Before getting into the meat, or rather the bones of this post, I just wanted to give a moment to an astounding discovery made in the field of paleontology: JARJAR BINKS does exist!!
Seriously – about 50 years ago two arms over 8 feet long with killer claws was discovered in the sands of Mongolia:
Speculation ran rampant that these arms belonged to a ferocious creature that would make Tyrannosaurus Rex seem like a puppy, and it was named Deinocheirus mirificus (Latin for “unusual, horrible hands”). Fast forward to 2014 where a find of almost a complete skeleton revealed this dinosaur to be not a carnivore, but rather a herbivore that ate plants by sucking them up lie a vacuum. It gets even weirder.
Estimated to be about 70 million years old, Deinocheirus did not have teeth but it did have a duckbill, beak, a massive tongue (facilitating the vacuuming effect) a humped sail-like back, feathered areas, massive feet, was 16 feet tall and 36 feet long and weighed about seven tons. It appears to be a distant relative of the modern-day ostrich. Here are two artists’ renderings of what this weird dinosaur looked like in the flesh:
Now look at JARJAR:
ME THINKSA EESA MATCH!
Now on the main event. Some of my most unusual travels have not been far afield, and yet were quite memorable. One of these was a behind the scenes, after hours tour of the Paleontology Department of the New York Museum of Natural History. As I have mentioned previously – some of the most intriguing places to visit are sometimes in your own backyard. This particular event took place pre-pandemic. I am looking forward to returning the the Museum and participate in new events soon.
The tour started at 7:30P and going into the Museum after hours is as you would expect, a bit spooky. I have attended events there – many were housed in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life – imagine having cocktails under the hanging Great Humpback Whale –
However, going into the actual Paleontology labs where exhibits are examined, cataloged and prepared for viewing is totally surreal – at times I felt as though I was in the movie “Jurassic Park.”
Let me give you a bit of background about the sheer size of the Paleontology Department, as the scope is quite immense:
The Paleontology Department has two divisions – Invertebrates (animals lacking a spinal column) and Vertebrates; our tour centered on the latter. The Vertebrates Department has a long history, being originally founded in the late 1800’s when studies began of the collection of fossils/bones of dinosaurs, birds and mammals discovered in expeditions to the Gobi Desert, China, Brazil and Morocco, among other areas. The collection is the largest and most diverse of its kind, including more than one million specimens housed in 13 rooms over ten floors of the Museum. In fact, only a tiny miniscule of specimens are actually exhibited and a multitude of pieces – even dating back to the late 1800’s have yet to be examined. Basically, the Museum chooses what is studied/prepared based on visiting scientists’ fields of study – the rest await cocooned in their plaster casts. I imagine there might be some amazing, groundbreaking items yet to be discovered. However, now with internet access, the Museum has started digitally imaging its assemblage of fossils, so that we might be able to see a great deal more in the near future. The facility does have state-of-the-art climate-controlled storage to ensure the preservation of these irreplaceable and highly fragile fossils and it also houses two libraries and fossil preparation laboratories.
The preparation labs and storage rooms were the main focus of our visit and we were very fortunate to have scientists Carl Mehling and Lindsay Jurgielewiz to lead us through the maze of fossils, explaining how the specimens are preserved and maintained – it was amazing to see and hear how incredibly passionate these two scientists were – the discussions were lively and very entertaining.
As you may know, not every specimen on exhibit in the Museum is real – some are models – as some real fossils might be undergoing repair work/study, or they might be too fragile to show – or the real thing might simply not exist. Out tour was therefore that much more thrilling – although we did see a model or two:
Most of what we saw were authentic fossils that dated back anywhere from 50 to over 250 millions years ago – outstanding! The main study that night was the oviraptor which literally means “egg thief” as when these fossils were originally discovered on the Mongolian Desert they were positioned on top what the paleontologists thought were Protoceratops eggs (Protoceratops, as shown in the first picture of this post, means “First Horned Face” = kind of precursor to the more familiar Triceratops). This misunderstanding lasted over 60 years before enough evidence had been secured to suggest that the eggs were really the misnamed Oviraptor’s never-hatched progeny and the oviraptor was simply brooding its eggs just as modern-day birds do. In fact the specimen we were shown was doing exactly that:
The reddish sand surrounding the fossil is indicative of the sands of the Gobi Desert, in case you were wondering, this almost entirely intact oviraptor was painstakingly excavated to this point and then encased in a plaster holding “pod” for safe transport – looking something like these:
I really would like to see the inside of the titanosaur pod – although it is just one piece of the vertebrate’s neural arch – the bony structure that arises from the back of the vertebral body and encloses the spinal cord. Titanosaurs are considered to be the largest animals ever to inhabit the earth – a herbivore wearing over 200 tons – only fragments of the skeleton have been discovered to-date – but renderings have this looking suspiciously like the fake Brontosaurus that was portrayed as an authentic herbivore during my childhood:
Back to the oviraptor – take a look at the egg positioning – the long cylinders right by the oviraptor’s claws:
We learned that the eggs of this bird-like dinosaur are always found lying in sets of two – and through further exploration it had been proposed that the mother of the eggs did not positioned them that way after laying. Rather than having one oviduct release an egg – as in common today – the oviraptor had two functioning oviducts that released eggs simultaneously – thus the twin bedding. Why this was done and why this doesn’t happen with modern birds is not answerable. Carl told us the most frustrating part of his job is often never finding out the WHY of things – the key of the love of his work is that he finds the magic in discovering the WHAT. Another great WHAT discovery concerning this fossil – it is believed to be, not the mommy but the daddy – brooding males are also common in today’s animal kingdom vis-a-vis penguins and many bird species.
Lindsay then led us through a small section of the storage area where fossils are housed – – the multi=layered cases actually moved on wheels, rotating back and forth. They reminded me of the cedar closet Dean built for Joanna in the movie “Overboard:”
We were actually able to touch some of the bones lying in these cases – very awesome:
And an unlucky duck-billed dinosaur literally gave the skin off his back on this fossil – you can see his vertebrae if you look closely:
Truly an incredible experience.