Sue’s new digs

December 31, 2018 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Sue, the remarkably complete Tyrannosaurus rex discovered by (and named for) Sue Hendrickson, and excavated by Pete Larson and the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, has long graced Stanley Field Hall at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Last year, the Museum announced that Sue would be moved upstairs, into the “regular” dinosaur hall, and that her place would be taken by a model of Patagotitan, a very large sauropod dinosaur. We’ve been following Sue’s progress here at WEIT, and earlier this month the new arrangements were completed and opened to the public.

Let’s start with what’s taken Sue’s place in Stanley Field Hall.

Stanley Field Hall, December 28, 2018.

Standing more or less where Sue once stood is Patagotitan. Unlike Sue, who is 90% actual fossil by volume, Patagotitan is a cast. (Note the elephants and people for scale.)  Swooping over the elephants is a life reconstruction of Quetzalcoatlus, the largest known pterosaur, who shares etymological roots with Jerry’s favorite beuatiful bird. Several smaller, long-tailed pterosaurs– Rhamphorhynchus, I think– can be seen over the Patagotitan. Hanging from the ceiling are several large planters, which resemble the “floating islands” from Avatar.

Hanging planters in Stanley Field Hall.

There were many small lights attached to each planter. I could not discern how the plants were watered.

From the second floor we could look down upon Patagotitan,

Stanley Field Hall.

and look Quetzalcoatlus in the eye.

Quetzalcoatlus in Stanley Field Hall.

Sue is now housed in a special section of the longstanding exhibit, Evolving Planet, which is organized as a walk through time, from the pre-Cambrian to the Cenozoic. Another life reconstruction of Quetzalcoatlus, this one in standing posture, has been placed at the entrance. They were big!

Quetzalcoatlus at entrance to Evolving Planet.

The new Sue hall is located in Evolving Planet in the appropriate spatial and chronological location– the end of the Cretaceous.

Note that the signage is bilingual, in English and, in a smaller font, Spanish. The Field has adopted this convention for all it’s new exhibits.

So here’s the old girl herself!

Sue, the Tyrannosaurus rex.

(Sue’s sex is actually unknown, so, properly, it’s “itself”.) Here’s a video overview of all of her.

In the video, you may have noticed that, compared to her previous mounting, Sue now has a second set of “ribs”, the gastralia, or “abdominal ribs”. These were part of the original excavation, but not included before. The true ribs have also had their distal ends extended a bit laterally, giving Sue a more barrel-chested appearance.

The new, barrel-chested Sue.

This is also a life reconstruction mural in the exhibit. I believe it is a new reconstruction; it is not the one by John Gurche that was found in the old second floor exhibit.

The new, barrel-chested Sue, as she might have appeared in life.

The revisions in the mounting are explained in this ‘science makeover‘ explainer on the Field’s website. Sue’s skull is still housed in a case separate from the mount, and the other Sue materials (most notably bronze models of various bones) from the old second floor overlook have been moved in to the new exhibit.

An engineer friend who I showed some of these pictures to thought that Sue was depicted as too front-end heavy, and that she would topple over forward. The current view is that the tail was massive and muscular, and provided a counterweight, but I, too, thought that, especially with the new barrel chest, she did look a bit over-extended, the heavy front end held too horizontal to readily balance over the hind legs.

A number of associated fossils from the late Cretaceous are also in Sue’s part of the hall, most notably this Triceratops skull.

As some readers may know, Sue came to the Field Museum by a roundabout and unsavory process, involving civil and criminal legal battles, and major financial intervention by McDonald’s (the burger chain) and Disney. The Field Museum’s part in this was largely, if not wholly, salutary, but nonetheless, as in the last exhibit, there is little or no mention of these circumstances in the new exhibit, other than a prominent nod to Sue Hendrickson. Some of the Black Hills Institute’s photos and field notes figure in the exhibit, and are subtly, but properly, acknowledged.

Sue update

March 2, 2018 • 10:15 am

by Greg Mayer

She’s gone. I was at the Field Museum on Wednesday for the first time since the previous month, and the removal of Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex has been completed.

Stanley Field Hall, where Sue used to be.

Viewed from the balcony above, visitors walk through Stanley Field Hall, seemingly unaware of the ghostly white outline of Sue’s now departed plinth.

Where Sue used to be, from above.

A sign explained where Sue will eventually show up.

Sue’s actually not gone away entirely, for the second floor balcony display, featuring Sue’s real skull, remains in place. [JAC: the skull was always up there as it was too heavy to mount on the skeleton downstairs.]

The second floor display also includes touchable, life-size, bronze models of various parts of Sue, including the (relatively) tiny forearm. Devotees of the concept of unity of type, and Neil Shubin‘s Your Inner Fish in particular, will recognize the “one bone, two bones, many bones” pattern found throughout the tetrapod vertebrates and their piscine forebears.

A bronze model of Sue’s forearm.

A closeup of the digits; the two distalmost phalanges of the outer (lower, in this photo) digit were among the few bones missing from Sue’s skeleton, and the ones in the model are based on Albertosaurus, a related theropod dinosaur.

Sue’s fingers.

From up on the balcony, I could also get a better look at the model of Pteranodon longiceps hanging from the ceiling.

Pteranodon longiceps in the Field Museum.

And zooming in a bit.

Does the position of this model mean that Pteranodon is Ceiling Reptile?

So long, Sue…. see you upstairs!

February 20, 2018 • 7:45 am

by Greg Mayer

Sue, the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex that has inhabited the Field Museum of Natural History‘s Stanley Field Hall since 2000, is coming down. But, shortly after she comes down, she’ll be going up– upstairs that is.  The Museum announced plans last year to replace Sue in Stanley Field Hall with a model of Patagotitan mayorum, a much larger dinosaur than Tyrannosaurus rex. At the same time, they’ll be adding plants and pterosaurs to the Hall. Bill Simpson (who for some reason appears to be being assisted by Ricky Gervais) explains what’s going to happen to her in this video. (And continue watching the next video, also featuring Bill, that comes up after the first finishes.)

A similar model of Patagotitan has been on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York for a couple of years now. It doesn’t even fit in the dinosaur hall there, and its head and neck poke out into the hall way to greet visitors arriving by elevator! Sue will be moving upstairs to the Field’s second floor, whose balconies overlook the Hall, where she’ll join the rest of the dinosaurs in the Evolving Planet exhibit. Sue is a theropod, and though in the same order of dinosaurs as Patagotitan, which was a sauropod, Sue and her kin ate creatures like Patagotitan and its kin.

I had gotten to see Sue up close during the study and preparation phases prior to her being placed on exhibit, and wanted to say farewell (for a little while), so I went down to see her before the deconstruction. These are pictures from a visit in late December.

Sue towers over her human prey admirers in Stanley Field Hall.
Getting closer to Sue’s business end.
The better to eat you with.
The somewhat old-fashioned painted reconstruction on the second floor, overlooking Sue down below. Sue’s skull, which is too heavy to be supported on the body of the mounted skeleton in Stanley Field Hall, has always resided in a separate display case on the second floor balcony, just below this painting.
One of the pterosaurs is already in position.

I went down again last month, and took a few more pictures, mostly closer shots of interesting parts of her anatomy.

A closer view of her teeth.
Her reduced, two-fingered, forelimbs. The functional significance of this feature is much speculated on, but unknown.
Her strong, 4-toed (3 forward, 1 back) hind foot. These provided a powerful mode of locomotion.
Au revoir, Sue!

The tale of how Sue got from South Dakota to the Field Museum is a long and tortuous one, and not very edifying; but that’s a story for another post.

Nature editorial supports science at the Field Museum

March 23, 2013 • 8:41 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry and I have written about the plight of science at Chicago’s Field Museum, both here at WEIT, and with several colleagues in a letter to Science. In an editorial, Nature, the leading scientific journal of the English-speaking world, has also spoken out in support of science at the Field. In the editorial, Nature decries the imbalance in funding in the biological sciences, and points specifically to the Field Museum:

Solutions to many of the world’s problems will demand intensive research in many disciplines that are too-often excluded from even broad definitions of the life sciences. Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change will require a detailed inventory of the world’s species (biodiversity, zoology, botany, taxonomy, microbiology, marine biology and so on) and their interactions with one another (ecology) and the environment.

Research into many of these areas is undertaken in museums. At the time the Breakthrough Prize was announced, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, was facing tough decisions over a major shortfall in income. It is in the process of disbanding its separate research departments, reducing both the museum’s capacity for research into biodiversity and its high quality of educational outreach — crucial in a nation in which the very idea of evolution is perpetually under threat.

The occasion for the editors to make this plea was the announcement last month of the awarding of the “Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences“, a new and extremely generous prize ($3 million per person for 11 people!) funded by several Silicon Valley billionaires. Nature laments that even one of these awards going to a research museum like the Field would have a huge impact, not just on one recipient’s lab, but on entire scientific departments.

Further cuts will be necessary; the museum announced in December that it will have to slash $3 million from its research budgets (see Nature http://doi.org/j6q; 2012): an amount, coincidentally, that is equivalent to just one Breakthrough Prize, given to just one researcher in life sciences as defined by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. It is a laudable aim to work for ways to prolong lives, even those that are already long and luxurious. To work for a world that can harbour billions of human beings in tolerable comfort is also worthy of recognition.

Grrl Scientist and Jack Stilgoe, both at the Guardian, raise similar concerns about the misdirection and imbalance of funding in the life sciences. Grrl Scientist notes that giving the prize to individuals ignores the collaborative nature of much science, especially in the award recipients’ fields; the parochial and narrow nature of its understanding of the “life sciences”; and the mistaken notion that scientists are motivated by the same kind of get-lucky-and-strike-it-rich mindset as are technological entrepreneurs. Stilgoe asks, “What’s the point of the Breakthrough science prize?”, answering, “It’s not clear if Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner’s award will add to scientific discovery or just Silicon Valley’s ego”. Grrl Scientist summarizes

… this prize is flawed and seriously misguided and thus, I don’t think it will accomplish its stated goals.

In fairness to the prize founders, they were explicit about their limited vision of what the life sciences are in setting up the prize, stating their goal was “to recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life,” so the fact that the recipients (one of whom, Lew Cantley, was an outstanding shooting guard on my grad school basketball team!) would be limited to biomedical fields could have been predicted. But that they were upfront about their limited and misguided vision does not vitiate its limitations.

Chicago’s Field Museum must continue its historic mission of high quality scientific research

March 8, 2013 • 12:10 am

by Greg Mayer

At the end of last year, the Field Museum in Chicago announced that it was considering draconian budgetary cuts to, and even more ominous institutional restructuring of, its scientific departments. Jerry and I wrote about this here at the time, decrying the Field administration’s plans.

In January, Science published a news article on the situation. A number of us had been discussing various actions to protest the planned cuts, through petitions (change.org here), resolutions, critical commentary, and letter writing. In response to the Science piece, Jon Losos, Johannes Foufopoulos, Neil Shubin, Doug Futuyma, Ben Campbell, Scott Edwards, Jerry, and I wrote a letter to Science supporting scientific research at the Field Museum. The letter was published in today’s issue. The opening snippet:

Field Museum Science letter

The headline, which was written by Science, is appropriate: it refers to a famous line by the English scientist James Smithson, founding benefactor of the Smithsonian Institution, that we quote in our letter. Smithson wrote that his institution would be devoted to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge“. While many (especially newer) science museums can contribute to the diffusion of knowledge, only great natural history museums like the Field, with its priceless treasure of collections and and staff of outstanding scientists can contribute so much to the increase of knowledge. It is this mission that the Field administration threatens to give up, but must not dare, for shame, to abandon.

There’s another letter supporting science the Field Museum in the same issued, by Sophie Warny of Louisiana State University, arguing for the importance of natural history museums for practical applications.

Public outcry has worked before in saving some of the research departments at the Smithsonian. If  you have not yet done so, you can sign the petition linked above, or write to the Field’s President, Dr. Richard Lariviere (rlariviere@fieldmuseum.org ) or Board Chair John Rowe (postal address for both is The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605-2496).

_____________________________________________________________

Mayer, G.C., J.A. Coyne, J.B. Losos, J. Foufopoulos, N. Shubin, D.J. Futuyma, B.C. Campbell and S.V. Edwards. 2013. Museums’ role: increasing knowledge. Science 339:1148-1149. (pdf; if link doesn’t work for you, email me and I can send you a pdf)

Joint post: Chicago’s Field Museum endangered by unwise budget cuts

December 27, 2012 • 5:31 am

I’ve lived in Chicago for more than 25 years, and have watched the Field Museum’s public exhibits degenerate from an educational experience to an entertainment experience. This isn’t unique to that museum: it’s happening everywhere as natural history museums seek to make more money by displaying dinosaur skeletons and offering ‘hands-on’ experiences and animated exhibits for  kids weaned on video games.

The mantra here is “user friendly.” And I deplore this trend.  And I deplore this trend.  Steve Gould wrote an essay on this topic, also bemoaning the dumbing-down of museums (see also Gould’s essay in Natural History, January 1994, and here and here on WEIT for moar):

As a symbol of our dilemma, consider the plight of natural history museums in the light of commercial dinomania. In the past decade, nearly every major or minor natural history museum has succumbed (not always unwisely) to two great commercial temptations: to sell many scientifically worthless, and often frivolous, or even degrading, dinosaur products in their gift shops; and to mount, at high and separate admissions charges, special exhibits of colorful robotic dinosaurs that move and growl but (so far as I have ever been able to judge) teach nothing of scientific value about these animals. Such exhibits could be wonderful educational aids, if properly labeled and integrated with more traditional material; but I have never seen these robots presented for much more than their colors and sound effects (the two aspects of dinosaurs that must, for obvious reasons, remain most in the realm of speculation). If you ask my colleagues in museum administration why they have permitted such incursions into their precious and limited spaces, they will reply that these robotic displays bring large crowds into the museum, mostly of people who otherwise would never come. These folks can then be led or cajoled into viewing the regular exhibits, and the museum’s primary mission of science education receives a giant boost. I cannot fault the logic of this argument, but I fear that my colleagues are expressing a wish or a hope, not an actual result, and not even an outcome actively pursued by most museums. If the glitzy displays were dispersed among teaching exhibits, if they were used as a springboard for educational programs (sometimes they are), then a proper balance of mammon and learning might be reached. But, too often, the glitz occupies a separate wing (where the higher admission charges can be monitored), and the real result gets measured in increased body counts and profits.

Well, perhaps fiscal constraints mandate such changes. But what is more serious for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History is that budget cuts are now about to seriously degrade its scientific mission, eliminating much of the behind-the-scenes research that is the soul of any good natural history museum. Public exhibits are merely the frosting on the cake, for not visible to casual visitor are the research collections and laboratories of the scientists that lie behind closed doors.

Museum-based research has been essential in studies of ecology, evolution, and natural history, and this kind of downsizing is a serious danger to work on organismal biology.  Alarmed, Greg Mayer and I co-wrote the following plea for the Field Museum to reconsider its rash decision. And we’re asking readers to help by writing a brief protest.

_________________

Field Museum: Don’t savage your science!

by Jerry Coyne and Greg Mayer

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Field Museum of Natural History is about to engage in a budget-slashing reorganization that will all but eliminate science at that institution (our emphasis added):

Staff reductions would be aimed at curators and scientists, according to museum officials.

“This may turn out to involve shrinking certain areas of inquiry,” said John Rowe, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.

The Field Museum is both an international research institution and a vital cultural attraction for residents and tourists, drawing about 1.3 million visitors in 2011.

The natural history museum is home to Sue, the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world and a Chicago icon. In the bowels of the museum and all around the world, Field scientists also are discovering new plants and animals—more than 200 last year alone—along with preserving rain forests and studying artifacts. …

[New Museum President Richard] Lariviere, who started in October, said he wants to use the cost-cutting measures as an opportunity to refocus the museum’s mission. …

Museum officials said they also expect to cut research staff as they seek to narrow the scope of its mission

Currently the museum is organized much like a university, with researchers divided into academic departments. Under Lariviere’s plan, that structure would be simplified into four broad areas: science and education, programming, fundraising and operations.

“Narrowing the scope of its mission” apparently means “deep-sixing most of the science.”

Lariviere, dismissed last year as president of the University of Oregon, said the Field’s future is “rosy” if they carry out this plan out, but in reality its future would be bleak indeed.

There are only a handful of great natural history museums in the U.S., and the Field is one of them. (Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where both of us received our doctorates, is another.) These museums have always had a dual mission of research and education, and in fact the research mission has usually occupied the lion’s share of the museums’ efforts. The public doesn’t realize that the research collections of the Field Museum hold a vastly greater number of specimens than those on public display.

Indeed, the Field Museum—like many others of its kind—uses “behind-the-scenes” access to its collections and its scientists as principal attractions for members and donors. It is these collections that scientists, both in-house and from other institutions, use to advance biology, geology, and anthropology. What are to become of these tremendously important, and literally irreplaceable, collections?

The research of natural history museums has been crucial for the development of evolutionary biology. Ernst Mayr, the “Darwin of the 20th century” who pioneered studies of speciation, did so at natural history museums (successively, the British Museum, American Museum, and Museum of Comparative Zoology), using the collections to formulate and test his ideas. The Field’s scientists continue this tradition, and have been enormously productive.

Jim Hanken, Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, had this to say to Nature and Scientific American:

It’s one of the great research institutions in comparative zoology, biodiversity and natural history, and it has been one of the leading centres of research for more than 100 years. There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances.

As the Chicago Sun-Times noted, the Field is a “treasure [and] a responsibility”, and the current management can’t be allowed to savage what must be a resource for future generations. There’s a change.org petition to oppose this:

https://www.change.org/petitions/protect-research-at-field-museum-of-natural-history-chicago

and you can contact the management through info here (Dr. Lariviere’s email address is rlariviere@fieldmuseum.org ; remember-be respectful!) and Board Chair John Rowe and other Board members through info here (no emails; postal address is The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605-2496.) We ask readers to do this, and let the Museum and its Board know that you support science. Outcry by the scientific community and public can work— it saved the Smithsonian’s Conservation and Research Center a decade ago from a similarly ill-advised cost-saving refocusing of mission.

If you are in favor of research in organismal biology (and I hope that most of our readers are!), we ask you to sign the petition (which takes all of one minute) and write a short note to the management opposing these changes.

Thanks!

h/t: Matthew Cobb

Science goes to Hollywood– favorite movie scenes, 3

November 15, 2010 • 11:44 am

by Greg Mayer

My last (at least for now) candidate for favorite science-y movie scene is from one of the great all-time classic B movies, The Killer Shrews. In the film, some scientists on an island are menaced by giant, venomous shrews. (Some shrews, such as  the short tailed shrew, Blarina brevicauda, of the eastern US and Canada, are, in fact, venomous.). In the following clip, about 8:10 in, the people have barricaded themselves inside a house, while the shrews roam about outside. The two men wearing ties are the scientists (dress code issues, again!); a shrew has broken into the house, and dashes out of the kitchen towards Dr. Baines (in glasses). [Updated 2019 07 30 with available video clip.]

After Dr. Baines falls dead to the floor, and his furiously-made typescript is examined, Dr. Cragis solemnly intones, “He recorded every symptom and reaction, right up to the moment of his death.”

The movie is justly famous for its absurdly amateurish special effects– the shrews appear to be dogs wearing rubber noses with shag carpets strapped to their backs. But what makes it a favorite scene is that it is based on a true incident– the death, by snakebite, of the great herpetologist  Karl P. Schmidt.

Schmidt, long time curator of amphibians and reptiles at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and coauthor of two influential ecology textbooks, died on September 26, 1957, one day after being bitten by a small boomslang (Dispholidus typus) at the Museum. The boomslang is a rear-fanged colubrid snake (i.e. not one of the more specialized venomous snakes, the vipers and the cobras and their relatives) from southern Africa, and Schmidt and his colleagues were lulled into a misled optimism by the snake’s small size and that only one fang had bitten him.

Boomslang, Dispholidus typus. Photo by William Warby, from Wikimedia.

Schmidt began taking notes about what happened, and recorded his symptoms until after breakfast the next day. By 3 PM he was dead. Chicago newspapers gave his death a prominent place in their pages. The Chicago Daily Tribune‘s Thomas Buck wrote

Dedication to Science Blamed in Tragedy…An inquest into the death of Dr. Karl P. Schmidt, world famous herpetologist who wrote a scientific account of his symptoms while dying from snake bite, will be resumed today in the city hall in Chicago Heights. (Chicago Daily Tribune Oct. 4 1957)

An unusual chapter of medical history was written yesterday at the inquest in the death of Dr. Karl P. Schmidt famed herpetologist who recorded his symptoms of snake poisoning without apparent foreboding or emotion. (Chicago Daily Tribune Oct. 5 1957)

Schmidt’s notes on the bite and his symptoms were published posthumously. Here’s part of what he wrote:

I took it [the snake] from Dr. [Robert] Inger [another famed Chicago herpetologist] without thinking of any precaution, and it promptly bit me on the fleshy lateral aspect of the first joint of the left thumb. The mouth was widely opened and the bite was made with the rear fangs only, only the right fang entering to its full length of about 3 mm.

Clifford H. Pope, yet another famed Chicago herpetologist, who prepared Schmidt’s notes for publication, wrote in his comments accompanying them,

That Dr. Schmidt’s optimism was extremely unfortunate is proved by his death, but it must be admitted that there was some justification: The boomslang was very young and only one fang penetrated deeply. However, almost two decades ago careful experimentation by Grasset and Schaafsma (South African Med. Jour., 1940, 14: 236-41) showed that boomslang venom has an extraordinarily high toxicity, even higher than those of such notorious snakes as cobras, kraits, and mambas. This fact alone dictates extreme caution in handling boomslangs of all sizes, even though they be among the most mild tempered of venomous snakes.

Davis, D.D. 1959. Karl Patterson Schmidt, 1890-1957. Copeia 1959(3): 189-192.

Pope, C.H. 1958. Fatal bite of captive African rear-fanged snake (Dispholidus). Copeia 1958(4): 280-282. (Schmidt’s notes are in this paper.)