Wednesday, November 15, 2017

University of Wisconsin Geology Museum

We drove from Chicago to Madison in one of the worst rain storms of the year, but this did not stop many of the people of around the university from coming out to support their football team - GO BADGERS. NOTE: Try not to visit the city when a game is on, parking can be crazy and service can be a little sporadic.
The University of Wisconsin Geology Museum itself is easy to find, but be careful entering. On what I assumed was the main road was an entrance, but this was locked and I was fearful the museum was closed because of the football game – GO BADGERS, RAH RAH RAH!
Not willing to give up so easily I entered the building’s main doors and found myself a little lost as the museum is actually part of a working wing of the university. A sign said the museum was on the second floor (in my memory), so I caught a lift up and found myself facing an indoor atrium looking down on the museum…a very empty museum. I feared the place was indeed closed…and then someone walked by underneath.
I called out to the lady how she managed to get inside. The lady I was talking too looked at me like I was a madman, as she turned out to be a visitor, and we eventually worked out how I had gone wrong. She explained, “Did you try the front door?” So, the front doors to the museum are on the inside of a courtyard, with the building having something of a U- shape. The door I had seen from the main road is something of a side entrance, and seemingly not always unlocked.
The Geology Museum (GM) is by no means the largest museum I have ever visited, but it does pack something of a punch for its size. From the oldest rocks in the world, to a number of meteorites, gems and minerals of every sort, along with a wide range of fossils, there is something for every natural history fan to see. This also means leave yourself a few hours to see the place properly, I mean you could walk through it in half an hour, but I guarantee you will miss something cool.
In the foyer are a number of large slabs of local rocks (Wisconsin) that contain ichnofossils of a strange, slug-like creature called Climactichnites. These were made either in newly damp sand or along a very shallow river bank during the Cambrian.

The GM has a long history, with its original display planned in the mid-1800s.  Wikipedia notes there are 66 displays inside the modern building, with nearly 1000 items on display; while the museums’ own website notes they have over 120,000 items in their collection, which is growing every year.
During my research I found a number of images of the museum over its long history. The museum has moved a number of times, and in the early half of the 20th century fell on such hard times that it looks like some of its start attractions were sold (such as a giant sloth, which sadly was nowhere in evidence).

The museum itself is laid out by time and geological categorisation. You start with a number of geological cabinets, displaying everything from various igneous rocks to meteorites.
This section ends in a little limestone cave structure (with working sound effects) that you walk into. On the other side is a large fluorescent mineral display, shielded from the brighter lights of the main rooms inside the cave. Here you push a button and the lights blink out and start cycling through three different wavelengths (long and short), making various rocks fluoresce and phosphorescence at different times.
You next step into a timeline of the earth, which each display containing rocks and fossils from each time. This includes a large chunk of Jack Hills from Western Australia, containing zircon crystals, considered the oldest minerals in the world – dating back to 4.4 billion years.
Next are a series of stromatolites and a clever display of living blue green algae- the only such display I have ever seen.
In one corner is a working preparation lab, and though no one was there as it was Saturday and the University footy team was playing – GO BADGERS - you could still look in and see a number of projects underway, including an enormous slab of amphibian fossils being prepped.
As the museum is located not that far from the Dakota Badlands, they had recently collected a number of dinosaur fossils, and at the time of my visit they were cleaning and preparing a large triceratops horn for display.

It’s clear the museum is a working teaching museum and not a full-time organisation with a staff of exhibit professionals, as most of the signs are simple, plain printed scripting. Try to not let this bother you (if indeed this sort of thing does bother you), the information is great and the items on display are often high quality and rare - there are even some real Cambrian fossils from the Burgess Shale. It is also free to enter, so what money the museum gets clearly goes into the collection.
One of my favourite pieces was an enormous slab of Ordovician sea floor containing hundreds a thumb sized Trigonia shells. The detail on these fossils is amazing, and you could get right up close and personal to the slab and give it a real close eyeball.
A specimen I became enamoured with was an enormous fossil Squalicorax in matrix hanging on the rea wall of the museum. This shark was found with its stomach contents intact, revealing the predator had fed on fish, other sharks, a turtle and even a mosasaur before it died. The bones are recorded as stomach contents as most have signs of acid etching from the digestive juices of the shark.
It is not always the big things that astonish either. In a cabinet on the Permian is the articulated skeleton of a tiny reptile called Captorhinus. First named by E D Cope in the 1880s, these were likely amongst the smallest reptile predators of the age - making the minuscule, fragile little skeleton a true treasure. Seriously, some of the rib bones are so thin it felt they would snap if you even breathed on them.

After the winding path through the Palaeozoic cabinets you enter the final large display room. Here are the Mesozoic and Cainozoic specimens…though it might be better to call this the room with the real big stuff.
There is a real Edmontosaurus, a composite skeleton that is reportedly the first dinosaur displayed in the state.   
The museum highlight is the Boaz Mastodon (named Old Nic), unearthed during a rainstorm in 1897 by the Dosch children on their family farm. News of this discovery soon spread, and the family farm became a hotspot for an interested public, who visited in large numbers to view the enormous bones. A few years later Frank Burnham, a Wisconsin attorney and member of the state legislature, organised the sale of the bones for fifty dollars to the state. The fossils ended up at the UWGM, where they were cleaned, catalogued and put on display in 1915. Roughly half the skeleton is real material.
Unearthed with the Boaz Mastodon was a quartz arrowhead, possibly the cause of the animal’s death - which was not part of the sale. Years later an envelope arrived at the museum with a spear point and note, explaining this was the artefact that had been found with the ‘U.W. elephant’. Both Dosch brothers would be shown the spear point in 1962, and they admitted it looked like the one they had found over 60 years earlier. This is on display in a cabinet opposite the fossil.
Reading the nearby sign, however, it seems there is a different story to this specimen. Only two bones are actually from the Boaz Mastodon, the rest belongs to the Anderson Hills Mastodon, also found by children exactly one year later.

The display of really big things also contains the skulls of a T.rex (called Stan), a Triceratops (not Stan), a Deinotherium (Could have been called Stan to his mates), a soaring Pteranodon (Pstan?) and finally a Glyptodon (perhaps called Stan, which I have discovered is also a Spanish name).

Swimming overhead is a near complete mosasaur, and one of the most impressive things about this is that you can get directly under the skull and look up. Clear as day are visible the secondary palate teeth, often missing or unseen when a skull is closed or still in matrix. These teeth are still retained in the most primitive snakes today.
One of the last specimens to see as you start moving towards the exit is Archaeotherium - teeth bared to show how dangerous this pig from hell would have been. It’s a great way to end your visit as these are some of the most spectacular mammal fossils the US has to offer.

NOTE: While I was there I chatted with the staff, specifically one of the Universities professors of geology, an extremely nice man whose name I am horrified to say I cannot recall. I always take notes on my visits but this note was ruined in the rain, and sadly is nothing more than a smudge. If anyone at the museum knows the gentleman I am talking about, please let me know as I would like to thank him for his time. He showed me the prep room and even let me hold a T.rex mandible, which was a true treat.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Hobart - part one

Hobart is Australia’s second oldest capital city and a walk of its streets can produce some surprising rewards. Recently I had the chance of representing not only the National Dinosaur Museum, but Canberra’s scientific education institutions at the 2017 CONASTA conference - held yearly for Australia’s science teachers - with the National Capital Education Tourism Program (NCETP) folks. I visited a number of historical and scientific institutions (more on them later), but it was Hobart itself that really caught my imagination.
Walking along the harbour you will notice a number of vessels docked that you can approach, and some you can even sail upon. As the city is located at the bottom of Tasmania and faces Antarctica, the harbour is home to a number of polar exploration vessels, including the Australian built icebreaker, Aurora Australis. Having spent a lifetime supporting polar research, sadly the time for this ship is almost up as the Australian government has recently announced the retirement and replacement of the Aurora, with a new ship promised by 2019.

The HMS Lady Nelson

For a natural historian the vessel that really put a smile on my face was the replica of the HMS Lady Nelson.
The original Lady Nelson was ordered to Australia in 1799 to help survey the continent’s coastline and help claim more territory for the British Empire. To complete its mission the vessel joined Matthew Flinders and the HMS Investigator in creating the first complete map of Australia.
NOTE: The original copper printing plate for the very first complete map of Australia was on display at the Tasmanian Museum. This is part of a touring display of France’s own investigation of Australia and its part in the mapping of the island continent by Nicholas Baudin, called 'The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800 – 1804' (There will be a report on this later as well). 

The Lady Nelson was the 1st vessel to sail through the Bass Strait from west to east, discovered Port Phillip and went on to help establish colonies throughout Tasmania and NSW.
One of the soldiers from the colonies that sailed on the vessel was Francis Barrallier, a man who would become an explorer in his own right, and who helped create some of the charts the voyage produced. He was later asked to find a way across the Blue Mountains that hems the city of Sydney in, and though he failed to do this he did come back with the very first evidence of the Koala. One day he noticed some aboriginal guides were preparing to cook parts of an animal they called a Colo, but he noted as a native monkey thanks to the feet he managed to procure from them. It would take a few more years for a complete specimen to be found.
Keep an eye out as you get around Hobart
 for all the Thylacines....extinct...
pffftttt....there's one standing on a barrel. 
In 1989, as part of the celebrations around the 200th anniversary of Europe’s colonisation of the continent a replica of the Lady Nelson that had been built for the occasion sailed for the 1st time through Tasmanian waters.
Under the care of the Tasmanian Sail Training Association, the Lady Nelson still sails today and can be hired for long and short cruises. On the weekend they also take the vessel for short tourist sails along the Derwent River, and I was lucky enough to take one of those.
Reasonably priced, the ship 1st leaves the dock under power from its engines, which drive it some way up the river. The engines are then turned off, the vessel turned about and heads back under power from its sails. The quiet of the river, the snap of canvas in the wind – this was cool!
You can help haul on a rope to set a sail or just sail along and enjoy the voyage as the crew train new members on how to sail one of the few tall ships still plying the waters today.   
Another wonderful opportunity from the deck of the Lady Nelson as it sails the Derwent is the unobstructed view of Mount Wellington, and its famous Organ Pipes geological formations. These are columns of dolomite, an igneous rock that formed as Australia broke away from Antarctica- ending the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana that had existed for nearly 500 million years.
Soaring high above Australia’s 2nd oldest capital city is the evidence of its ancient, geological past. How many cities can claim that?

On a paleontological point, the first people recorded to have climbed Mount Wellington were George Bass and the botanist/palaeontologist, Robert Brown. Brown would describe a large number of plants and fossils from across the world, including Australia, ad many species would also be named after him.

St David’s Park

One of the famous shopping opportunities in Hobart is the Salamanca Street Markets, which run past the docks where these ships sit. For fossil collectors make sure you drop by the Lunaris Gemstones stall as they sell very nice Tasmanian fossils, such as slices of Jurassic tree fern from the Lune River formation. I picked up a nice Permian brachiopod, and my fellow fossil collector Phil C (from the previous account about our trip to the Wellington Caves) mentioned if you check out a lot of the rocks along the Salamanca Markets you can find fossils in situ.
The far end of the market terminates at an English style park flanked by two carved stone lions. The park itself was formerly a cemetery that dated back to the early years of the original Hobart colony. Today most of the graves have been removed, yet a number still remain. It’s not often you can come face to face with one of the original First Fleeters who settled Sydney (and later Hobart and the failed colony on Norfolk Island), not one of the very first Europeans born in the colonies, but you can find them here.
A lot of the headstones were in poor repair or had fallen after years of disinterest in the spot, so when the Hobart council purchased the land in the early 20th century and built it into the lovely park you can walk today, one full of enormous, mature trees and impressive graves. There is also a long wall that contained many of those damaged headstones, so you can walk along this sombre path and get a short snapshot of the people who helped create the city about you.   
As for those stone lions, they were built by an English Stonemason who had got on the wrong side of the law and sentenced to 10 years as a convict. In Hobart he redeemed himself by returning to what he knew best, working stone, and these two stone lions were built to adorn a Hobart Bank. Funnily enough the bank’s managers blew everyone’s money (partly on their expensive building I am sure) and the financial institution crashed, the building was eventually pulled down and after some time the stone lions made their way to their current home.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Utah Part 3 the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum

There is a lot to see in Utah, especially around the dinosaur rich region of Vernal. The town is the gateway to the National Dinosaur Monument; while Vernal itself displays a number of old-time dinosaur roadside signs and statues. Just a few minutes’ drive away is also a town called Dinosaur, with streets named after the dinosaurs found in the region (all been covered in Utah part 1 and 2 if you are interested to learn more about these locations).
I showed up bright and early at opening on a weekday, during winter, and had the run of the place…and what a place. This museum is a hidden treasure, and if you are in the area, stop on by, you won’t be disappointed. Not only does it contain high quality displays and a number of real fossils, it also uses its space in a clever way, and I often found myself smiling and thinking ‘nicely done.’
There are three main halls, all circling a large rotunda, with a few small side spaces for temporary exhibits – and the majority of these contain specimens from the nearby, world famous, Unita basin.
The first version of the museum was opened in 1948, and has clearly undergone a number of renovations as the display today is fresh and dynamic. After entering a reconstruction of the local geological formations, where many of the fossils were found (this includes the display of a palaeontologist field camp), visitors are confronted with a canyon wall embedded with fossils along various layers, encouraging you to try and figure out what they are and where/when they belonged.
This path leads to the first hall, where three dinosaur skeletons make up the Jurassic Gallery. Central is a Stegosaurus skeleton, which you can walk partly around, with fossils showing specific features lying about it. This includes the part of the stegosaur spine where it was once believed a second brain was housed. Today it’s believed this large cavity held a glycogen body, a mysterious structure also found in birds.
Further back is Allosaurus, feeding on the unlucky skeleton of a medium size sauropod, Haplocanthosaurus. One of the clever features I must tip my hat too is the mural behind these dinosaurs.
The mural is not only world class, it has a sense of humour, something rare in the world today. If you look closely you will noticed the painting seems to be incomplete, especially around the edges and at the head of the Haplocanthosaurus. The reason for this is a simple one, the head of the sauropod has never been found, so how can you paint the head of an animal when you don’t know what it looked like? Clever!
There are some nice touches in this room, including a number of hands-on activities for the kids. This all leads to a small ramp with light boxes embedded inside. This path is like a time leap, skipping visitors from the Jurassic to the Eocene- the other great fossil beds the region is known for.
What first confronts you is an impressive fossil wall, covered in the small, brick-like slabs of fossil material from the Green River Formation. Visually stunning, this wall shows the incredible diversity of species collected from these rocks, and is a real eye opener.
The display also includes a number of the enormous mammals that once lived in Utah, including the bizarre Uintatherium. This includes a life-like diorama of a moment in the ancient past, with two of the great beasts fighting each other- their combat watched by the various creatures they shared their world with. 
This includes a strange creature called Stylinodon; one of the last and largest taeniodonts, a group of herbivores that grew as large as a leopard, and are unrelated to any modern species of mammal alive today.
Utah also has an outcrop of Precambrian rocks, and the museum has a small display of some specimens collected there. This includes a large wall-relief revealing where the rocks are in relation to many of the modern features of the state.
Another clever idea is the use of windows in the museum. These often open onto a model, such as a mammoth - models that would take up invaluable space if they had to be kept inside.
The museum also houses a small display of fluorescing minerals, as well as paleo-art by Prussian born Gerhard Ernest Untermann, Sr., also known as “The Artist of the Uintas.”

In the main rotunda is housed the largest display in the museum, the enormous skeleton of a Diplodocus. This stands over a mosaic geological map of Utah, and it’s impressive to get up so close to something this large.  
One of the last displays is about the long anthropological history of the region. This includes articles and images from the Fremont Indians - an unfortunate name I feel as it reflects the name of the river, named after John Charles Frémont - a man distinctly not Native American. The local people were related to the Utes and Navajo, so it would be nice to have a name that reflected this culture, but that's my own, personal opinion.

Once outside, there is also a garden walk, containing over a dozen life-like models. These are not just dinosaurs, but numerous prehistoric creatures, including pterosaurs and models of Mochops, which I might be mistaken, but could be the only life-size models on display anywhere (I could be wrong about this, so please let me know if I am).
all in all, a great museum, well worth a visit.