Saturday, October 16, 2010

People "Don't Get" Pachyrhinosaurus

Not long ago, I was visiting the Alaska Museum of Natural History for reasons that are forgotten to me now. I try not to go over there, in fact. It's an active aversion--every time I get the urge to see "how they're doing," I just remember that my name, Scott's name, and Raven's name are still not anywhere near the big Tyrannosaurus rex skull cast that we restored over a year's time and put our backs into and got NO support and there's NO acknowledgement of our contribution to that particular project. In fact, I doubt our names are anywhere IN the museum, even though all three of us (but mostly Scott and I) have been heavily invested in exhibit prep, tours, etc. in the past.

Makes me mad.

Anyway, the museum's "director," Katch Batchelor, told me that they were getting a Diabloceratops skull cast (this was before that genus was published). She was very excited. I asked why she's wasting the museum's money on a taxon from Utah that lived millions and millions of years before Alaska's Pachyrhinosaurus. In fact, why isn't she getting a Pachyrhinosaurus skull cast? The terrible Fairbanks museum has one. If they can get one, it can't be all that difficult to get ahold of.

Her answer was "People don't 'get' Pachyrhinosaurus." I took this to mean that SHE did not "get" Pachyrhinosaurus. Here's my question: What's to GET?"


There's very little to misunderstand here. Pachyrhinosaurus is a derived member of the Centrosaurinae, which itself is one of the two branches of the Ceratopsidae. The other branch is called the Chasmosaurinae, and it features such well-known taxa as Triceratops, Chasmosaurus (go figure), and Kosmoceratops. The Centrosaurinae is just as diverse, and from there you get good old Centrosaurus, Rubeosaurus, and Diabloceratops. At the upper end of the Centrosaurinae is a monophyletic group of ceratopsids with big nasofrontal bosses instead of horns. They're called pachyrhinosaurines. The group includes two genera comprising three species (Achelousaurus horneri, Pachyrhinosaurus canadensis, and Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai), and several specimens that may represent more distinct species. The group extends from Montana up the west coast of the United States going all the way up to...you guessed it...Alaska's North Slope.

The holotype pachyrhinosaur skull from the Prince Creek Formation on the Colville River is not in great shape, but clearly represents a pachyrhinosaurine.

Right now, the Alaska Museum of Natural History looks more like an odds-and-ends collection of stuff, completely lacking any sort of context or reason for being. When you have a monitor lizard skeleton with an Ornithocheirus skull and a Basilosaurus skull just sitting on the same shelf, but without any sort of text...and in fact, you have a beluga whale skeleton just around the corner, WHAT DOES IT MEAN? And why aren't there any Alaskan dinosaurs? I could go on and on about my misgivings with the AKMNH, but it's useless. They don't even want to use the world "evolution" in fear of scaring people away.

Jesus.

9 comments:

Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. said...

Here's an approach to take with her:

Pachyrhinosaurus is by far the largest of all centrosaurines. It DWARFS Diabloceratops.

Anonymous said...

The probably reason that the museum is going for Diabloceratops rather than Pachyrhinosaurus is that the museum seems to get a lot of its casts from commercial sources rather than other museums. Case in point their juvie hadrosaur is from Valley Anatomical. Gaston Design's been selling casts of both Diabloceratops and Utahceratops years before the two genera were named. Its a stupid reason, but its a reason nonetheless.

"In fact, I doubt our names are anywhere IN the museum, even though all three of us (but mostly Scott and I) have been heavily invested in exhibit prep, tours, etc. in the past."

Now that's just unfair, you all should be recognized for your contributions.

"The group includes two genera comprising three species"

Supposedly Einiosaurus and Rubeosaurus both belong in this group as well.

"Pachyrhinosaurus is by far the largest of all centrosaurines. It DWARFS Diabloceratops."

And its weird. With prehistoric life the average non-paleophile person tends to be drawn to one of three aspects...

1) Is it big?
2) Is it weird?
3) Is it related to some modern group (whales, humans, horses, etc.)

"Right now, the Alaska Museum of Natural History looks more like an odds-and-ends collection of stuff, completely lacking any sort of context or reason for being. When you have a monitor lizard skeleton with an Ornithocheirus skull and a Basilosaurus skull just sitting on the same shelf, but without any sort of text...and in fact, you have a beluga whale skeleton just around the corner, WHAT DOES IT MEAN?"

The "mishmash of stuff" approach can work in some cases. Look at the natural history portion of the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis for a good example. But in order for such a plan to work, there has to be at least a loose sense of organization. As in all the mammals go together, all the fossils go together, and the exhibits sort of blend into one another. But from what you say, it seems the AKMNH doesn't do this. And they definitely need labels.

"They don't even want to use the world "evolution" in fear of scaring people away."

I can think of a few reasons why that might be the case...but seriously, they're a NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM. Not mentioning evolution is like an astronomy museum neglecting to mention what planets are.

Zach said...

Really? Einiosaurus and Rubeosaurus? They don't have bosses. Surely the pachyrhinosaurs that have bosses are closer to each other than any are to Einiosaurus or Rubeosaurus...?

Trish said...

"Her answer was 'People don't 'get' Pachyrhinosaurus.'"

...
...
...
Wut?

Albertonykus said...

What does "get" even mean???

Nima said...

I feel your pain Zach. It sucks when museum bureaucrats don't give any credit to the REAL people behind everything, much less understand what they're actually exhibiting.

Almost everything about Pachyrhinosaurus is well-understood, there's nothing to "get". There are tons of specimens, a huge sample size, several growth stages known, and even the evolutionary ancestry of the whole sub-clade is known! You've got Einiosaurus to Achelousaurus to Pachyrhinosaurus. That's a very good ancestry record, WAY better than for most dinosaurs. I mean who the heck knows what Janenschia evolved from? Or Falcarius? With Pachy, all the cladistic and ontogenic guesswork is eliminated!

I remember how long the Smithsonian took to even BEGIN revising its sprawling tail dragging excuse for a dinosaur hall - and they literally dragged their feet for TEN YEARS, with barely anything to show for it. All that time they were also digging what looked like a whole lot of NOTHING-saurus out of a slab of rock in the fossil lab. For years I informed the museum about these problems, and I was ignored since I was "just a kid" back then. Then they stuck a T-rex cast (pre-fabricated by RCI, not the museum!) in there and celebrated as if they'd actually done something. Their Triceratops is still sprawling with dislocated elbows after several million $$$ were sunk into the thing. Last time I checked, the Diplodocus is still dragging its tail. Same with Stegosaurus, both the skeleton and the life-size model. IN A VERY RICH MUSEUM SYSTEM IN OUR NATION'S CAPITAL NO LESS.

But what about your museum's policy of political correctness... No mention of the word evolution in a museum? Sheesh, even the "Creation Museum" in Kentucky mentions the word "evolution" in some captions a few times - not in a positive way, but it still MENTIONS it... is a mere WORD really that scary to the curator? What's "Big Sister" Sarah Palin been building up there, an Inquisition?

And if they don't want to mount a Pachyrhinosaurus, they are wasting public money (not really surprising in Alaska but it's not as if my state's doing any better...) there IS no dinosaurs MORE Alaskan than Pachyrhinosaurus. END OF STORY. If it isn't the state dinosaur, it should be. Tom Holtz is right, Pachyrhinos are HUGE, massive beasts. Way more impressive than basal "crossover" centrosaurines like Diabloceratops. Perhaps you could frame this as a states' rights issue, let's mount local dinosaurs, etc.

In an unrelated note: It's a bit odd that Mz. Bachelor (LOL) doesn't fear mounting Diabloceratops - "devil horned face" - but fears mentioning the "e-word" for fear of offending superstitious evangelical Christians. Heck, even they would probably prefer Pachyrhinosaurus.

Mark Witton said...

Zach,

You're dead right about displaying Pachyrhinosaurus over Diabloceratops: too few museums display their local palaeofauna and, when you have something as charismatic as Pachyrhinosaurus on your doorstep, it should be a no brainer.

A quick word of defence for museums having to re-mount dinosaur skeletons: bear in mind the massive amount of money and time it takes to make even 'little' changes such as hoisting a mounted skeleton's tail into the air. A frame has to be designed, built, the mount disassembled, the frame installed and the skeleton rebuilt around it. You've got to pay people to do all of this, and the bigger your skeleton, the more people you'll need. You'll have to shut down public-attracting exhibitions while the work is going on, too - a particularly big loss when you're reconfiguring your dinosaurs.

Then you've got other considerations: do you need to upgrade the rest of your exhibition for consistency, too? That's more time and money there and, for every new thing you bring in, costs and time spiral exponentially. These are, in short, massive projects that, even on a small scale, cost tens/hundreds of thousands and, on a large scale, reach millions of dollars/pounds/whatevers. In my experience, there's no such thing as a rich museum (and certainly no rich publically owned museums): most seem to roughly break even or run at a loss, their existence only supported by government funding. Where does this money come from for altering the mounts, then? In Britain, we're lucky enough to have free access to our major museums, and I'd rather keep this than see massive entrance fees to pay for mounts that few people can afford to look at.

Don't get me wrong: I think museums have a responsibility to display accurate, up-to-date information where they can, but I see keeping museum staff employed, maintaining museum buildings and looking after collections as greater priority than de-sprawling their stegosaurs.

lantaro said...

It's because it's in Mountain View.


And it's because everybody at the museum is fucking retarded.

ScottE said...

FWIW, the illustration was (inadvertently) provided my me

Always remember to credit your images, and link back!