Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Family Matters ~ Peabody Museum of Natural History

On a recent trip to Connecticut to visit family, I slipped away and spent part of an afternoon at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.

I expected to find a shrine to Othniel Charles Marsh (1831 – 1899) because, without him, there would be no museum.  Though evidence of Marsh’s abundant contributions to paleontology mark the museum, there is no hagiolatry here, thankfully.  A large portrait, prominently displayed, does honor George Peabody (1795 – 1869), the wealthy businessman, banker, and philanthropist whose gift financed this museum.  His generosity extended to numerous other scientific and cultural institutions as well, among them Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute (a preeminent music conservatory).  He was also committed to improving housing for the poor in his adopted Britain where he spent the last three decades of his life.

Of course, for the museum, it made all the difference that Peabody and Marsh were family – Peabody’s sister Mary was Marsh’s mother.  She died when Othniel was two, and Peabody assumed a central role in supporting his nephew.  In 1862, Marsh, who by then had earned a master’s from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, skillfully planted the seed with his uncle for the endowment of scientific research at Yale, a seed that bore fruit in 1866 with a generous gift of $150,000 for the founding of the Museum of Natural History.  Marsh apparently was responsible for guiding Peabody’s philanthropy toward the sciences in general, not only at Yale.  (This is Franklin Parker’s argument in George Peabody:  A Biography, 1995, portions available on line.)  Not coincidentally, in that same year, 1866, Marsh was appointed Professor of Paleontology, the first such professorship in the U.S.  (The museum’s website is an excellent source for more information on Marsh and the history of the museum.  Very useful and rather balanced in its assessment of Marsh is the museum’s own publication by Mark J. McCarren, titled The Scientific Contributions of Othniel Charles Marsh:  Birds, Bones, and Brontotheres, 1993.)

Marsh, a decidedly prickly personality, went to on to become, in McCarren's words, “the greatest American paleontologist of the nineteenth century with only the brilliant and energetic Edward Drinker Cope being worthy of comparison.”  (McCarren, p. 1.)  Cope (1840 – 1897) and Marsh entered into a bitter, heated competition in pursuit of fossils of new species, particularly dinosaurs, in the western reaches of the U.S.  The so-called Dinosaur Wars or Bone Wars have been touched on in previous posts in this blog (including one at this link).

Marsh’s unflagging pursuit of vertebrate fossils in the west, financed in large part by Uncle George’s money, led to the amassing of a huge collection, some elements of which are on display in the museum.  In passing, I would note that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History benefited greatly from the fallout of the Marsh vs. Cope struggle, with significant parts of Marsh’s collection ultimately coming to rest in the NMNH.

Greeting a visitor to the Peabody Museum is a life-size statue of Torosaurus latus which stands outside on a 13 foot tall granite pedestal.

“Greeting” might not be the right word.  I was tempted to write that this ceratopsian (horned) dinosaur “stands guard” and the animal certainly is formidable, but that may not be appropriate given that T. latus was a plant eater.  Still, vegetarians can be aggressive.  More on Torosaurus in a moment.

The present museum building was opened in 1924, replacing the original structure that stood from 1876 to 1917.  It is only one of several that presently house the university’s natural history collections.  Much of the interior of museum that is open to the public is intimate and dark.  Movement from floor to floor is by stone stairways lit by arched windows.  All of which fits my image of a medieval university building or, perhaps, a monastery.

(The tentacles of a model of giant squid, suspended over the opening hallway, cut across the windows in the photo above.)

The centerpiece of the museum is the Great Hall where the dinosaurs live.  Dominating the room is an Apatosaurus (the dinosaur formerly known as Brontosaurus).

The walls are lined with fossil displays, while The Age of Reptiles mural, painted by Rudolph Zallinger, runs above the exhibits along one wall.  The mural is lost on me, partly because of its location (high on its wall and, so, immune to close study) and partly because I worry that murals that are several decades old (this one was begun in 1943) may not reflect the best thinking about the depicted flora and fauna.  I wonder whether I’m also reacting negatively because the museum makes a big deal about how the mural is off limits for photography and the guard cautioned me when I appeared to be photographing it.  (Actually, I was, though unintentionally.  Honestly, I deleted those shots.)

In contrast, I was awed by the huge piece of chalk that stands against one wall.  Embedded in the stone is what its plaque describes as “one of the most complete mosasaur skeletons ever found.”  These remains of a Platecarpus tympaniticus are as they were uncovered in Kansas in 1877.  Amazing.

But, frankly, the most compelling feature in the Great Hall is the display of several ceratopsian skulls that occupies the far wall.  It’s a spellbinding collection of enormous horned skulls.  The photograph below shows a tandem of skulls; that in front is from a Triceratops and that behind from a Torosaurus.  (The latter, measuring, I believe, some eight feet in length, was found by John Bell Hatcher in 1891.  The inspiring Hatcher is the subject of a previous post.  Is that a bit of mural in the picture?)

The plaque describing the Torosaurus is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, it contradicts information regarding the derivation of the name provided by the museum on its website.  The plaque states unequivocally that the name “comes from the Greek, meaning Bull Reptile,” whereas the website, acknowledging confusion in some circles over the source of the name, posits (quite persuasively) that Marsh, who named the beast, focused on the large oval holes (parietal fenestrae) in its frill.  Thus, the Greek root toreo, meaning “perforate, pierce,” is most likely the name’s origin.  It's a "perforated lizard."  Indeed, in 1892, Marsh wrote, “The open perforations in the parietal which have suggested the name Torosaurus, readily separate this genus from all the gigantic species hitherto known in the Ceratopsidæ, but may perhaps be found in some of the smaller and less specializes forms, from lower horizons of the same formation.”  (O.C. Marsh, The Skull of the Torosaurus, American Journal of Science, January 1892, p. 82.)

As for my second point of interest with the plaque, it's a matter of omission.  It emerged as I explored the little tussle over origins of the name a bit further, and stumbled on the more fundamental debate going on within some portion of the paleontological community over this particular dinosaur, a debate that has all the hallmarks of a family argument.  It has rabidly held positions, the questioning of motives, snide remarks and innuendo, with little evidence, so far, of anyone ceding ground.  Perhaps, as will be clear, it's not surprising the plaque makes no mention of this debate.

The Torosaurus skirmish began in 2010 when Jack Horner and John Scannella of the Museum of the Rockies published a paper in which they asserted that, heretofore, paleontologists had been confusing adult and juvenile specimens within the same genus when they distinguished between Torosaurus and Triceratops.  According to this hypothesis, the Torosaurus is actually just the Triceratops grown up.  They're all in the family or, more precisely, they're all in the genus.  This argument asserts that the apparent skeletal differences between the two genera reflect changes in the animal as it matured.  Horner and Scannella theorize that these changes took place rapidly as the animal reached adulthood, e.g., the parietal fenestrae opened up very late in the animal’s development.  If correct, the separate genus of Torosaurus would be laid to rest.

But, not so fast.  Nicholas R. Longrich and Daniel J. Field of Yale University have come to Torosaurus’ rescue, asserting in a recent paper that the Horner-Scannella hypothesis fails because not all of the Torosaurus specimens appear to be more mature than the Triceratops specimens, and there is an absence of intermediate specimens between the two (as would be expected if one matured into the other).  These are two of the three conditions they contend would have to be met for “the Torosaurus is Triceratops hypothesis” to stand.  (They agree that the other condition, similar distribution of the two purported genera in terms of geography and stratigraphy, is met.)

In a New York Times article on the fight, Longrich is quoted as saying, “Horner’s got an agenda. . . . He has this hit list of dinosaurs that he’s trying to get rid of.”  That Horner and Scannella seek to dethrone a Peabody Museum symbol may have played a role in their robust response, acknowledge the Yale researchers.  “That’s not to say we were biased,” Field noted.  For his part, Horner commenting on bone fusion, a key element in the Longrich/Field analysis for determining maturity (the skulls of less mature individuals may be less fused), said, “Bone fusion, as far as we’re concerned, doesn’t say anything.”

Making this debate over the two genera even more like the tail end of a long family dinner is that, at its core, it’s a manifestation of a longstanding conflict that has punctuated many family gatherings.  Within paleontological ranks, this is the classic struggle between lumpers and splitters, that is, between those whose inclination is to merge taxa and those who are prone to identify new taxa.

(The Torosaurus skirmish can be followed in various sources, including J.B. Scannella and J.R. Horner, Torosaurus Marsh 1891 is Triceratops Marsh 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae):  Synonymy Through Ontogeny, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, July 2010; Longrich and Field, Torosaurus Is Not Triceratops:  Ontogeny in Chasmosaurine Ceratopsids as a Case Study in Dinosaur Taxonomy, PLoS ONE, February 29, 2012; John B. Scannella and John R. Horner, ‘Nedoceratops’:  An Example of a Transitional Morphology, PLoS ONE, December 14, 2011; Theodoric Meyer, Triceratops’ Quiet Cousin, the Torosaurus, Gains New Legitimacy, The New York Times, March 5, 2012; Carol Hsin, Peabody Icon May Need a Name Change, Yale Daily News, October 22, 2010.)

There’s far more to the museum than I’ve touched on, much of it interesting and well done (Birds of Connecticut, and the Hall of Minerals, for example), though my hopes for the Connecticut Fossils exhibit were dashed when it only confirmed my own understanding of a dearth of such fossils.  The sad truth is that Connecticut is, as the exhibit describes, “one of the least fossiliferous states in the U.S.”

At visit's end, I eased through the front doors of the museum into a cold winter afternoon, walked to my car, and drove off to rejoin family.

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