Wednesday, February 27, 2013

American Museum of Natural History

Sad to say, this will be a bit of a disappointing post, because I wasn't able to take enough photos on this trip. (However, as it turns out that's a minor good thing, because both the new image upload system of Blogger and the new design of Photobucket are stupid.) In all likelihood it's no great loss; the AMNH exhibitions have all been photographed so many times by so many people that I'm unlikely to add anything new. Besides that though, I'm not complaining about the trip at all, far from it. In fact, it was easily one of the best trips I've made anywhere in a while.

Believe it or not, I'd never been to the AMNH prior to this, so the fact that I got to visit alone would have been exciting enough, and, as one might expect, not much else could have made it any more exciting. What did manage that feat though was that I was on a field trip led by paleontologists Drs. Thomas Holtz and John Merck. In fact, it appears that this was an exceptional trip even for them, as Dr. Holtz tells me that in all the years they've been taking field trips there he can't think of another that went as smoothly as this one. Looks like I got lucky in that respect!

Upon our arrival, Drs. Holtz and Merck each gave us tours of the fossil halls. Unlike most other museums, at the AMNH these are arranged phylogenetically (for most part), with dinosaurs and synapsids getting their own dedicated halls. Here are some paintings of Pleistocene mammals by Charles Knight.

Needless to say, we were only passing through the synapsid halls to get to the good stuff. By chance I started out with Dr. Holtz's party, and he gave us an overview of (what else?) the dinosaurs. Here's "Big Mama" the nesting Citipati! (Though there's a chance it may really be "Big Papa".)

The hand of Plateosaurus. Non-pronated too! (Unfortunately the same can't be said for all the theropod mounts.)

The skull of Plateosaurus.

The head and neck of Apatosaurus. An elevated walkway allows us puny ones to get closer to its level.

Ah, Deinocheirus. More is coming. More is coming soon.

The genotype of Struthiomimus.

Little Archaeopteryx skeleton!

Just above it, its buddy Deinonychus. Here's a blurry picture of its foot, bearing the talon that gave it its name. Check out those short metatarsals!

Hey, it's Mononykus (still in the same case as avialans, naturally)! I tried to make conversation, but it didn't appear too inclined to talk.

It's worth mentioning that although the AMNH bungled with the tyrannosaurids (placing them among the carnosaurs)*, it places birds firmly in the saurischian dinosaur hall. Score!

*They do have a (later-installed) sign that has a more up-to-date phylogeny.

Incidentally, I swear that I didn't intend to take pictures only of saurischian dinosaurs and essentially nothing else. Saurischians are just better. It was entirely an unfortunate coincidence. Perhaps some other time...

After we finished with the dinosaurs, I joined Dr. Merck's tour, which took place in what is officially called the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, but was instead variously called the "Hall of Everything Else" and the "Hall of Paraphyly" by Dr. Holtz. In other words, it exhibits all the other fossil vertebrates that aren't either dinosaurs or synapsids. "Dinosaurs are overrated," Dr. Merck told us as he began his exposition, also known as "Vertebrate Evolution in 45 Minutes".

Interestingly, we even had a museum volunteer drop in to listen to Dr. Merck's talk, asking him about the origin of turtles. This was something that Dr. Merck had understandably not planned on talking about in detail - though it must be said that if the volunteer hadn't asked, I would have done so myself afterward. Either way, to paraphrase Dr. Merck, whatever you think about turtles, there will be someone else who thinks you're an idiot.

As it happens, said museum volunteer had been in contact with Dr. Holtz by email and using his website as a resource for a while now, and was delighted to finally meet him in person. As someone who has had a similar experience, I know firsthand what an awesome moment that must have been.

I also got to meet one of Drs. Holtz and Merck's former students, Eugenia Gold, who now does CT scanning on archosaurs at the museum (if I'm not mistaken). She very graciously took me on a tour behind the scenes, which was truly the icing on the cake. I got to look at specimens of Minotaurasaurus, Alioramus altai, and Khaan, what appeared to be a temnospondyl skull in the midst of being prepared, and the museum's CT scanning apparatus (along with an exquisite 3D print of a lizard skull). Apparently there was even more I could have been shown, but, alas, I had an assignment I needed to finish before we left the museum. Perhaps that was for the best, because I suspect that by then if I had gone through any more unspeakably awesome experiences I would have fallen over from excessive giddiness.

The end result was that during my last minutes at the museum, I went madly dashing about snapping arbitrary photos, but most of my efforts were thwarted either by crowds or my own poor photography skills. Ultimately, the only marginally useable photo that came out of that was, perhaps appropriately, one of the famous rearing Barosaurus mount.