In my past few visits to the Field Museum of Natural History, I’ve noticed the absence of one of its largest tenants, the Brachiosaurus which usually stands outside the northwest corner. At first, I thought that my sense of direction was just impressively poor, and I’d somehow missed one of the at-most-four corners a rectangular building can have. But, as it turns out, this was not the case. Instead, the Brachiosaurus has found its final resting place: a dumpster.
I could elaborate on that last sentence, but I’d rather give some historical context on the Brachiosaurus mount first. (After all, who starts a eulogy with the cause of death?) The first known specimen of Brachiosaurus altithorax has long been one of the Field Museum’s most famous dinosaurian residents. This fossil (FMNH P 25107) was discovered in 1900 during an expedition led by FMNH paleontologist Elmer Riggs. It was described as the species’s holotype in 1903 and, at the time, must have seemed like the largest animal to ever walk the Earth. But the story of this particular mount doesn’t pick up until the close of the century.
The same year as Jurassic Park‘s release, which centered Brachiosaurus in the public conscience as the first believable dinosaur many had seen, the Field decided to install a replica (called “Ernestine”) of the sauropod’s skeleton in Stanley Field Hall. It usurped “Gorgeous George”, the Gorgosaurus (now Daspletosaurus sp. or some unknown tyrannosaur) that had stood in the hall for the past 37 years. Ernestine stood at the south end of Stanley Field, its legs and torso acting as a secondary gateway for visitors passing in and out. But it wouldn’t stay for long. In 1997, the museum’s successful bid for “Sue” the Tyrannosaurus meant eviction for Ernestine. By 2006, the only Brachiosaurus displays remaining within the museum would be a handful of fossils in Evolving Planet.
Ernestine still thrives, just not at the museum. After Sue took over Stanley Field, the sauropod was moved to Terminal 1 in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Even in one of the nation’s largest airports, Brachiosaurus makes its size known—as soon as passengers enter the check-in area, the dinosaur’s tail can be seen poking just under the ceiling. Of course, since this mount is still very much standing, it isn’t the subject of this post. Instead, around the same time that Ernestine was being replaced, a second mount was constructed to stand outside.
This second Brachiosaurus, made of steel, was erected on the museum’s northwest corner in 1999, staring towards the heart of downtown Chicago. It was also one of the first sights drivers heading to the museum would see from South Lake Shore Drive. This would be the museum’s largest dinosaur mount until the addition of “Maximo” the Patagotitan in 2018. In that time, the Brachiosaurus became well-known for its sense of fashion, cycling through jerseys from the city’s many professional sports teams.
Turns out, the outdoors was not a particularly safe place for Brachiosaurus. The cast was severely worn down over its 23-year tenure. According to the Chicago Tribune, the museum found that the skeleton had suffered “severe damage, cracking and rust”, and was no longer in a state to keep standing. So, in mid-June of this year, Brachiosaurus was dismantled and tossed into several dumpsters. The steel bones were recycled, and the northwest corner of the Field Museum now stands empty.
This summer, I visited the Field Museum to check out Jurassic Oceans: Monsters of the Deep, a temporary exhibit on exactly what its name describes, with a few leakages from the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Cenozoic. It runs until September 5th, so between now and the time that I finish this post, it’ll probably have closed up (edit: and it did). The Field Museum seems to be the first stop of the exhibit, which was largely developed by the Natural History Museum in London (NHM). According to an NHM brochure, Jurassic Oceans was originally intended to open at FMNH in 2020 but, for probably obvious disease-related reasons, opened two years later instead.
Jurassic Oceans‘s choice of gatekeeper, naturally, is Otodus megalodon from the Cenozoic. It’s a great photo-op—there’s just enough extra space behind the megalodon for people to act like they’re being eaten, and the exhibit’s even provided an oceanic backdrop. However, it does look odd to see the bolded “JURASSIC” sitting right below this Neogene resident. The signage on the side, however, somewhat acknowledges this, saying, “But 150 million years earlier, it was reptiles that ruled the oceans.” It also actually uses Otodus for megalodon’s generic name, which is a pleasant development to see.
While a taxon too young to be in the Jurassic stood outside the exhibit, the first taxon inside the exhibit is too old. A blurb at the entrance sets the chronological exhibit’s starting point sometime beyond “200 million years” ago. This begins a walk-through-time model that the exhibit roughly follows and which, at first, devotes its attention to the aquatic life of the Triassic.
Jurassic Oceans‘s cast begins with a striking sight of an amphibian: the large and gape-mouthed skeleton of Paracyclotosaurus davidi, an Australian metoposaur. This is a cast mount nearly identical in form to a similar (or possibly the same) mount at the NHM, as can be seen here. The signage here points out an easy-to-miss detail (a crack on its head and shoulders apparently left by a falling tree) and serves to contextualize Paracyclotosaurus as one of the last acts of temnospondyl dominance in the water, before the success of the upcoming marine reptiles.
Reptiles make a modest entrance with a specimen of the relatively small Askeptosaurus italicus. This seems to be a cast of MSNM V456, a particularly complete A. italicus specimen, but inserted into a more rectangular slab for display. Fitting into the exhibit’s narrative as a predecessor to the giant and more popular marine reptiles of later times, Askeptosaurus is also the sole representative of the thalattosaurs, a distinctly Triassic and prominent lineage of reptiles in their own right.
A Field Museum specialty appears in the next display over: the holotype (FMNH PR 2251) of Cymbospondylus nichollsi, a species of large ichthyosaur described from FMNH collections in 2006. As such, the signage for this animal is much more extensive, describing the history and process of its discovery. This is also the first ichthyosaur in the exhibit, so the display makes sure to point out the giant eyes preserved in this specimen, though even bigger ones await.
The giant skull of Temnodontosaurus platyurus serves both to quench visitors’ primal thirst to touch displays and to transition into the Jurassic with one of its dawn’s most well-known “monsters of the deep”. This replica is of the T. platyurus holotype specimen (BMNH 2149/NHMUK PV R1158), notably found by Mary Anning and her brother, Joseph (who discovered the skull). The signage covers this history as well, and emphasizes the notable size of Temnodontosaurus. This display also sits under a large ambient screen, which seems to play a looping animation of plankton (the first of many similar visuals to come).
The next few displays serve as proper exposition for many upcoming components of the exhibit. A definition of reptiles, flanked by art of dinosaurs and plesiosaurs, is given, as would be expected, but a particularly unique metric is also introduced. As can be seen in the display above, many major taxa in Jurassic Oceans are assigned a number out of 10, measuring, according to the exhibit, “fierceness”. Apparently, higher-rated animals hunt larger prey, move quicker in pursuit of said prey, and have more teeth à la Jurassic World.
Naturally, the first specimen under the scrutiny of this metric is a dinosaur, but not one most visitors might expect: instead, an iguanodont footprint (NHMUK PV R 3695) is the recipient of a 7/10 in fierceness. Like many specimens here, it hails from the UK, and, in this distinctly terrestrial form, helps the exhibit emphasize that its “monsters of the deep” were not dinosaurs.
The exhibit begins its dive into the Jurassic with three display cases on the period’s aquatic invertebrates. The first case focuses on fossils important for understanding marine environments. A large rock holds fossils of the corals Thecosmilia and Isastraea, representing Jurassic reefs. Meanwhile, representing the sea floor is the algae Solenopora jurassica, preserved with bands of its original pink color. Finally, an array of Calcirhynchia calcaria brachiopod shells is used to describe the importance of oxygen isotopes in paleoclimatology.
The next two display cases shift their focus to the concept of “living fossils”, starting with the well-known example of the horseshoe crab. A modern Chinese horseshoe crab sits next to its Jurassic counterpart, a well-preserved fossil impression of the significantly smaller Mesolimulus walchi from the Solnhofen Limestone of Germany. To the left, a jar of the Bennett’s feather star is displayed in front of its counterpart, a tall slab of Pentacrinites fossilis. These three displays all sit under another large screen, which seems to be playing clips from various documentaries, including Walking with Dinosaurs, with the exhibit’s own narration overlaid over it.
The exhibit starts its exploration of aquatic vertebrate life with sharks. However, the centerpiece of this section just misses the mark. Labeled as sharks (presumably for convenience), specimens of the closely-related elasmobranchs Hybodus and Acrodus take up the left side of these displays. A slab from Germany containing a well-preserved Hybodus hauffianus particularly stands out, though accompanied by fin spines from Hybodus, again, and Acrodus nobilis. The larger Hybodus is also given a “Fierce Factor” rating of 5/10, meaning that it quickly gets outshone by the not-very-Jurassic actual shark on the opposite side.
Fossils from the Neogene of the UK receive the first 10/10 in fierceness. Both are from Otodus megalodon, the shark that opened the exhibit. This interruption in the Jurassic is made up for, however, by the specimen that barely features teeth at all: a whale bone with megalodon bite marks. Several wounds are clearly visible, and one even retains the tip of the assailant’s tooth. An obligatory (complete) megalodon tooth accompanies the bone, further helping visitors to visualize the attack implied by the whale bone.
The “living fossil” presentations continue in this section of Jurassic Oceans, though to a less obvious degree, drawing general parallels between prehistoric and modern species instead. This begins with the great white shark, whose jaw is placed next to a large assortment of Otodus obliquus, though the signage draws no explicit connections between the two. Meanwhile, the unconventional Port Jackson shark’s jaw is compared to the teeth of the Jurassic (finally) Acrodus nobilis; this time, the signage does point out the shared flat teeth between the two taxa.
Continuing on, a small pedestal displays a reconstruction of what’s labeled as “Jurassic shark skin” (the taxon isn’t specified beyond that). Touching is allowed here (and at many similar installations later), which satisfies, again, the innate hunger of visitors to be tactile. The exhibit’s third big screen follows shortly, still playing scenes from Walking with Dinosaurs (Cruel Seas this time, featuring Hybodus).
Following the sharks, the exhibit opens up into a large gallery focused on exploring the diversity of Jurassic fishes. The displays start relatively small in a spotlight on predatory and prey relationships. The fish Dapedium‘s strong bite is featured first, represented by a preserved head from the UK. It’s paired with a collection of Oxytoma inequivalve mollusks as its prey. Dapedium‘s diet is further extended in the third display in a somewhat morbid manner, however, with a specimen of D. punctatum preserved with a smaller Dorsetichthys ensnared and stuck in its mouth (suffocating the predator).
Another display on similarities between prehistory and modernity comes next, in the form of the most well-known living fossils: coelacanths. They’re represented by Coccoderma suevicum, a Jurassic coelacanth from Germany, though, this time, its modern analog isn’t displayed beside it. Like the previous displays, this specimen is on the smaller side of things; however, things get much bigger with the fossil slab coming up next.
This specimen is labeled as one of the Jurassic pachycormid Hypsocormus, but, owing to bad timing and possibly the pandemic, is no longer so. Instead, this long-bodied fossil (NHMUK PV P 6011) was described as the holotype specimen of Simocormus macrolepidotus, a new genus and species of pachycormid, in mid-2020. The slightly less two-dimensional nature of the fish also gives visitors a rare look at non-crushed features, such as ornamentation on the skull. An ambient screen also hovers over Sinocormus, seemingly playing an animation of still water at the ocean surface.
Ecological relationships of the Jurassic oceans become a focus again in the next display. This features the first and only pterosaur in the exhibit, a cast of an Aerodactylus scolopacipeps specimen preserved with soft tissue (BSP 1937 I 18). This allows the exhibit to discuss predation of Jurassic fish and the more attention-grabbing fact that this taxon was named after the Pokémon Aerodactyl. Alongside the pterosaur is an ichthyian predator of fish, Aspidorhynchus acutirostris (NHMUK PV P 37790), also preserved in a Solnhofen slab.
This section’s displays peak in size with the placement of Leedsichthys problematicus in its center. All it takes for this gargantuan fish to steal the spotlight is a set of its tail fins from the UK. The bones are displayed on a platform shaped after the silhouette of Leedsichthys‘s tail, helping visitors to better visualize the animal. The fish also receives another large projection hovering above and, of course, a “Fierce Factor”. However, on the basis of its plankton-feeding lifestyle, Leedsichthys only receives a 1/10.
A second trail of display cases runs behind visitors in this gallery, continuing the exhibit’s exploration of fish life in the Jurassic. In the first pair of fish, a Heterolepidotus sauroides from the period’s older edge helps to describe the existence of the Tethys Ocean and the warmer waters in which it lived. The focus switches to ecology with a smaller Pholidophorus displayed below, portrayed as the prey of marine reptiles (the signage also notes that the taxon’s scales have been found in ichthyosaur droppings).
Right on cue, the next display presents a ball of poop for visitors to touch and feel. This specimen hails from the earlier Jurassic, and has an indeterminate owner. However, fish scales are present in the coprolite, so the signage points out a plesiosaur, ichthyosaur, or pliosaur as possible suspects.
The touchable displays continue with the second dinosaur of the exhibit, and the latest excursion out of the Jurassic: Baryonyx walkeri. A replica of the spinosaur’s famous fish-catching claw is presented, but not without more fish to contextualize it. The next display case contains three Jurassic specimens of a single species, Scheenstia mantelli, a multi-period lepidotid notable for having been found in the Baryonyx holotype’s stomach. Two large specimens, one nearly complete and another partial head and body, are also accompanied by a collection of rounded Scheenstia teeth. The exhibit uses these to describe the prey animal’s own diet, made up of crushable mollusks. Of course, the exhibit hooks visitors back up to touchable objects immediately after, with a reconstruction of Scheenstia scales’ texture.
Cartilaginous fish make a return to cap off this gallery, in the form of another display on parallels between prehistory and the present. This time, the focus is on rays, which the exhibit notes as having first evolved in the Jurassic. However, the fossil chosen doesn’t seem to quite fit the bill. Though Pseudorhina acanthoderma, represented by a specimen from Solnhofen, looks the part, it’s instead an early angel shark. This doesn’t stop it from being displayed alongside a taxidermied brown stingray, however.
With the next gallery, the exhibit shifts from fish to fish lizards. Ichthyosaurs are properly covered in this section, starting with the question of how they detected their prey. The exhibit’s answer is in two ichthyosaur skulls, one being that of Ichthyosaurus proper, featuring the group’s signature giant eyes. The other skull, however, looks deeper into the organism’s anatomy. This Hauffiopteryx typicus reconstruction is 3D-printed, and includes not just the skull, but also a restored brain mold, which the exhibit compares to other reptiles and whale brains. Another Fierce Factor rating stands behind these two taxa, giving ichthyosaurs (the group, in general) a rating of 7/10.
The next, much larger, ichthyosaur portrays the group in a more intimate (or more vicious) light. This fossil is of Stenopterygius, an ichthyosaur perhaps most well-known for being preserved with its live-birthed offspring. This may be one of those specimens containing a smaller ichthyosaur preserved in its stomach, alongside other prey remains (including fish scales). The signage, however, notes that the ichthyosaur could have also been a prey item, instead of the individual’s embryo.
On the other side of the gallery, a trail of displays switches focus to ichthyosaur physiology. A characteristically bone-packed paddle from Ichthyosaurus is presented first, helping to illustrate how ichthyosaurs swam through the water. Another Ichthyosaurus follows up (I. communis, specifically), this time with a full skeleton of a juvenile. This tiny individual is accompanied by the seemingly ironic question, “How big were ichthyosaurs?” However, given that some of the most notably large ichthyosaurs were on display earlier in the exhibit, the inclusion of an individual from the opposite end of the spectrum seems natural.
Past temporary exhibits at FMNH were never short of life-size models, and Jurassic Oceans is no exception. After a paddle and skeleton, Ichthyosaurus takes its fully fleshed-out form in this next display. This is likely the largest object presented so far in the exhibit, so it takes center stage in this gallery. To accompany the sculpture, the exhibit asks a final anatomical question: “What color were they?” (apparently using ‘ichthyosaur’ in every sign gets repetitive). The signage describes discoveries of ichthyosaur melanin and possible shading for the animal, which are pointed out on the restoration.
A more modestly-preserved Ichthyosaurus follows the sculpt of the genus. Ichthyosaur feeding is again the focus here, which this partial I. communis (NHMUK PV R 15907) illustrates well. Around the reptile, numerous belemnite pens are also exposed, allowing the exhibit to discuss them as part of the ichthyosaur diet, and show visitors what belemnites actually looked like. The belemnite focus continues on the next display, which features two polished pens from Cylindroteuthis, a geographically and temporally wide-ranging taxon.
The last few fossils in this trail of displays emphasize the relationship between ichthyosaurs and their ecosystems. This begins with interactions between individual ichthyosaurs. A skull of Ichthyosaurus is accompanied (for no particularly clear reason) by signage describing ichthyosaur group and family behavior. A lone fossilized eye is adjacent, with which the exhibit explains why eyes fossilized in the first place and how sclerotic rings stopped said eyes from exploding (in the signage’s words). This display case also contains two deceivingly similar mollusks, which help to paint a better picture of ichthyosaur ecology and feeding. These are the ammonite Lytoceras fimbriatum and, naturally, the nautiloid Cenoceras intermedium, both representing ichthyosaur prey.
The ichthyosaur gallery closes with one of the most well-known cases of convergent evolution: the ichthyosaur-like dolphin. A skeleton of the common bottlenose dolphin is on display, and silhouettes of both taxa are compared to each other. Turning the corner, visitors are also faced with an evolutionary diagram of various reptiles: the ichthyosaurs, dinosaurs, turtles, pterosaurs, marine crocs, and the other major group of Jurassic sea reptiles, coming up in the next gallery.
Another misnomer begins Jurassic Oceans‘s gallery on plesiosaurs (both long and short-necked). This flattened (and touchable) skeletal cast is described as one of Plesiosaurus hawkinsi by the signage. However, this is a designation that changed in 1996, when this particular specimen (BMNH 2018) from the English Lower Lias was redescribed as the holotype of the new genus Thalassiodracon. Besides the outdated name, the signage also focuses on the mechanics of plesiosaur swimming, something this corner of the gallery revolves around as a whole.
On the other wall, a platform displays a glowing silhouette of a human hand, comparing and contrasting it with a fossil plesiosaur paddle (much larger than that of Thalassiodracon) displayed nearby. This specimen belongs to Cryptoclidus eurymerus, and, like the ichthyosaur paddle from the previous gallery, shows off the immense number of bones packed into these marine reptiles’ limbs.
The centerpiece of this gallery is a skeletal mount of the Cretaceous elasmosaur Futabasaurus suzukii (also known as the archetypical plesiosaur of my childhood for its presence in Doraemon). The exhibit examines this animal from all angles, literally, with four pieces of signage in orbit. These cover plesiosaur necks, hearing, temporal range, diet, and shark bites on this particular specimen. However, given its size and presence, Futabasaurus also gets a fierceness rating, though this only turns out to be 4/10. Several model ammonites also hover above the plesiosaur, adding some environmental immersion to the display.
On cue, the trail of displays that follows Futabasaurus is all about cephalopods. This begins with another touchable fossil, an ammonite from Madagascar, in order to give visitors a formal introduction to the group. The second display contains four specimens, each included to showcase the wide range of morphological diversity of ammonites. These include distinctly ornamented Parkinsonia and Amaltheus, as well as a smaller and smoother Teloceras. The fourth specimen, one of Apoderoceras, is sliced open, allowing visitors a look inside the famous shells of this group.
No discussion of ammonites is complete without mentioning the nautilus, which is exactly what the next display does. Like before, a fossil species is compared with an extant one, noting similarities between the past and the present. However, where one might expect an ammonite, a fossil nautiloid is on display. This is a specimen of Cenoceras truncatus, a nautiloid from the Jurassic. It’s propped up next to a chambered nautilus sitting in a jar, and the equivalent floatation methods of the two taxa are discussed.
Before moving on to the next cephalopod group, however, a polished Cymatoceras nautiloid sits on a pedestal for visitors to touch. From Madagascar like the last touchable fossil, this taxon is another excursion out of the exhibit’s titular focus, originating from the Cretaceous instead.
Jurassic Oceans gives visitors back-to-back analogs between prehistory and modernity with the two soft-bodied cephalopods in this section’s final display. These are much more significantly contrasting than previous pairs, and that’s because one is the size of a large chocolate bar, and the other is the colossal squid. Of course, only a tentacle (found inside a sperm whale’s belly) of the latter is displayed, kept in another jar, but it still outsizes the belemnite relative beside it. This is a fossil slab containing Belemnotheutis antiquus (NHMUK 25966), a taxon known for particularly well-preserved soft tissue. This specimen is no exception, showing body parts and tentacles clear as day.
Before moving on to the next part of the exhibit, a small display case from the other side of the hall interjects. Returning back to vertebrates, the focus is now on two pieces of poop. The smaller of these is said to have come from an ichthyosaur or plesiosaur, and has been cut open, allowing visitors to see what seem to be fish remains. The larger is more ambiguous, though dark spots around the object (fish scales) give away the diet of its owner.
Thalattosuchians are the subject of the next few displays, beginning with a lesser-known member of the smooth-skinned metriorhynchids. The skull, hindlimb, and tail of Gracilineustes leedsi (NHMUK PV R5793) are all featured here. Aside from debatably saying that this taxon would have looked more like an ichthyosaur than a crocodilian, the signage also displays a life restoration of the crocodylomorph, with the bones on display shaded in. Gracilineustes is accompanied by a much more famous metriorhynchid, Dakosaurus maximus. Just two of its teeth are on display, along with a life restoration swimming alongside a human diver.
A slimmer side of the thalattosuchians is on display in the next case. This replica of Pelagosaurus typus basks alongside a floating row of its osteoderms, mirroring a similar arrangement in Paris’s Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. The exhibit compares the animal’s shape to the modern gharial, and contrasts its diet with that of the more robust metriorhynchids in the previous display.
The integumentary armor of the crocodylomorphs takes focus again in this next display. A chunk of rock holds osteoderm impressions (NHMUK PV R 4207) from Teleosaurus cadomensis, a possible relative of the prior Pelagosaurus. Of course, there’s no going back once skin is mentioned in this exhibit, so a reconstruction of Teleosaurus‘s skin is available to the right for visitors to touch.
A particularly complete specimen of a much smaller crocodylomorph caps off this trail of displays. This is another metriorhynchid, Rhacheosaurus gracilis, from the Late Jurassic of Germany. It’s almost all flattened onto the slab it’s displayed in, bar for its skull. As such, much of its soft tissue is visible, forming an outline of its original shape around its bones. Surprisingly, this relatively tiny animal is the only crocodylomorph to get its fierceness rated, and it earns a 6/10, making it officially more threatening than the 25-foot Futabasaurus from the previous gallery.
A major marine reptile group noticeably absent from the exhibit until now makes an appearance as an add-on to the trail of thalattosuchians. This is a shell from the baenoid turtle Pleurosternon bullocki (misspelled as “Pleurosternum bullocki” in the exhibit). The signage emphasizes the clade’s famously extraordinary lifespan and growth, but also bestows an assessment of ferocity onto the turtle. It gets a 3/10, just shy of Futabasaurus and significantly higher than Leedsichthys (one of the largest fish ever).
The exhibit’s final moments in the Jurassic feature fossils from one of the period’s most famous marine predators: Liopleurodon. The assortment of fossils on display belongs to L. ferox, and include its famous jaws and four isolated teeth, along with a large pelvis and rib. The body parts these belong to are all shaded in on the signage’s life restoration, and the exhibit focuses on a different element of the pliosaur’s biology for each fossil. The “Fierce Factor” is a little more indecisive this time, giving Liopleurodon a rating of 8-10/10, based on an odd size estimate of 15 meters in length.
The exhibit only spends a few moments dedicated to the Cretaceous, so, naturally, it features the most famous marine reptiles: the mosasaurs. This begins with two of the group’s more standard members, a partial jaw from Tylosaurus and a reconstructed skull of what’s labeled as “Platecarpus planifrons“. However, this second species was assigned to the new genus Plesioplatecarpus in the 2010s.
The third specimen here is just a single mosasaur tooth from Morocco, preserved alongside a fish bone. In the background, however, the display gets a more specialized taste of the Field Museum. A mural depicting Taniwhasaurus antarcticus stretches across this series of displays. It was originally used in Antarctic Dinosaurs, the previous traveling fossil exhibit to open for the first time at the Field. This is all visitors get off the Mesozoic, however, and with a piece of signage on the K-PG asteroid impact, Jurassic Oceans moves into the present(ish).
Several extant reptiles, all rated on the fierceness scale, feature in this next section. First, a taxidermied leatherback turtle receives a 4/10, followed on the other side of the hall by a blue-banded sea snake in a jar, which receives a 5/10. The next two reptilians, both taxidermied, ramp things up significantly—a saltwater crocodile gets a 9/10, and a river monitor gets a 7/10 (though it’s slightly harder to take it seriously, given its taxidermied facial expression). The last modern species, a marine iguana, is a bit of a letdown, only earning a 2/10.
Though the next section of the exhibit takes a 55-million-year step back into prehistory, it leads with the phrase “Today’s Ocean Giants”. This is because the epilogue of Jurassic Oceans focuses on the rise of whales, the modern clade surpassing any of the exhibit’s “monsters of the deep” in size. The displays begin at the cetacean tree’s roots with a cast of the hoofed Pakicetus on display (the focus is placed on its limbs, ears, and occasional water-going, specifically).
The exhibit takes a particularly large leap in time, to the Oligocene, for the next display. This skull cast of the Australian Janjucetus hunderi holotype (NMV P216929) represents one of the earliest branches in Mysticeti (the baleen whales). This connection isn’t explicitly made by the signage, though it does mention the filtering teeth of modern baleen whales, which Janjucetus notably lacks. To the right, the exhibit also offers a somewhat belated definition of a mammal before turning the corner to the final gallery in Jurassic Oceans.
Reaching back into the middle of the exhibit, this gallery pulls out brain reconstructions again. One is that of Hauffiopteryx typicus, which was previously featured in the ichthyosaur section with a replica of its skull. This time, however, its partner is the brain of Dorudon, the early whale that perpetually exists in Basilosaurus‘s shadow. The display case also includes a series of Dorudon teeth, drawing comparisons between them and those of ichthyosaurs.
Jurassic Oceans‘s last mount comes next and, naturally, it’s a skeleton of Dorudon. Like its predecessors, it’s subject to the Fierce Factor, and receives a comfortable 6/10. Seemingly diving, this mount stretches from floor to ceiling, creating one of the most dynamic sights in the exhibit. The comparison to Mesozoic reptiles continues, with the signage noting the position of Dorudon‘s nostrils, along with various other features that helped whales take to the water. This individual is also the last piece of prehistory in the exhibit; from here on, modern oceans are of focus.
The other side of the gallery holds a variety of modern whales. Two separate display cases hold an orca skull, which is compared to Jurassic reptilian macropredators, and an Indo-Pacific finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides)’s flipper. The latter is displayed within what looks like a rocky matrix, making it almost resemble a fossil. Finally, for the last time in the exhibit, a reconstruction of an orca’s skin is provided for visitors to touch and feel.
The central display, echoing the beginning of this section, provides visitors with their last opportunity to touch the science. Three brains, increasing in size, are raised up, representing a harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), a human being, and a massive sperm whale, respectively. So, the mammals with the largest relative and absolute brain sizes are all represented here. Meanwhile, as done before, a large screen also plays clips on early whales and whale evolution in the background. Finally, another isolated sight on the opposing wall is a family tree of whales, beginning with Pakicetus and Ambulocetus, passing Dorudon and Odobenocetops, and ending with modernity.
Jurassic Oceans ends with a taste of the Field’s own specialties. A tall jaw from a sperm whale stands against a wall, measuring seven feet in height. However, besides the biology of sperm whales, the signage also reveals this specimen’s local relevance. It was first displayed at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, onboard the Progress in an exhibit related to whaling. The collections of this exhibit would become part of the Field Museum, which was created as a result of the Columbian Exposition. And so, after one final sign about modern oceans and conservation, the journey through the Jurassic oceans ends (with many, many detours).
Charig, A. J., Milner, A. C. (1997). Baryonyx walkeri, a fish-eating dinosaur from the Wealden of Surrey. Bulletin of the Natural History Museum of London, 53(1), 11-70.
Fitzgerald E. M. (2006). A bizarre new toothed mysticete (Cetacea) from Australia and the early evolution of baleen whales. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273(1604), 2955–2963. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2006.3664
Konishi, T., Caldwell, M. W. (2010). Two new plioplatecarpine (Squamata, Mosasauridae) genera from the Upper Cretaceous of North America, and a global phylogenetic analysis of plioplatecarpines. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 31(4), 754-783. https://doi.org/10.1080/02724634.2011.579023
Maisey, J. G., Ehret, D. J., Denton, J. S. S. (2020). A New Genus of Late Cretaceous Angel Shark (Elasmobranchii; Squatinidae), with Comments on Squatinid Phylogeny. American Museum Novitates, 2020(3954), 1-29. https://doi.org/10.1206/3954.1
Maxwell, E. E., Lambers, P. H., López-Arbarello, A., Schweigert, G. (2020). Re-evaluation of pachycormid fishes from the Late Jurassic of Southwestern Germany. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 65(3), 429-453. https://doi.org/10.4202/app.00749.2020
Müller, J. (2005). The anatomy of Askeptosaurus italicus from the Middle Triassic of Monte San Giorgio and the interrelationships of thalattosaurs (Reptilia, Diapsida). Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 42(7), 1347 – 1367. https://doi.org/10.1139/e05-030
Parry, L. A., Smithwick, F., Nordén, K. K., Saitta, E. T., Lozano-Fernandez, J., Tanner, A. R., Caron, J., Edgecombe, G. D., Briggs, D. E. G., Vinther, J. (2018). Soft‐bodied fossils are not simply rotten carcasses–toward a holistic understanding of exceptional fossil preservation. BioEssays, 40(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/bies.201700167
Storrs, G. W., Taylor, M. A. (1995). Cranial anatomy of a new plesiosaur genus from the lowermost Lias (Rhaetian/Hettangian) of Street, Somerset, England. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 16(3), 403-420. https://doi.org/10.1080/02724634.1996.10011330
Stumpf, S., López-Romero, F.A., Kindlimann, R., Lacombat, F., Pohl, B. and Kriwet, J. (2021), A unique hybodontiform skeleton provides novel insights into Mesozoic chondrichthyan life.Papers in Paleontology, 7(3), 1479-1505. https://doi.org/10.1002/spp2.1350
One more unnecessarily-long museum description has just been published. Adding to this site’s cache of Georgian fossil displays (which, due to severe procrastination, also represents the extent of my coverage on North American fossil halls) is Cartersville’s Tellus Science Museum. A sauropod in the lobby and a walk-through-time fossil hall comprise this relatively young museum’s fossil displays. This institution includes the likes of the once long-armed tyrannosaur Appalachiosaurus, the non-Archelon giant turtle Protostega, and a local specialty, the ground sloth Eremotherium. Read more below:
In many’s eyes, fossil mounts have primarily become display pieces (regardless of whether or not such a perspective is justified). As such, one day, as you wander off to work, you may notice that a mount’s suddenly appeared in a random location, like a piece of abstract sculpture, with no explanation or knowledge of how it got there. The most often-publicized case of this is at the Googleplex, Google’s massive headquarters in Mountain View, California. This mount is the Tyrannosaurus rex misnamed countless times, covered with countless flamingos, and perplexing thousands of office workers each day.
Google’s T. rex appears to be a bronze cast of MOR 555, nicknamed “Wankel Rex”, and, most recently, “The Nation’s T. rex” (the original having gone on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in 2019). However, every online source imaginable on this particular mount notes that it’s been named “Stan”, the nickname belonging to the somewhat recently-sold Tyrannosaurus specimen BHI 333. So, either coverage of Google’s T. rex has been perpetuating the same mistake, or Google employees decided to give the same name to their bronze dinosaur as the Black Hills Institute gave to BHI 333. The former seems more likely, but, with each extra news story that calls this T. rex “Stan”, the latter makes more and more sense.
How and Why
Though to most readers of this blog, no justification is needed for the spontaneous appearance of a dinosaur skeleton in the workplace, Google’s “Stan/Wankel” (or “Stankel”) is apparently surprising enough for most of its coverage to have questioned its existence. According to a 2007 piece in The Atlantic, the mount appeared sometime in the early-mid 2000s and was probably a gift from Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. However, a later HuffPost piece states that the skeleton was added by an employee (given the price of a “Wankel Rex” cast, however, this option seems less likely).
As for the purpose of “Stankel” (I deeply apologize for creating this term), some sources say that it was installed at the Googleplex to encourage continuous technological adaptation and ‘evolution’ among employees, less they end up the same as the extinct dinosaur. Given that this particular dinosaur was wiped out by a giant asteroid, it doesn’t seem like the best example of an organism failing to adapt to changing times.
However, no matter how much “Stankel” encourages Google to change and evolve, the one constant in its continued existence is that not a single piece of media will call it by its correct nickname. At this point, it seems more likely for “Stankel” to suddenly reanimate and terrorize the Googleplex than for someone to call this replica “Wankel”.
New York’s American Museum of Natural History has been a hotspot of memorable traveling exhibits. From feathered dinosaurs to sauropod biology (and most recently, the tyrannosaur family), a bounty of rare topics has been given a spotlight in these exhibits. However, after they travel for a while, all special exhibits eventually settle down. And for these exhibits from the AMNH, Ohio is a hotter spot for retirement than Tampa. In Columbus, the state’s capital, the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) holds two of AMNH’s former exhibitions, giving them a new role as permanent galleries.
Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries
The older of the two AMNH exhibits recreated in COSI is “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries”. Running from May of 2005 to January of 2006, this gallery originally focused on the effects of new technological advances (for the time) on dinosaur research, as well as an increasing rate of discoveries. A silver model of an Apatosaurus skeleton, casts of Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus, and digital animations took the spotlight in this exhibit, all presented in a relatively futuristic setting.
After leaving the AMNH, “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” seems to have bounced around a bit, like a normal traveling exhibition. It popped up anywhere from Raleigh to Boston before it permanently retired to COSI. In COSI’s Dinosaur Gallery, an essentially unaltered version of this exhibit greets visitors, with the gallery’s replica of the Tyrannosaurus specimen AMNH 5027 as their first sight. Despite this, however, this exhibit doesn’t appear to have completely settled down from a life on the road just yet—it’s shown up in Muncie, Indiana and Springfield, Massachusetts in the past three years.
Dinosaurs Among Us
Any AMNH exhibits that have reached COSI have been promotionally stripped of their names and grouped under the “American Museum of Natural History Dinosaur Gallery” title. This appears to have been for the best, since no possible timeline exists in which the original name of AMNH’s feathered dinosaur exhibit, “Dinosaurs Among Us: The Ancestry of Birds”, could have been taken seriously since a certain unnamed video game gained popularity. Opening in March of 2016 and closing in January of the following year at the American Museum, this exhibit revolved around the dinosaur-bird transition, primarily showcasing taxa and specimens from East Asia.
After traveling to several museums in the United States for a short time, “Dinosaurs Among Us” arrived at COSI, along with the much older “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” in November of 2017. Like the earlier exhibit, “Dinosaurs Among Us” stayed largely the same, with a Yutyrannus huali reconstruction as its centerpiece, along with replicas of “Dave” the Sinornithosaurus, the Caudipteryx holotype, among other famous feathered fossils.
These two New Yorkers were brought to COSI through investments from the state of Ohio, part of a collaboration between the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation and the city of Columbus to enhance educational programming in the area. The “American Museum of Natural History Dinosaur Gallery” today takes up 22,000 square feet on the center’s floor, occupying two adjacent fossil halls with two markedly different exhibits.
Columbus Downtown Development Corporation. (n.d.). American Museum of Natural History Dinosaur & Exhibition Galleries at COSI. Columbus Downtown Development Corporation. https://www.columbusddc.com/projects/AMNH
In the past couple of years, there’s been a burst of large-scale museum renovations across the country. The Burke Museum and the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History both got new and modern homes. The Smithsonian recreated its fossil halls in the form of “Deep Time”, and Yale’s Peabody Museum is currently undergoing a similar revamp.
One of the largest of these renovations is taking place at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in Ohio. A substantial amount of light about the renovation, costing about $150,000,000, has only been shed in the past year, with concept art being unveiled and projects being completed. To celebrate its centennial, the museum is adding a new 50,000-foot exhibit wing and auditorium, along with a host of other changes (altogether titled “Transforming the World of Discovery”) that’ll radically transform the appearance and presentation of the CMNH.
In December of 2020, the CMNH completed its ‘Gateway’ projects, a series of initial renovations that coincided with the museum’s centennial. These consisted of three additions both inside and outside of the museum. The first to be completed was a “Current Science” installation that covers the latest discoveries in the natural sciences. The other two projects were a new auditorium and an Enviornmental Courtyard based on the geology of Ohio.
As one can probably observe from the CMNH’s ‘Gateway’ projects, a major goal of this centennial renovation is to bring the museum into the 21st century. That goal encompasses exhibit design as well. For instance, it seems that the CMNH’s fossil halls are being reworked into a Biological Processes Wing, presented in a continuous “walk through time (or evolution)” format. The wing will also link to the museum’s wildlife center, opened in 2017, to engage visitors with living specimens after walking among long-dead organisms.
New technology is also being used to further engage visitors. One instance of exhibit innovation that the museum has revealed is the use of digital screens that display specimens. Visitors can manipulate the images of specimens to their liking, allowing for a more flexible degree of observation. In the concept art above, a glass screen with the image of a bald eagle may represent one of these new examples of specimen digitization. Additionally, the CMNH is planning on building an education wing that utilizes some of its new technological features, aiming to engage teachers and students specifically. Though programs in the wing itself will be plentiful, the museum also says that new IVC studios will allow virtual programming to take place in the exhibits as well.
The museum broke ground on its non-Gateway expansions earlier this year (in June). As of yet, it doesn’t seem that a date has been projected for when the CMNH’s renovation will finish. However, from the concepts that have already been released, this is one of the most ambitious museum expansions/renovations seen in the country in the past couple of years. So, as time goes on, the details of the CMNH’s centennial makeover should become much clearer.
Across museums in the southern United States, mounted casts of a long-armed tyrannosaur were installed in the last two centuries. In this case, when one says “long-armed”, the arms are nothing like one would expect from any non-tyrannosaur theropod. Instead, these arms were essentially gargantuan, nearly matching the length of the dinosaur’s legs in some displays. This was the situation of Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, a tyrannosaur described in 2005 from the Late Cretaceous of the southeastern United States.
By 2012, it became clear to museums which had installed Appalachiosaurus mounts that the arms were almost certainly inaccurate. According to Julian Gray, the then-curator of the Tellus Science Museum, which had exhibited one of the Appalachiosaurus (as seen above), an unspecified paleontologist misidentified one particularly large bone as one of the theropod’s arm bones, creating the giant arms in the mounted casts. So, the process of replacing arms began at some museums, though others seem to have kept the terrifying limbs.
The first of these Appalachiosaurus mounts is also the most famous. This cast was installed at the McWane Science Center in Alabama, where the theropod was first discovered. It stands in a display of dinosaur mounts from the region, including a nodosaur and a Deinonychus cast intended to represent an ambiguous dromaeosaur. Thismount introduced the inaccurate lengthened arms. However, despite the update in 2012, the skeleton remains unchanged, as of a Facebook video from the museum in 2021.
Two more notable mounts of Appalachiosaurus were installed in the southeastern United States (at museums with oddly similar names) after 2012. In Arkansas’s Museum of Discovery, a long-armed cast of Appalachiosaurus was installed in the lobby as part of the museum’s 2012 renovation. Further north, in Union City, Tennessee, a similarly-posed skeleton was mounted at the newly-opened Discovery Park of America in 2013. In contrast to the Museum of Discovery’s mount, which stands among other miscellaneous scientific displays, including an installation on iron dust, the Discovery Park’s skeleton stands over the corpse of a hadrosaur on an earthy platform. However, this mount adds one more conspicuous inaccuracy to Appalachiosaurus: pronated hands. As of this date, it doesn’t seem like either of these mounts have been updated.
The Arms that Shrunk
So far, the one set of arms that seems to have changed is at Georgia’s Tellus Science Museum (the previous, long-armed version can be seen near the top of this article). In 2012, after realizing the error made in the limbs, the museum ordered shorter, two-fingered arms from the same company that made the original cast of Appalachiosaurus. Uniquely, the museum decided to put the spotlight on this error and its update, holding a lunch program on a winter Friday. During this session, which also featured David Schwimmer, a paleontologist who helped to describe A. montgomeriensis, the arms were replaced in front of the public.
In the near-decade that’s passed since that event, new research calls the arms of Appalachiosaurus into question once again. Considering the close relationship recovered between it and the tyrannosaur Dryptosaurus in studies like Brusatte & Carr (2016) and Delcourt & Grillo (2018), its forelimbs may still be significantly larger than the archetypical tyrannosaur. However, the lunch held by the Tellus Science Museum represents a notable circumstance of a museum putting the ever-changing and dubious nature of paleontology on full display to the public, a nature that’ll have to be remembered with dinosaurs like Appalachiosaurus.
Brusatte, S., & Carr, T. D. (2016). The phylogeny and evolutionary history of tyrannosauroid dinosaurs. Nature Scientific Reports, 6(20252). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep20252
Delcourt, R., & Grillo, O. N. (2018). Tyrannosauroids from the Southern Hemisphere: Implications for biogeography, evolution, and taxonomy. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 511, 379-387. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2018.09.003
McWane Science Center. (2021, May 8). Meet the Alabama Dinosaur, the Appalachiosaurus! Did you know that McWane houses the only known Appalachiosaurus skeleton in the world? [Video attached] [Status update]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=541214383541038
As fossil halls around the world have reopened, physical public engagement with exhibits has increasingly returned to normal. However, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, museums still brought visitors into their displays beyond virtual tours and online programming. Digital exhibits of various forms evolved and grew in the past year. They built on precedent, using old exhibits or designing completely new virtual spaces. This digitization of fossil halls has allowed the public to get closer than ever to some museums, without even stepping foot in one.
Before the Pandemic: Digital Museums Canada
The beginnings of digital exhibits appeared as early as 2014, in the form of Digital Museums Canada. This project funds online exhibits by Canadian museums, from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal to the Biophare. Within paleontology, Digital Museums Canada specifically funded projects by the Qualicum Beach Museum and the Musée de la civilisation in 2019. The Qualicum Beach Museum produced “Paleontology on Vancouver Island”, while the Musée de la civilisation produced “Images on Stone”.
“Images on Stone” covered the history of rock art in Canada, specifically regarding the culture of the First Peoples. The exhibition allows visitors to the site to navigate between five major sites: Kejimkujik, Pepeshapissinikan, Qajartalik, Áísínai’pi, and K’aka’win. In one section, it covers global rock art and its prehistoric history, including Lascaux Cave, Rouffignac, and Chaco Canyon. In another section, it shows educators how to present the exhibit and rock art to students.
On a smaller scale, “Paleontology on Vancouver Island” covered exactly what the name implies. The website housing this digital exhibition is more traditional, showcasing collections from the Qualicum Beach Museum. The page begins with basic concepts in paleontology and the history of fossil-finding on Vancouver Island. Then, it displays fossils from the island, including trilobites, giant ammonites, laurels, microfossils, and the walrus specimen “Rosie”. Going into 2020, these ideas from “Paleontology on Vancouver Island” and “Images on Stone” would be taken to an entirely new level.
Modeling the NHM Vienna
Earlier this year, the Natural History Museum Vienna translated the items already displayed in its halls into the digital sphere. As part of the project “MicroMus: Unlocking the Microcosm – Micro-CT Analyzes in Museum Collections”, some of NHM Vienna’s most popular exhibits were three-dimensionally scanned. These included the fossils of mammals (including Prodeinotherium and Eurohippus) and dinosaurs (Allosaurus and Paraphysornis). Other items, such as an antenna sword and meteorite, were scanned as well. Digital models were uploaded to the Internet to be viewed with supplemental information on the NHM Vienna’s website.
Augmenting Tiny Titans
Virtual tours of fossil halls were prevalent before the pandemic, experiencing a significant rise in 2020. At the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, “Tiny Titans: Dinosaur Eggs and Babies” was one exhibit that was digitized in this way. However, the NMMNH utilizes this online format to enhance the underlying displays, providing supplemental signage and media. For example, a couple of dots on the museum’s Bistahieversor skull open to reveal a description, photos of preparation, and a digital model of the specimen. These dots continue through the displays, providing online visitors with an experience similar to the physical exhibits.
And Now For Something Completely Different
At the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History (UMMNH), exhibit staff decided to create a completely new exhibit in the virtual realm. Working with Saganworks, a software company also in Ann Arbor, the UMMNH designed “Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea”. As the name implies, this exhibit covers the evolution of whales through the Cenozoic and the corresponding transition from a terrestrial to an aquatic lifestyle. Three virtual skeletal mounts float in the center of the digital gallery, surrounded by signage on all four sides.
The University of Michigan has a robust history of research in this area, and the displays presented here reflect that. The detailed and concise signage on the walls covers the whale relation to hippos, early relatives like Elomeryx, and famous fossil whales like Basilosaurus. Clicking on the displays, visitors can view more information and media. Meanwhile, skeletal mounts of the early protocetid cetacean Maiacetus, the basilosaurid Dorudon, and the modern pygmy right whale occupy the center, roughly representing the change in whale body plans over time.
However, as museums continue to reopen from the pandemic, the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History’s virtual exhibit doesn’t represent a recreation of the physical museum. The director of the UMMNH, Amy Harris, has already noted that recreation wasn’t a goal in this virtual gallery. Instead, “Whale Evolution: From Land to Sea”, along with the exhibits mentioned previously, represent museums taking advantage of the unique capabilities of an online setting. In all of the virtual exhibits from the Natural History Museum Vienna, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, and the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, visitors are given experiences that could not be replicated in a physical gallery.
Today, a massive, 122-foot long sauropod occupies the American Museum of Natural History’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Orientation Center. Before its introduction in 2016, however, an immature, 24-foot long sauropod occupied the center. This sculpture of a juvenile Barosaurus was the modest centerpiece of the Wallach Orientation Center for most of the AMNH’s modern history. Created in 1996, the model stayed in New York for about 18 years until it was dethroned by the titanosaur, shifting it to Cleveland and back out again.
In the AMNH
For nearly a decade before 1995, the American Museum of Natural History’s fossil halls were in the process of a massive renovation. All six halls were renovated, creating a layout rooted in cladistics. One smaller hall (once the Earth History Hall and the highly bigoted Hall of the Age of Man) was recreated as the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Orientation Center. Named after businessman Ira D. Wallach and his wife, this center covered key paleontological concepts featured in the other five halls. Behind a decently-sized theater, our juvenile Barosaurus was installed in 1996.
The Barosaurus model was plainly colored and posed similarly to the juvenile “Barosaurus” skeleton in the museum’s main rotunda. However, that skeleton is now thought to belong to Kaatedocus, not Barosaurus (making the actual basis of this model ambiguous). The sculpture stands in dry terrain, with footprints trailing behind it. It was relatively small, standing just higher than a person at the shoulder. According to the museum, the model’s purpose was to “suggest central themes of the fossils halls: what science can reveal about long-extinct life forms and what mysteries remain unsolved.”
Make Way for the Titanosaur
In 2016, with the discovery of a new giant titanosaur in Patagonia, it was time for Barosaurus to leave the Orientation Center. To make way for a skeletal cast of what would soon be Patagotitan mayorum, the sculpture was smashed open and sawed apart. The neck and head were severed from the torso, along with the tail. This sectioning allowed it to be easily transported to other institutions. Additionally, the whole Orientation Center was redesigned to accomodate and revolve around its new resident.
Now breaking headlines with the titanosaur, the Wallach Orientation Center was finally in the spotlight. At a length that was nearly six times that of Barosaurus, Patagotitan was too large for the Orientation Center. Its neck and tail extend out of the room, giving the center an immediately imposing presence. Displays are now more focused on the main dinosaur (which seizes attention far easier than the juvenile Barosaurus). However, our Barosaurus would find another museum to be featured in.
Into the Forest City
Our Barosaurus was removed from the American Museum of Natural History at the beginning of 2016. By May, however, the three sections of the sauropod were being reattached in Cleveland, Ohio. In the city’s Museum of Natural History, a somewhat more modest display was being constructed for the sculpture. This temporary display featured the juvenile Barosaurus on a small lime platform, accompanied by simple signage and a mid-sized mural.
The signage for this display focused on the reconstruction of this model, describing a fossilized skin impression at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum that informed the texture of this sculpture. It also covered the reconstruction of incomplete fossil taxa, noting that the skull of this model was inferred from fellow diplodocids. However, by the end of the year, the exhibition concluded, and our juvenile Barosaurus doesn’t seem to have been featured in a museum since.
Just a few years ago, the Field Museum’s grand Stanley Field Hall held two representatives of the Mesozoic. One was the original mount of “SUE” the Tyrannosaurus, imposingly capturing eyes upon entrance. The other soared above, catching glances on the same floor as “SUE”‘s portrait. This was a model of the famous pterosaur Pteranodon longiceps, hanging near a marble muse representing the dissemination of knowledge.
In 2018, however, both the dinosaur and pterosaur were replaced by one dinosaur and eleven pterosaurs. As many already know, “SUE” returned to a personalized display on the second floor. On the other hand, the pterosaur with a 25-foot long wingspan seems to have retired from public life.
A Marker for the Fossil Halls
Before there was any possibility of our Pteranodon model entering the museum, Brachiosaurus held Stanley Field Hall. This replica of one of the Field Museum’s most famous discoveries arrived in 1993, foreshadowing the unveiling of “Life over Time”, the museum’s new fossil exhibit. However, in 1997, two slightly large companies (Disney and McDonalds) helped the Field obtain “SUE” the Tyrannosaurus, and reforms began.
In Stanley Field Hall, Brachiosaurus was replaced (and moved to O’Hare International Airport) by Tyrannosaurus in 2000. To accompany this change, the young exhibit “Life Over Time” was reformed into “Evolving Planet”, a more serious walk through evolution. Guarded by a large globe and two large display cases representing the diversity of life, it sat on the second floor of the museum. Only when “Evolving Planet” was unveiled in 2006 would our Pteranodon model arrive as the second archosaur in Stanley Field Hall.
The pterosaurian subject of this post was built by CM Studio, a model company in southern Illinois. Headed by Charlie McGrady and his nephew Brian Page, the studio had already created several models of extant mammals and extinct Mesozoic animals. With “Evolving Planet” in 2006, Pteranodon longiceps was suspended 30 feet above “SUE”.
With a brownish body, a striped orange crest, and some white undersides, the large pterosaur was a conspicuous sight. Additionally, the specific placement of Pteranodon was chosen to serve “Evolving Planet”. Hanging right in front of the exhibit, the model pinpointed the location of the fossils for any visitor in Stanley Field Hall. During its decade-long tenure, it would also be subject to a common Chicagoan practice.
Elsewhere in the Windy City, the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions can be seen wearing a White Sox cap, a Blackhawks helmet, or, most recently, a mask adorned with the city flag. In Daley Plaza, the Chicago Picasso has donned another Sox cap. Closer to our subject, the Dissemination of Knowledge statue will even toss a jersey onto its baby.
When Pteranodon came to the Field, it was also absorbed into this tradition of costumes. Despite its odd body-plan, jerseys from several of the city’s teams were shimmied onto the pterosaur throughout its tenure (sometimes resulting in the costumeless “SUE” looking like the odd archosaur out). This often made it an even more striking sight, easily catching the attention of visitors from its height. However, this series only tackles retired displays, so next, Pteranodon would be deposed by a much larger pterosaur.
Out of Stanley Field
In 2018, another donation by billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin (who had previously funded “Evolving Planet”) sparked another makeover of the Field Museum, this time in Stanley Field Hall. The most well-known of these changes was the replacement of “SUE” with “Máximo”, a mounted replica of the newly-discovered giant titanosaur Patagotitan. Additionally, 3D-printed hanging gardens were installed on the hall’s North side.
The majority of the organisms added to Stanley Field Hall, however, were pterosaurs. Along with a flock of nine Rhamphorhynchus and a duo of Pteranodon (sternbergi, not longiceps), our lone P. longiceps was replaced by one of two Quetzalcoatlus. Though it doesn’t appear that any costumes have adorned the new azhdarchid, this sculpture of one of the largest flying animals ever certainly marks “Evolving Planet”‘s location better.
Out of the Field Museum’s two costume wearers, one remains. Though the status of Pteranodon longiceps appears unknown, the second replica of Brachiosaurus altithorax stands tall and proud outside of the museum. Like its fellow archosaur, it’s worn oversized jerseys from the Cubs, the Blackhawks, and the Bears. So, the retired pterosaur’s secondary role is fulfilled even after its removal.