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:

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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).

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

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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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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NH State Fossil? – Part 4: Legislators to Students: “NO.”

“I don’t mean this in any unkind way, but not all bills pass, and that’s part of the lesson associated here.”

Representative John Sytek was discussing the bill to make a mastodon the NH State Fossil (H.B. 113).

“I’ve had my own bills not pass,” he continued. “And, well, that’s life!”

He and 19 other members of the NH House of Representatives were part of the committee responsible for hearing testimony in support of the bill. These representatives would then offer their recommendation to the rest of the 400 members. The full House would then vote on whether to pass the bill.

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[image of the NH State House, Concord, NH, taken by the author]

 

In other words, at a time when the House was voting on hundreds of other bills, the recommendation of that specific committee was crucial to this particular bill.

Of the 20 committee members, only four were present for the testimony.

A small group of 4th graders, Thom Smith and two local paleontologists—Dr. Will Clyde, UNH, and Dr. Gary Johnson, Dartmouth—presented their arguments in support of a state fossil late that afternoon on February 3rd.

The recommendation of the committee, voted 11-4 against the bill, was “inexpedient to legislate.”

“Remember, we were listening to a bill having to do with a symbol for the state. An icon,” Rep. Sytek explained by phone.

“This wasn’t a bill about the budget. This wasn’t eminent domain. This wasn’t licensing of doctors.

“All I’m saying is this bill, in and of itself, was interesting, and we’ve respected the efforts that the kids made, but this isn’t amending the constitution.

“So people who had other obligations want to meet their other obligations. And like every legislator, or everyone in life, you’ve got to balance one thing against another.”

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[image of NH State House front stairs and entrance, taken by the author]

 

Representative Greg Smith, one of the committee members not present for the testimony, answered questions later by phone about the bill and the legislative process.

“Basically,” he said, “we’ve got [hundreds of] bills. In a short couple of months, meeting one or two days a week, we’ve got to get through all those bills. And we’re basically volunteers.”

“I think timing-wise, the timing didn’t work out. I think this was intended to be one of the first bills that we saw, and, if you recall, we had such a snowy winter that a lot of the testimony [was] delayed.

“I wonder if things had been different, if this had been one of the very first bills we heard, the House might be more receptive to passing a bill early on like this.

“If we’re only sitting around for 2 hours and then we’re going home, it’s a lot different. Now,” he said, in reference to the number of bills in the House, “you’re in the traffic jam.”

Inclement weather this winter (a season, I might add, that even now, in April, is not yet over) prevented hearings from occurring as scheduled. Hearings were rescheduled to be heard on one long, full day versus over several days or weeks. Time was indeed a factor.

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[Here is where bills are either passed or not passed. Image inside the NH State House, taken by the author]

 

And it’s easy, I think, to scoff at something such as a proposal for a state symbol or dismiss it as inconsequential in relation to issues like the budget.

But isn’t there substantial value in an engaged group of citizens, especially at such a young age? Isn’t this something we want to encourage, in a country where most adults are cynical of and many are ignorant of the political process?

And isn’t there great value to furthering educational and scientific resources, at a time when the country is concerned about both?

This is not to say that I think legislation should be passed simply because a group of young citizens are engaged. And I am also not suggesting that all educational or scientific bills be passed on the premise that they are related to education or science. But it did make me wonder why—beyond time and the subjective determination of importance—so many voted against it.

This is particularly puzzling when Rep. Sytek made a point to explain that the testimony given by the 4th graders was superlative.

“I want to commend [Thom Smith] for the work that he did in instructing and teaching these young citizens how our process works.

“Whether anything came of it or not, it’s virtually a dress rehearsal for their own time in the legislature. Because I think some of them will be there! The kids were remarkable! The passage or non-passage of the bill had nothing to do with the presentation.

“I made a point of telling the rest of the committee that this was one of the best presentations I’d seen,” he explained. “Now, I’m not talking about the Department of Health and Human Services necessarily; I’m talking about when interesting constituencies come: high school kids, maybe grammar school kids, a local organization trying to push something for their town comes in.

“This was really dynamite. I appreciated the effort [they made.]”

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[image inside the NH State House, taken by the author]

 

So what were the reasons?

Would creating a state fossil require funding from the state? Would it involve more work for the legislature? Was the research, reasoning or quality of the testimony lacking? Did the legislators think a different fossil would make a better symbol?

What, outside of personal feelings regarding the symbol, would prompt a representative to vote against it?

Rep. Greg Smith was frank.

“I think it’s a bit subjective. You might get different answers from different people.”

“[T]here seems to be an effort by some fourth grade classes, as part of Civics [class], to try and submit bills for different things. [This] fossil bill is a good example.

“I think these are very worthy lessons. It’s great that the fourth graders are involved. But folks also need to understand that when we vote ‘yes’ on something like this, we’re telling the rest of the House, ‘hey, you guys should take the time and go vote on it and send it to the Senate’ because it’s that valuable.

“I think that’s where a lot of us have a concern: that the time we spend on things like the state raptor or the state fossil takes time away from other subjects that we don’t have as much time to research and debate. [This is] my opinion, but I think I speak for a number of others.

“I didn’t have any objection, you know, mastodon vs. mammoth,” he said in response to whether he disagreed with the choice of fossil proposed. “It was really more around that I didn’t feel that the state needs a state fossil.”

“We had a bill come to committee on a state poem,” he continued. “I was out of town that day, but I would have voted against it. I actually lead the charge against an effort to make Feb. 6 Ronald Reagan Day in NH, because Ronald Reagan never lived here, never grew up here. I’m a Republican, and I still thought that it wasn’t appropriate.

Rep. Sytek offered similar reasoning.

“It is true that it could easily be passed in the sense that it didn’t cost the state any money,” he said. “The question, I think, for some people is the appropriateness of talking about something like this when we’re faced with an enormous budget shortfall.

“It looks inappropriate to be talking about things that are of no fundamental significance to the Republic at a time when [we’re working on] the whole tax structure, spending on worthwhile social projects [such as] mental health issues [or] the condition of our roads and bridges. We can talk about everything. We’ll stay there as long as it takes to get the job done. But it doesn’t seem right to be talking about this.”

 

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[image from Getty Images illustrating some of NH’s State Symbols]

Rep. Greg Smith highlighted the scarcity of fossils in the state as a reason not to have a state fossil.

“[I]f we’re going to do something to make the State of NH Whatever,” he said, “there needs to be a strong and unique connection to NH.

“[L]et’s say, we found the biggest Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in the world and we found it in NH, well, that would be kind of interesting and unique.

“If we found more mammoths or mastodons in NH, [if] we found 100 mastodons, and it was world-famous, well, that would be kind of compelling. Something that makes it a connection to NH, not just a fossil for the sake of having a fossil.”

New Hampshire’s geology, however, makes it exceedingly difficult to find the type of fossils he described. As mentioned in the previous post, the geological components within the state do not preserve fossils as well as that of other states. Does that mean that the state should not celebrate the remarkable fossils it has?

“I feel bad, in a way, for the kids because I know they put a lot of time into it, but I would also say that they’re operating in an adult environment,” Rep. Smith stated. “And I saw a lot of really good bills that representatives put a lot of time into that would have, I believe, positively affected the citizens of NH, but they were voted down or they were killed off by special interests. So, I don’t want [the] fourth graders to be discouraged, but again, they’re being treated as adults. We’re not coddling them just because they’re fourth graders.”

“That may sound mean-spirited. It’s not meant to be, but it’s part of reality.”

The bill, not surprisingly, did not pass the NH House. And it cannot be introduced again for another two years.

“[T]hings don’t necessarily pass the first time around,” Rep. Smith said. “If it’s voted down, you can’t introduce the same bill in the same session. [I]n two years, you’re going to have 20-25% of the House turnover. So maybe they come back in two years and try again.”

“And,” he advised, “if you can get a more senior person or maybe a State Senator to weigh in, that carries weight. And then it becomes more of a personal favor. But you know, the committees, we pay attention to that sort of thing, too.”

Below are emails sent by some members of the committee to Thom Smith, published with permission by those who sent them.

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Dear Mr. Smith,

Thank you for writing. In short, I voted against this bill because I believe we have too many state “this or that”, too many special days, and too many special people days that we recognize already. Our committee also killed a day in recognition of Ronald Reagan recently as well as the adoption of a state poem, and last year the House tabled a bill creating state colors. It is also possible the House may table the pending Bobcat bill.

Though I realize your students must be very disappointed in the disposition of this bill, this is a great learning opportunity for them. I have sponsored many bills, most of which, by a huge majority, have failed to become law. No small effort was exerted in an attempt to see these bills pass and yes, I was disappointed.

The House has had well over 800 bills filed this session, can you imagine if even 50% of them had become law? Your students have learned a great lesson from the legislative process they experienced and failure is one of those experiences.

Thank you again for writing,
Steve

Steve Beaudoin
N.H. State Representative
Strafford District 9
Rochester
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Mr. Smith,

Unfortunately, I was busy at another hearing during the public session and at a work obligation for the executive session, so my comments are only of limited value.

With that said, I would have likely voted against passage as this committee has a significant amount of work and bills like the state poem and this one take us away from oversight of the various boards and the pension system. In general the committee is one of the busier ones and these extra bills do not get the attention they may deserve. One must consider that we are volunteers and in the case of myself, someone who works a full time job outside of Concord, cannot afford to take more than two days off each week to address this legislation.

I would love for a school class to take on a more technical issue, for example do we really need laws about cutting of hair, or what age to go to a tanning salon, or what requirements need to be met to paint someone’s nails……

Having sponsored/co-sponsored the 3rd most bills this year in the house, one gets used to bills not making it through the system. The founders intentionally made it hard to get a bill passed just to minimize how quickly changes to our government can take place. Specifically there are 3 separate gates [ House, Senate and Governor] to get through before a bill becomes law and this adds a significant amount of impedance to the system and this tends to slow down how quickly a statutory change is made.

FWIW, there are bills that I am working this year that are now in their 12th year and we may actually pass both chambers for the first time.

Please share the following quote with the students:
Never, never, never give up.
Winston Churchill
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FWIW, I would love to see a public classroom take a stand on drivers ed bill, or finding a solution to the “smarter” “balanced” assessments debacle.. There are some real issues that need to be addressed in the state and it seems our committee is not working on any of the critical issues.

Best regards,
Rep. Hoell
N.H. State Representative
Merrimack District 23
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Mr. Smith:

Here is the committee report that will appear in the calendar for this bill:

HB-113. This bill would designate the mastodon as the official state fossil (as does Michigan). It is the result of the third (now fourth) grade class project at Bradford elementary school. The Committee was impressed with the quality of the effort. The pupils enlisted the aid of both UNH and Dartmouth professors. Three well-spoken pupils stated their case in testimony before the Committee. However, the Committee felt that New Hampshire has enough cultural and historical artifacts such as our state motto, flower and bird. There was no compelling evidence to indicate that the lack of a state fossil would detract from the imagery of our state nor would adding this designation significantly complement the extant array of our state emblems.

My own personal comments follow.

The members who heard the presentation by your class were genuinely impressed by the obvious work that you as a teacher (I teach at Salem High, BTW) and your pupils did. It is often true that many members (of a citizen legislature) cannot be present for every hearing. However, they are used to reading bills, listening to other members of the Committee and making reasonable judgments on those bases.

However, to varying degrees, the majority of the committee simply did not feel that we need an official state fossil, regardless of the quality of the presentation. One of the professors said that this would raise public awareness of paleontology. I simply do not see that that is true nor do I see that as persuasive even if so.

Many bills are introduced and most of them do not get passed. That is a reality that every legislator understands. Last term, we had a similar presentation by schoolchildren who wanted to see NH adopt orange and red as our official state colors. That bill did not get passed for similar reasons.

Your class should understand that we turn down even requests from the Governor. The legislative process works slowly and persistence (i.e. future efforts) often are successful.

I hope this helps,

John Sytek
N.H. State Representative
Rockingham District 8

Video of a Kearsarge Regional student asking to have a mastodon as state fossil, posted by Rep. David Borden:

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I cannot extend a large enough THANK YOU to Thom Smith or his marvelous students.  I am so very impressed and grateful for their efforts, and I am so very sorry that the bill did not pass.

Thank you again to Representatives David Borden, Nancy Stiles, and Tom Sherman.

And thank you so much to Gary Andy.

Thank you to Representatives John Sytek and Greg Smith for their time and their responses to my questions. Thank you to Representatives John Sytek, JR Hoell and Steve Beaudoin for being willing to share their emails and the reasons behind their vote.

While this segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is not about the state fossil bill, it is about the bill to make the red-tailed hawk the state raptor.  This bill was introduced at the same time, and it, too, was voted down.

NH State Fossil? – Part 3: Proposing a Mastodon

I’d forgotten what it is like to be in an elementary school. Stepping into Kearsarge Regional in Bradford, NH, brought it all back: hallways with drawings hung on the wall, classrooms bustling with activity, and a crowded front office where the friendly receptionist—to my delight!—called Thom Smith on an enormous and antiquated buzzer system.

Thom is one of the two third grade teachers, and he’s been there for seven years.  We were meeting that winter day to discuss efforts toward creating a state fossil. He and his now former students had been working on this since October 2013.  It was now 2015; his third graders were currently in the 4th grade.  This had not, apparently, been an easy process.

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[snow in downtown Concord, NH this past winter, picture taken by the author]

 

Ask any elementary child about that state’s symbols, and that child will probably be able to tell you—most likely, with pride–what they are.  Ask an adult, however, and I’d be surprised if they knew more than a few of them.

State symbols, such as an official state bird, an official state fossil, etc., vary from state to state. Generally, they represent a specific flora, fauna or other item found abundantly in that state, so they vary depending upon the environment of the area.  There are no set rules to this, no requirements, no quotas. But a state symbol must be voted upon before it becomes official, so it does require an interested and active group of citizens to propose and see it through.

 

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[image of the NH State House, picture taken by the author]

 

Thom and these students, with help from Lauren Simpson—one of two 4th grade teachers—were trying to make a mastodon (specifically, Mammut americanum) the NH State Fossil.  That type of mastodon was abundant throughout North America, and it is one of the rare fossils found to-date in NH.

I was thrilled to learn of their project and wanted to hear more.

But this project was not without challenges from the start. New Hampshire, unlike many other states in the country, is fossil-poor.

This is not to say that extinct species of any previous time period didn’t exist here.  It simply means that the geological components within the state do not preserve fossils.  Fossils are that much harder to find, which makes the rare mammoth and mastodon tooth discoveries incredibly exciting.

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize this. And when dealing with something such as a state symbol—which generally indicates an abundance of that specific item—the immediate reaction is to assume that NH doesn’t merit a state fossil.

That January, Thom was optimistic.

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[Thom Smith, his marvelous students, and Rep. David Borden, image courtesy of Thom Smith]

 

I was struck by his genuine warmth and graciousness.  He was eager to talk about the project and his students.  He had, he mentioned when I worried about the time, specifically crafted his curriculum for the day so that we could speak uninterrupted for the next 40 minutes.  We sat amid a sea of tiny chairs and desks.  Our conversation may have been adult, but I was acutely aware of how young the students are, marveling as I learned about their enthusiasm for both science and the political process.  These were passionate kids with an equally passionate teacher.

“When you can apply what the kids are learning to current events and what’s going on around them,” Thom explained, “it makes it a lot more meaningful.”

It was his students themselves that prompted the project. They had learned about fossils soon after learning about civics, and they were concerned that, of all New England states, NH alone does not have a state fossil.  They were the reason letters were written to local representatives in the beginning, and it was the students’ consistent interest and follow-up to Thom that prompted him to reach out to representatives in Rye, the town near which mammoth and mastodon fossils were discovered.  (These fossils were found by Captain Mike Anderson and his daughter, Kelsi, fishing off of the NH coast.)

 

 

When two of those representatives expressed an interest, the project started moving.  Congressmen David Borden and Tom Sherman jumped on board, eventually leading to other support within the House of Representatives, including Congresswoman Nancy Stiles, who was the third co-sponsor of the bill.

Representative Borden, however, seems to have taken a particular interest in the students, their teacher and the entire process.  He and his wife met them when the class visited Odiorne Point State Park.  He has visited them in Bradford as well, introducing the students to his dog.

With no little enthusiasm, Thom said of Rep. Borden, “He’s been amazing.”

The class also had the help of Dr. Will Clyde from UNH and Dr. Gary Johnson of Dartmouth, two paleontologists with whom they conferred to determine the best choice for a potential state fossil.  Both men also agreed to testify in support of the bill.

It seemed to me that this bill was in very good hands.  Thom and his students were organized, they had done their research, and they had the help of people in the field to support them.  While Thom expressed a little nervousness about the outcome of the vote, I was confident it would pass.  And why shouldn’t it? It seemed an easy vote: solid research, a unique state symbol, an engaged group of young citizens who were also interested in science, and—at a time when the budget is forefront in everyone’s minds–a bill that didn’t require any financial backing from the state.

How horribly naïve of me to think so.

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You can read Thom Smith’s blog here: https://thirdgradesmith.wordpress.com

Next up, last post in this series: the legislators vote and explain their vote.