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Giant Dino exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, or why I should not be a photojournalist

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As the Blog Editor at Scientific American, I come to New York City about once a month to work in the office, attend editorial meetings, and prepare the blog network for launch some time in the near future.

This week, I was in town at just the right time to join our intrepid team of reporters on assignment: the press event leading to the opening of the new Giant Dino exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.

Now that I work in a media organization, it is time for me to stop just criticizing from the outside and actually learn how the media works – from the inside. So, on Wednesday, Katherine Harmon, Eric Olson (picture right) and I met at the office early in the morning, packed all the necessary equipment and made a trek uptown to the Museum for the event. We decided to go by metro as likely faster than the cab at that time of day (though I wonder if there is any time of day on any day of the week when metro is NOT faster than the cab in this town).

My job was really just to tag along, help carry the camera and stuff, watch what they do, and try to take some photos with my tiny little Pentax – a great camera for tourist-y travel, but not good enough for taking pictures in a dark hall – my caffeinated hands cannot hold still long enough for the long exposure such pictures require. But I was going to give it my best shot anyway.

So, while Katie was interviewing people and Eric was shooting video, I was wondering around taking pictures. A few of them are below – you can find the rest of them nicely organized (with running commentary) on Facebook, and also on Flickr where you can download them in a variety of sizes (just link here and credit me if you decide to re-use them on your site, please).

Eric’s video and Katie’s text can be found on the Observations blog – New exhibit reconstructs the very biggest dinosaurs–inside and out – check it out.

I was hoping there would be out-takes and bloopers left over for me to use, but nothing funny happened – everything went smoothly, and the footage was all fine, including the interview with Brian Switek (left), blogger at Laelaps and Dinosaur Tracking, and author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. Brian has just signed up with Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux to write his second book, A Date With a Dinosaur. I interviewed Brian twice on my blog – in January of this year, as well as back in 2008 before he became famous.

I wish I knew that Lance Mannion, an old blog friend, was going to be there as we have never met in person before – next time, I promise.

The event started with a press conference in the Hall of Dinosaurs at the Museum – see how nice and docile the dinosaurs are to the members of the press, just standing there politely instead of stomping them all into the floor:

Even T.rex turned away and did not eat anyone:

 Here are Eric and Katie again, at the end of the press conference, ready to go and see the new exhibit:

Entering the very, very dark hall where the exhibit is located (on the fourth floor of the Museum), worrying that exposure times would be far too long for taking pictures without a tripod:

 

We were first greeted at the door by the head of Argentinosaurus, the largest sauropod:

Once inside of the exhibit hall, the panorama is dominated by a life-size replica of Mamenchisaurus, a sauropod with an incredibly long neck:

If you go to any natural history museum, be it the Hall of Dinosaurs at AMNH, or at the Smithsonian in D.C., Field Museum in Chicago, Carnegie in Pittsburgh, or any other, there are usually many mounted dinosaur skeletons. There will be a plate with a little bit of text explaining something about the animal, but most people do not read those signs. The focus is on diversity, large size, and taxonomic relationships of dinosaurs.

But this exhibit is completely different. While several sauropod species are mentioned here and there, the focus is on their biology, not identification. Even the Mamenchisaurus is there not so much as itself but more as a representative of the entire group, used to tell us what we know (and how we know it) about the sauropod ecology, physiology, development and behavior.

See that neck again – underneath the peeled-away skin, you can see neck vertebrae, muscles, an arthery, a vein, the esophagus and the trachea:

The central part of the exhibit is the body of the Mamenchisaurus – it was made somewhat transparent and it showed a projection – with voice-over – of a variety of internal processes occuring there: digestion, respiration and reproduction:

It takes a long time to build such a model. It was unfortunately already too late to make any changes in the Mamenchisaurus when a new study came out a couple of weeks ago showing that there is an entire new muscle along the back side of the hind leg – or, as Brian Switek said in the interview, the beast had much more "junk in the trunk" than it was shown here:

Most of the other parts of the exhibit were very interactive. For example, by pushing on the bellows, one could send air down the long plastic trachea into the large model of the dinosaur lungs (this is probably also the most controversial statement of the exhibit – the evidence that their respiration was exactly like that of modern birds – a flow-through, counter-current system – is not as strong as for all the other biology explained in the exhibit):

Here is our team in action: Katie interviewing Martin Sander, Mark Norell and Brian Switek (scientists, when excitedly talking about science, cannot stand still – thus fuzzy pictures, sorry):

Of course, every good museum exhibit has a part where kids can do something hands-on, here digging the fossils in the sand:

This was clever and sneaky! They included weight-lifting exercises into the exhibit! Good for everyone’s health… on the left is the giraffe neck vertebra and on the right is the equivalent from a sauropod. The dino one is somewhat lighter than the mammalian one due to numerous holes and caverns in it:

Sliders! I love sliders! Measure your femur, slide a slider to that number, and the other number tells you how much you’d weigh if you were a sauropod:

Or you measure some real dinosaur femurs before you go to the slider…

…and then see how much the real dino used to weigh (this is in pounds, but you can choose kilograms as well):

Finally, here is a cute little sauropod hatching out of an egg:

The way exhibit is done and set up is really refreshing, but it also reflects the way the dinosaur paleontology has evolved recently. The rush to discover, describe and mount as many species, or as strange species, or as large species as possible, is a thing of the past. Today, new techniques are available that changed the approach – the focus now is much more on the biology of dinosaurs: how they evolved, how they lived and behaved, and how their bodies functioned. Studying not just bones, but also soft tissues, skin imprints, embryos in eggs (sometimes still inside their mothers), tracks they left in the soft ground, the microscopic bone morphology, chemical traces, the positioning of fossils at the time of death, the environments in which they died… it is a much more mature science today, and this exhibit reflects this very well. If you can make it to NYC between tomorrow’s opening and January, go to the Museum and see it.

 

 





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  1. 1. AndiKuszewski 12:23 am 04/16/2011

    This exhibit looks AMAZING!!!! I love all the revealed anatomy and hands-on teaching/learning. Very cool. This is definitely on my "To do" list when I get to NYC in a few weeks.

    Link to this
  2. 2. sherakee 7:29 am 04/16/2011

    Thank you Andi, for sharing this. I hope after your trip you post the pics! :)

    Link to this
  3. 3. Heinrich Mallison 1:06 pm 04/16/2011

    Thanks for the walk-through! :)
    However, there’s one thing I have to point out you got entirely, completely, fully, totally wrong:

    There was NOT a new study, NOT a few weeks ago, and it does NOT show anything about a new muscle NOT down the back of the leg.

    There was a study (I guess you’re talking about Persons & Currie 2010, which was an online first publication that came out "properly" in January 2011) showing, as had been previously shown by Allen et al. 2009, that the big limb retractor muscle, the musculus caudofemoralis longus, which runs from the back of the thigh-bone to the underside of the anterior third of the tail, is much more beefy in reptiles today than is usually assumed to have been the case in dinosaurs (think Greg Paul’s drawings). Because bone grows due to the forces acting on it, the extend of the muscles beyond the bones was probably the same in dinosaurs as it is in living animals. Thus, we must assume that the tail bases of dinosaurs were much more beefier than assumed. And YES, the model in the exhibit is way too skinny in this area. That topic is a pet peeve of mine; I always argue for "fat-ass dinosaurs" for the very reason Allen et al. and Persons and Currie argue for them, and I was a bit disappointed to the model not reflect their results.

    References:
    Allen, V., Paxton, H., and Hutchinson, J.R. 2009. Variation of center of mass estimates for extant sauropsids and its importance for reconstructing inertial properties of extinct archosaurs. The Anatomical Record 292:1442-1461

    Persons, W.S. and Currie, P.J. 2011. (online first 2010) The tail of Tyrannosaurus: Reassessing the size and locomotive importance of the m. caudofemoralis in non-avian theropods. The Anatomical Record 294:119-131

    Link to this
  4. 4. Bora Zivkovic 5:56 pm 04/16/2011

    Ha! I am such a furriner – it is ‘subway’. not ‘metro’. Used to European trains….then wrote this post late at night.

    Link to this
  5. 5. ebenari 6:37 pm 04/16/2011

    This looks like a cool exhibit. I bet our niece, who lives in NYC, will love it. And btw, Bora, in Washington, DC, the underground train IS called the Metro, so you will fit right in here!

    Link to this
  6. 6. braydonwilson 12:24 am 04/23/2011

    Hello friends
    I am such a furriner – it is ‘subway’. not ‘metro’. Used to European trains….then wrote this post late at night.

    =======================================
    <a href="http://editpictures.org.uk&quot; rel="dofollow">Edit Pictures</a>

    Link to this
  7. 7. braydonwilson 12:27 am 04/23/2011

    Hello friends
    I am such a furriner – it is ‘subway’. not ‘metro’. Used to European trains….then wrote this post late at night.
    =======================================
    <a href="http://editpictures.org.uk&quot; rel="dofollow">Edit Pictures</a>

    Link to this

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