Saturday, March 19, 2011

Day 4: Sitting under Skeletons

Rainy day on the Limmat
The weather today makes me almost forget that it is mid-March and I am on spring break. It is overcast and rainy today, but Zurich wears it well. I cross the Limmat river each day on my way to and from the train station, and the view across the water has become one of my favorite sights.
View across the Limmat River
I have not had much time to explore the city since I am at the museum during the day and do not stay out late at night as a rule of common sense, but my hotel is near the tram stop Central in the old city, and I get to see views like this as a part of my daily commute.

Today my research centered on the specimens Sarah and Moritz. I took photographs of these dinosaurs and measured their limb bones, which has become routine as I move from specimen to specimen. I had the time to start taking photographs of Lilly too, who is mounted in the middle of the room on a raised platform, making it somewhat difficult to get a good straight-on shot. Lilly is mounted in simulated matrix, giving the specimen the appearance of being exposed on the site, although it has been fully prepared and the individual bones are removable from their resting spots in the display. Unfortunately, I may not be able to access this specimen because of the surrounding display components, but I tried to get as many photographs including a scale bar as I could.

Sarah and Moritz proved much more straightforward subjects. Sarah, whose virtues I expounded in my last post, is a freestanding mount, and thus simple to measure and photograph. Moritz is another freestanding mount next to Sarah. Moritz is the least complete of the four specimens, but the limbs are mostly original bone, which proves useful for my study. This specimen is not very helpful for determining information about the plates or spikes, though, because most of them are missing.

Hesperosaurus mjosi "Victoria" Right hind limb, compressed
One important fact that I need to take into account while conducting my measurements, which was pointed out to me by Dr. Siber, is that the compression of the bone during the fossilization process can warp or distort the dimensions from the original. In the prep lab, Dr. Siber showed my a set of several articulated vertebrae that had been compressed, so that all of the centra were flattened at an angle. This kind of visible compression creates discrepancies in the measurements, and can be seen in the stegosaur Victoria. As a result, the right and left side measurements are not exactly the same for this specimen. This kind of result, when taken out of context, can lead to misidentification of which elements belong to which individual, and can even result in the creation of new species unnecessarily based on morphological differences that are ultimately taphonomical in origin.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Day 3: Sarah and Shelley

Stegosaurus (cf. armatus) "Sarah" Sauriermuseum Aathal
Today I began photographing the most complete known specimen of Stegosaurus (cf. armatus) in the world. Not a bad way to spend an overcast Wednesday afternoon. I have certainly had worse Wednesdays than this one. The specimen nicknamed "Sarah" is incredibly well-preserved, and approximately 80% complete. It is remarkable to stand in front of a mount and realize that the bones in front of you were actually the bones of this creature in life. Our job as paleontologists is just to try to do justice to the unknown form of the animal,  which can prove quite the challenge, even with specimens as exquisitely preserved as Sarah. 
My workstation in the Stegosaur room
The Sauriermuseum Aathal has been very accommodating of my research, and I have set up camp in a corner of the stegosaur display room. My camera, giant calipers, computer, notebook, and a length of cord are the main tools in this phase of my study. The most challenging thing so far has been trying to master my new camera, which is a Nikon D3100 dslr, an early graduation gift from my generous parents. This camera has more buttons, settings, and lenses than any camera I have ever owned, and although I have worked with borrowed dslr cameras in the past, mastering the manual settings is a lesson in trial and error. I want the pictures I take on this trip to be worthy of being included as figures in a publication, so I am slowly learning the nuances of this new piece of equipment. 
Thus far I have been able to meet and interact with many people at the Sauriermuseum Aathal, including members of the museum staff and other visiting researchers. These interactions remind me that no scientist works in isolation, and even though my research trip was a solo undertaking, my work relies on and informs the work of others in my field. This is a gratifying feeling, and I think that inter-institutional research, be it collaborative or otherwise, fosters this sense of community among researchers. For this reason, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to different institutions for the sake of my studies, including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, several regional museums in Northeastern China's Liaoning Province, and the Swiss museum I am visiting now.
The more time I spend in Switzerland, the more I notice some of the interesting quirks that make this country unique. For example, no country I have ever been to has ever seemed so fond of the rectangle in its modern architectural application.  There is also an interesting mix of modern buildings on the outskirts of the city, as well as grand old stone buildings in the old city, many of which feature colorful swaths of graffiti emblazoned on their facades.  My hotel has picked up on this trend and taken it to the next level, featuring special guest rooms decorated by local graffiti artists.  I do not happen to be staying in one of these rooms, but I think this is an interesting way to incorporate a not-so-glamorous aspect of the urban environment into the lives of visitors. The landscape surrounding Zurich is beautiful, and although I will not have a chance to visit the mountains on this trip, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of them from the wide windows of the commuter train I take each morning, and they are spectacular in their majesty. Overlooking the house-dotted hills, they stand as a reminder of the province of nature that is easily forgotten in the midst of the city. The novel Frankenstein comes to mind. Mary Shelley's evocative prose captures the essence of this natural landscape wonderfully, and although much of the description in this romantic-era novel seems grandiose when read out of context, being here in Switzerland, I can see what inspired her pen. Hopefully, however, my fate as a scientist proves more positive than that of the tormented titular character in that classic novel.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Day 2: Out of the city, Into the Exhibit

Countryside on train ride from Zurich to Aathal
It is the second day of my research trip, and so far my time in Switzerland has been pleasant. The neighborhood in Zurich where I am staying is charming, with old stone buildings and a warren of cobblestone streets and passages where restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops abound. Zurich seems to be a very social town, which makes traveling alone feel somewhat discordant, but that is the nature of the research trip. I have yet to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in any given situation, which is reassuring. Today I made the journey by rail from Zurich out to the Sauriermuseum Aathal in Aathal, a stop in the Swiss countryside 30 minutes away from the Zurich HB (the Main train station). After having a bit of trouble finding the train, I arrived at museum in Aathal. The walk from the train station to the museum is not very long, but was made awkward by the 4 foot long calipers I was carrying. In fact, everything is made a bit more awkward by the 4 foot long calipers I carry, so I stored them at the museum for the week.

Stegosaurus armatus, "Sarah"  Sauriermuseum Aathal

Hesperosaurus mjosi, "Victoria" Sauriermuseum Aathal
Upon my arrival I was kindly received by Museum Director Dr. Siber. I was taken for a tour of the museum, which houses many great specimens. An especially striking exhibit are those handpicked from Siber's personal collection for their aesthetic power; as well as a very cool exhibit on European dinosaurs that is in the process of going up. The tour culminated in the downstairs room where the Stegosaurs which I had come to study were displayed. The Stegosaurus and Hesperosaurus specimens on display there are truly remarkable in their completeness and preparation, and I have access to photograph and make measurements of all four of the specimens in the symposium paper “The Stegosaurs of the Sauriermuseum Aathal”. Today I started work on the specimen called "Victoria", and hope to focus on an average of one specimen per day. The specimens are mounted in such a way that they can be easily accessed for study, and the individual bones can even be removed from the mounts for closer inspection if need be. I think that this is an innovative and practical way to showcase specimens such as these, as opposed to just displaying a cast and having the real specimen buried in the collections.
Hesperosaurus mjosi, "Moritz" Sauriermuseum Aathal
Hesperosaurus mjosi, "Lilly" Sauriermuseum Aathal

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Willkommen in der Schweiz

Day 1: Welcome to Switzerland!

Today I arrived in Zurich, Switzerland for a week-long research trip to the Sauriermuseum Aathal to study the Stegosaurs in their collections. The museum is closed on Mondays, so allow me to provide some background on my motivations undertaking for this trip, as well as what I hope to accomplish.

My name is Ariel Revan, and I am a senior major in the Geology and Geophysics department at Yale. I chose to spend my time at Yale focusing on the Paleontology and Geobiology track of the major, and my work has culminated in the year-long senior thesis project on the dinosaur Stegosaurus. I've been working as a student curatorial assistant at the Yale Peabody Museum (YPM) for the past four years, and this project represents an exciting way for me to collaborate with the museum by providing the staff with accurate data pertaining to the limb proportions and number and arrangement of the osteoderms of Stegosaurus. Both the Vertebrate Paleontology Department and the Yale Peabody Museum have been generous enough to help fund my research travel abroad, allowing me to gain access to the best specimens available to survey in my study. Eventually this data will be used as the basis for the remounting of the current YPM Stegosaurus specimen on display. This process is in its preliminary stages, and will involve removal of some of the skeletal elements on the current mount, as well as replacement of certain other elements. 
So what am I doing in Switzerland, one might ask? 
The YPM has the holotype of the iconic Stegosaurus in its collections, and plenty of isolated elements to spare. The problem is that the holotype for the genus, YPM 1850, Stegosaurus armatus, coined by O.C. Marsh in 1877, is not suitably diagnostic and consists of only a large dermal plate and a segment of caudal vertebrae. This is an inappropriate standard by which to judge membership to a particular species within a genus known for its wide range of dermal osteoderm shapes, and also does not give any pertinent information as to the rest of the skeleton. In his 2010 paper Galton suggests that the type specimen for Stegosaurus be re-designated, an idea with which I am in agreement. Many of the specimens at the Peabody are of an isolated or fragmentary nature, and many are also from rubble fauna containing more than one individual, making it near-impossible in most cases to say which bones belonged to the same animal. There are wonderful examples of certain elements at the YPM, but for the purpose of this study, well-documented individual must be used, so that we can be sure the proportions are accurate and represent the bone size ratios of a single dinosaur. For this we turn to the Sauriermuseum Aathal. 
The Sauriermuseum Aathal in Aathal, Switzerland, houses the most complete and best preserved specimens of stegosaurs known from the Morrison Formation of North America. These specimens, which were excavated from the Howe Ranch Site in Wyoming, include the most complete stegosaur currently on display, nicknamed “Sarah” (cf. Stegosaurus armatus), as well as several other substantially complete stegosaur specimens including “Victoria” (Stegosaurus sp.), “Moritz”(cf. Hesperosaurus mjosi), and “Lilly” (cf. Hesperosaurus mjosi). In order to obtain the best anatomical data possible for the future remounting of the Peabody’s composite skeletal reconstruction of Stegosaurus, it is critical that I study these specimens, which were found in situ as individual skeletons, making them ideal for the purposes of my study. The specimens of the Sauriermuseum Aathal provide a unique opportunity to gather large amounts of data from well-preserved individuals that are housed at a single institution.