Friday, October 21, 2011

The Eocene Birds of the Field Museum

Right now, I am buried in feathers. In my independent study of typography, I've created a project that will use Indiana University's amazing type shop in creating a history of feathers. When I first started learning the letterpress and concocting my projects, I knew I wanted to do something that plays the printing process against the process of fossilization. Weeks of brainstorming and sketching later, I arrived at doing something on the history of feathers.

My reading list has been fun to assemble: I've got the Feathered Dragons volume put out by IU Press, Chiappe's Glorified Dinosaurs, Long and Schouten's Feathered Dinosaurs, Taking Wing by Pat Shipman, The Jehol Fossils, edited by Mee-Mann Chang, our own Brian Switek's Written In Stone, and the brand new book by Thor Hanson, Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle. This last one in particular has been invaluable in providing a good overview of feather form and function in extant species. I already knew that feathers were marvels of evolutionary engineering. I had no idea. I mean, a tiny Golden-Crowned Kinglet looks from the outside like it should just freeze to the branch when it's braving frigid winters in the northern forests of North America. But its downy insulation means that it can be 140 degrees fahrenheit warmer under its feathers than the outside air.

This studying reminded me of the photos I took this spring when I visited the Field Museum again - a visit I've somehow managed to not cover at all here! The Field has a nice variety of fossils from Fossil Lake in Wyoming, including these gorgeous Eocene birds:

Eocene birds

Eocene bird
Unidentified bird

Eocene parrot skull
Parrot skull

Eocene parrot
Parrot, Cyrilavis

Linmofregata azygosternum
The Eocene frigatebird Linmofregata azygosternum

Eocene bird
Another unidentified bird

Yest another reason to make visiting the Field a high priority if you haven't been there already. Forgive the quality of the photos. It's dark in there, so I had to sacrifice resolution to avoid a bunch of blurry pics on my memory card. I'll keep sorting through my photos and share more as I can.


  1. 'I knew I wanted to do something that plays the printing process against the process of fossilization. Weeks of brainstorming and sketching later, I arrived at doing something on the history of feathers.'

    Why do you suppose I love the name Archaeopteryx lithographica so much? And I repeat: I want to study with you.

    These fossils are amazing.

  2. Ooh, letterpress!
    I'm sure your reading list covers everything in it, but don't forget about 'The Curious History of Feathers' article from February's National Geographic (by Carl Zimmer). It's got a cool fold-out infographic on the topic.

  3. Sounds like a very cool project, I cannot wait to see the results!

    The parrot third from the bottom just got a name: Cyrilavis

    see: DOI: 10.1666/10-108.1

  4. Thanks all!

    Niroot - Anytime. I'll write a letter of recommendation for you if you want to come to Indiana...

    Sharon - Thanks for reminding me! Those photos are freaking incredible in that story.

    Neil - thanks for the update! I'll add that to the post.

  5. Great images Dave!
    The project sounds fascinating, I've always found the compressed fossils to be like relief sculptures or Lithographs.
    The last picture directly put me in mind of this:

  6. Would love to hear more about your work David. I'm always interested in the way 3-dimensional information is reconciled in 2-d representations, especially the relationship between translations of relief into typography. Like how serifs appeared first as 2-d representations of shadows at the end of the wedge-shaped troughs in Greco-Roman engraving.


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