Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Closing of the Smithsonian's National Fossil Hall ~ What Becomes of Stan, Hatcher, and Diana?

It is so quiet on the shore of this motionless lake
you can hear the slow recessional of extinct animals
as they leave through a door at the back of the world,
disappearing like the verbs of a dead language . . . .
                ~ from Endangered by poet Billy Collins

I think Collins' simile has it right.  More on that at the end.

The National Fossil Hall of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is going the way that most of the denizens it has housed for a century went – into extinction.  Its several rooms currently (well, for the next few days) offer the visitor a path that begins with the first glimmers of life captured by fossils in the waters of the early Paleozoic, winds its way past the thundering reptilian beasts of the Mesozoic, and ends in the Cenozoic, filled with mammals, some of mega size.  All of this will be closed after April 27, 2014 (the Ancient Seas exhibit is already shuttered), and many of the fossil skeletons will be retired, not to be a part of the new Deep Time Hall slated to open in 2019.

In 1911, a year after opening to the public, the Smithsonian’s New National Museum (now called The National Museum of Natural History) first introduced visitors to a hall dedicated to the display of mounted fossils of ancient animals.  This was the wonderfully named Hall of Extinct Monsters.  The picture below shows the hall at some point after 1932.

Dating photographs in the Smithsonian’s Archives is a challenge and, on this one, I've followed the lead of Ellis L. Yochelson in his The National Museum of Natural History:  75 Years in the Natural History Building (1985).  As Yochelson noted, few of the images from prior to 1975 bear a date and captions are rarer still.  The Diplodocus skeleton standing in the middle of the picture facing the bottom is a clue – this mounted skeleton was only completed in 1931.  I downloaded the photograph from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives.

This is a revealing image.  The original Hall of Extinct Monsters was not a dinosaur hall.  Yes, it featured dinosaurs such as the Diplodocus, and the iconic Triceratops (more on it below), standing toward the back of the hall, facing a side wall and resisting the flow of the room.  But other kinds of monsters populated the hall.  For instance, on the right, there appears to be a mosasaur, a marine reptile, swimming toward the bottom of the picture, and I think that may be a mammoth with its swooping tusks, on the left.

Today’s Fossil Hall exhibits, unlike the Hall of Extinct Monsters, kept the dinosaurs together.  The panoramic view (below) shows many of the dinosaurs as they are on display . . .  for the moment.

The picture (which is nicer if clicked and opened) starts on the far left with an apparent confrontation between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a Triceratops.

I suspect that, during the time these two dinosaur skeletons have faced each other in this hall, many visitors have pondered the possible outcome of such a battle royal.  What they might not have known is that this specific fight pits Stan against Hatcher as these particular specimens are known.  Stan, the T. rex, is a cast of a specimen found in 1987 by amateur paleontologist Stan Sacrison and excavated in 1992.  The Smithsonian does not have Stan’s actual fossil bones.  Hatcher, the Triceratops, is also a cast and was so named by a 10-year-old in a national contest in 2001.  The name honors paleontologist John Bell Hatcher who, in 1891, found the original fossil bones, which are housed in the museum and were part of the skeleton displayed for many years (seen in the photograph of the Hall of Extinct Monsters above), until they became too fragile.  In recent years, a few of them, including the skull, have been on display next to the cast of Hatcher.

The fate of these casts?

Last week, Washington, D.C., was abuzz with talk of dinosaurs, prompted by the arrival by truck from Montana of the T. rex specimen that will be a star of the Deep Time exhibit.  This specimen, known to many as the Wankel T. rex after rancher Kathy Wankel who discovered it, is some 80 to 85 percent complete, a remarkable percentage for a dinosaur skeleton.  Sadly, with the appearance of this new T. rex, now labeled The Nation’s T. rex by the Smithsonian powers-that-be (not very catchy, I’m afraid), Stan, the king, is dead.  Long live the king.

This fall, the Museum will open The Last American Dinosaurs:  Discovering a Lost World, a temporary exhibit about the world as it was at the very end of the Cretaceous (and beyond) and how we learn about it.  It’s an exhibit that has the unenviable task of trying to satisfy visitors’ appetite for dinosaurs during the interregnum while Deep Time is being created.  Hatcher and Stan will be featured.

[Note:  After its initial upload, I edited the post to write that both Hatcher and Stan will be part of the temporary exhibit.  That the two casts will reappear is based on J. Freedom du Lac's article in the Washington Post describing events of the final day of the Fossil Hall (At Natural History Museum:  A Crowded Farewell to the Fossil Hall, April 27, 2014).]

If you look closely at the picture above of the Hall of Extinct Monsters that opens this post, you can almost make out the mural that covers the back wall of the hall.  That mural, titled Diana of the Tides, is a reminder that, at one point, early in its existence, the New National Museum displayed a portion of the Smithsonian’s art collection.  Here’s a closer view.

This image of the mural was taken from a 1910 article in Art and Progress (Sylvester Baxter, “Diana of the Tides”:  A Notable Gift to the Nation, Volume 1, Number 7).

Painted by John Elliott, the mural depicts the goddess Diana controlling the tides with a team of charging horses.  Regardless of its artistic merits, the work is awkwardly large, and, apparently as a result, wasn’t removed when the Smithsonian’s artwork went elsewhere.  Rather, during one renovation in the 1960s of the “dinosaur hall,” the mural was covered by a fake wall where it still remains.

An interesting decision will have to be made about Diana’s fate as the current National Fossil Hall is taken back to the studs.  (Amy Ballard provides a great deal more detail on Diana of the Tides and her century at the museum in a post on the National Museum of Natural History’s Unearthed blog – Diana of the Tides:  A Sensation of Her Time, January 25, 2011.  Be warned, the link to the blog often fails to connect and times out - it's a Smithsonian problem.   Ballard’s post features the mural in color.)

At the outset, I described the renovation of the National Fossil Hall as an extinction.  I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.  My sense is that the remaking of the current hall is intended to be so thorough and the result so different from what we have today that, for all intents and purposes, today’s Fossil Hall will be extinct.  Deep Time, when it opens in five years, will offer the visitor a space of great openness and light (so welcome after today’s mostly dark and crowded rooms), and displays that will capture the complex interplay of ancient animals, plants, and environment, processes as relevant today as they were in deep time.  The science of paleontology will be alive here.  The strictly chronological flow that marks the rooms of the current National Fossil Hall will be gone.

(A nice overview of the Deep Time project can be found in Vicky Gan’s piece for Smithsonian Magazine titled About Deep Time:  A Preview of the Natural History Museum’s Fossil Hall Renovation, October 29, 2013.)

And, finally, whatever the poet intended (and I don't think he intended the meaning I ascribe to it), Billy Collins’ simile comparing extinct animals to the verbs of a dead language captures fully what Deep Time, as I understand it, will be about.  The past isn’t composed of disconnected alien worlds, and a dead language isn’t a disconnected, forgotten one.  The worlds of the past connect to us, just as do the words of ancient languages.  They have shaped us.  Paleontologist Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish series, now showing on PBS, offers a wonderful way to experience that connectedness with deep time.  The series is as thoroughly entertaining and informative as his book of the same title.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Everything Else Was Once Worms

I’ve been thinking about worms, a questionable action, for sure.  Why would anyone show an interest in worms?

Well, Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) spent the last years of his life studying earthworms and writing The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits (1881).  Apparently prompting the later suggestion by some that this signaled the man had entered his dotage; a trivial subject for failing faculties, I suppose.  I’m not in any way comparing myself to Darwin, though being accused of having failing faculties is a link.

In his 1982 essay on Darwin and worms, Stephen Jay Gould forcefully countered those critics, asserting, instead, that this last scientific writing was fully in keeping with Darwin’s complete body of work and that it was actually a clever way to enunciate, once again, a fundamental principle that underlay his understanding of nature:  given enough time, small processes lead to large changes.  With worms,
Darwin had chosen well to illustrate his generality.  What better than worms:  the most ordinary, commonplace, and humble objects of our daily observation and dismissal.  If they, working constantly beneath our notice, can form much of our soil and shape our landscape, then what event of magnitude cannot arise from the summation of small effects.  (Gould, Worm for a Century, and All Seasons, as excerpted in The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins, 2008, p. 205.)
I don’t think it undercuts Gould’s argument to suggest that Darwin might have also appreciated earthworms as a subject of sustained study because of his long standing interest in the invertebrate, and, perhaps most importantly, because much of the analysis could be done without leaving the sanctuary of Down House.  Physically, the man was showing his age.  As Janet Browne wrote in her magnificent two volume biography of Darwin,
It was a perfect project for a man with his circle of landed connections.  Perfect, too, for a slow-moving country gentleman with a penchant for leisurely, appreciative walks at home and on the estates of friends and relatives.  (Charles Darwin:  The Power of Place, volume two of the biography, p. 447.)
Incidentally, when it came out in 1881, Darwin’s book on worms became a best seller.

Perhaps it is appropriate now that Spring seems to have actually arrived that my thoughts have gone to worms.  Turn over the soil in flowerbeds that have lain dormant for the winter, and discover pulsating, stretching, contracting earthworms, harbingers of good things to come.  Yes, an appropriate rationale, but, no, early gardening isn’t why I’ve been thinking about worms.  The objects pictured below are the reason.

A few days ago, in a quiet moment and in a little tray of material from the Oxford Clay Formation in England, I discovered these small fossils and they have everything to do with worms.  Worms’ soft bodies generally don’t fossilize, though fossilized traces of worms seem common enough, such as tracks left by moving worms and burrows filled with stone.  What’s shown above are pieces of the calcareous tubes secreted by marine worms in the Upper Jurassic (Oxfordian stage, 161 to 156 million years ago).  The worms living in these tubes were, I think, Genicularia vertebralis (J. de C. Sowerby), a free living worm that was not physically attached to the interior surface of the tube in which it lived.  The interiors of these tube fragments are now filled with matrix.

I base my identification on Fossils of the Oxford Clay, edited by David M. Martill and John D. Hudson (1991, p. 174 – 176), and British Fossils:  Mesozoic, edited by Andrew B. Smith (Natural History Museum, 2012, plate 4, figure 3).  I will ignore the nagging little voice that says this might be an instance of naming the record or trace of an animal’s action, not the animal itself, which would make this an ichnofossil.

Genicularia vertebralis were annelids or segmented worms, members of the Annelida phylum, as are earthworms.  Annelids have complex organs, including blood vessels, a nervous system, and a digestive tract; their bodies are formed of ringed segments.  Of note, when it comes to complexity, Darwin spent time trying to build a case that earthworms had some form of intelligence.

Taxonomically, worms have had a difficult history.  In 1758, the father of scientific taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) divided all animals into just six, decidedly unequal, groups, unequal in the number of members in each and unequal in the affinities that might have logically bound members to that group.  Animals, he posited, consisted of mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes, insects, and everything else.  Well, he didn’t actually use that name for the last category, instead he labeled it vermes (worms).

In 1809, naturalist Jean–Baptiste Lamarck (1744 – 1829), professor at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, and often considered one of Darwin’s foils for his thoughts on evolution, rebelled against the vermes group, describing it, in Philosophie Zoologique, as “a kind of chaos where very disparate objects have been united together,” and as a “monstrous class.”  In his essay A Tree Grows in Paris:  Lamarck’s Division of Worms and Revision of Nature, Stephen Jay Gould labeled the group a “wastebucket.”  This particular label, he noted, was a
semitechnical term among professional taxonomists, a description for inflated groups that become receptacles for heterogeneous bits and pieces that most folks would rather ignore . . . .  (The Lying Stones of Marrakech, 2000, p. 130.)
(The quotations from Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique were translated by Gould.)

It must have been particularly galling to Lamarck that, officially, he was the professor of insects and worms.

Over time, the worm wastebucket has been significantly reduced, and many significant phyla have emerged, among them Crustacea and Arachnida – Lamarck’s work.  He was also responsible for creating the Annelida.  Today, worms are found in several phyla, besides Annelida, including Nematoda (nematodes or roundworms) and Nemertea (ribbonworms).

Though I’ll continue, on rainy days, to pick through my Jurassic period material, looking for worm fossils, it’s time to take the trowel, venture outside, and turn over some garden soil, pleased, as always, to encounter those annelids that so intrigued Darwin.  When naturalist and longtime friend Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817 – 1911) wrote to Darwin, thanking him for a copy of the recently published earthworm book, he commented with gentle humor,
I take shame to myself for not having earlier thanked you for the Diet of Worms, which I have read through with great interest.  I must own I had always looked on worms as amongst the most helpless and unintelligent members of the creation; and am amazed to find that they have a domestic life and public duties!  I shall now respect them, even in our Garden pots; and regard them as something better than food for fishes.  (Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Volume 2, edited by Leonard Huxley, p. 255.)

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