Saturday, August 28, 2010

8-Track Frame of Mind

Readers who access this blog via my Facebook page will already have lost patience with my new-found obsession with 8-track audio, which came about when I purchased an Electrophonic 8-track player (with quad amp and AM/FM receiver!) for $2.00 at a church jumble sale. In the words of one of my friends "8-tracks were an immediate object of derision when they came out. I'm sorry. They're not even bad enough to be cool." Even those who less dismissive are puzzled as to why, for example, I would make a 5 hour round-trip to Boston today to visit In Your Ear Records (a truly awesome place, BTW) in order to rummage through boxes of dusty 8-track cartridges in search of something that will actually play. So, although it's really no-one else's business, I will endeavour to explain.

As a paleontologist, I spend a lot of time dealing with extinct things. As a curator, I spend a lot of time dealing with artifacts. So it's not really surprising that I have an interest in 8-track, which combines physical artifacts (cartridges, players, etc) with an extinct audio format. There's also something inherently appealing about listening to something that you can't download from i-Tunes or order from Amazon. You can't experience 8-track digitally - you have to have the player and the cartridges. Like vinyl, it produces a deeper, "warmer" sound than digital recordings. Plus you have to love the Rube Goldberg charm of a machine that has a moving play head but which can't fast forward or rewind (you can change tracks, which is the 8-track equivalent of flipping sides, but that's it).

I like the fact that I can get ridiculously excited over getting twenty cardboard outer sleeves and a cleaning cartridge in the mail. I like the fact that I'm typing this blog while listening to a quadraphonic recording of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on a cartridge that's well over 30 years old and still works just fine. Most of all, I love the fact that while we both have a collection of several thousand songs that can fit on a thumb drive, I also have an 8-track player and you probably don't. So there.

An Absence of Courtesy

This week, I unsubscribed from the Vertebrate Paleontology Listserve, having been on it for nearly 10 years. Honestly, it was high time. It clutters up my mailbox with a bunch of inconsequential guff, usually along the lines of "can anyone send me a PDF of this paper?" and "please re-send in plain text" (don't get me started on that one). Lately, however, what's been getting me down could best be described as an absence of professional courtesy. In the past week we've had one respondent level a series of accusations at the current President of the United States, culiminating in the claim that he only got his position because of the color of his skin; a second respondent has likened religious belief to a phenomenon he has observed in dogs; and a third respondent basically telling the second respondent that he didn't known anything because he had never read a paper on creationism written by the third respondent (who, by the way, has no background in theology that I'm aware of). I think it's great that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression - I just wish it carried a rider that citizens think before they exercise that right.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Following on from yesterday's post, those of you wanting the full NSF program solicitation can find it here.

Friday, August 20, 2010

You Heard It First Here.....

NSF has announced a funding opportunity for the creation of a national digital data resource for collections. No program solicitation as yet, but there is a deadline - December 10th of this year. (gulp)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Your Chance to Help

Reposting this request. If you want to know a little more about the background, click here.

"Dear all,

Liverpool Museums are attempting to oppose proposed cuts to their budget that will seriously threaten the service that they provide and could lead to the closure of sections of museums, or whole museums within the city. (This is the same city that was awarded the European Capital of Culture and is designated as a World Heritage Site.) As the government has now shut down the e-petition site for 10 Downing Street, an online petition has been made available at Ipetitions. If you can, please find the time to sign the petition and support their attempt to maintain the public accessibility of understandings of regional and international heritage.

The prompt for a donation from ipetitions can be ignored without affecting the petition.

Best wishes,
Alastair Vannan"

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Matter of Image

As a museum-ite, I was immediately drawn to a post on the Center for the Future of Museums' blog entitled "Librarians. Sheesh." This great title pretty much sums up the relationship between museum workers and librarians. In principal, our fields are very similar - we both spend our time ensuring the long-term preservation of things and making those things more accessible to people who want to experience them. In practice, we're pretty much different species. One sure-fire way to piss off a collection manager is to say, "Oh, I get it; you're like a librarian, right?"

Librarians and collection managers are uneasy allies. At some level, we collection managers have never really forgiven librarians for realizing the importance of information management before we did. I sit in meetings with librarians and sigh as they rattle off references to metadata standards and authorities in a manner suggesting that all confusion and randomness has been removed from their professional lives. I get round this by telling myself that my collections data are much more complex than theirs (it's a book, for chrissakes - how much metadata can it have?), as are the uses that we put them too, and that this makes them resistant to standardization. I don't say this with much conviction, because I can't get over the sneaking suspicion that librarians may just be better information managers.

Anyway, this delightful post by AAM staffer Lauren Silbermann was actually about how librarians have again stolen a march on museum-ites by spreading, virally, across cyberspace with a series of YouTube videos, blogs, etc., all promoting the idea that libraries and their guardians are a hip, trendy, pop-culture phenomenon. She illustrates this with a video produced by students and faculty at the University of Washington's Information School (boy, even the library schools have trendy names these days) in which they parody Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." I think they are supposed to be challenging stereotypes of librarians, although if you asked me to come up with a stereotype for a librarian I'd probably say "mostly female; highly-educated; liberal in outlook (personally, professionally, and politically); and more likely than not to sport some form of body modification (tattoo or piercing)" [see above for evidence]. In other words, not a million miles away from what's on display in this video.

Anyway, Lauren's contention is that it's high time that we museum people got on-line with some museum-orientated fun that would make us more accessible and pop-culture-friendly to Joe Public. It's a compelling argument, if only because of my secret desire to get in the face of librarians, but, with all due respect to Lauren, I'm going to offer a counter opinion.

To start, let me share a conversation I had with my brother some years ago. Pete, who is a physician, was asking me what I actually did at the museum, so I told him about a project we were working on to recurate our bat collection. We had around 125,000 specimens of bat and we were re-jaring fluid specimens, tying on new labels, checking IDs, updating our database records, etc. I remember a look of wonder spreading across his face, and I thought to myself (in the rather pathetic manner typical of younger brothers) "wow, he's really impressed." When I got to the end there was a pause. Then he said "let me get this straight. They actually pay you to do stuff like that?"

There, in a nutshell, is our challenge. I don't think we have a problem with convincing people that what we do in museums is "kooky," "eccentric," or even "fun." But I think we have a big problem convincing them that it's actually useful, let alone important. It's often an uphill battle, even within our own institutions, to argue that funds should be spent on collections care rather than, say, a big new blockbuster exhibit. Now imagine trying to argue that public money should be used for tying labels on pickled bats, rather than paying for a child's MRI. Not so funny anymore, is it?

In a bid to make ourselves more effective advocates for our field, the natural history collections community has spent the last 20-plus years trying to show that we are a group of dedicated and highly trained professionals who make a significant contribution to the scientific and societal well-being of the nation and who are worth listening to. As opposed to a bunch of loveable goofballs that muck around with dead animals. Like I said, it's been an uphill battle, but as I've mentioned in previous posts (e.g. this one) we actually seem to be gaining some traction. Under the circumstances, I'm not sure that parading our "geek chic" should be high on the list of our priorities.

Besides, try doing a Google image search for "sexy librarian." Then do one for "sexy collections manager." We're way behind the eight ball on this one.....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Study in Contrasts

Two articles in yesterday's New York Times make an interesting study in contrasts. First, Sarah Lyall did a nice review of how government austerity measures in the UK are beginning to bite. As you know, I've been blogging ad nauseum about the impacts of these cuts on the UK museum sector; you can read the most recent of these posts here. It's clear that if you work in a cultural institution in Britain, then there are tough times ahead (unless you're a volunteer, in which case the outlook is really quite rosy).

In the US, by contrast, it seems that the burning issue in the museum world is the whopping tax breaks that certain museum directors get on their exceedingly expensive (and rent-free) apartments. These are discussed by Kevin Flynn and Stephanie Strom in another NYT article. It's hard to imagine any head of a UK museum being paid that much, even prior to the current cost-conscious regime, and the level of housing described in the article would be far beyond the means of even the big national museums.

Ironically enough, however, I think the Tory half of the coalition government would probably sympathize with the argument that, at the rarified levels where museum directors are recruited, market forces dictate generous remuneration packages, including housing. By contrast, the dour, Calvinist, Liberal Democrat contingent would see this as spendthrift nonsense, and wonder why the directors don't live in studio apartments and use their museum's function rooms for official entertaining.

These are the sort of conflicts that will eventually pull the coalition apart, which they are already doing; as this amusing article from yesterday's Independent reports, some Lib Dems "fear the party is acting as a fig leaf for ideologically driven spending cuts by the Tories." Gosh, do you think so?

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Question of Growth

The latest edition of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology contains not one, but two papers on the resolutely unglamorous topic of growth series. This was a sufficiently momentous occasion that I felt a blog post was warranted. No, really, don't stop reading! Because I want to try and convince you that constructing growth series is a critical part of systematic and evolutionary studies that the aspiring paleontologist neglects at their peril.

Although it may seem obvious, it's important to realize that many (if not most) organisms change their morphology dramatically over the course of their lifespan. This causes problems for systematic biologists, who want to compare character states in different types of organisms in order to reconstruct phylogeny. You have to compare like with like. In other words, it's no good comparing the juvenile of one species with an adult of another if the character you're studying changes with age.

Still think this is obvious? Well OK smarty-pants, let's take a look at a published research paper, namely Flannery, Archer, and Maynes (1987)[1], which proposed a radical shake-up of the phylogeny of phalangerid marsupials. One of the critical morphological characters used by the authors was the extent of the exposure of the ectotympanic (the bony tube that forms the floor of the external ear canal in mammals) on the front face of the postglenoid process (a vertical bony "buffer" at the back of the jaw joint that means your lower jaw doesn't end up wrapped round your ears when your temporalis muscle contracts).

The problem is that the extent of the ectotympanic on the postglenoid process is age-related. In young phalangerids, the bone makes up more than half of the process, but as they age it gets rudely shoved aside by another bone, the squamosal; the squamosal grows more than the ectotympanic, which gradually contributes less and less to the postglenoid process, until in the end it is barely visible. This was a problem, because a number of the phalangerid species that were included in the study were very rare in museum collections and were represented by only juvenile or very aged individuals. As a results, some species in the study appeared to have a postglenoid process with an ectotympanic exposure, while others didn't. Based on these apparent differences, the authors tried to define a group of phalangerid possums that were united by the fact that they had no ectotympanic exposure on the postglenoid process. Unfortunately, all phalangerids eventually lack an ectotympanic exposure if they live long enough, so this royally mucked-up their phylogeny.

As a graduate student working on phalangerids, I spent a lot of time reading the Flannery et al paper, and it soon became apparent that I wasn't seeing the same characters in specimens that they were. In the end, the way that I teased apart the mystery of the postglenoid process (not very Hardy Boys, I know) was to build a growth series of phalangerid skulls. I was fortunate that I had a very large museum collection - the Mammal Department of London's Natural History Museum - just down the road from me, with hundreds of specimens covering nearly all the known species of the group. So I could select specimens of different ages from the same species, same sex, and even the same geographic population, thus minimizing the chance that other types of variation could creep in and mess things up for me (this, by the way, is one of the reasons we bother to collect so many specimens of the same animal).

In the end, I was able to untangle this problem because I had access to a larger collection of specimens than the Australian group. The challenge for paleontologists is that we're rarely this lucky. The chances of an animal being preserved as a fossil are almost vanishingly small and the temporal resolution of the fossil record is so low that even when two animals are found in the same site, they may come from populations separated by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. So it takes a rare set of circumstances to preserve a fossil population at the same level of detail that can be obtained from collecting Recent specimens.

The first of the two JVP papers describes just such a situation. Karen Black, Mike Archer, Suzanne Hand, and Henk Godthelp describe a collection of fossils from the Riversleigh area of Queensland [2]. Over the last 30 or so years Riversleigh has yielded a host of spectacular fossils from the Oligo-Miocene of Australia; the ones described by Black et al belong to an extinct species of herbivorous marsupial called Nimbadon lavarackorum that lived around 15 million years ago. Nimbadon belongs to an extinct group called the diprotodontids, who were the heavyweights of the ancient Australian mammal fauna; some species were the size of rhinos, although Nimbadon was considerably smaller, around the size of a sheep.

What makes the Riversleigh find so important is the nature of the site where the fossils were found, AL90. 15 million years ago, this was a cave with a vertically-positioned entrance, down which from time to time unfortunate individuals of Nimbadon would blunder. In effect, the cave acted like a natural pitfall trap, sampling the local Nimbadon population. As a result of this, Black and her co-workers were able to construct a genuine growth series for this long-vanished animal, which demonstrated that the early growth patterns of the skull are mirror those seen in living marsupials, and which also gave insights into the development of the large air sinuses in the cranium that are a distinctive characteristic of diprotodontids.

The important thing about this paper is that the nature of the site means Black et al can be confident that they are actually sampling the same population. I'm not convinced that the same can be said of the second paper, by John Scannella and Jack Horner [3]. This attracted a fair amount of attention in the national press, and quite a lot more attention here at Yale, by proposing that the ceratopsian dinosaur Torosaurus (very much an icon for the Peabody Museum) is actually the adult form of the much better known Triceratops. By studying a growth series of Triceratops, Scannella and Horner argue, first, that bone histology of skulls of Triceratops originally classified as "adult" suggests that the animals are not fully grown and, second, that the anatomical changes seen in the skull of Triceratops as it ages, if projected forward into an "adult" animal, would produce something that looks suspiciously like Torosaurus. There are no known juvenile specimens of Torosaurus.

Given that Torosaurus is such an iconic presence at the Peabody (a life-size bronze reconstruction of it towers over Whitney Avenue, outside the Museum) you might be expecting me to launch into a searing denunciation of Scanella and Horner's work. If so, I fear you will be disappointed. This sort of reexamination of taxonomic hypotheses is exactly what science is all about and using growth series is exactly how one should go about doing so. The slightly raised eyebrow is because I'm mildly skeptical that the growth series used by Scanella and Horner (which was originally proposed by Horner and Goodwin in 2006 [4]) actually represents a single population of Triceratops - it seems unlikely that specimens drawn from a variety of different localities, of different ages, could constitute a growth series of the consistency seen in Black et al's study. Whether this makes any difference or not remains to be seen.

Both these papers are important because they once again remind us, should any reminder be needed, that fossils were once living animals, and the morphology that today is literally "set in stone" was once plastic and changeable. As we try and piece together evolutionary patterns, the importance of the unglamorous growth series should not be underestimated.

[Accompanying figure is taken from Black et al, 2010. For those of you that want references, here they are:

[1] Flannery, T.F., M. Archer, and G. Maynes. 1987. The phylogenetic relationships of living phalangerids (Phalangeroidea: Marsupialia) with a suggested new taxonomy. pp477-506 in Archer M. (ed) Possums and Opposums: Studies in Evolution. Sydney, Surrey Beatty & Sons and the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.

[2] Black, K.H., M. Archer, S.J. Hand, and H. Godthelp. 2010. First comprehensive analysis of cranial ontogeny in a fossil marsupial—from a 15-million-year-old cave deposit in Northern Australia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(4):993-1011.

[3] Scanella, J.B., and J.R. Horner. 2010. Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(4):1157-1168.

[4] Horner, J. R., and M. B. Goodwin. 2006. Major cranial changes during Triceratops ontogeny. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 273:2757–2761.]

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Some Rare Good News

Just in case you thought that I'm only ever the prophet of doom and gloom, I wanted to spread a little happness with the news that a couple of weeks ago the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee  recommended that funding for the Save America's Treasures program be “restored” for FY 2011; you may recall from an earlier post that the Obama Administration had proposed that this scheme would be cut in 2011. It's early days yet; before funding can be provided many additional steps will be required. The full Appropriations Committee and full House will have to vote, and the Senate will have to act. Given the difficult environment for funding, anything can happen, and it could be many months before final action is taken. But this is good news. For now.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Populating Our Cenozoic

Some weeks ago, I met with two of my colleagues Laura Friedman and Lowell Dingus, to begin work on selecting mammal fossils for the Cenozoic gallery. Like me, Laura and Lowell are both "alumni" ("refugees" or "survivors" would also be good terms) of a certain well known natural history museum in New York City, where Lowell once managed the renovation of the 4th floor fossil galleries and Laura worked as a designer in the exhibit department. All-in-all, just working with them is privilege; the fact that it's also fun is merely the icing on the cake. Despite what you might think, 'fun' can be quite a rare commodity in museum work - you grab it when you can.

Selecting exhibit materials is a bit of balancing act between the planner (Lowell), the designer (Laura), and the curator (me). The observant among you will have noted the small 'c' under curator, which shows that I'm only acting in that capacity for this part of the project. The exhibit has a Curator (Jacques Gauthier) and also a number of contributing Curators (Derek Briggs, Leo Hickey, and Eric Sargis). But, at least for the purposes of these initial material selections, I'm pretending to be Eric. Which is tricky because, frankly, he looks nothing like me (see here for evidence).

The planner is trying to ensure that whatever we pick fits the general vision for the hall. As you will have seen from the last post on this subject, what we are trying to do in the Cenozoic hall is show the transition from a global greenhouse to a global icehouse, so Lowell is looking for fossils that will demonstrate this. As the designer, Laura has to consider how all of these elements are actually going to fit into the cases that are built for them and how the hall will actually look. And I, of course, want to get as many oreodonts as possible on display, while bearing in mind that my Curatorial colleague Eric will have exactly the same wish for isolated teeth from plesiadapiform primates. And because we're talking about wider environmental changes, we can't just stuff the hall with fossil mammals; we also need to reflect the full glories of the Peabody's Cenozoic fossil collections, which include birds, reptiles, amphibia, fish, insects, molluscs, and plants.

Nonetheless, we're starting with mammals, because they are the biggest elements in the room. The very largest ones are, for the most part, the ones that are already on display. As I mentioned in the earlier post, it's likely that the very largest of these, the brontothere Megacerops and the American mastodon Mammut will form the twin poles of the exhibit, anchoring the hothouse and the icehouse respectively. Around these, we have to fit the other large skeletons from the gallery. The first thing that emerged as we looked at this was that as it currentlyy stands most of the big specimens are going to be concentrated in the icehouse - it's here that you'll find the giant camel, the giant deer, and the chalicothere Moropus, to say nothing of our Smilodon, dire wolf, glyptodon carapace, and ground sloth skeleton. Add to this a mounted skeleton of the pot-bellied Miocene rhino Teleoceras that I really want to get out of storage and back on display, and you can see that things from the Miocene to the Pleistocene are going to be a little crowded.

By contrast, the hothouse and the transitional period are looking a little short of big stuff. The brontothere is enormous (surprisingly so - it'sthe size of a small elephant, a fact that is obscurred by the current glass case, which makes it difficult to get up close to it) but most of the other beasties of the Paleocene to Oligocene are a bit on the small side. The only other large-ish skeleton that might fit this area, a uintathere, is actually a life-sized paper mache model and one of the few specimens that we actively want to remove from the gallery (in order to replace it with a fossil skull from the Peabody's exceptional collection of O.C. Marsh-era uintathere skulls).

So one of the first challenges we have to face is whether or not to try and even-up the size distribution across the hall, which from a practical point of view means retiring large specimens from the icehouse. This is not as straightforward as it might at first seem. Setting aside the fact that many of these are charismatic specimens that the public would want to see, there is a very real practical problem of finding space to store large display mounts in the collection. I might want to retire our specimen of giant deer (I've never been able to get very excited over Megaloceros. It's a very big deer with very big antlers. Wow) but if I do then it's me that has to figure out where to put it and deal with hate mail from the 2.5 Megaloceros fans in the world. Also, one could argue that gigantism was very much a feature of the Pleistocene - hey, they don't call it a "megafauna" for nothing.

The flip side of this is that an accurate portrayal of a typical mammal fauna from the hothouse would be dominated by small animals. Our big titanothere is actually quite atypical of most of the mammals from this period, as it comes from a time when the climate was becoming drier and forests began to open out into woodland. If you want modern-day analogues, you'd probably look at the sort of animals that are typical of closed-canopy tropical rainforests - small herbivores like duikers and chevrotains on the forest floor and the canopy dominated by various fruit-eating rodents and primates. And sure enough, when we get into the Peabody collections we discover plenty of fossils of these sorts of mammal from the rainforests of Paleocene and Eocene  North America. However, finding display-worthy specimens is quite another matter.

To complicate things further, when we come to choose the specimens there's another factor that we have to bear in mind - that large mural that hangs over the gallery. As much as possible, we would like the new exhibits in both the Great Hall and the Cenozoic Hall to reflect what is shown in the Zallinger murals, if only to draw attention to some of the advances in our understanding of paleobiology that have occurred over the 50-plus years since the murals were completed. That means that not only do we have to try and find display-worthy material representative of the environment that we are describing - we also have to find display quality material of the species shown in the mural. This is not as easy a task as one might think, as Laura, Lowell, and I discovered when we went into the collections. More on this in the next post on the fossil hall renovations.