Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My First-Ever Visit to HMNH

Before I get started here, I need to say that every time I hear "Squeakquel," it makes me want to hurt people.
This was originally posted at LaGremlinland on 5/9/06, and it is the very last post "rescued" from my old websites.

By far, the museums at Harvard University are the most underrated tourist attractions in the Boston area. They are just lovely. This article came about when I had to make a quick trip to Harvard Square and I decided, for the heck of it, to visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
Of all the Harvard museums, this one might be the most famous. There are hundreds and hundreds of things to see in here. For now, we are going to tour the Natural History Museum itself. (It’s unclear as to whether the Peabody Museum is part of the HMNH or not. I consider it one of the art museums. Next trip.) First, here is a photograph that I was probably not supposed to be taking of one of the famous Glass Flowers:
Glass Flowers
These pieces are unbelievable. This is a painstakingly accurate scientific model of an Iris made out of glass. They had a small display of how the artisans created these models and it must have taken a $#!^-load of time to do and an amount of patience that is totally alien to me.
I start with the Glass Flowers because they encapsulate something downright poignant about this museum: It is OLD. Some of the exhibits date back almost a hundred years or more. Several of the *models* on display are a hundred years old. Most of the animal displays use taxidermy, and it’s sad to see that some of the mounts are falling apart (check the stitches on their Rhino). And, inevitably, you see things like this:
Oh... I am beautiful, no matter what they say...
Yeah. Several exhibits have, inadvertently, become requiems for creatures that are now severely endangered or extinct. Needless to say, you have to keep the historical context of these exhibits in mind when you go. Just when I was starting to get bummed out, I saw this:
Quincy Trilobite!
The card is a little hard to read in this photo, but it turns out that there were Trilobites in Quincy!!!
This little fellow is Paradoxides harlani. Similar to the Horseshoe Crabs that scurry about in our salt-marshes today, these creatures lived about 505,000,000 years ago towards the end of the Cambrian period. Back then, Quincy looked a lot more like Bikini Bottom at the time and was inhabited by a bunch of invertebrate sea creatures that looked like they might have been dreamed up by Dr. Seuss after severe head trauma. Indeed, from a geological perspective, Quincy spent much of history either underwater, under glaciers, or being recycled through a volcano. This is where we got our granite. And our friend here was found in a granite quarry. Trilobites survived for a very, very long time. Sadly, they became extinct around 300,000,000 years ago, right around the same time land vertebrates first evolved (coincidence?)
There. Now you know more about these prehistoric sea creatures than you ever needed or wanted to. You’re welcome. Now let’s talk about some fossil animals you have actually heard of.

Throw up your talons if you [heart] Maniraptors. Meet specimen “MCZ 4371”, a Deinonychus antirrhopus. And if I’m not mistaken, this is one of the ’raptors who was described by Professor John Ostrom in the late 60’s, and who inspired him to say, “Woah… this here’s one KICK-ASS animal.” Before he wrote his report on 4371, people didn’t realize just how KICK-ASS Maniraptors were. It’s very likely because the only ’raptors found thus far back then were small animals and fossils whose hind talons were badly preserved. Imagine the only ’raptor you know about is cute lil’ Archaeopteryx lithographica… and then you find this. It’s also fairly obvious, when you stand next to this animal, that this is the “Jurassic Park” raptor. It’s still unclear whether Deinonycus was a larger “robust” subspecies of Velociraptor (which were generally much smaller and slimmer) or if these were two separate genre of animals. Like most of the exhibits, unfortunately there isn’t much information to confirm or deny the “famous” status of a specimen. That’s too bad. Don’t they understand that dinosaurs have fans too?
Now that we have reminded ourselves of just how totally sweet Maniraptors are, let us turn around, try to photograph around the other visitors and their reflections, and…Wow...
No, that’s it, just *whimper*
But the Kronosaur is typical of the scale that you’re dealing with here in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, as you can hardly see in this crappy picture. This is the main collection of animal specimens from all over the world, and although the hall is HUGE, it’s… dense. There is just enough space to walk around among the specimens. That picture was taken from the top of the scary balcony section (note the fishnet). I think it’s enough to document the fact that they fit three Whales in here and still found space for a Giraffe fully four times as tall as me.
Things I Learned At the Museum Today
* - Maniraptors: The more you think about them, the more they KICK ASS!
* - Pelycosaurs (primitive mammal-like-reptiles like Dimetrodon) were strange creatures.
* - Some beetles look like exquisite jewels.
* - There is something unsettling about stuffed apes.
* - Hummingbirds are just incredible creatures.
* - The pervasive scent of mothballs and industrial strength disinfectant will stop bothering you after about an hour.
* - Mouse Lemurs, the smallest primates of all, really are hardly bigger than mice. People, this is a hand-held monkey!!!
* - I can stay in one museum for almost five hours and still have a hard time leaving.

Hasty Addendum: I apologize for the quality of this entry. I made a last minute decision to save it on Geocities' very last night, and it was supposed to be nicely edited and updated so it could be ready to go up "later".
The thing about this lovely holiday season is that it seems to take "later" a lot faster to turn into "now". Oi.
Hence the slapdash nature of this post. Now I'm torn between leaving it as it is and changing it so that it's less silly and more a loving tribute to my NOT first ever visit (it's actually my second) to my favorite place to go and draw all day. The latter option only exists because I assume everyone who stumbles upon a blog that they like will *immediately* go back and read through all the articles that strike their interest (I assume this, naturally, because this is what I do). And because OCD, however mild, is a hideous b*tch goddess. Erm...
So I don't know. I may change this or repost it when I actually have some free time to give it more thought. We'll see.


Zachary said...

Oh lord, where to begin.

1) It's interesting the first few cervicals on that Deinonychus skeleton are drawn in, suggesting they are not known. That's ironic, considering the skull of Deinonychus is almost entirely unknown, save some telling bits and pieces that show that it's skull was not as boxy and triangular as most reconstructions show.

2) Deinonychus and Velociraptor are completely separate genera. Greg Paul got this one wrong in 1988. It's true that the latter genus is much better known than the former, but it's certainly clear that they are very distinct.

3) There is no such thing as a "mammal-like reptile." There IS such a thing as a basal synapsid, though! The most mammalian reptiles were certain crocodilians, who discovered the joys of multicusped, differentiated dentition...during the Cretaceous.

Having said that, that museum looks pretty cool! When I read the title, my mind jumped to the HAIRY Museum of Natural History. LOL

Trish said...

1) That's interesting about Deinonychus. So, if the skull is unknown, then what head is on the HMNH mount?

2 and 3) Yeah, I know. Thing is, this was written in '06 at a website directed at a younger audience. Interestingly enough, Deinonychus is the name I grew up with, but Velociraptor (or-shudder-"raptor") is what this generation's grown up with. Furthermore, the fact that the -err- Velociraptors in "Jurassic Park" look a lot more like the "boxy head" Deinonychus is largely due to Paul's Great Nomenclature Screwup (but the man can draw.)
And of late, I've been trying to get into the habit of using "Synapsid" instead of "Mammal-Like-Reptile". That said, most people would look at Dimetrodon and say, "Dinosaur". So yeah. <:/

Zach said...

The skull is a sculpture based on initial drawings of the hypothetical skull which influenced Bakker's classic "running" Deinonychus drawing, which influenced other artists to draw the skull like that...and so on and so forth. Interestingly, this skull shape has been carried over to Utahraptor, whose head, right now, consists of a single maxilla. BRILLIANT.

I didn't realize this was a reprint of an old article!

The whole "raptor" thing pisses me off. Raptors are predatory birds, not dromaeosaurs. One more tip of the hat to Jurassic Park, I suppose.