cases. They also had stronger teeth, comparable to a hyena’s in its bone-crunching abilities (which probably means food was scarce and every bit of bone marrow was precious). Dire wolf teeth is more adapted for “carnivority”, which means they are not as versatile in eating alternatives (other carnivores, like bears, will eat even bugs and honey). All of that contributed to their demise.

Ford looks at his extinct canid relatives.

Survival of the coldest

But here’s a fact Game of Thrones did not tell us: dire wolves were creatures of warm weather! They preferred tropical or subtropical regions. One of the reasons the grey wolves survived and dire wolves didn’t is because the grey wolf’s hunting range extended to the cold arctic. During the Ice Age, the dire wolf was left behind, to die and disappear.

But I guess the appeal of a beast of the tropics does not suit Game of Thrones. Ford, for once, prefers snow and cold, and becomes very depressed on the summer. Instead of the dire wolf, Ford would have fit in perfectly in Winterfell.

More cheetah-speed notes

  • Last Friday I attended the “HOT” (Human Origins Topic) event at the Smithsonian, where Dr. Jibril Hirbo and Felicia Gomez gave a talk about genetic variation in african populations and its possible correlation with cultural and linguistic spread. The speakers were very gracious and interesting. I will bring up their papers in a future post. Update: my commentary plus an analysis of lactase persistent trait in african populations can be seen here.

  • I also bought these three books in the Smithsonian bookstore: The Dolphin in the Mirror (Diana Reiss), The Whale – in Search of the Giants of the Sea (Philip Hoare), and Giant Pandas – Biology and Conservation (collection edited by Donald Lindburgh and Karen Baragona). I just finished reading the dolphin book, and I am very intrigued by the mirror test (a form of testing for an animal’s self awareness) when applied to  bottlenose dolphins. More soon. Update: post on Dolphin in the Mirror here

Forensic Friday

Forensic Fridays, phot by the author

I stopped by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for Forensic Friday, where I talked to paleobiologist David Bohaska. He showed me 6 million year old fossilized vertebra from whales and dolphins. Last Friday’s theme was “Marine debris & ocean life”, and the scientists brought in a few marine mammals (whale, dolphin and manatee) bones, used to speculate the animal’s cause of death. I photographed the bones and injury sites, but I’m not sure yet if I  am allowed to publish the images. The fossils are part of off-the-shelf collections, not available to the general public, so I will need to clear it with the Smithsonian first. Regardless of publishing the photos, I can’t wait to share the stories I heard about those animals lives…

Megalodon – the Dinosaur of Sharks

(Cris and Megalodon at the San Diego Natural History Museum - 2006)

Sharks do not have a bony skeleton. The only trace of shark that survives a fossil to tell its story, is the shark’s teeth.

A shark’s skeleton is made of cartilage, the same material that forms our nose and ears. All of that soft material disintegrates with time, leaving not much to be fossilized. The only bone in a shark’s body is its teeth. Fossilized teeth have been found and constitute evidence of sharks existence for as far as 400 million years ago.

One type of tooth, as large as the palm of your hand, is a fossil of Carcharodon megalodon, sometimes dubbed the white shark of the pre-historic oceans. Because there is no other trace of Megalodon’s body, many museums assemble a model jaw, based on the size of the tooth.

(Megalodon jaw, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2005)

For scale, you can see how it measures up near the Smithsonian guide on the Highlight tour last week.

(Another Megalodon jaw, Smithsonian, 2011)

Considering the jaw size, the entire animal should measure up to one of our modern whales, perhaps 50 feet long and weighing 50 tons (the equivalent of ten elephants stacked, imagine that). Models have been created in several museums, including the one I photographed at the San Diego Natural History Museum a while ago.

(Megalodon at San Diego Natural History Museum - 2006)

My favorite prop, while volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium, was a replica of a Megalodon tooth. I used it to bait (no pun intended) the children, who in turn would be fascinated by these enormous sea creatures. The kids named it “the dinosaur shark”, even though the Megalodon is much younger than dinosaurs: they swam our oceans 20 million years ago. Luckily to our surfers, they are extinct.. but they teeth persist to enthrall children and adults alike.

(Megalodon at San Diego Natural History Museum - 2006)

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: Highlight Tour

Ammonite at the National Museum of Natural History

One of the perks of living in the DC area is the free access to the Smithsonians, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) being one of my favorites. I am obsessed with Natural History museums, aquarium and zoos anywhere. While I lived in Florida, I visited the Georgia Aquarium at the neighboring state no less than three times and I still miss my weekly volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium. So last week I decided to take advantage of events offered by the NMNH, so I stopped by for a Highlight Tour.

Experiencing the museum on a Friday feels completely different  – I’ve been there a few times already, during the summer and always on weekends. This time there was no crowds (perhaps only the occasional tourist). There was plenty of room to walk and photograph, and silence to take it all in.

Highlight Tour at the Sant Ocean Hall

I got there a little earlier, so I decide to go to the Sant Ocean Hall exhibit and photograph ammonites (crazy pre-historic shelled invertebrates!) while I waited. Suddenly I see a gathering of about ten people, guided by a museum volunteer, entering the Hall. She was a very energetic lady (wearing red in the pictures), so I  immediately abandoned the ammonite and tagged along.

The first part of the tour focused on the new Sant Ocean Hall, which is their largest exhibit, and was created in a partnership with NOAA (National Oceanic and atmospheric administration) and a must see, according to my supervisor at the Seattle Aquarium. We were shown to an ammonite fossil; megalodon teeth (the dinosaur equivalent of a shark); an Architeuthis, or, giant squid, specimen; and a model of a Right Whale. I plan to talk about all of those in future posts. In the second part of the tour, we were taken to the Dinosaur Hall, where our guide talked to us about their Triceratops fossil and how to assemble dinosaurs for display. The last part of the tour was upstairs, in the geology section, specifically about the Hope Diamond.

Sant Ocean Hall and the Right Whale model

It was about two hours that flew by, and barely covered half of the museum. I am definitely coming back for more tours. I hope I can catch the one on Human Origins and on Ice Age Mammals.

Highlight Tour