28 October 2016

A Visit To the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Part I: Prehistoric North Carolina

Albertosaurus on the hunt. 
Over the summer, I took a trip to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCSM from here on in) in Raleigh. It's a big, beautiful museum with an awful lot to see, free admission, and a stellar museum shop. Since the museum's collections are quite extensive, I'm going to stick to the palaeontology parts as that's the general thrust of Noah's Ravens but I could always revisit the other collections I photographed - mainly animals, taxidermied and living - at some indeterminate future time. Of course, I said I would post pictures just after I visited, and that was back in July, so... maybe I shouldn't get ahead of myself.

All photographs were taken by me. Click to see them below the break...

Travelling back in time...
'Prehistoric North Carolina' is the museum's major fossil exhibit. It follows the evolution of life, focusing on North Carolina and the Southeast, though many of the fossils hail from other parts of the country.

Age of Dinosaurs? Age of Dinosaurs?! Crocodile cousins object to
the Mesozoic just being called the 'Age of Dinosaurs' - he'd like to see
some measly little Triassic dinosaur try and take
him on!

One of the first major displays in Prehistoric North Carolina is a Triassic Period horsetail forest diorama, starring the replica skeleton of a land-dwelling crocodile relative called a 'rauisuchian' - a term once considered a legitimate biological classification but recently thought to instead represent a grade of similar, related animals of varying degrees of taxonomic closeness to each other. This one isn't identified to a particular genus but I'm pretty sure that the South American Prestosuchus was the model here.

North Carolina has an extensive Triassic record, mainly represented by the Pekin Formation. Recent fossil finds from the Pekin Formation include the bipedal Carnufex carolinensis - the aptly-named 'Carolina butcher,' a predatory reptile even more closely akin to modern crocs than the 'rauisuchians' - that made a media splash when it was discovered by scientists working with the NCSM. I got to see some original Pekin specimens on my visit, as I spent some time speaking with the palaeontology curator and he very kindly took me to see the collections - museum people are the BEST!!! Among these beautiful specimens were the remains of some relatives of us mammals, including barrel-bodied, tusk-bearing herbivores called dicynodonts and small, carnivorous cynodonts that are very very close to our mammalian ancestry.

Moving on, the exhibit goes deeper into the Mesozoic Era where we see some actual dinosaurs. The Late Cretaceous dioramas represent animals from the American West, though they likely had some relatives in the Eastern US too. These are really good displays. The skeletons are close by, and the narrow walkway, framing foliage, and selective lighting create a sort of natural, vaguely foreboding, claustrophobic vibe that I think really heightens the experience.

Is there Jaws music for land animals? 
Here, an Albertosaurus - an 8 m long tyrannosaur - emerges from the woods, confronting a nesting duckbill dinosaur.

Edmontosaurus - if you like, anyway - showing off why it's called a 'duckbill.'
The huge herbivore is poised over its nest (featuring a couple of rather adorable new hatchlings), and despite the fearsomeness of the encroaching predator, I really do think this duckbill seems more than capable of defend itself. It has got the Albertosaurus outclassed in size and strength by a pretty good margin.

Nice view, nice lighting, nice duckbill - and who's that back there?
Here's another snapshot of this diorama, where you get a good appreciation of how close up visitors are to the specimens and just how dang big the Edmontosaurus is. Additionally, you get a peak at the next dinosaur we'll come to...

And since you are no doubt wondering, yes, someone else at the museum
called this a
T. rex. My Beneski docenteering kicked in and I promptly
- yet (hopefully) politely - corrected them and explained what this critter
really was, which seemed to make them appreciate it a bit more. 
...Which is an absolutely gorgeous Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis, the most boneheaded bonehead outside of politics and internet forums. The bonehead dinosaurs - technically named pachycephalosaurs, after the animal you see here - were a group of small-to-midsize Cretaceous herbivores with long, amazingly barrel-shaped torsos and huge, thick domes of bone on top of their skulls. Originally thought to be used for head-to-head butting, scientists later reckoned they would be better suited to display or defencive headbutts against attacking predators. New research suggests that various anatomical features of the animals' whole bodies, as well as injuries sustained to some domes, mean that the domes really were used in sheep-like head-to-head matches, and that the living animal probably sported a coating of keratin over the dome.

She takes 'heart of stone' to a whole new level.
Displayed on the opposite side of the walkway from the Albertosaurus-Edmontosaurus-Pachycephalosaurus diorama is another animal from Western North America in the Late Cretaceous - a small plant-eating Thescelosaurus neglectus, specimen number NCSM 15728, discovered in South Dakota in 1993 and formally described in 2000. This individual is popularly nicknamed Willo, and 'she' (the specimen's sex is not actually known) is one of the most beautiful specimens in the whole museum. She's the most complete individual of her kind ever found, and she preserves some sort of iron-based lump in her chest. Initially, this feature was interpreted as being Willo's fossilised heart that was miraculously preserved in her anaerobic burial conditions. Later analyses went into deeper detail and found that the structure almost certainly is not her heart, but a large mineral concretion that formed in the right place - other, smaller concretions were also found around Willo's body. It's a nice story, though, don't you think? There's something tragically romantic about it.

Fossils of some of the first whales, Pakicetus (skull) and Ambulocetus
(partial skeleton), both of which are from Pakistan and lived
during the Eocene Epoch. Note that they still have well-developed
legs, and Pakicetus would have been mostly terrestrial - something
like a dog-like deer that would've liked a good swim. Whales, as you
should know, are even-toed hoofed mammals, closely related to hippos.

Leaving the Age of Reptiles behind, the exhibit shows off some whale fossils. The Southeastern US is a major locale for discoveries concerning early whale evolution, and some fossils from the region are on display here.

Squll of sqary Squalodon, whose name literally means 'shark tooth' and is thus
commonly called the shark-toothed whale (or dolphin). There are several species
Squalodon, and they're fairly large, bottlenose dolphin size on up to as big as
orcas. Their frightful teeth indicate they hunted large fish and perhaps other marine
mammals. They were probably fairly dolphinish in general appearance and appear
to be part of a toothed whale group that contains the living river dolphin lineages.
One of the coolest parts of this exhibit is a cramped, incredibly eerie 'aquarium' reminiscent of walkthrough tunnels in shark tanks that gives visitors the experience of being underwater in the shallow seas of North Carolina something like 42 million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch. Its centrepiece is a life-size model of Zygorhiza, a 5 m long primitive whale that retained stubby little back legs - not back flippers, back legs. I was pleased to see that all of the NCSM restorations of early whales that still had vestigial hindlimbs showed them as having individual toes, which is, from my understanding of the literature, correct but rarely depicted in favour of nubby little hindflippers. Additionally, something about that is vaguely creepy-yet-awesome.

Creepy-yet-awesome: the perfect phrase to describe the short 'underwater' walkthrough. Unfortunately, the dim lighting made photographing this display pretty much impossible. Sorry. Below you can see a picture of a Zygorhiza skull, though...

I usually don't bump into others from Alabama when I'm out of the state,
but a fossil whale is just about the best same-stater I could've hoped for!
Moving on, we come to the end of the Prehistoric North Carolina section, where visitors are faced down by an imposing Ice Age monster...

I think we need to appreciate our Pleistocene ancestors a lot more. Not
only did they not have the internet or indoor plumbing, but they had to
live alongside some totally impressive, bizarre giant beasts like this...
...A giant ground sloth, Eremotherium, made from fossils found in New Hanover County, North Carolina. These creatures are so bizarre and enormous - it's the size of a large elephant - that they always sort of freaked me out as a small kid, and this exhibit at the museum was possibly the worst offender.

Despite being mainly herbivorous, the ground sloths sported huge claws, not unlike its extant cousins of slowly-hanging-about-in-trees fame. Of course, on one of these multitonne behemoths, such colossal claws would've made absolutely horrific weapons.

Since this post is long enough as it is, I'll wrap it up here. I have yet to cover the museum's centrepiece exhibit and the palaeontology displays in its newer wing, which while not exactly brand-spanking-new were added after my last visit several years ago. So, tune in tomorrow for a museum wrap-up, featuring... THE TERROR OF THE SOUTH!

-- M

A couple of boneheads.

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