A public university is preparing to throw a massive natural history collection away to make more room for the track team

March 31, 2017 • 12:25 pm

by Greg Mayer

In a Washington Post piece by Sarah Kaplan, I learned of the following disaster– read this tweet, by John Overholt of Harvard University, and weep.


And this gem of administrative reasoning is from the Post article:

ULM Vice President for Academic Affairs Eric Pani told a local paper, the News Star, that the university can no longer afford to keep the collection…  now that running facilities are being updated to meet national track and field standards, there’s nowhere else for the specimens to go, he said.

“Unfortunately, the fiscal situation facing the university over the years requires us to make choices like this,” Pani said.

As Jerry and I have argued before, in our defense of science at the Field Museum in Chicago, natural history museums are key parts of the scientific enterprise, and their collections are irreplaceable documents of, among other things, biodiversity across space and time, and an essential resource for the conservation of biodiversity. In the present case, it’s not that the role of science in the museum is to be diminished, as was the case at the Field Museum; rather, it is to destroy the collection altogether! The public exhibit part of the Museum of Natural Museum, is to be maintained, and I’m not sure if they will be firing the curators, but the collections are to go, and that’s the only part of a museum that is literally irreplaceable– not that scientific curatorship and education aren’t vital, but both can be reconstituted as long as the collection is ‘mothballed’.

It might be argued that since it’s ‘just’ a regionally focused collection, it’s not that important, but state and local museums are often repositories for the most comprehensive and useful collections, especially for conservation efforts (which in the U.S. often have a state focus). And there are millions of specimens in the collection!

The action of the ULM administration is a striking illustration of the deep currents of anti-intellectual philistinism coursing through American higher education, especially among university administrators, who increasingly are divorced from teaching and scholarship– a managerial class obtaining their degrees in ‘leadership’, and forced upon universities by boards and legislators who think higher education should be run more like a ‘business’. (I am wont to point out, when confronted by such arguments for business-like governance by people who usually have a high regard for the military, that the captain of an aircraft carrier is always a pilot who has come up through an air wing, and not someone trained only in management.)

A hashtag, #ULMcollections, has been created to further discussion and dissemination of knowledge about this unconscionable plan. I urge readers, especially those in Louisiana, to contact officials, their representatives, and the university, although you might want to be a bit more temperate than I’ve been here.

h/t N. Taft

Darwin Day in Kenosha, 2016

February 12, 2016 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry should be getting ready to sign books in London about now as part of the lead up to his talk for the British Humanists, but for those not in the UK but in my vicinity, I will be giving a Darwin Day talk tomorrow, February 13, at 2 PM, at the Kenosha Public Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin. My talk will be “What Darwin Did for Biology”, on what the key puzzles in natural history were, how Darwin solved them with a unified explanation, and how this led to the rise of such modern disciplines as ecology, genetics, and geology, and, somewhat paradoxically, to the divisions among these disciplines. The Darwin Day events at the Museum run 10 AM to 4 PM, although I don’t know what the full schedule is. It’s also an excellent chance to see the “Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx” exhibit. For those who’ve been to past Darwin Days in Kenosha, this year it’s at the main Public Museum, not the Dinosaur Discovery Museum. If you arrive early, I’ll be across the street at Ashling’s having a bloody Mary at noon– stop by and say hello.

Birds of Stone: Avian Fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs

January 27, 2016 • 8:00 am

by Greg Mayer

This coming Monday, February 1, at 7 PM in the Student Union Cinema, the University of Wisconsin-Parkisde will present Luis Chiappe, Director of the Dinosaur Institute of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, will speak on “Birds of Stone: Avian Fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs”.

Dr. Luis Chiappe of the LACM
Dr. Luis Chiappe of the LACM

Many of the features commonly associated with birds (feather, wings, hollow bones, wishbones) were inherited from their dinosaurian ancestors, and these features arose at various times during the birds’ long Mesozoic history. New fossils have laid out this evolutionary saga in great detail, allowing us to trace the changes from the earliest birds, such as Archaeopteryx, to the dawn of modern birds. The talk, part of UW-Parkside’s Science Night series, is intended for the general public.

At noon on Monday, in Molinaro Hall D 139, Dr. Chiappe will present a more technical talk at the Biological Sciences Colloquium entitled “Birding in the Mesozoic: Recent Insights on the Early Evolution of Birds”. There’s also a small exhibit in the UWP Library, “Dinosaurs and Birds: The Art of Science”, that you can stop in and see.

Both talks are free and open to the public. For the evening talk, parking in the Student Union lot is free after 6:30 PM. For the noon talk, there are metered spots, but if any WEIT readers are planning to come, email and I’ll see what we can do. The talks are presented in conjunction with the exhibit “Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx”, by Silver Plume Exhibitions in conjunction with the Yale Peabody Museum, at the Kenosha Public Museum, on display now through March 27th.


This is a very well done exhibit, combining fine reproductions of almost all of the eleven known Archaeopteryx specimens (the real ones almost never travel!), with an exploration of how several distinguished paleo-artists create their works, including Julius Cstonyi, whose work we’ve highlighted here at WEIT before.

Anyone from Chicago to Milwaukee is within range, and you can make a day of it– the exhibit at the KPM, two talks, and a stop in UWP’s Library. Even if you can’t make it Monday, the exhibit at KPM is well worth a trip on some other day. Here’s a tidbit– a realistic sculpture– from Dinosaurs Take Flight; I hope to post a fuller report later.

Archaeopteryx at its nest.
Archaeopteryx at its nest.


Darwin Day at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum: report

February 15, 2015 • 4:11 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has just returned from his Darwin Day activities in Mississippi, and I’m sure we’ll be receiving a report on how things went (including in the culinary department). In the meantime, here’s a report on how things went at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum’s Darwin Day event last weekend.

The museum has one main exhibit hall, having a very large number of dinosaurs (especially theropods); most are high quality reproductions. In the lobby, I set up a temporary exhibit table on the theme of “Highly Evolved Tetrapods”, meaning ones that have lost or rearranged major parts of their skeletons. My table, manned by my son Christian and myself, featured live animals.

The tetrapod table.
The highly evolved tetrapod table.

The hit of the exhibit was Vivian, an adult ball python (Python regius). Many people, as urged to by our signage, asked to see Vivian’s hind legs.

Vivian-- the star of the show.
Vivian– the star of the show.

Most people (even biologists) don’t know that some extant snakes have vestigial hind limbs, and my son and I have always liked to show them off. Once, when he was in grade school, he told a naturalist at a creationist nature camp (admittedly an odd combination) about the legs on a python they had on exhibit. She demurred, but my son, in good faith (he didn’t know they were creationists) persisted, and offered to show the legs to her. She allowed as she had seen the structures, but that they weren’t legs. He again persisted, stating (correctly) that the leg bones and pelvis were still there, and that they were legs. She could only sputter that they were not legs “in my world view”!

Curator of Education Nick Wiersum with a friend.
Nick Wiersum, Curator of Education, ain’t afraid of no toad.

The giant toad (Bufo marinus; called cane toads in Australia, but native from Texas to Argentina) was also quite popular. You can see the large ellipsoid poison glands behind the eye, and the swelling of the body to make swallowing difficult, another defensive attribute. We also had an American toad (Bufo americanus; common throughout most of the eastern United States and Canada) for comparison. Both are good-sized adults.

American Toad vs. Giant Toad
American Toad vs. Giant Toad

We also had Slidey, a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans); we’ve noted before here on WEIT how highly evolved turtles are.

Slidey the Red-eared Slider
Slidey the Red-eared Slider

My paleontological colleagues Summer Ostrowski and Chris Noto set up a temporary exhibit featuring small, touchable fossils and a very fine selection of plastic animals.

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The plastic animals (all high quality collector-grade pieces) were arranged in correct phylogenetic arrangement. Although you can barely see him under the mammoth’s chin, humanity is represented by a 3D print of Charles Darwin as depicted in the sitting statue of him at the Natural History Museum in London.

The pyhlogeny of plastic animals.
The phylogeny of plastic animals.

Chris and I also gave lectures in the museum’s downstairs class room, on “How Evolution Works” (me) and “What the Fossil Record Tells Us about Evolution”. Nick Wiersum, Curator of Education, led special activities in the main exhibit hall.

“I once caught a fish, this big.”

I think the event was quite successful, with events suitable for kids, students, and adults. There was a good crowd, from kids through adults, with steady numbers the whole day, and lots of good questions. The attendees included WEIT readers, some who came from Milwaukee and Evanston– thanks so much for the support, and it was good to meet you!

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Thx for pix: Chris Noto, Jim Shea

Darwin Day 2015 at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin (and at the University of Southern Mississippi)

February 4, 2015 • 11:32 am

by Greg Mayer (and Professor Ceiling Cat):

Darwin Day, Feb. 12, is fast approaching, so start making your plans now. The Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin will be holding its event this coming Saturday, February 7, from noon to 5 PM.


There will be educational displays (including live herps), activities for children, videos about evolution from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Chris Noto and I will each be giving public lectures during the afternoon. Chris’s talk will be on  “What the Fossil Record Tells Us About Evolution”, while I’ll be speaking on “How Evolution Works”.  My talk is at 1 PM, Chris’s at 3 PM; each should be about 30 min.

If you’re in southeastern Wisconsin or northeastern Illinois, come by to join the festivities!


Professor Ceiling Cat will be lecturing on Darwin Day in the Deep South, my favorite place to spread the gospel. I’ll be talking about the evidence for evolution and the religious pushback against it, at the University of Southern Mississippi on February 13 (announcement here). There will be books on sale, and the good Professor will sign them; if you say “Felis silvestris lybica” (the wild ancestor of the house cat), you’ll get a cat drawn in your book.

I was going to combine this with an eating trip to nearby New Orleans, but discovered to my horror that that’s during Mardi Gras, an awful time to be nomming in The Big Easy. However, I’m told that Hattiesburg, Mississippi has two world-class barbecue joints. Stay tuned.

Bad Kitty

January 1, 2015 • 9:58 am

by Greg Mayer

My west coast correspondent sends the following picture of the “Bad Kitty” (who looks a little bit like Jerry Coyne the Cat).

Grumman F7F Tigercat, the "Bad Kitty", at the Historic Flight Foundation, Mukilteo, WA, December 2014.
Grumman F7F Tigercat, the “Bad Kitty”, at the Historic Flight Foundation, Mukilteo, WA, December 2014.

The plane is a Grumman F7F Tigercat, one of a series of “cat” named fighters made by Grumman; the most well known is probably the F14 Tomcat, made famous by the movie Top Gun. The plane is at the Historic Flight Foundation, an air museum at Paine Field in Mukilteo, Washington. Although designed to be a carrier-based fighter plane, they did not get much use, and this particular plane wound up being used by an Oregon forestry service.

Upon first seeing the picture, and not knowing the type of plane it was, I inquired if it was British, given the Union Jack on the wall behind. In reply, my correspondent sent along some pictures of a Spitfire at the museum.

Spitfire at Historic Flight Foundation, Mukilteo, WA, December 2014.
Spitfire at Historic Flight Foundation, Mukilteo, WA, December 2014.

This plane was from one of the Czech squadrons formed within the Royal Air Force and flown by Czech pilots-in-exile during World War II. The red, white, and blue roundel on the plane’s tail is a Czech Air Force insignia of today; I’m not sure if it was used during WW II.

Update. Reader Graham provides below a link to the very interesting history of this particular plane– besides a Czech squadron in the RAF, this plane, built in 1945, was at different times in the Czechslovak, Israeli, and Burmese air forces, and finally was restored in England before coming to the museum in the US.

Once there were billions

September 1, 2014 • 6:10 am

JAC: Yesterday I mentioned that today is an anniversary of note. I forgot that it was the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Poland by the Germans, and thus the beginning of World War II. But it’s also a biological anniversary, and Greg has volunteered to tell us about that one:

by Greg Mayer

Exactly 100 years ago today, on September 1, 1914, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) became extinct. We rarely know when a species becomes extinct with such precision, even in those cases, like the passenger pigeon, when the species succumbed at the hands of man. We know for the passenger pigeon, though, for by this date 100 years ago it had been many years since a passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild, and the only remaining birds were in captivity. And on this date, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo at the age of 29.

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, by Carl Hurlbert, USNM.
Martha, the last passenger pigeon, photo by Donald Hurlbert, USNM.

Her demise marked the end of a sad chapter in the history of human exploitation of nature. In the first half of the 19th century, flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies of eastern North America, and could take days to pass by. Their numbers were estimated to be in the billions. A few decades of remorseless market hunting more than decimated them, and, once below a certain number, the intensely social species seemed unable to successfully reproduce. The last few pigeons in captivity stemmed mostly from the efforts of Charles O. Whitman, one of Jerry’s predecessors in biology at the University of Chicago, and an expert on pigeons. Whitman’s attempts at breeding, including sending Martha to the Cincinnati Zoo, did not succeed. Martha outlived Whitman, who died in 1910, so he did not live to see the ultimate passing of the pigeons.

The National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian has a temporary exhibit commemorating this sad milestone, “Once There Were Billions“, which opened in June and will be up till October of next year. I got a chance to see it just a few days after it opened. It’s a small exhibit—just two cases—but dense with specimens, objects, and information, a fine example of the style of museum exhibition that I call the “cabinet” style, which we’ve praised before here at WEIT.

Once There Were Billions, first case, at the USNM, 26 June 2014.
“Once There Were Billions”, first case, at the USNM, 26 June 2014.

After Martha’s death she was sent to the Smithsonian, where she still resides, and she is a highlight of the exhibition.

Three specimens, including Martha herself (11). Martha and number 10 are mounted for exhibition, while 12 is prepared as a standard”study skin”. (Almost all bird specimens in a research collection are prepared in this fashion.)
Martha signage from “Once There Were Billions”.

A number of classic illustrations are included from the Smithsonian Library, including from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina from the 1700s.

A passenger pigeon from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina.

The exhibit also features 3 other once abundant species which were driven extinct largely by hunting: the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, and the heath hen.

The second case in the exhibition at the USNM.

The great auk is shown in an illustration from Walter Rothschild’s Extinct Birds (which also has a passage on passenger pigeons on pp. 167-170),

Great auk from Rothschild’s Extinct Birds.

as well as by a preserved specimen.

Great auk at the USNM.

And the Carolina parakeet is represented by two specimens; note the passenger pigeon illustration from Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology to the left of the parakeets.

Carolina parakeets. Note Wilson’s passenger pigeon illustration to the lower left.

On the exhibit web page, there are links to a fine collection of illustrations and books about all four species from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Signage for “Once There Were Billions”.

The Smithsonian is also showing a set of sculptures by by Todd McGrain from the Lost Bird Project; his passenger-pigeon sculpture is displayed on the USNM’s ‘front lawn’.

Passenger pigeon sculpture at USNM.

The Lost Bird Project sign at USNM.
The Lost Bird Project sign at USNM.

For further reading on passenger pigeons, I recommend A.W. Schorger’s The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1955). Two new books have been published this year, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury USA, New York) by the noted Chicago naturalist Joel Greenberg, and Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha: The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its Relevance Today (Bloomsbury Natural History, London), but I have not read them.

h/t  Mark Joseph

Pterosaurs take Manhattan

April 11, 2014 • 9:42 am

by Greg Mayer

Last weekend, a new exhibit opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York: “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs“. The New York Times had a piece on the making of the exhibit last week, and today their museum critic, Edward Rothstein, weighs in with his take on the pterosaurs. We’ve had occasion to favorably note Rothstien’s reviews previously here at WEIT, and his conclusion is that the exhibit is well worth seeing.


He writes:

The exhibition is unusually compelling, given its directness and simplicity. In one sense, pterosaurs are quite familiar: Any image of the dinosaur age shows them ruling the skies. But as you work your way through this exhibition, they become confoundingly strange. Walking on wings! A fourth finger for flying! Crests larger than heads!

His review also considers how it is we come to know about the pterosaurs (‘pterosaur epistemology’), the serendipity of fossilization and discovery, and how small clues can be used to build up a more complete picture of the creature, noting, for example  how a small mass of ejected bones (a gastric pellet), which might be overlooked, reveals what pterosaurs ate.

It reminds us of what exists before hypotheses accumulate, and what the paleontologist must accomplish, combining meticulous examination with speculative reconstruction. The pellet presents just a slightly more extreme version of how many pterosaur fossils are found. Some are seen here: jumbles of flattened bones and random filaments, gastric pellets spat out of some geological maw. …

Out of accidents, order takes shape; we see this to be as true of the paleontologist’s enterprise as it is of evolutionary change. The effect is to make us wonder which is more marvelous: the creatures themselves, or the ways they have been recreated?

The accompanying website is chock full of images, videos and information– go have a look. Here’s a nice summary video.

Some aspects of the reconstructions are speculative– we don’t really know what colors their crests were (although we do have evidence for the color of some Mesozoic reptiles). And, surprisingly to me, there is almost nothing about the “hairs”– called “pycnofibers”–  that have been described in a number of pterosaurs. I’ve always thought the suggestion of pterosaurs being haired was very exciting, and, if true, a nice example of convergence, and evidence that pterosaurs were warm-blooded. The only mention I can find on the AMNH site concerns Jeholopterus, a small pterosaur with pycnofibers,  seen in the following gif:

Jeholopterus, a "haired" pterosaur (AMNH).
Jeholopterus, a “haired” pterosaur (AMNH).

Pterosaurs are, of course, reptiles (and not dinosaurs!), and one of the three groups of tetrapods to have evolved true flight (as opposed to gliding, which has evolved many more times). Pterosaurs’ air foil is membranous skin, stretched along an enormously elongated 4th finger; bats, too, have a membranous wing, but it is supported by fingers 2 through 5; birds have a wing of feathers, which project not from elongated finger bones, but from a shortened and fused set of hand/finger bones. These structures are nicely illustrated in the following figure from Steve Gatesy and Kevin Middleton:

Pterosaur (A), bird (B), and bat (C) wings. Gatesy & Middleton, 2007.
Pterosaur (A), bird (B), and bat (C) wings. Gatesy & Middleton, 2007.

Powered flight is thus an excellent example of convergent evolution— the origin of similar structures as adaptations to similar conditions of existence. The wings, because they evolved independently, are said to be analogous (i.e. not derived from a common ancestor possessing wings), as is evident from the different nature of the air foil, and the different modifications of the bones involved in the wings of the three groups– the similarities are superficila nad functional. It also nicely shows the hierarchical nature of homology. The front limbs of bats, birds, and pterosaurs are homologous as limbs (i.e. derived from a common ancestor possessing front limbs), but not as wings. The common structures (humerus, radius, ulna, etc.) are homologous at the level of tetrapods, but the modifications of these structures as wings are separate evolutionary events.

The exhibit is temporary, and will be up through January 4, 2015. Be sure to put it on your list of things to see while in New York; it’s on mine!


Gatesy, S.M. and K.M. Middleton. 2007 Skeletal adaptations for flight. pp. 269-283 in Hall, B.K., ed., Fins into Limbs: Evolution, Development, and Transformation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.