Thursday, September 10, 2015

American Museum of Natural History: Tour of the Depths

As you might already know, I spent much of this past summer working at the American Museum of Natural History.  During my first week there I was put into contact with Wayne Callahan, through a mutual friend of ours, paleoartist, Larry Felder.  Wayne volunteers in the paleontology department at the museum, prepping and organizing the fossil collection.  He also conducts and publishes research on the fossils.  Wayne was kind enough to give me a tour of some of the behind the scenes areas of the paleontology department of the museum.

The American Museum of Natural History is one of the biggest museums in the world.  It is really impossible to see everything on display there in one day.  That being said, what is available to visitors is only a small fraction of what actually goes on at this place.  There are halls and halls of shelves upon shelves of specimens deep  in the depths of this museum that are only available to employees and volunteers there who study them.  This is because in addition to an educational facility for the public, the museum is also a leading research facility.  (not just in paleontology, either!)  Just so you know, the American Museum of Natural History has the most dinosaur fossils out of any museum in the world.  Don't ask exactly how many, because nobody there has bothered to count...but it's the most.  There are many fossils back there, many of which have Yet to be studied and some that haven't  even left their jackets since coming in from the field.  One could complete enough research to obtain a PhD back there without ever actually going into the field to dig anything up!  (Which would be kind of lame since fieldwork is pretty fun.)  If we never unearthed another new dinosaur fossil ever again, we'd still be discovering new things from this stash alone for a lifetime. 

Just a small part of the labyrinth of fossil shelves at the AMNH

Wayne and I quickly met up with paleontologist, Carl Mehling, who is the collections manager of vertebrate paleontology.  He showed me a lot of cool fossils, some of which have not been published on yet, so I can't post any pictures online.  (I didn't even take photos of those, actually.)  But there were still plenty of cool specimens I am allowed to share with you!

The American Museum of Natural History is probably most known for doing a lot of excavating of Mongolian dinosaur fossils.  The monumental Citipati that died while brooding its nest was found by the museum's team, as well as the very first known Velociraptor, to name a few.  When I was back there, they were in the process of getting two other beautifully-preserved Mongolian dinosaur skeletons cast.  These oviraptorids, called Khaan, nicknamed Romeo and Juliet, are interesting because they were discovered right next to each other with their hands touching.  Aw.

This is Romeo...or Juliet. (Not quite sure)  It's significant other was upstairs with a cast over it to make molds before they get shipped back to their original home, Mongolia.  Look at how beautifully complete it is! (Keep in mind despite the nickname there is no actual scientific evidence that these two dinosaurs were mates, or even of the opposite sex that we know of yet.  It's just a nickname.)
Possibly one of my favorite fossils back there was a chunk of Lambeosaurus tail that had all the skin still on it.  Fossilized dinosaur skin is extremely rare, but out of the few on the record that did preserve it, most are hadrosaurs.  One idea of why this is could be because hadrosaurs may have had thicker hides when compared to other dinosaurs.  It makes sense if you consider their contemporaries, like the ceratopsians and ankylosaurs had their more obvious defensive adaptations.

Section of Lambeosaurus tail with preserved skin.  Check out all those tiny mosaic-like scales!

Another cool fossil they had back there was a large slab of rock that included several Coelophysis.  This slab is from the same formation that yields most of the hundreds of Coelophysis skeletons on the fossil record, called the Ghost Ranch Formation.  It is believed the poor dinosaurs were in a dried riverbed when they were killed and buried underwater by a flash flood.  These kinds of fossils are particularly dear to me because I did much of my field work experience at the Redonda Formation, very close to the Ghost Ranch and from the same time period!

Slab containing several Coelophysis specimens at the AMNH

So the next time you visit the museum, remember that for every fossil that you see on display, there are many many more down below!  It's exciting to imagine what new discoveries are still to be made right under our noses! 

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