Thursday, December 20, 2012

Clash of the Mammoths - The Fossil Freeway, Part two.

Their names are Cope and Marsh, but more about them later...

Running between Kimball in Nebraska and Rapid City, South Dakota, is highway 71- known today as the Fossil Freeway. From this main artery it’s possible to visit at least 20 fossil sites, both natural and institutional. Amongst these in Nebraska are the Huson-Meng Bison Bonebead, the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, and the Trailside Museum.(

Due to the nature of the winters in Nebraska the Trailside Museum is closed from November to March except, and this is the important bit, by appointment. As we were heading that way near the end of November, and on a Sunday to boot, I took the chance and emailed the museum to see if there was any possibility they’d be open. They weren’t, but the wonderful Pattie Norman agreed to open the museum for us, so we got to see one of palaeontology’s greatest spectacles- one very few have ever heard of.

I’d been unaware of the museums two Colombian Mammoths until I fortuitously caught NOVA’s ‘Mammoth Mysteries’ ( In 1962 a surveyor was searching the grasslands of Nebraska for a new dam site when he noticed large bones sticking out of the earth. Contacting the University of Nebraska, a team was soon in the field digging out what they thought was a mammoth. When more dirt was removed the team realised it wasn’t one, but two mammoths they were working with, and something very unusual was going on. Both creatures were face to face, their enormous tusks wrapped around each others heads. Collected and wrapped in plaster, the specimens lay at the university, untouched, for nearly 40 years.

Finally the fossils were prepared, with forensic palaeontologists studying closely items like the tusks, which proved so well preserved under the microscope an individual days growth could be seen (you can still see clearly where these samples were taken from). Both mammoths were confirmed males, in their prime, and for elephants this can mean only one thing- Musth!

When male elephants grow sexually mature they go through what’s called Musth, a time when bull elephant testosterone goes through the roof and they become highly aggressive and fight other males (or giraffes, or rhinos, or trees…just about anything really that ticks them off while they’re in such a state), but rarely do they kill each other.

So what had gone so wrong with these two mammoths?

Unluckily for both, each had one broken and one full length tusk, meaning the two could get in close to each other, far closer than most mammoths normally could. Fighting, they jabbed and stabbed at each other, with one managing to strike the other in the eye with its broken tusk. At some point during the struggle both managed to encircle their good tusk behind the head of the other and they became interlocked. Exhausted, both fell (it’s been speculated spring rains had made the normally bone dry Nebraskan soils slippery), and it’s the way they fell that brought about their deaths. The fossils were found in such a way the weight of one elephant lay on the tusk of the other, so for one to get up it literally had to lift the other enormous bull with it at the same time- an impossibility even for these brawny beasts. Trapped, both animals lay facing each other until they died.

In a tongue-in-cheek nod to another pair of famous fossil duellists, the mammoths were nicknamed Cope and Marsh- the two palaeontologists from the famous ‘Bone Wars’ who between them collected and described almost every iconic American dinosaur. They had begun their careers as friends, and ended them as bitterest enemies.

Examination has revealed Marsh was slightly older, but Cope had larger tusks, and just like these mammoths, O.C. Marsh had been older, and the work E. D. Cope produced far more abundant. The comparison it must be said between the four is a fair one.

Such important specimens deserve a special home, and the University of Nebraska placed the mammoths at the Trailside Museum, a building that was once an army theatre. Here they dominate the display, with a large wooden walkway built around the beasts so visitors can see them from all angles. Behind them is a mural that was hauntingly familiar. The artist turned out to be Mark Marcuson, the very same artist who painted the life-sized mammoth mural at Morrill Hall at the University of Nebraska (as reviewed in my previous article, the parade of elephants

There’s also a mammoth standing at the front entrance which, I believe, is either a copy of Marsh (or Cope) and was possibly made from the unseen half of one mammoth.

The museums cabinets also hold numerous fossils from the region, mostly ice age mammals like horses (Mesohippus), rhinos (Menoceras), camels (Stenomylus) and bison- there’s also a few dinosaur bones (Stegosaurus) and even a mosasaur skull (Tylosaurus).

At one end there’s a set of stairs heading up to a small balcony, and bounding up there (yes, I do bound) to get a photo of the entire room I noticed a stuffed bison in the corner. Not so unusual for Nebraska I dare say, but this specific animal comes with a tag, noting it had been shot by Buffalo Bill himself.

The museum isn’t the only interesting thing to see here either as it’s situated at Fort Robinson, famous as the launching point for the US cavalry’s final move on the Lakota and Ogallala tribes situated in the Dakotas. It was also here the famed Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse, surrendered and was killed- and today a plaque marks the spot of his death. Sadly I wasn’t aware of this at the time or else I’d have visited the spot…and this, after all, is what my blog is all about, making sure people don’t miss the important things when they’re visiting a museum. It was also a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers during the Second World War.

Surrounding the entire region, on the very edge of the grass prairies the fort is situated in, are rows of weathered, steep bluffs. These make this part of the Nebraskan Badlands look a little like a mini-monument valley. Pulling over to the side of the road and using the zoom on my camera, I noticed some odd looking animals grazing along the edge of the tree line at the base of those cliffs.
To my eternal pleasure they turned out to be something of a living fossil (or a better way of describing them, an Ice Age survivor), the Pronghorn Antelope. Considered the fastest animal in North America, the Pronghorn evolved when an entirely different type of cat prowled America’s endless prairies- the Miracinonyx or American cheetah.

Though not the largest museum in the world, Nebraska’s Trailside Museum is most certainly worth the drive, as is the local scenery….and if you, go say hi to Pattie for me.

 The Museum is located in historic Fort Robinson State Park. Three miles west of Crawford, NE, on Highway 20, about 2 hours from Interstate 80.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dinosaur Isle- The Isle of Wight

Getting to the Isle of Wight is half the fun.
The island separated from the mainland about 7,000 years ago as the ice sheets covering Europe during the height of the Ice Age melted. This created a small strait, the Solent, which you can either cross on a ferry (with your car for a fee) or catch a hovercraft…A FRICKIN HOVERCRAFT! I have no idea what it is with the British and hovercrafts…and I don’t care. Bless their little empirical hearts for keeping a technology just because they really like it, not because it’s the most convenient. 
Lord Nelson's
HMS Victory

We we’re in the middle of a three week circumnavigation of the UK, thus had a car and had to catch the ferry to the island, but grabbed the hovercraft for a day trip into Portsmouth to visit the historical harbour containing the HMS Victory, Mary Rose and the HMS Warrior. To walk onboard those old warships was a real delight, and even if you’re not a military history buff I assure you, you’re going to get something out of a visit to the harbour.
To see the very spot Nelson died on the Victory is great, but what I really found remarkable is if you visit the gift shop you can actually buy slivers of timber from the old warhorse for a very reasonable price. I assume the upkeep of the ship is constant and those replaced timbers would otherwise be disposed of.
The Mary Rose is still under repairs, having spent centuries at the bottom of the sea. The ship is held within a side building where its timbers are treated constantly. Her skeletal remains sit inside a single room with atmospheric lighting, which switches and fades, allowing the penetrating shafts of light to pierce the gloom and continual spray about the ship, making the view beyond eerie.
The hovercraft port is walking distance from these ships, but be aware this entire area could easily suck up a whole day.

As the ‘isle’s’ dinosaur museum is outside the main city of Newport, the car turned out to be the perfect way to get there as we got to go for a lovely country drive (and got lost three or four lovely times), but there are buses that can get you to the museum if you’re on foot.
‘Dinosaur Isle’ is the first purpose built dinosaur museum in Europe and the buildings entrance has been designed to look like a Pterosaur, which it does. First opening its doors in 2001, when we visited the entry fee was around £5, and as we visited during the quiet season (read not school holidays) we pretty much had the run of the place.
The museum is just the latest installment in a long palaeontology history on the island. For centuries fossil shells and bones were discovered by gentlemen naturalists, and even today it’s a good idea to walk the island’s beaches after a storm as you never know what may have eroded out of the tall cliffs or washed up from the sea bed. Indeed some of the museums most famous fossils have been found by vacationers exploring the island.
The dinosaur fossils are found in a sequence of rock layers called ‘The Wealden Group’, which is composed of the sands and clays that once made up a giant flood plain and river delta that covered southern England during the Cretaceous. Later the region resembled the Florida Everglades, with swamps full of all the animals you’d expect to find there; turtles, mammals and crocodiles.
Entering under the head of the pterosaur, the first half of the building is mostly small marine and locally unearthed fossils. The first bend in this hallway reveals a nice life-size ichthyosaur diorama hunting down a squadron of letter ‘G’ shaped ammonites called Ancyloceras gigas if my memory serves me correctly. This serpentine corridor also passes numerous mammal fossils (including a rather nice hominid skull/head display) as the sea just off the Island was once part of a wide savannah called Doggerland. This explains why fishing nets continue to drag fossils from bison and mammoths out of the Atlantic between England and northern Europe.
This tunnel-like display eventually deposits you in the museums main hall. The island has proven to be something of a Cretaceous gold mine over the years as it was once part of a Mesozoic river valley system, explaining why such a small region has produced so many fossils. Amongst the dinosaur species (of varying completeness) found locally were a number of iguanodons, a Hypsilophodon, an ankylosaur (called Polacanthus), a brachiosaur (Angloposeidon), and four theropods, Baryonyx, Neovenatora possible dromeosaur called Yaverlandia and one of the earliest tyrannosaurids known, Eotyrannus. This last discovery alone makes the Isle of Wight important as Eotyrannus places the tyrannosaurs in Europe, greatly expanding their previous territory of Asia and North America.
There are life-like models of most of these dinosaurs and a flock of pterosaurs hanging above your head from the roof. Behind many exhibits are also large images from famed paleo-artist, John Sibbick. One whole side of the hall contains a workshop where you can watch new fossils being prepared and preserved. At this time the museum contains some 30,000 specimens, most of which have been unearthed locally.
I got chatting to one of the preparators from this room (who turned out to be Steve Hutt, curator of the museum), and he explained the unexpected fact the National Dinosaur Museum’s (where I’ve worked on and off for over a decade) megalosaurid, Eustreptospondylus, was originally from the old Isle of Wight collection.

Outside the workshop are a number of hands-on-activities to keep the kids amused (ok, yes I was amused too) and best of all, friendly, accessible staff who proved more than happy to chat to a paleo-geek as myself.
After a few hours we left the museum and found ourselves pleasantly surrounded by a number of far more recent dinosaurs. While we’d been inside the large car park had been invaded by an Austen automobile club. That’s the quirky thing about the UK, wherever you go, people are proud of their history and privately do a lot to help protect their past.  Here was a car club, enjoying a shared holiday on the Isle of Wight, displaying their restored vehicles in the car park where they’d simply stopped to get a bite to eat.

It just goes to show you never know what you’re going to see when you visit this mysterious dinosaur island in the English Channel.