Why the Cenozoic?

Hey there every peoples!

It’s been far too long, hasn’t it? Well, between fieldwork, job hunting, and a trip to Canada, I just haven’t had time for the ol’ cyber rag. And I actually did get a job and have been working full time for the last couple months. Plus, I applied for a collections internship at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. So much on my plate! But people keep following my blog so I have returned to ramble some more.

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35 Cenozoic Creatures As Awesome (Or Even More So) Than Dinosaurs

Hey there every peoples.

Guess what… It’s my 100th post!

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“Better Know a Museum” Month Part 4: Return to the Age of Mammals

Hey there every peoples!

Welcome to the finale of “Better Know a Museum” Month. What a ride, huh? Yeah it’s two weeks late. But i had finals last week and typing this out has just been so tedious. I really need to invest in some voice recognition software. Anyway, everything good must eventually come to an (or continue to live on in a despoiled state. I’m looking at you Star Wars!). And for the final installment of this special series i have decided to revisit a previous review.

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Better Know a Museum: Los Angeles Part 4

Hey there every peoples!

Welcome to the final segment of the first installment of my new series, Better Know a Museum. Now there is much more to the LA Museum than what I have showed you, but it would take me another month to cover it all. They have probably the biggest display of gems and minerals I have ever seen, a detailed hall of California History, and truly superb wildlife halls. But in the interests of time and relevancy, I just stuck with the fossils and artifacts. But before I move on to posts about shovel-tuskers and ancient cults, I want to talk about a particular display in the Age of Mammals hall.

I was pleased to find an abundance of raw fossil material in the hall, half of which was used to explain how fossils teach us about ancient life. But the other half was used for something different. About half the raw fossil material was used to tell the story of Los Angeles through the ages. Well, only two of the four sections contained fossils from the LA area proper while the other two had fossils from farther away but still in the general region. But it was the first section that really spoke to me.

The first section was on Los Angeles during the Eocene epoch, 40 million years ago. To show this, it used fossils from the Sespe formation in Ventura County. As someone who wants to build a museum to in part tell the story of fossils on the Central Coast, you can’t imagine how enthused I was to see the fossils in this display. Having never been able to find photos or information on such fossils, I went trigger happy with my camera. I photographed every fossil in that display. Here are a few:

Crocodile femur which indicates a warm and wet climate

Jaw of the Miacid Tapocyon, named after Tapo Canyon where the first fossils were found

Jaw of Dyseolemur, a primitive primate

They also had a slab  from the late Oligocene member of the Sespe Formation containing the skulls, jaws, and bones of two rhinos and the shell of a tortoise:

Subhyracodon and tortoise remains from the Kew Quarry outside Camarillo, Ventura County

The next display featured marine fossils from the LA area. They were from the middle Miocene, around 15 million years ago. The fossils of sea cows, dolphins, fish, and mollusks provided a stark contrast to the steamy Louisiana-style swamps of the Eocene. One spectacular specimen was the skeleton of a sea turtle hatchling:

Sea turtle hatchling

The next display provided yet another dramatic change. It featured fossils from Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave Desert of Kern County. Walking down the mezzanine visitors are transported from swamps to shallow seas to open grasslands with patches of woodland. This was another display that I really enjoyed since Red Rock Canyon is one of the places I want to go search for fossils (actually I signed up for a field trip with the LA Museum that goes looking for fossils out there).  This display, like every other one in the series, used the fossils to show how the environment change, like the preponderance of grazers:

Jaw of a three-toed grazing horse, Pliohippus

Jaw of a marmot-sized grazing rodent

And the presence of grass:

Fossil grass stems

The final display was about Rancho La Brea (yeah, I didn’t see that coming either). It featured mostly plant and invertebrate fossils since many other animals from the tar pits are on display elsewhere in the hall:

Redwood branch dredged from the asphalt

So what does this mean for me? This display effectively achieved my dream. It told the story of lesser known fossils from unexpected locations. Should I just quit now since it’s already done? Am I just going to say “yay, someone finally did it” and pursue a conventional career in paleontology since I couldn’t possibly compete with institutions of this magnitude?

The answer is a resounding HELL NO!!!  There are so many more fossils out there that need to be brought into the spotlight. I have often felt discouraged by reports of fossils collections that make me think there are no fossils left to find. But I remain optimistic. I will try to make this museum work one way or another. I would be out looking for fossils right now but just finding where to look has proven difficult. I actually do have a few maps that show the locations of Sespe outcrops but they are very tough to read (the color variations make it very difficult to tell what’s what). I am even thinking of asking the Coastal Paleontologist where he looks for fossils so that maybe when I get a job I can take weekend forays up to Santa Cruz. And for the last month and a half I have been composing a proposal letter to the San Luis Obispo City Council. And I don’t see the LA Museum as competition. It is my hope ( whether or not it’s a fools hope is yet to be seen) that my little museum could work with the LA Museum, maybe displaying fossils they could not fit into their new hall. I have a lot of work to do. But I will do my best to make my dream a reality. Because I love fossils. I love the Central Coast. I’m just having a little trouble getting started.

So if anyone out there knows where I can find geologic maps or simply point me to a good spot here or there or anywhere (particuallry the Sespe, Caliente, Pismo, and maybe Round Mountain Silt, Horned Toad,  and Dove Spring Formations) I would be eternally grateful.

Till next time!

Better Know A Museum: Los Angeles Part 1

Hey there every peoples!

Yet another dry spell. I have been busy traveling here and there. Not to mention grappling with depression. That tends to eat up your time. But I’m back now to contribute to the blogosphere once more. And this post will see the start of a new series highlighting the museums I have been most fortunate to visit. I thought that since I’m constantly harping on how I hope to open my own museum someday that maybe it would be a good idea to look at other museums to see how they present their materials. And to kick off this new series is a look at the big one. The grand poobah. The grand daddy of all museums in the west. I am of course talking about the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Now this is by no means the oldest museum in California. It is actually the third (the first being the California Academy of Sciences in 1853 and second, interestingly, is the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History in 1904). The museum was founded in 1913 in what is today Exposition Park. Prior to opening, the museum persuaded several local organizations to fill the exhibit halls with display objects. The museum also had rights to excavate the fossils turning up at Rancho La Brea. As most museums do it eventually out grew the 1913 building and it was expanded. Today the museum is the largest in the western US, boasting over 35 million objects in its collections.

Alright, enough overall history, on to the main event! Being the powerhouse that it is, there seems little the museum can’t do. And it shows in their exhibit halls. While some halls are as they have been for decades, many halls are being renovated for the museums upcoming centennial. And the exhibits being renovated occupy the 1913 building, in memory of its founding. The first halls to be completed are the rotunda and the Age of Mammals hall, so that is where we will start. I’ll do the rotunda next time because I really want to dive into the Age of Mammals. So here we go!

The fossil mammal collection is very robust here at the museum. I don’t have an exact count on their specimens but they number in the tens of thousands. The museum houses the largest collection of fossil marine mammals outside the Smithsonian. They possess a large collection of mammals from the western and Midwestern United States as well as fossils from California and Mexico. A large part of the collection was not excavated by the museum but rather purchased from other institutions, primarily in the 1960’s. For a long time they were exhibited in a rather blandish hall. But rain damage in the 2000’s had caused the hall to close down. The mammal mounts had to be cut out of their displays and placed in a temporary hall. Here’s how that temporary hall looked:

The old fossil mammal hall

Pretty weak, eh? The hall is dark, lacks any sense of dynamic environment and the skeletons are just sitting there, most not in any poses or in any order. They were just… on display. Unfortunately that was all they could do at the time. Luckily, however, in 2008 the hall was closed for good. Normally this would be a bad thing, but not in this instance. The hall was closed because it was going to occupy a new, expanded hall in what used to be the Discovery Center. So I anxiously awaited, following every bit on news, every preview picture I could, for two years following the new hall’s progress. So when I visited last week, you can imagine a great sense of relief in finally seeing the finished product. It was everything I thought it would be and more.

Now at first I was worried about the hall being plugged into a space that didn’t look much bigger than the one it had been in for the last 10 years (of course I only had the museum’s map to go by). But when you factor in the mezzanine, they were able to fit a lot in there. Most of the old mounts found their way in (Trigonias, Equus conversidens, and Paraphysiornis have bitten the dust, it seems). Now to the obsessive museum goer like me this may have seemed rather monotonous with little new stuff added. Except that it wasn’t. Many had been reconfigured into new, more active poses in a lit-up environment and there were a few new faces. The biggest and most pleasant surprise was this guy:

Skeleton of Epicyon heydeni, from a quarry in Kansas

Believe it or not, it’s a cast skeleton of Epicyon heydeni, the largest dog known to have walked the earth. This was quite possibly my favorite mount in the whole hall. Museums rarely display the skeleton of fossil dogs outside of dire wolves. They were a wide and successful group and yet never get the spotlight they deserve. I had always wanted a skeleton of Epicyon for my museum. Glad to see someone else actually did it.

Other new comers include Packicetus, the Simi Valley mastodon (but he’ll get his own post eventually), and several marine mammal mounts. The museum boasts of having the largest collection of fossil marine mammals outside of the Smithsonian. They decided to display some of this collection in the form of skeletons hanging from the ceiling. The museum decided to partially envelope them in mesh frames meant to show the shape of the animal when it was alive:

juvenile Morrice's sperm whale, Aulophyseter morricei, partly envolped in a mesh frame

I rather like this method. It shows the extent of the animal, but it doesn’t interfere with the form of the skeleton. The skeleton can be seen easily through or not through the mesh. Very clever, me thinks.

The mezzanine above the skeleton floor hold displays discussing how fossils tell us how animals moved, behaved, what they ate, and other details. It’s rather detailed and uses a wealth of fossils to compare animals across the spectrum. I stupidly worried that mammals were being crowded into that seemingly small hall. But I was just thinking in terms of skeletons. When raw fossils are factored in, they had a lot on display. And I realized something: the reason fossil mammals don’t get as much space as dinosaurs is because mammals are smaller. You can fit so many more of them in the same space as a few dinosaurs because mammals are (for the most part) smaller. Seems kinda like a “der” moment, but it felt like a revelation for someone passionate about the Cenozoic.

The museum wanted to create the look of a museum for the 21st century and it shows. The gleaming white walls, the flood of light, and glass panels. Now I don’t like it when fossils and skeletons are just put on display. I like to create a sense of environment that breaks away from the “cabinet of curiosities” look. Now that cabinet feel can still be present with a modern look. However, that doesn’t factor in to the Age of Mammals. They used stone to line the bottoms of the displays which definitely helps the “sterile tomb” look that you could get with a modern look. While they do use modern looking signs to help explain things, they have several computer interactives that help visitors go more in depth into what they are learning.

Now this all begs the question: with its bright natural lighting, fossil and skeleton packed areas, and computer interactives, what could possibly be wrong with this place? Well I do have a few qualms. First of is the glass paneling that separates you from the skeletons. Sure it allows you to get closer to the specimen and really get to studying it, but when you’re using natural lighting, you get a lot of annoying reflections and glares. It can be quite distracting. Another thing is that the Western horse and giant camel mounts feel a little crowded in their current position, pressed right up against the side of the mezzanine. Also, I remember reading in their newsletters that the San Pedro gray whale was going to be in this exhibit. The San Pedro gray whale is a Pleistocene…well… gray whale from San Pedro. It’s the only fossil gray whale in the world according to the museum. I was really hoping to see it here, but I guess in the end they didn’t have room or some other problem.

One more thing: this paleoparadoxid:

A new paleoparadoxid from Orange County

It’s a very impressive specimen. It’s the most complete in North America, it’s new to science, and it has many tooth marks indicating it was scavenged by a mako shark. It’s mounted in a swimming position and that is where the problem lies. There is a little sign explain that we don’t know how desmostylians moved on land and the couple ideas of how they did that. They said the museum side stepped this controversy by having it in a swimming position. Sounds like a copout to me. You would think a museum of this stature would tackle such a controversy head on. In a hall devoted to explaining how the science of paleontology works, you’d imagine they would have put it in what they thought was the most viable pose and then defended it. Who knows maybe they didn’t have time to do such a thing, considering the paleoparadoxid was prepared for this exhibit.

So with those minor annoyances aside, this hall was truly spectacular. They were able to effectively tell the story of the age of mammals as well as explain how science works. I would say this is one of the best fossil exhibits I have ever seen (San Diego Museum’s Fossil Mysteries may be smaller with less impressive fossils, but I feel they more effectively and seamlessly blended the story of ancient San Diego with the science behind it). I would even go so far to say it’s better than the fossil mammal hall at the Smithsonian! This hall is loaded with science, cool fossils, and epic skeletal mounts in a brightly lit, thoroughly modern hall. I am sure people will be raving about the new dinosaur halls, called Dinosaur Mysteries, which will open next year, likely mentioning the Age of Mammals only in passing as part of the renovation. But for me, I will say this: I think the Age of Mammals will be very, very hard to top.

Till next time!