Wednesday, June 7, 2017

American Museum of Natural History, part 2: birds, near-birds, and wide loads

Since the AMNH has so much more to offer than Sexy Rexy and the Indeterminate Apatosaurine Formerly Known as Brontosaurus, let's once again take a walk down its expansive corridors. Or at least, the dinosaur galleries. Although I've already looked at the Saurischian gallery's biggest stars, there's a lot more going on in there besides...notably, an unabashed examination of how Birds Are Dinosaurs. Because they are, you know.

The dinosaur galleries were renovated in the early '90s, and certain aspects of the dino-bird section of the gallery have rather dated - especially the scaly life reconstructions of various non-bird maniraptoran dinosaurs. The show-stealing mount here is of Deinonychus, posed as if leaping through the air, or perhaps riding a merry-go-round. There's no way the bones would be positioned like that these days (where does the wishbone go?), but it's quite cool all the same. It's also used to highlight the skeletal similarities between birds and their close non-avian relatives, which is very cool.

More commendable still is the inclusion of a number of avian dinosaurs alongside Deinonychus in this corner of the gallery, living (stuffed) and extinct. These include the murderous predator/gentle giant Gastornis (above, still labelled as "Diatryma"), a phorusrhacid skull, Archaeopteryx casts, and more besides. No big song or dance is made of any of this; they simply neatly take their place among the tyrannosaurs, sauropods and others in the gallery. I really like the matter-of-fact presentation of the avian dinosaurs here. Assuming this has all survived more-or-less intact since the '90s, it's very forward-thinking for the time, and one can contrast the more conservative approach in the NHM (London).

While on the subject of maniraptoran theropods...seeing the Velociraptor holotype skull was another lovely moment. No doubt a very innocuous little skull for so many visitors, easily missed, but another one I grew up seeing pictures of...and it's where Velociraptor's road to fame started, don't you know. Equally fascinating is the nearby Ornitholestes holotype, still in its original early 20th century pose, and beautifully preserved Coelophysis specimens that I'd only seen in cast form before.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the Gorgosaurus mounts, similar in style to the Ornitholestes, that now sit against the wall behind the Tyrannosaurus. Unfortunately, fascinating as they are, they are very difficult to photograph - other specimens stand in the way when viewing from a distance, and up close you'll just get wacky, oblique angles and reflections from the glass. Reflections are a bit of an issue when photographing the exhibits in both main dinosaur galleries, although they don't inhibit viewing of the specimens very much when you're there.

Equally difficult to photograph - although for different reasons - is the famous 'titanosaur'. The as-yet-unnamed monster occupies a room separate from all the other dinosaurs. According to Ben Miller over on the superb Extinct Monsters blog, this beast occupies a room previously used for one of Henry Fairfield Osborne's flagrantly racist exhibits about human evolution. The room's low ceiling helps emphasise the animal's enormous frame, and also means that its neck has to stick out horizontally, with its head emerging in the adjacent corridor.

The 'titanosaur room' has a very different ambience to the main dinosaur galleries; it's far more dramatic, darkly lit, with spotlights illuminating the sauropod at its centre. This alone would make it somewhat difficult to photograph with cheap-ass cameras like mine, but then there's also the matter of its sheer size. Unless you've seen other large titanosaur mounts before (and there aren't many of them), nothing can quite prepare you for the sight of a terrestrial vertebrate skeleton this massive. I've been to the MfN Berlin (you may recall), and the mounted brachiosaur there seems to dwarf the Carnegie Diplodocus cast placed alongside it. However, I'm confident that, if you were to place Giraffatitan and the AMNH titanosaur side-by-side, the latter would make even the former appear diminished (height notwithstanding). It's BIG, you get me?

This is, of course, the skeleton that made revered natural history presenter David Attenborough giggle like a schoolboy. It's part cast (from the bones of a number of individuals, representing the majority of the skeleton between them), and part sculpt to fill in the gaps. Quite apart from its height at the hips, one of the most striking aspects about this mount is just how wide it is - it's easy to forget how wide-gauge titanosaurs were. These really were colossal barges of reptilian flesh. You could probably park your car in the ribcage (unless it's a particularly silly pickup truck).

I can only apologise for the terrible quality of my photos - I'm sure there are better out there on t'internet, but as Ben says over on Extinct Monsters, this is a mount that "must be experienced". Couldn't agree more, mate.

Coming up next: the Ornithischian Dinosaurs gallery


  1. That Ornitholestes wall-mount confuses me--what material is actually original? The whole thing (apart from the skull) looks like a sculpture.

    And dear lord I wish that giant titanosaur would be published already!

  2. The Ornitholestes is labeled as a cast. Far as I know, that's the only version that's every been displayed.

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  4. That titanosaur MUST be experienced firsthand. It looms like nobody's business. Thanks for the link to Extinct Monsters; I'd wanted to read something about AMNH's exhibit history.


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