29 October 2016

A Visit To the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Part II: Terror of the South & the Nature Research Center

Clash of the titans.
Having covered the Prehistoric North Carolina exhibit at the NCSM (North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences), it's time to head on into two other fossiliferous displays.

The first of these is the impressive Terror of the South dome, which is probably fair to call the museum's centrepiece exhibit. The other is the Nature Research Center, which opened a few years ago as a new wing to the museum, so it was totally new to me on this visit. All photos were taken by yours truly, click the break to continue...

Ah, NCSM 14345, a fossil mount so familiar to dinosaur fans, one of - if not the - most awe-inspiring, beautiful theropod dinosaur specimens in the world. NCSM 14345 (or 'Acro' as it's nicknamed in the museum) is the go-to specimen of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, a predatory carcharodontosaur ('landshark') dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous. It's the most complete and largest specimen of Acrocanthosaurus ever found (about 11.5 m long, and in life it probably would've weighed over 6 tonnes) and prior to its discovery in the 1990s in the Antlers Formation of Oklahoma, Acrocanthosaurus was a poorly-known animal whose relations to other theropods were mysterious.

'My, Acrocanthosaurus, what tall neural spines you have!'
'All the better to confound my phylogenetic relationships
when based on inadequate remains, my dear!'
And then 
Acrocanthosaurus gobbled him up.
The name Acrocanthosaurus means 'high-spined reptile' in reference to the very elongated neural spines on the backbone, as can clearly be seen in the photos here. This feature led to a potential classification of Acrocanthosaurus as a spinosaur theropod, but the discovery of the Acro specimen made it clear this dinosaur was some sort of allosauroid, and most studies turn it up as a carcharodontosaur, the giant-headed, short-armed, blade-toothed sauropod slayers. Speaking of...

Astrodon makes a face appropriate for having
a bite taken out of your thigh. Also, my dad is
in this picture. Hi, dad.
The Acrocanthosaurus is posed opposite a very nice life-size model of a sauropod dinosaur, identified as Pleurocoelus in the museum but perhaps better called Astrodon (early North American sauropod taxonomy is pretty confusing and messy). The model is actually really good despite being well over a decade old - apart from the nostrils being placed on top of the head instead of on the snout and perhaps being a tad on the scrawny side, there were no complaints to be made. They even got its feet right, which is a disappointingly rare occurrence, even in museum displays.

The sauropod model allows a pretty big degree of motion around it, which led to me taking this rather neatly-framed picture from in between its forelimbs. Even though Astrodon is a 'small' sauropod, its size is still truly impressive, and from this vantage point it is easy to image just how incredible and threatening a smackdown between predator and prey on this scale would be - two animals the size of bull elephants circling each other, knowing full well that each is powerful enough to do the other deadly harm...

One of my favourite photos that I've taken. 
The squaring off of these giants can be well appreciated from the upstairs viewing balcony, where this photo and the one at top were taken. This exhibit is very well designed - the space for visitors isn't huge, which thrusts you right into the middle of a Cretaceous conflict, and having the giant animals loom over you is exciting and a bit humbling, I think. Getting another perspective on it is also cool, as while on the exhibit-level floor it's a bit hard to appreciate these dinosaurs as wholes because they're just so large!

The dome.
The exhibit room itself is stunning. Looking up through the dome is really cool, and properly-furry Anhanguera pterosaurs circling overhead is a nice touch.

Heeeeere's Rexy!
Moving over to the other wing, the Nature Research Center, the museum takes on a very 'hands-on' sort of approach. There are lots of exhibits based around varying degrees of interactivity in this building, and those looking for fossils won't be disappointed.

I got legs... that won't QUIT!
The first fossil we meet is a gracile juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, about 6 m long - I think this is a cast of 'Jane' (BMRP 2002.4.1) but I'm not certain. Some scientists maintain that this is not a T. rex but a different animal entirely - that's a can of worms best not opened here but suffice to say the prevailing view among scientists does indeed support this specimen being a T. rex.

Some other leg joke, maybe?
Also on display is an adult Tyrannosaurus rex femur, studied by NCSM palaeontologists Mary Schweitzer and Lindsay Zanno, which is significant for the discover of medullary bone inside it - a tissue involved in producing eggshell that is deposited by female birds when they are preparing to lay. That means that this T. rex is one of the few dinosaur fossils that can be accurately sexed.

If the rest of its body was there, the museum would've needed a bigger exhibit.
Stinkin' mammals get some time in the spotlight in this exhibit too, and as stinkin' mammals go, proboscideans are pretty much impossible to beat. Suspended from the ceiling is the skull of a mammoth (I believe it's a local Columbian mammoth Mammuthus columbi but now can't recall if signage identified it specifically). Those huge tusks are always a treat to see.

Note the big, tall-crowned molars, very handy for chopping up twigs and leaves. 
The partial skulls of some other Ice Age elephants from the region are also on display. These come from American mastodons Mammut americanum. As you can see in the picture above, this specimen had short tusks in its lower jaw - something that is shares with the mastodon on display at my own Beneski Museum. That's something I'd like to write about at some point.

Partial mastodon skull from North Carolina.
One of the coolest exhibits in the Nature Research Center is the super-hands-on Naturalist Center. It's a room full of awesome specimens that allows only small groups of visitors in at a time, and guests are encouraged to pick up the specimens, take them to some neato digital identifiers, and get a real appreciation for natural history up close. A mandatory instructional video imposes strict hands-on rules and plenty of museum team members are standing by to make sure everyone behaves. Overall, it's a really cool exhibit that is very well done and I can only imagine has a huge capacity to excite the inner natural historian in lots of people who have never had such an experience. It's exactly the kind of thing big museums should do to foster interactivity - not cheesy video games that outdate rapidly and take up valuable exhibit space, but a real museum-type area that lets people, both children and grownups, appreciate the work and research that goes into natural history research.

It is believed Kyptoceras defened itself from
predators by using its nose horn as a slingshot.
Most of the specimens in the Naturalist Center focus on extant taxa, but a collection of fossils can be found there too, such as this not-actually-hands-on Kyptoceras skull. I think this my first up close look at the skull of a protoceratid, which are North American even-toed hoofed mammals that lived from the Eocene to Pliocene epochs. They're known for their elaborate horns which would likely have been for display rather than fighting, and probably had a thin skin coating in life, like the ossicones of a giraffe. The exact relationships of these bizarre mammals has been debated but current thought is that they are primitive ruminants related to the tiny, superficially-deer-like chevrotains.

Cast of a small sample of Edmontosaurus
skin in the Naturalist Center.
Overall, a visit to the NCSM just can't be a bad idea. There's loads to see - way more than I've covered here - and it's a wonderfully designed and wonderfully informative museum. The signs are great, the exhibit designs are wonderful, the gift shop is superb, and if you get lunch at the Acro Café I recommend the Carolina Cuban sandwich. It's the biggest natural history museum in the Southeast and going there is a great way to spend the day!

-- M

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