Bringing the Extinct Back to Life – Montshire Museum, VT

It’s just over the border of New Hampshire, this sweet jewel of a museum tucked amongst the woods in Norwich, Vermont.

I visited Montshire Museum for the first time last summer to see an exhibit featuring a replica of Sue the T. rex from the Field Museum.  Filled with interactive exhibits, it largely centers on children and families.  Its drawers of fossils and fossil casts, however, kept me eagerly occupied.  And–for the first time in my life–I was able to hold parts of a mammoth molar–one of the many fossils people could touch in a class taught by an engaging docent.

My reason for returning this summer was to see the Prehistoric Menagerie–an outdoor exhibit of sculptures.  Life-sized replicas of extinct creatures that lived during the Cenozoic era created by artist Bob Shannahan.

Thanks to a number of people, I knew there was a woolly mammoth among them.

In order to get to the museum itself, one first has to drive down a long, windy path through the forest.  I mention this because this is what I saw on my drive down:

Montshire - mammoth at distance thru trees

Woolly mammoth sculpture by Bob Shannahan as seen through the trees on the way down into the parking lot of the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author

Knowing that it was a sculpture, rather than a living woolly mammoth, did not make it any less exciting for me.  I immediately got goosebumps.

Quickly, I parked the car, got my ticket, and went straight outside to explore.

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Sculpture of woolly mammoth by Bob Shannahan at the Montshire Museum; image courtesy of the Montshire Museum

These are no ordinary sculptures.  That’s not actual hair on the mammoth: it’s a shaggy compilation of twigs and other natural plants and fibers.

According to the press release on this exhibit, the artist explained, “Once I choose the animal, I conduct my research, collect skeletal measurements, and make a small model out of wire and foil. Then I make a full-size drawing on cardboard and begin building the animal. The frame, made of steel rebar and aluminum screen, is used to depict the major muscle groups. It turns out that the autumn vegetation is perfect for the animals’ fur.”

Below, for example, is the entelodont–an artiodactyl that lived during the Eocene and Miocene.  You can read more about this animal in this great post by Dr. Darren Naish (TetZoo, Scientific American).

Montshire - enteledont full

Entelodont sculpture at the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author.

Montshire - enteledont detail

Close-up of the entelodont head; notice the plants behind the ear; image taken by the author.

Montshire - enteledont close-up mouth

Close-up of the entelodont mouth; the teeth are made of individual stones; image taken by the author.

Whether one sees them up-close or from a distance, these are impressive replicas.  I marveled at their likenesses, awed that such detail and life could be constructed from plants.

“The vegetation he chooses for each sculpture has connections to that animal’s life,” explained Bob Raiselis, Exhibits Director at the museum, “[H]e’s using the materials of the natural world to create artistic works referencing creatures from that world that we can no longer see.”

Montshire - camel

American camel sculpture at the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author.

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Sign at the museum with details about the sculpture and the plants used to create it; image taken by the author (it was a rainy day when I visited)

“They really do seem to come alive in David Goudy Science Park here at the Montshire,” Bob Raiselis wrote in an email, describing the outdoor area in which the sculptures were placed. “[W]e worked hard to place them in a way that might have made sense for each living creature. The animals in the exhibition wouldn’t all have been in one place at one time in history, but we think that there’s enough space in our outdoor landscape to include the creatures that Bob has created and their own time scales.”

Geologic_time_scale

By United States Geological Survey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“At the Montshire we like to point out the connections between what artists do and what scientists do – close observation, looking for connections, creative problem-solving, great use of imagination and visualization – and we’re pleased to have been able to show Bob Shannahan’s work here this summer,” wrote Bob Raiselis. “He’s an artist who has a deep interest in learning about the history of the creatures he models, and then he takes that history, the scientific facts available, and places his works in the context of where and how they lived. And he does it with such skill and sensitivity.”

Montshire - bear favorite

Short-faced bear peering out above a hill at the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author.

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Close-up of short-faced bear sculpture by Bob Shannahan at the Montshire Museum; courtesy of the Montshire Museum

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Sculpture of Diatryma, an enormous bird that lived during the Eocene, at the Montshire Museum; the artist employed foam for the beak; image taken by the author.

“It was a long couple of days,” Bob Raiselis continued, “getting them moved onto the Museum grounds, placing them, moving them a bit, looking from different vantage points – but when we were done and that Wooly Mammoth was up on the hill in the middle of Science Park, it really was possible to imagine them living on the North American landscape.”

“It’s a very powerful thing, that kind of realization and engagement with what otherwise might be just a fact you heard somewhere about these creatures.”

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Many thanks to Bob Raiselis and Beth Krusi of the Montshire Museum!

The exhibit is available through September 7th, 2015.

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Image of woolly mammoth sculpture by Bob Shannahan at the Montshire Museum; image courtesy of the Montshire Museum

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Color Vision Discovered in 300 Mya Fish

According to Dr. Gengo Tanaka, the fossil below was found about 50 years ago.

“I have a friend [who owns a] fossil shop,” he wrote in an email. “I bought this specimen from him.”

Dr. Tanaka explained that his friend attributed the fossil find to his father, who discovered it in a quarry five decades ago.

It’s a small fish known as Acanthodes bridge, and it is thought to have lived in shallow waters 300 million years ago in what is now Kansas.

 

Acanthodes bridge - Tanaka, et al

[image of fossilized Acanthodes bridge, courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London]

 

It might be a little fish, but it is providing enormous and exciting information about the evolution of color vision.

In their recent paper, Dr. Gengo Tanaka of Kumamoto UniversityProfessor Andrew Parker of the Natural History Museum, London and 13 other scientists describe evidence of color vision 100 million years earlier than previously known.  They are the first to record fossil rods and cones—the cells responsible for enabling sight.

“The soft tissue of eyes are usually the first to decompose when an animal dies, and before they are fossilized. In our fish, however,” wrote Professor Parker,  “the soft tissue was preserved before burial (by sediment) and turning to rock. The original organic material has been altered (but in some cases not too much), although remains relatively soft.”

Using SEM (scanning electron microscope) and TEM (transmission electron microscopy), the scientists studied the fossil eyes in more depth.  They compared rods and cones of 509 retinal cells, obtained from the fossil itself and from existing freshwater fish.  Cones within the eye are the key to color vision, although they assert that the discovery of opsins in the fossil record would provide “conclusive evidence” for such vision.

“Cone cells are those responsible for colour vision in extant animals,” Professor Parker further explained. “They contain the opsins that react to different wavelengths of light.”

When asked if he expected to find color vision in this fossil, Dr. Tanaka wrote, “I have discovered fossilized rod and cones in several Cenozoic fishes. So, I expected that we could discover fossilized rod and cone cells in other specimens.”

Similarly, Professor Parker wrote, “I would expect to find colour vision in the geological record at some point, but I did not expect when.”

Acanthodes bridge - eye detail

 

[details of Acanthodes bridge, courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London; a: Complete dorsoventrally compressed specimen, b: details of the head region, c: details of right eye]

“We were a team interested in the emergence and history of vision, when Gengo [Tanaka] found the fossil fish,” he continued, describing how it came to pass that these 15 scientists collaborated on the paper.

But why would color vision be significant for a species such as Acanthodes bridge?

“That such ancient fish had colour vision tells us that the type of ecologies and behaviours that exist today, where light plays a major role, were also in place 300 million years ago. For the fish, they could distinguish predators and prey with greater accuracy and in some cases crack the camouflage of these animals.”

“This is the first time that colour vision has been identified in any extinct animal, regardless of geological age,” he wrote. “It suggests that our modern behavioural system, or way of living, where colour plays a major role, has been in place over at least 300 million years.”

“This can explain,” he continued, “why things have changed little over that period: predators and prey have changed form in some ways, but the balance of the different types of animals and plants living together has remained similar.  Triceratops has been replaced with rhinos, ichthyosaurs replaced by dolphins, but their roles in the ecosystem are similar. That they saw in the same way helps us to understand this.”

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An enormous thank you to Chloe Kemberry, Dr. Gengo Tanaka and Dr. Andrew Parker!  What a great pleasure connecting with you about such an exciting discovery!

Paper referenced: