You guys know how I love the Natural History Museum of Utah? Well, I went there for the third time in a month on Sunday for their open house. And let me tell you; it was a blast. I’ll tell my story chronologically because this is my column and I can do whatever I want.
The event started on Saturday, but I had too much French homework to go.
Sunday morning; the event starts at 10, so I show up at 9:55. I’ve never had to wait in line before, probably because I usually go on weekdays. Today, though, the line was out the door and wrapping around the building! I had not dressed for the weather because I rashly assumed I’d be spending the day inside.
I sat shivering for what felt like 20 minutes (but was probably only five), when the family in front of me mentioned they were headed to a members-only line that was much shorter, so I followed them inside. Because I’m not technically a member, just a student, I was worried. They only asked for my student ID at the door. Whew, made it in. And they didn’t yell at me, so I count that as a success!
So off I went into the very familiar front room of the museum. The first open lab they had was the paleontology lab on the first floor.
Right in front of me when I walked in was the huge skull of the newly found Tyrannosaurus that I wrote about last week. Such a beauty! I asked the paleontologist probably too many questions, as there were children who wanted to talk to him too, but oh well. Some of the interesting things I learned:
- Most fossils are found unarticulated, meaning the bones aren’t found in lifelike positions
- The new Tyrannosaurus was almost entirely articulated, except for its leg bones lying on its skull
- They found the skull on the second to last day of the dig
- The only part missing was the last half of the tail
- The skeleton was found because foot bones were sticking out of the ground
- We won’t be able to thoroughly study it until it’s all cleaned and put together
After I let kids talk to him, I wandered around the rest of the lab, asked more questions, and found out:
- Most people there are volunteers
- It takes a long time to clean and put together an entire fossil
- Fossils shatter like safety glass
- There’s a surprisingly large amount of politics around what kind of glue is used to stick the bones back together
- Putting dinosaurs together is a lot harder than I thought it was
And again, I was eventually pushed out by all the kids. So I went upstairs, unsure of what to expect. I found one huge maze, kind of like an Ikea, where you have to follow the arrows and visit all the rooms. It pretty quickly got overwhelming.
First up were more dinosaur bones–shelves and shelves and shelves of them. Every 20ish feet there was a volunteer to tell visitors about what they were looking at. One of the little stations had been advertised on Instagram: an Allosaurus brain. Sediment had filled a skull and then become dislodged, leaving a perfect cast of the inside of the skull. By comparing the shape to other brains, we’re able to tell that the Allosaurus had an amazing sense of smell and could probably only hear very low frequencies.
This is probably a good time to mention that the Allosaurus — a late Jurassic carnivore that was about 40 feet long, 16 feet tall, and probably hunted in packs — is my favorite dinosaur. Not only is it Utah’s state dinosaur, but it also has the same first syllable as my first name! Thinking about it, I’m really more similar to one of the herbivorous sauropods, but I suppose the dinosaur chooses you.
Anyway, the guy I talked to about this brain was a science writer, and I picked his brain about how to get his job until again, children wanted to ask him about real, physical science. I suppose I can’t begrudge them for that. I asked for his Twitter and it turned out I was already following him.
Along with the dinos, they also have Woolly Mammoth bones, which were a lot bigger than I expected. I’ve seen the bones all put together in the museum, but something about standing right next to a tusk made me rethink my place in the world as a tiny, tiny creature. Also, I learned, the distinction between what we call “bones” and “fossils” is somewhat arbitrary, and generally depends if they are younger or older than 10,000 years. On the other hand, I’ve heard a lot of paleontologists talk about “dinosaur bones”. Who knows.
Pop quiz: were dinosaurs warm blooded or cold blooded? Many of my readers probably already knew this, but it turns out they were warm-blooded like their cousins, birds are today. If you look at a cross-section of a dino bone, it’s super spongy looking, therefore there were lots of blood vessels, ergo warm-blooded.
I could talk about this forever, but I’ll move onto the next room: genetics. All I have to say about this room is that the volunteers couldn’t tell me anything about genetics, but they could talk about how fluoride and pesticides are ruining our kids’ IQs. Next.
Unfortunately, the next room had a crazy long line that I accidentally walked to the front of and cut, but I didn’t realize that until much later. When I finally got inside it was the entomology lab, which was pretty cool. Bugs, especially when pinned in place and unlikely to bite you, are fascinating. Apparently, Mantids are the best killers of the animal kingdom, and it’s okay that a lot of them are invasive because they only kill pests. Unfortunately the entomologist I keep trying to track down for another story wasn’t there, but a girl I went to high school with was. I avoided her not because I didn’t like her, but I didn’t know if she would remember me, which might have been awkward.
So, quickly I scurried into the next room, biology, where a woman was SKINNING A DEAD SQUIRREL right in front of us, like it was no big deal. I like to think of myself as someone who is okay around blood, and I was fine watching her take out the chest cavity and name all the organs, really I was, until the smell hit me. Then I thought I was actually going to pass out and I had to sit down with my head in between my knees for a few minutes.
(No photo for that one.)
Some context: part of the collection of natural history museums is animal collections. She was prepping a Rock Squirrel for collection so that it could be studied later. Collections like these are one of the ways we can tell how species have changed over the last couple hundred years. It was cool, but I wish there had been some kind of GORE COMING UP warning so I could have been prepared.
After taking a breather, I realized that not eating breakfast was a poor decision. I was starting to get a headache, and the 8 oz. water bottle I brought wasn’t cutting it. But I accepted my fate and went into the next room.
Next was a table of conch shells that I stayed at for probably half an hour. Being a desert rat, I’ve never thought much about the lifecycle of a conch shell, or even the fact that there are little creatures inside of them. Of course it makes sense that something lives in the shell because the shell has to grow, but even after grilling the museum volunteer I still didn’t really understand. I’ve been looking at pictures of them and I still find it unfathomable. The ocean remains a mystery, and that’s okay.
Next was the wet biology lab; AKA, snakes, and mice in bottles of alcohol. Again, there was a huge room with shelves and shelves and shelves, but only two of the shelves were open for viewing. These specimens degrade in UV light, so they could only be out for two days. I liked the 90-year-old mouse the best, but the coiled python was cool too. I went quickly through this part because my stomach was eating itself and the mouse was starting to look pretty tasty.
The very last room was archeology, and I sped through it, not giving nearly enough time to the 1000-year-old pottery that it had. But my blood sugar was quickly dropping and I had to get something to eat.
Finally, I had gotten all the way through and rewarded myself with a cookie. Not my first choice of sustenance, but it was both free and adorable, so it was okay.
That ended up being much longer than I expected. If you made it all the way through let me know, and I’ll give you a cookie. This event happens once a year, so if you enjoyed my play-by-play you should definitely go next year.