Restoration: Terror of the Oceans

Wesleyan’s remarkable series of fossils casts includes two large specimens of ferocious predatorial reptiles- Plesiosaurus and IchthyosaurusThe fossil casts were in a dishearteningly deplorable state when they were rediscovered, crated in the Penthouse of Exley. The casts were put in crates when the Wesleyan Museum closed in 1957. We did not know where they were stored, but they were moved to the penthouse of the Exley Science center when the building was occupied in 1970. After 60 years of chill and thaw in the uncontrolled environment, large cracks were running across the surfaces, and the paint was chipped in many places. The Ichthyosaurus communis cast even had a number of jarring holes in various places. We probed the possibilities of salvaging these treasures, conducting extensive research into reversible restorative methods.

Being part of the Ward Series of Fossil Casts, this series of early large casts were once celebrated feature exhibits in major museums worldwide from 1866 onwards. Orange Judd donated a full series of these casts to the Wesleyan Museum when it opened in Judd Hall in 1870. The Plesiosaurus macrocephalus was an early cast of the holotype specimen of its species, and the second of its kind to be found. After almost 150 years since their making, the plaster has shrunk from off-gassing and evaporation, causing the inflexible paint layer to peel off and crackle, and simply “floating” above the plaster instead of adhering to it.

As with all the other fossils casts that are out of storage for the first time since 1957, this Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus Ward cast bears the unflattering signs of age- cracked plaster, peeling paint, unidentified stains and a thick coating of 60 year-old dust. (Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21)

Given their historical significance, great care was taken to employ the least intrusive methods in their restoration. We strove to minimise the changes made to the original, retaining as much of the old paint as possible. The casts were carefully inspected for unstable paint flecks, which were glued back down using acrylic medium. An airgun was passed gently over the casts to remove dust without abrading the fragile paint layer.

Each speck of missing paint is matched by mixing an identical colour with its adjacent regions from artist acrylics. The paints are then painstakingly stippled onto the plaster. (Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21)

A non-shrinking putty was used to fill in the larger holes and cracks in the plaster, some of which were created by early curators nailing labels into the cast itself. The missing paint chips were carefully colour-matched using archival acrylic paints, and filled in using meticulous stippling brushstrokes- a long painstaking process. Artist sponges are used to fill in parts of the background with major blemishes to recreate the natural texture of the casts. As the acrylic paints dry to a finish that looks glossier than the original, distressing of the surrounding matrix was done using fine grit sandpaper buffers, aiming for an earthy texture that is faithful to the original. Each cast took about 20 hours to restore to their formal glory. After applying a thin coat of archival breathable sealant, the casts are ready for show.

Ichthyosaurus platyodon Ward Cast in all its splendour after 30 hours of careful cleaning and restoration. (Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21)

Perhaps the modest, undemonstrative splendour of even the most major museums are so ingrained in our minds that we often don’t realise the strenuous effort put into each piece in an exhibition. Perhaps next time, you will take a moment to wonder as you wander, down the galleries of deep time past.


Cover photo: Freshly restored Ichthyosaurus communis cast detail from the Joe Webb Peoples Museum collection at Wesleyan. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.




Hidden Figures

Long thought to be marine dinosaurs,  Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs were once formidable apex predators in the Mesozoic. Living in oceans at the same time when the dinosaurs were roaming the land, these magnificent beasts are now iconic displays in many major museums, showing these animals as representatives of this golden age of the giants, some 228 to 112 million years ago (Ma). Their discovery is a story about an unsung woman of science, whose contribution to palaeontology changed our understanding of evolution forever.

It is a story of heartbreak as well as classist and elitist struggle, which lies behind that innocent, lighthearted children tongue-twister derived from Terry Sullivan’s lyrics to a 1908 song.

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

The she was Mary Anning (1799-1847),  born poor in southern England, and was never far from the austerity that she internalised as a way of living. Being a woman in the household of a low-class cabinetmaker, Mary had no access to formal education. She did, however, accompany her father in the unusual pastime of fossil hunting along the coast of Lyme Regis, and their fossil finds were sold as curiosities. Neither of her father’s occupations improved the circumstances of the family, and when the father died in 1810, his pregnant wife was left with little more than a large debt.

Mary Anning with her fossil-collecting tools, accompanied by Tray, her dog, on the coast of Lyme-Regis (UK).

It was Mary who found her way in the world by continuing her father’s work in fossil hunting and turning it into a livelihood.With her widowed mother, she managed a little fossil shop  by the sea to eke out a meagre income. In 1811, she made one of the most significant fossil finds in all of history. On the coast of Lyme-Regis, she co-discovered an Ichthyosaurus with her brother – the first of its kind ever to be discovered. This gargantuan specimen was soon purchased by a private collector for £23 (approx. $2200 in today’s worth). In subsequent years, she became the most prolific fossil hunter of her time,  unearthing many other important fossils including Plesiosaurs, Pterodactyls and more Ichthyosaurs, many of which eventually became important holotype specimens.

Mary Anning’s original sketch and notes on a specimen now known as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus. In spite of her lack of a formal education, Mary taught herself to become proficient in geology, palaeontology and fossil sketching.

Nevertheless, being a working class woman in the 19th-century, Mary never had much credibility in the scientific community. Despite her frequent correspondence with many of its prominent members, and despite providing fossils for their research, she was always the daughter of a cabinetmaker that had no place in scientific discourse. A series of 6 papers starting in 1814 by Sir Everard Home described the Ichthyosaurs based on Mary’s finds, but she was not credited in  the papers. Similarly, in 1821 and 1824, William Conybeare published and presented descriptions of the Plesiosaur fossils and thanked the collector of the fossil, but failed to mention Mary in any way. Even Sir Richard Owen- the scientist who coined the term “dinosaurs”- neglected to mention this lower class woman, despite having thanked the gentleman who acquired it from her, when he described  Plesiosaurus macrocephalus in 1840. So harshly unjust was their negligence of her contributions that she once lamented in a letter “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”

Wesleyan’s very own 1970 Ward cast of the Plesiosaurus macrocephalus holotype. From the collection of the Earl of Enniskillen, the original now resides in the British Museum. (Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21)

The Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs she introduced to science were the most terrorising predators in the oceans during their heyday. Growing to 15-20m in length and weighing almost a tonne, these monsters were powered by strong flippers that allowed them to pursue their prey at remarkable speeds. Ichthyosaurs were so successful in their survival strategies that they survived for almost 120 million years. By the Cretaceous era, they had adapted to living in every ocean on the planet. Their discovery marked one of the most pivotal moments in palaeontology at a time when the issue of extinction – whether God’s divine creations could possibly become extinct – was a matter of great contention, their discovery was the final testimony that extinctions do occur. When living counterparts of tiny fossil seashells and trilobites may be argued to still be lurking somewhere in the unexplored depths of the ocean, some unfortunate fishermen would almost inevitably have encountered giant swimming lizards should they still inhabit our oceans.

Artist representation of a hunting Plesiosaur- a ferocious predator of the Mesozoic seas.

With contemporaries like Darwin, Charles Lyell and Richard Owen, Mary’s story may have been drowned in the many unjust traditions of scientific publications in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the drama that evolves around her life’s work will live on on Wesleyan’s walls and that of many major museums, as a testimony of science as a field where success in expanding knowledge triumphs over other qualities.

Marvel at the grandeur of these impressive monsters, and listen to their bittersweet tales of toil and tears of an unforgotten giant– Mary Anning. Soon to come, on the 3rd floor of Exley…


Cover photo: Ichthyosaurus platyodon skull detail, copy of an original found by Mary Anning,  in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum Collection at Wesleyan University. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Curves: Florida Pliocene Snails

Four millions years is a blink of an eye in terms of evolutionary time.

Our collection houses 5600 specimens of fossil seashells from Sarasota County, Florida, from over 460 species. These fossils are found not along the coast of Florida as one might expect, but buried in sediments far inland. After 4 million years since their demise, their diversity and density still closely resemble that of the rich marine fauna which we see at Florida’s beautiful coasts today.

Florida boasts some of the most prolific shelling beaches, arguably in the entire world. It is home to some of the largest, most exquisite living snails (gastropods), whose shells are highly sought after by avid collectors of nature’s jewels. But among the most prized of all treasures are shells that are  anomalous in their form. Seashells are categorised into two categories based on their body plans: bivalves such as clams, that have two symmetrical shells (left and right), and gastropods, such as snails, which have one shell, commonly   a whorled spire, sometimes a shallow cone. You might not have noticed a rather unusual fact about the coiled snails: almost all  are right-handed, i.e.,  their opening (aperture), where the living fleshy part of the snail emerges from its shell, is on the right when the shell placed in standard position, with the earliest-formed part (the protoconch) pointing up.

Marine snails in standard  position- their protoconches are pointing upwards and their apertures are facing the viewer. Note that the apertures are all on the right side. From left to right: Conus cedonulli, Eustrombus gigas, Murex pecten, Charonia tritonis, Busycon candelabrum.

As said above, the present beaches are not the only place in Florida where one can find shells. Far in-land, in the county of Sarasota, fossil-bearing sediments from the Pliocene contain some of the most abundant and diverse mollusc faunas in the world. Four million years ago, sea levels were much higher than  today. The entire county of Sarasota was covered by a shallow sea teeming with life. Temperature drops in the Pleistocene period, that followed the Pliocene, resulted in more of the ocean waters to be locked up at the poles in the polar ice sheets, and the sea levels fell as a consequence. Over a very short period of time, many shallow seas thus  emerged as land, forming a major part of what we know as Florida today. Marine life died in massive numbers in the inland areas and their harder parts were preserved as fossils—windows into marine diversity of the Pliocene.

In Wesleyan’s collections, even very small specimens are well preserved. Many of these are represented in large numbers (hundreds in some samples) and are kept in glass vials.

Since the Pliocene, marine faunas have adopted their modern configurations. If you walk down the shores in Florida today, you will find very similar shells as those that lived at Sarasota  four million years ago. Some species may have gone extinct, but many speciations occur in continuum with the living shells we have today.  A handful of species might no longer be represented, but many iconic species have changed very little in the millennia since. One enchanting specimen is the lightning whelk, Busycon contrarium Conrad. While most species of snails have a rightward spire, as described above, the lightning whelk and their allies have a sinistral morphology – a leftward spire. This is unique to six whelk species that are endemic to North America (and hence the species name contrarium – the contrary whelk).

Sinistral marine snails of the genus Busycon (whelk) are common in North America since  the Pliocene, and their morphologies have remained superficially similar. The Busycon contrarium on the left lived in the warm Pliocene reefs, whereas Sinistrofulgur perversum (formerly Busycon perversum) is an extant species.

It is not often clear why North American marine snails that evolved sinistrality became so successful in their native habitats. There is some evidence for an evolutionary advantage due to predator evasion; predators are used to attacking snails from their right. Alternatively, this novelty could simply be a random trait that raised from a chance mutation that happens to be selectively neutral—it renders neither advantage nor disadvantage to the snails that carry it. The success of the sinistral snails into the modern days debunks a blatant misconception many hold towards evolutionary theory. In the 18th century, evolution was given the connotation of ‘progress’, a highly goal-driven process in which all things become increasingly more complex and more sophisticated. A model of thought called the Great Chain of Being, having its origin in writings by ancient Greek neoplatonists, was prevalent from medieval times through the 18th century: all animals evolve in a mono-directional upward hierarchy that resembles a ladder with the ultimate goal being apotheosis into humans. Vestigial traditions of this school of thought are still embedded in our society, given its popularity in 18th century Christian interpretive traditions. Even today, the icon of the March of Progress that portrays humanity as the result of a linear progress from apes, is influencing the popular ideas  about evolution as a linear advancement and improvement.

A simplified version of the March of Progress, depicting evolution as synonymous to progress. In truth, evolution is more akin to an experiment that creates many potentially viable products, with a large number of failures.

In gastropods, lefties are not common, even among shells. All of the six known extant sinistral shell species of Busycon whelks in North America  diverged from one lineage – the original B. contrarium. Traits that confer significant fitness often have high levels of convergence in analogous habitats. Given that sinistrality in these North American gastropods only evolved once in the marine environment, the evolutionary advantage of this trait is not clear, and it might be negligible.  In our collection, we are fortunate to feature another sinistral species- Conus adversarius. These unusual species are in high demand by collectors seeking novelties.

As these popular jewels of the natural world still line our shores today, measures are in place to protect their heritage that spanned more than 4 million years of geological time. Legislation in Florida aims to restrict the removal of living shells from their natural habitat, and  to preserve these ancient lineages which originated before the dawn of humans, lest our arrogance and ignorance cause them to disappear from our shores forever.

The origin of Wesleyan’s large collection of Pliocene molluscs from Sarasota, Florida is still undetermined. Some detective work in the archives will be done to track down the provenance of these beautiful specimens.


Coauthored by Tan Yu Kai and Andy Tan

Cover photo: Apical view of a Busycon contrarium in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum Collection at Wesleyan University. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.


More well as other visitors from the penthouse

We made some headway with the Glyptodon restoration: the tail was once more fixed to the carapace, and repairs were made to its internal structure =.

Then we cleaned Glyptodon. Now we still have to fill in a few damaged spots (see white spot in left image), and probably provide a new coat of paint. In the mean time, work has started to build a new platform for display. We are still working on deciding its new location, probably somewhere on the ground floor  in Exley. Sadly, we have not (yet) been able to locate the missing skull and foot despite major reorganization, removal of garbage, and sorting through items in the penthouse of Exley.

We did move down some more casts from the penthouse: two ichthyosaurs, two plesiosaurs, and a mosasaur. We are working on getting them out of their crates, cleaning them and doing minor repairs. We hope to mount them on the walls, third floor Exley.




The Glyptodon – more news and pictures

The Glyptodon carapace (see earlier blogs for more background information on the Wesleyan Glyptodon) was partially unpacked, so we could for the first time since 1957 inspect it – still in pretty good shape. It needs cleaning from 60 years of dust accumulation, some restoration, a new coat of paint, and re-attachment of the tail. We still have not yet found the skull/jaw and foot that were present in its glory days, but are still looking for them in the penthouse, as well as looking to see whether we could replace them if they cannot be found. Then we need to rebuild its pedestal.

The Glyptodon as seen from the front (upper) and back (lower) in its glory days, when it was displayed in the Orange Judd Museum of Natural Sciences, before 1957. Note the skull and hind left foot present, and the armored tail visible from the rear.


Copy of 1876 advertisement by Ward, dated 1876, in which he names ‘the Wesleyan University of Middletown, Conn.’, as having purchased a number of his ‘Casts of celebrated Fossils’.

The Glyptodon carapace (in the back) and its tail (in crate in front) reunited in the same room instead of being in the penthouse of Exley Science Center and the tunnels under Foss Hill, probably for the first time since 1957. The second picture shows the carapace in side view (head-end to the left), showing white spot where carapace has been damaged. Third picture: the carapace seen from the rear, with opening for the tail attachment (metal bracket visible), as shown in more detail in the next picture. The fifth picture shows the detail of the front of the carapace, where the skull should be attached, and the last picture shows the surface of the carapace, covered in dust but still in good shape.

The Glyptodon – continued

Today we finally moved the crate with the plaster cast of the Glyptodon body-skeleton (see earlier blogs) from the tunnels underneath Foss Hill to the machine shop at the ground level of Exley. The name Glyptodon was given by Richard Owen (1839), who was the first to realize that a number of fossils described as separate animals were, in fact, all part of the same animal, a now extinct giant armadillo. Glyptodons were South American mammals, and the original fossil of which ours is a cast was found in Argentina in 1846, and is now in a museum in Dijon, France. The casts were sold by Ward’s Scientific Company of Rochester, NY, founded by Henry A Ward (1840-1906), and Wesleyan obtained one for the Judd Hall Museum of Natural History in the 1870s (it cost then $150.-).


Picture and text from Ward’s catalog (the Glyptodon was nr 36).


The Glyptodon in the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History [credit Wesleyan’s Special Collections & Archives].
We could get a better view of it, and noted that the internal structure with the legs supporting the body carapace were still intact.


Pictures of the Glyptodon in its crate, now in the Exley machine shop. Left: view from underside of carapace; Second left: detail of support legs; Third: detail of label and surface of carapace; Fourth: detail of carapace.

Unseen Wesleyan Special Edition: An Interview with the last Student Curator

In this special edition of Unseen Wesleyan, we interviewed Mr. Paul Hadzima ’59, the last student curator of the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History. He worked at the museum in 1957, the year when the Judd Museum ceased to exist. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Geology, and a MAT with a concentration in history, he went on to teach earth science and history in the high school at Woodbury, Connecticut for 36 years, before retiring. Here is our interview with Mr. Paul Hadzima.  


Mr. Paul Hadzima ’59 MAT’61, the last student curator of the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History, before it closed down in 1957

Melissa M.: How did you get involved with the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History?

Paul H.: Since the Geology Department was responsible for the museum, it was normal for a geology student – a sophomore or a junior – to help out with the museum. I was there at the time as a sophomore geology major student, and there was not any other applicant, which was why I took up the job

Melissa M.: Was it just only one student working in the museum at that time?

Paul H.: Yes, actually. At that point, the museum had really faded, and the interest was not there anymore. In truth, it was not very clear why we had the natural history museum by that time. At the founding of the Orange Judd Museum, it was believed that natural history was a subject that everybody should know about; so, you want to have every aspect of natural history in it. By the end of the 19th century, you wanted to develop a specialized field like Geology or Physics where one has razor-like focus on that particular field. The museum’s place in the University [as it was quite an all-encompassing natural history museum] became vague and difficult to define.

Melissa M.: How long did you work in the museum?

Paul H.: I worked in the museum for a year. I had hoped I could have worked in the museum for longer than that, but the museum disappeared from under my feet – so to speak. So, I worked in the museum for a little more than a year altogether.

The team and Mr. Hadzima surveying the current Joe Webb Peoples Museum

Bright P.: So, what was the museum like? What was your favorite specimen in the museum?

Paul H.: As I mentioned before, I was attracted to some of the Native American artifacts in the museum. I was impressed with the Glyptodon and Megatherium – the giant armadillo and the giant sloth – mainly because it gave me the imagination of how large the fauna was in North America during the fairly recent period. The fact that a sloth could be that big, from something a foot long to eight feet across; it was no wonder that Mammoth and Mastodon could have been that big. As I said, as far as fossil was concerned, I liked the fossil fish mainly because it was such an unlikely animal to be fossilized.


Plaster casts of the Megatherium (extinct giant ground sloth; above) and the Glyptodon (extinct giant armadillo; below) as they were in the Orange Judd Museum of Natural History, middle [Images from Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.]
Bright P.: To follow up, what was the Glyptodon like? We actually found the same replica in the Foss Hill tunnel, and we would like to know what was it like when it was in the Orange Judd Museum.

Paul H.: You see the size of the carapace of the shell?

Both: Yea

Paul H.: It was enormous, and you had the tail coming out at the back; and unlike the armadillo, its shell was like a turtle. And it had its head coming out – maybe you gotta look for the head now.

Both: Oh yea! [Chuckle]

A carapace of the same Glyptodon’s shell replica, now in the tunnel under Foss Hill

Paul H.: I believed there was a foot coming out. It was like maybe six to eight feet across?  After sixty years it was pretty hard to remember things now. You should look into the photo from the time, so you know what other pieces to look for. So, where are you thinking of putting the replica now? Maybe you could set it up in the lobby with the fossil foot prints?

Melissa M.: Oh yea maybe, Professor Ellen was talking about that and I said “what if some drunk student start climbing up on it?” [Chuckle]

Paul H.: That’s true, maybe you should build a fence around it or something? [Chuckle] It was very impressive. The stuffed animals were nice, but you know, they are mostly gone.

Melissa M.: We still have some I think, they were rescued I guess. We found some peacocks and a pelican in the storage room.

Paul H.: What is your buffalo called?

Melissa M.: I think his name is Greg.

You can visit Greg at Wesleyan University’s Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History.

Paul H.: There was a wolf I believed; and as the young lady said in the Thank You note, there was a fawn and maybe a mother to go with it.

Bright P.: I think the wolf went to the Smithsonian, according to the record.

Paul H.: Ah, maybe.

Melissa M.: Can you describe your typical work day at the museum?

Paul H.: Most of the time, I would be there for two days a week; usually I would in the afternoon and stay through dinner time. Normally, we had a sprinkling of people come. But in almost every week, we had a Boy Scout group and a Brownie group, some younger people.

Thank-you note to Mr. Hadzima from Middletown Brownie group.

And in many ways, the museum was of greatest interest to them. Although some collections, predictably the minerals and the fossils, were such that students of that would be interested and would come up. Most of the other things – and I believed this was the idea of it – were a natural history extravaganza, to get the kids to maybe get an interest in science.

Mr. Hadzima looking at the archaeological archive, some of the specimens are still at Wesleyan University today, in the Archaeology and Anthropology collections, 3d Floor, Exley.

Bright P.: Was there any active research or cataloging of the museum’s specimens while you were working in the museum?

Paul H.: Not at all. I think, by that time, people saw the end coming. The idea of eliminating the museum went back quite a way. People were always saying “Why do we have this, why do we have this?” The museum either had to get bigger to make it more significant, or we had to get rid of it. And some of the articles [in the news at the time] said that the Psychology Department needed space. They were becoming more than a class room type of discipline. They wanted room for their lab rats. They expanded quite a bit in the post-World War 2 period. They had basically one floor, maybe a floor and a half. At that point, Judd Hall – in the basement floor – was a Music Department.

Melissa M.: Oh, so the Judd Hall was just the museum and the Music Department in the basement? Or was there also a Psychology Department in there?

Paul H.: There was at that point: Music in the basement, Psychology on the first floor, Geology on the second and third floor, and the museum above that. So, there was an awful lot in there. And no major changes were made to the sciences until Exley, which was built in the 70s I believe. So, you had, and this was in 1957, around 15 years when nothing was proposed and nothing was built. So, poor museum had to go, I think. When all of these science disciplines needed space, there was not enough space for the museum. So, when they reopened, the Music Department was gone and the Psychology Department had the first and second floors, and the Geology Department had the third and fourth floors.

Melissa M.: You talked about this earlier, but you were not involved in packing up the museum?

Paul H.: No. I did a little of the prep-work; then I know that they needed this to be done right away, so I had another job during the summer. Even though I thought I saw myself in one of the pictures, I was not involved with packing up.

Melissa M.: An imposter! [Chuckle]

Paul H.: [Laugh] I don’t think I was there.

Mr. Hadzima and Prof. Joe Webb Peoples, after whom our museum is named.

Bright P.: How has your work experience at the museum influenced your career afterward?

Paul H.: Well, in some interesting ways, I think the thing I had decided by that point, by the end of the sophomore year, was that I would not become a geologist in the sense of a researcher, hunting for oil in the plains of South Texas. One of the thing I enjoyed doing, I found out, was instructing the groups that came in. And what this did, was to lead me to become a teacher. Also, the idea of teaching earth science in a broader sense, because in high school, at that point, was about geology, the weather, and paleontology. Unlike what I would have ended up in if I had become a researcher, where you would do something in a very specific area of geology. This instruction experience appealed to me quite a bit. And then also, I probably recognized at that point, the Native American stuff began my interest in anthropology, which continues to this day.

Melissa M.: Did you have any interesting story from the museum?

Paul H.: I tried to think of the specifics, but after sixty years, all the little ones tended to disappear.  It tended to be a fairly quiet thing. We did not have people doing wild stuff and stealing the mummy or anything else at that point. Most of the crazy things that happened came after the mummy was unwrapped. And, I guessed they did not find much when they unwrapped it, is that correct?

Melissa M.: Jessie [Ms. Jessie Cohen, Archaeological Collections Manager and Repatriation Coordinator, Archaeology and Anthropology collections, 3d Floor, Exley] told us that they did an x-ray at the Middlesex hospital. They found out that he was a man in his twenties who was probably of high status because he did not have wear-and-tear in his hands. [Note: the X-rays were made in 1978, and are available in the special collections at Olin Library]

Paul H.: And by the fact that he had a coffin and he was fully mummified, which was an expensive proposition. But most of that happened after my time. So, I can’t really come up with any stories, although I can make up some stories, but I don’t think that’s what you are looking for.

Mr. Hadzima and Ms. Jessie Cohen examining the archaeological specimens

Both: [Chuckle]

Paul H.: The experience itself was, to me, very worthwhile. I did not get paid very much. You said you got the book that said how much each was paid?

Melissa M.: Oh yes, I believe Ellen [Professor Ellen Thomas, Faculty Mentor on the Joe Webb Peoples Museum Project] has that. [Note: these records have been moved to the Special Collections at Olin Library earlier this year].

Paul H.: I would like to see that sometimes. See what the pay was. Working with the department, and professor Joe Webb Peoples himself, because he was much of a people’s person himself; he did great things.

Melissa M: I guess you have to be that if you have that last name.

Paul H.: I guess you had to; I think he had some southern roots and all. He was responsible for a lot of important stuffs [for the people and Wesleyan University], including the establishment of the Dinosaur State Park. I believe he had a lot of contacts in the state legislature; so, that made it very much worthwhile, even though it was a dollar per hour or however much it was.

The Dinosaur State Park at present

Bright P.: What advice would you give to colleges and universities working to maintain and display their museum collections?

Paul H.: The first thing I would advise them is to stop and think “Why do we do this?” I mean, granted, at this point, you have a wonderful collection of materiel; and it is really great that you are moving ahead with having it be more available to the public to see. But, in a way, unless you have a very sizeable collection to start with, to put together a museum is almost impossible. What people did a hundred year ago on these expeditions and came back with all kind of stuff, this can’t happen anymore. You can’t go into the Native American cultural area anymore and have this happen. You are not going to find, Ellen was talking about the other day, an area where they are putting road to and come back with several enormous fossils of the Pleistocene period. It’s just not gonna happen. There must be a reason for [establishing a museum] if you are trying to bring people into your school and advertise what you have. But, with the number of museum around right now, I don’t think I advise anybody to start one. But, maybe if you have a collection and you cannot be bothered to do a decent job on it, maybe it is best to give it away; I don’t know. What do you think?

Melissa M.: I feel like it is important to have a lot of people exposed to the material you have. Even if you don’t make a museum, maybe display cases for class would be useful.

Professor Ellen Thomas [Left] and Mr. Hadzima [Right] talking in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum
Paul H.: You think it is important for a university museum to try and bring the public in?

Melissa M.: Yea, It could help, especially school groups. I think if I was a school student I would love that.

Paul H.: I suppose you could say, in a way, it was too bad in 1957 that this had to happen. That somebody couldn’t have found a rich donor who could have given the money to have a modern building or section of a modern building put up. And for the collection, you couldn’t have brought in a curator, because we didn’t have a professional curator for the last years of the museum, to go through the collections. So that they could find some attributions, because some of these things are lacking in details. Like red stone from South Dakota

Melissa M.: Or some unidentified mammal.

Paul H.: And that was the point, if someone was willing to spend some money. You could have probably done something or got some grant and so forth. But I didn’t think there was any real interest at that point doing that.

Melissa M.: I guess because of the lack of resources.

Paul H.: Right right. I don’t know if you are familiar with what was going on with the educational philosophy, and the battle that was going on at that time. The president, who was a guy name Victor Butterfield [Note: Wesleyan’s 11th president, 1943-1967], who was an advocate for a liberal art education for everyone, fought against the various departments who wanted to really emphasize the great knowledge of their particular field, and the people who wanted to do that. And you had this big tug-of-war between the two. Basically, the museum probably fell between the tension of the two groups because it didn’t fit with either one [vision]. Well, I guess Butterfield would have liked it, but he didn’t have the money needed to do things that further liberalize the education. It was an interesting time period.

Victor L. Butterfield, the eleventh president of Wesleyan University [credit Wesleyan University]
Bright P.: I see, I think this is it for our interview with Mr. Paul Hadzima. Thank you so much for coming.

Melissa M.: Thank you so much for answering our questions.

Paul H.: I enjoyed it a whole lot. Obviously, with my interest in history and genealogy, I enjoy seeing the part of the university which is still here from the time that I was here. It was very surreal to walk around the campus in 2017 when I was here in 1957, and seeing something that still look the same.

Melissa M.: Does the bison still look the same?

Paul H.: The bison looked better actually [chuckle]

Melissa M.: It had a spa treatment recently [audible laugh]

Paul H.: [Seeing] the buildings that look the same, and the buildings which, you know, the complex that nobody really thought of at the time. We had everybody essentially living in three dorms.

Melissa M.: Which three dorms?

Paul H.: Clark Hall, North College, which was a dorm at the time, and Harriman Hall, which was above the PAC – the Public Affair Center – that was a dorm. Everybody was living in either these three dorms or in a fraternity house, and there were thirteen fraternity houses. And everybody wanted to live in a fraternity immediately, because there was not enough room for everybody to be living in college facility. And everybody ate in fraternity houses, there was no college general eating place like Usdan [The Usdan University Center at Wesleyan University].

By Sajirat Palakarn

Why should we care about fossil leaves?

Fossil leaves from the Florissant fossil beds in Colorado (~ 34 Million years old).

Fossils of dinosaurs, trilobites, and wooly mammoths typically attract more public attention than fossil plants. Although they are not as eye-catching to most people, fossil plants are far more important than this lack of  interest suggests. They help reconstruct the morphology and evolution of long-extinct plant species (which are at the base of food chains, and thus affect whole ecosystems), and they are also among the most important sources of information for scientists trying to understand Earth’s past (paleo-) climates and environments. In recent decades, a growing interest in paleoclimate has accompanied the growing concern about climate change. In addition to documenting past climate change, paleoclimate data play an important role in testing climate models used for predicting future patterns of climate change.[1]

What makes plants such great indicators of former climate? Most plants are sessile, so they are dependent on the climatic conditions of their location. Like all organisms, plants have been forced to adapt to their surroundings to survive, and these adaptations may be recorded in their fossilized remains. Therefore, careful interpretation of a fossil plant provides clues as to in which terrestrial conditions that plant lived. Fossilized leaves are especially good at recording past climatic conditions. Because leaves are the primary photosynthetic organs of a plant, they are optimally adapted to environmental conditions and can react sensitively to environmental changes. Several methods have been developed to use the characteristics of fossil leaves to reconstruct paleoclimate.

Leaf size and shape

Illustration by Melissa McKee.

In most regions of the world, the proportion of woody, dicotyledon (or dicot) tree species with leaf teeth (serrated edges on the leaf margins), is inversely correlated with mean annual temperature. In addition, leaves from plants growing in cold climates are more likely to have larger and more numerous leaf teeth. Since leaf teeth can be observed and measured in leaf fossils, scientists have developed models to quantitatively reconstruct terrestrial paleotemperature from leaf teeth in fossils.[2] Models have also been developed to reconstruct other paleoclimate variables from the size and shape of fossilized leaves. For example, scientists can use the size of fossil leaves to infer past levels of precipitation, because larger leaves tend to be more prevalent in wetter climates.[3]

 Leaf cuticle

Another way to infer paleoclimate is by looking at the characteristics of the cuticle—the waxy, protective surface layer on the leaves of higher plants—of fossilized leaves. Scientists can look at the abundance of trichomes (leaf hairs) on the fossilized cuticle to infer water availability, because trichome density is often higher in plant species adapted to arid environments.[4]

Fossil leaf cuticle with visible stomata.

Stomata are small pores on plant surfaces surrounded by a pair of specialized guard cells that control gas exchange between the plant and atmosphere, influencing both photosynthesis and transpiration in the plant. Stomata on the cuticle of fossil leaves can be used to estimate atmospheric CO2 concentrations in Earth’s past. This is especially useful to scientists because there are no direct measurements of CO2 prior to the oldest ice cores, in which air bubbles are preserved (~1.5 million years old).[5] On the other hand, stomata have been around since about 400 million years ago[6] and, with some rare exceptions, found in all terrestrial plant groups. Plants change the number and/or size of stomata to optimize carbon uptake for photosynthesis, while simultaneously minimizing water loss.[7] Stomatal density (the number of stomata per unit area) and stomatal index (the percentage of epidermal cells that are stomata) are negatively correlated with atmospheric CO2 concentrations in many living plants; therefore, changes of stomatal density and stomatal index in fossil leaves are considered to represent changes of CO2 concentrations in the geological past.[8] Scientists have developed models to use the stomatal density or stomatal index of fossilized leaves to estimate the CO2 concentration of Earth’s atmospheric when that plant was alive.

Nearest Living Relative

The Joe Webb Peoples museum has hundreds of fossil leaves from the Florissant fossil beds in Colorado .

Another way to use fossil plants to infer paleoclimate is to identify the nearest living relative of that fossil, of which the current climatic tolerances are used to infer past climate. For example, by analyzing fossilized plants from the Florissant fossil beds in Colorado (about 34 million years old), it was found that the fossilized plants most resemble modern deciduous forests of the eastern United States and the humid subtropical forests of central and northeastern Mexico.[9] In addition, the discovery of fossilized palm leaves as well as an analysis of fossil pollen and spores support that it was once a warm, relatively frost-free temperate climate[10], which is very different from Colorado’s climate today.

Illustration by Melissa McKee.


[1] MacLeod, N., and Steart, D., 2015, Automated leaf physiognomic character identification from digital images: Paleobiology, v. 41, no. 4, p. 528‐553.

[2] Royer, D. L., McElwain, J. C., Adams, J. M., and Wilf, P., 2008, Sensitivity of leaf size and shape to climate within Acer rubrum and Quercus kelloggii: New Phytologist, v. 179, p. 808‐817.

[3] Wilf, P., Wing, S. L., Greenwood, D. R., and Greenwood, C. L., 1998, Using fossil leaves as paleoprecipitation indicators: an Eocene example: Geology, v. 26, p. 203-206.

[4] Parrish, J. T., Daniel, I. L., Kennedy, E. M., and Spicer, R. A., 1998, Paleoclimatic significance of mid-Cretaceous floras from the middle Clarence Valley, New Zealand: Palaios, v. 13, p. 149-159.

[5] Fischer, H., Severinghaus, J., Brook, E., Wolff, E., Albert, M., Alemany, O., Arthern, R., Bentley, C., Blankenship, D., and Chappellaz, J., 2013, Where to find 1.5 million yr old ice for the IPICS” Oldest-Ice” ice core: Climate of the Past, v. 9, p. 2489-2505.

[6] Raven, J. A., 2002, Selection pressures on stomatal evolution: New Phytologist, v. 153, p. 371-386.

[7] Cowan, I. R., and Farquhar, G. D., 1977, Stomatal function in relation to leaf metabolism and environment, in Jennings, D. H., ed., Integration of Activity in the Higher Plant. Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology: Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 471-505.

[8] Beerling, D. J., and Royer, D. L., 2002, Fossil plants as indicators of the Phanerozoic global carbon cycle: Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, v. 30, p. 527-556.

[9] Boyle, B., Meyer, H. W., Enquist, B., and Salas, S., 2008, Higher taxa as paleoecological and paleoclimatic indicators: A search for the modern analog of the Florissant fossil flora: Geological Society of America Special Papers, v. 435, p. 33-51.

[10] Leopold, E.B. and Clay-Poole, S.T., 2001, Fossil leaf and pollen floras of Colorado compared: climatic implications. In Evanoff, E., Gregory-Wodzicki K.M. and Johnson, K.R. [Eds.] Fossil Flora and Stratigraphy of the Florissant Formation, Colorado: Proceedings of the Denver -Museum of Nature and Science, v. 4, p. 17-55.

Unseen Wesleyan Part 3: The Tunnels of Wesleyan

There is always something mystical about going underground. Since antiquity, people have always pondered the possibility of a subterranean realm – a sort of magical or hellish place right beneath our feet. In all world’s civilizations and religions, from the Greek Underworld to the Christian Hell, people have been fascinated the world’s underground. In the ancient Indian epic Ramayana – a literature this blogger read since childhood – there were verses on the many underworlds, which can range from a literal hell to prosperous kingdoms. This obsession with the esoteric subterranean civilization continues to these days, with a sub-genre of pop culture devoted to this topic. For instance, the 2008 film Journey to the Center of the Earth ostensibly captures our lasting obsession with the underworld. It is thus not surprising that some of the tunnels beneath Wesleyan, that is the tunnel systems beneath Foss Hill and Butterfield College, would generate a great deal of interest among the Wesleyan student body. While the tunnels could be freely accessed in the past, they have been sealed off for decades, and the mystique of the tunnels captures all students imagination ever since.

Something sinister is lurking behind that door

There were many rumors on the tunnels of the Butts and Foss Hill; one story posited that two unhappy roommates moved all of their belongings to an alcove in the Butts’ tunnel, never to return. However, another rumor caught this blogger’s attention: that there may be fossil specimens within the tunnels. As a part of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum Project, a natural history museum on the 4th floor of Exley, this rumor intrigued us and got us ready for another round of expedition. In truth, that rumor was rooted in facts, as our resident technical expert, Mr. Joel Labella, visited some of the tunnels in the past, and transported some dinosaur footprints from the tunnel to the specimen storage area many years ago. However, we were informed that there might still be fossils left behind. Thus, as is the tradition with this blogger, we went down underground to look for these for the potentially lost fossils.

Making our way across the campus from Exley to WestCo
Getting inside

Our day started underneath the morning sun of Connecticut summer. The expedition team was checking the necessary gear for venturing into the forbidden tunnels: this included a crowbar, reliable flashlights, and a good camera for the possible emergency selfie situation. We met with our expedition expert, Jeff Sweet (facilities management) in front of a locked gate near WesShop, seemingly a harmless yet mysterious steel door. True to his credentials as tunnel terrains expert, our expert was able to produce the coveted key, allowing us to get inside the Foss Hill tunnel system. Once inside, we were greeted by with a copious amount of graffiti. Running from the ceiling to the floor, every inch of the surface area in the entrance area and tunnel was full of various murals, graffiti, and general messages, probably put in place by generations of earlier Wesleyan students. Due to our preparation and the presence of our guide, we were able to activate the light system inside the tunnel. Nevertheless, the art from the bygone eras gave us a sense of unease underlying our expedition.

The Entrance into the Abyss
When you stare into the abyss…
Wise words from generations past
An anthropological evidence of the anti-culture sentiment among the Wesleyan students; apparently, our weirdness is rooted in the past








A way forward?

Walking deeper inside the Foss Hill tunnels, we could instinctively feel the byzantine and often claustrophobic nature of the tunnel. While spacious enough for two people to walk side-by-side, the oppressive concrete wall with many disturbing illustrations kept us a little on edge. Furthermore, certain sections of the tunnels were partially flooded, creating a picture of an enclosed and haunted tomb. As we moved onward, we were pressured to keep our eyes open for any little pieces of possible fossils, even with the ominous uneasiness. The many shadowy rooms opening off the tunnels were sometimes full of abandoned furniture and sometimes creepily empty; some were filled with an unnaturally large number of sofas, while others were left with bare concrete wall and dust-caked floor. Then, we arrived at a large room at the end of the tunnel.

Something does not feel right
How did you escape?

The first thing that caught our eyes were a giant wooden pallet box, off to the right in the room. The condition of the box, while familiar to our experienced expedition team after our trip to the penthouse, was barely recognizable with our dim lights. Curiously, graffiti inscribed on the wall right above the box told us something crucial: “Clobbersaurus was here.” After being alerted of that fact, our expedition team began scrutinizing the box more closely. We discovered what appears to be the plaster cast of a giant shell part of the Glyptodon, whose tail we had found in the Penthouse of Exley, chronicled in our first part of Unseen Wesleyan. It was quite surprising and delightful to find another large part of the same replica thought to be lost from the records. That posed an interesting question whether more parts of the Glyptodon replica – the feet and the head to be exact –would still be stored somewhere on campus.
In addition to this gratifying and surprising discovery, we found two massive steel cabinets with partially broken locks. What drew our curiosity to these two archaic containers is the Ammonite-looking mural drawn near the vicinity: its existence told us that our treasure might lie inside the locked drawers. We looked over the cabinets and noted they had been fire-proof cabinets, thus possibly contained asbestos so that we could not seriously use the crowbar. This prompted our technician specialist, Mr. Joel Labella, to promise a return to the room for a more “powerful” retrieval method, to check whether museum-related paper documents might have been stored in these cabinets. We saw our discovery of the Glyptodon carapace as an early success of our expedition into the tunnels.

The big room at the end of Foss Hill tunnel
The graffiti “Clobbersaurus was here” tipped us off
A wooden pallet box of a thought-to-be-lost Glyptodon‘s shell replica
Another angle of the Glyptodon replica
The locked cabinets which could not be opened










Exiting the Foss Hill tunnel, we set our eyes on the next target: the Butts’ tunnels. We navigated our team up the slope of the Butts into the Butthole – a silly nickname of the Butterfield College’s courtyard. Without much fanfare, we descended down the Butts C stairs into the hauntingly-lit tunnel entrance. This time, the corridor of the tunnels was much more unwelcoming, with narrow passageways and ever-present swarms of graffiti decorating the wall. Truthfully, the bright light lining the tunnels accentuated the creepy details along the route: the blinding lights cemented a sense of discomfort by highlighting every strange detail inside the tunnel, from the creepily written plea for an escape to artworks of bloody heads. The presence of locked doors dotted along the path almost plunged our expedition into paranoia, with the thoughts of someone or something being inside edging our minds. “A weak mind does not belong to this place,” the tunnels seemed to scream.

Our expedition team getting inside the Butterfield’s tunnels
Walking along the hallowed tunnel
A cry for help?

After walking a long while down the lengthy and convoluted corridors, we stumbled upon an orange-tinged room with loose wires and open stacks of servers. Whereas the jumbled mess of the deserted electrical equipment might have intrigued others, we were more fascinated by the pile of rocks, steel drawers, and a lonely steel cabinet sitting at the other far side of the room. Fascinated, we went in to investigate. It appeared to be the collections of geological specimens from Wesleyan’s own Professor of Geology, Wilbur G. Foy, professor of Geology from 1924 to 1935. Together with Professor William North Rice, he studied the geology of Connecticut. The specimens were his numbered samples indexed to the geological map of Connecticut, with various sediments and minerals comprising the drawers and the pile. Most of these historical rock specimens seemed to be discarded in disarray, which further reinforced our expedition goal to retrieve discarded specimens and collections for the museum. Wooden pallets adjacent to Foye’s geological specimen pile contained a variety of rock cores. We still do not know where or from which expedition the cores came, but they may be specimens from the core collection in the penthouse. Their quantity and even the mere existence in the tunnel suggested that there are many more treasures on campus of which we are not aware. These geological specimens, both the rocks of Connecticut and the survey cores, underscored the importance of organization and curatorship within the University’s museum; indeed, our project for the Joe Webb Peoples museum intends to provide that assistance to the Wesleyan University.

Paleontology and the Machine
An orange-tinged room with curious objects
Various geological specimens from Prof. Foy and Prof. Rice
Our expedition technician expert holding a big piece of geological specimen
Various rock cores from geological surveys

Moving on from the abandoned geological collection, we trek deeper into the abyss to search for the famed fossils underneath the Butts. The terrains we faced were certainly dangerous: we moved from corridor to corridor, room to room, crevice to crevice, and alcove to alcove. Passing countless steel gates, we walked along the narrow, copper pipes laden corridors. Taking a turn at an intersection, we again moved alongside a huge number of graffiti and locked doors. In one room, a normal-looking kitchen was vandalized by ancient arts from the legion of Wesleyan student generations. Another room was left almost untouched, saved for a makeshift table in the center of the room, giving the appearance that someone might have been here in times past. A dimly-lit bathroom, one of the many in this cavernous tunnel, gave off a tickle in the spine with its punky murals. A room we stumbled across had a set of never-played beer pong and a pile of discarded vodka bottles; bemused, we were slow to realize the weirdness of this environment: who would have set up a beer pong table in a dark tunnel, then decided not to play it? We may never know the sinister end of the players, whoever they were.

As we walked through the abyss
No turning back now

For sale: Beer pong, never played

As we plunged deeper into the tunnel in search of fossils, we came across yet darker and more unsettling rooms. One room was filled with unidentified black bags and mattresses. We were told by our expedition expert that those were left behind by the janitors of the Butts, an acceptable explanation, perhaps. Walking past a brighter section of the tunnel, we were greeted by a hallway with a dusty glass wall dividing what appeared to be an abandoned underground cafeteria. It certainly looked the part, with decapitated chairs and tables, broken soda fountain, and a puzzling box of biohazard clean-up kit. The graffiti on the wall “Get to the Bunker” and “Put the lotion in the basket,” both references to a movie concerning a nuclear apocalypse and serial killer respectively, seemed to imply the reason behind this cafeteria’s closure. Reaching the end of the tunnel, one fact became apparent to us: despite our extensive search for the fossil, we failed to find the rumored Butts’ fossils in this expedition. Except for our notes on the geological collections, we sadly returned empty-handed.

An abandoned and haunting toilet
A room of very not-suspicious-looking black plastic bags
You have to wonder, people used to eat here?
An abandoned cafeteria
Yes and no

While not all our expeditions yielded a significant number of fossils, the specimens we found were no less important to the museum and Wesleyan University. The Glyptodon replica was once a part of the historic Orange Judd Museum of Natural History, an institution of Wesleyan University since 1871. When the museum was closed in 1957, the Glyptodon, along with many valuable fossils and specimens, were thought to be lost forever; that is until now. With closer analysis, we might even discover something far more important with regards to the geological collection underneath the Butts. The pieces and collections we found are the fabric of Wesleyan itself. Thus, as a proud Wesleyan student and a lover of everything history, I cannot appreciate the Joe Webb Peoples Museum enough.

By Sajirat Palakarn

Special thanks to Mr. Jeff Sweet, Associate Director of Facilities Management, Wesleyan University, and Yonathan Gomez ’18

Unseen Wesleyan Part 2: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

The Joe Webb People Museum at Wesleyan University has many fossils and some natural history exhibits, but it pales in comparison to the massive Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The Peabody Museum occupies a three-story building, and has an extensive storage space for specimens in the adjacent Environmental Science building and even more at the Yale West Campus Collections Storage Center. In total, the geological-paleontological specimens at the Peabody greatly dwarf the size of Wesleyans collections, with an estimated 13 million total specimens. Therefore, the Peabody Museum is a go-to destination for learning about paleontology for people in Connecticut and beyond. According to the museum, there are  about 140,000 visitors annually, an impressive number for a natural history museum. The Peabody Museum is said to be one of the world’s most well-known museums of natural history (especially for its dinosaurs), and graduate students and faculty at Yale, as well as visiting scientists, are engaged in prolific research. Therefore, this blogger wanted to learn more about the success story of this museum, and get inspiration to replicate such success, and promote our under-appreciated Joe Webb Peoples Museum. For this issue of Unseen Wesleyan, we thus went on an expedition to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven.

Contrary to popular beliefs, Yale University – where the Peabody museum is situated – is actually in New Haven, and not in Yalesville.


Our day started early in the morning in the Exley Science Center loading dock. We packed all our gears into the red Chevy Suburban, a signature color of Wesleyan University, and sped to the highway (I-91). The morning traffic was, on this day, not as treacherous as the waters of the Amazon River, but the congestion in New Haven almost made us late for our rendezvous at Yale University. Hurrying, we started the more unusual part of this expedition in the group of three buildings: the Kline Geology Laboratory (KGL), The Environmental Science Center (ESC) where there are museum storage and study rooms, and the Yale Peabody Museum. We walked through KGL into the connected ESC, to start our behind-the-scenes tour of the Peabody Museum.


The view before we got into the ECS from a connecter from the KGL

The theme of this expedition was education, and before we started our peek in Yale’s famed museum, our faculty guide presented a talk to a group of Peabody Museum summer intern students (undergraduates and high school) on her field of research. Professor Ellen Thomas, an expert in paleo-oceanography and unicellular lifeforms, gave an introduction into general paleontology and the unicellular Foraminifera, a type of marine microorganism. She started with a discussion of taxonomy, working to debunk the oft-repeated but now outdated idea of “Five Kingdoms of Life”, going through the Domains which were popular afterwards (Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya), to end up with the (unfortunately) much more complex groupings used today, in which unicellular and multicellular Eukaryotes are combined in groupings rather than splitting Eukarya into animals, mushrooms, plants and protists. Predictably, her repudiation of the long-accepted notions of taxonomy as generally taught in high school elicited some surprised reactions from the audience. Next, Professor Thomas tackled the hard question of “What is a Foraminifer?” She covered the origins of the recognition of Foraminifera in human history, starting with a mention by Pliny the Elder (Roman Empire), first documentation in 1648 by Ulisse Aldrovandi in his work Musaeum Metallicum, and the formalization of taxonomy by Linnaeus in 1758. Professor Thomas then went on to explain the nature of Foraminifera (‘foram’ for short), extending her description from the general concept of Foraminifera as an Amoeboids with reticulose pseudopods, the shell formation types of the typical foram, to the differences between benthic (living on or in the seafloor) and planktic (floating in the water column) foraminifers. All in all, the talk was captivating in that it illuminated the not widely known subject of unicellular lifeforms in paleo-oceanography.

An illustration of various Foraminifera featured in the talk
A picture of professor Ellen Thomas – an expert in benthic Foraminifera – holding two 3-D printed models of forams
A group of Nummulites fossils – a type of large Foraminifera –  in the Joe Webb Peoples museum at Wesleyan University
Slabs of stone from an ancient Egyptian Obelisk in Alexandria with various specimens of Foraminifera, now in the Joe Webb Peoples museum’s official collection. The obelisk is now in Central Park, New York City.

After the talk, we began our primary purpose of this expedition: investigating the success of the Peabody Museum. We started off by reviewing one of the museum’s main invertebrate paleontology archives in the ESC, which had been fitted with state-of-the-art archival infrastructure. The specimens, ranging from unicellular organisms to brachiopods and giant ammonites and bivalves, are stored in new, easily accessible cabinets, with doors that insulate the specimens from the environment. The archives are directly connected to the specimen-processing, photography and study laboratory, allowing easy access to the collections. In addition, these laboratory rooms have digitization equipment, microscopes, camera set-ups and 3-D printers, further maximizing the capacity of the museum to upload and replicate data so that they can be made available to researchers worldwide. Not only is the general storage quite easy to access for research, but the teaching specimens used for general paleontological-geological classes are ready on-demand in the facility. As we toured the storage area, we were introduced to many specimens which are valuable for studies in paleontology, ranging from pristine crinoids and Nautilus to giant ammonites and tiny Cambrian-era trilobites, and to specimen of mysterious, unidentified sponges. The expedition members were extremely impressed with the Peabody Museum’s behind-the scene operations, and greatly appreciated Susan Butts, the senior collections manager of the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, who showed us around.

Susan Butts (center), our expedition guide, and the expedition team’s Professor Ellen Thomas (right) and graduate student Melissa McKee (left)
Inside the Peabody Museum Archive’s Operation Room


A row of specimen storage cabinets
A beautiful plaster cast of a crinoid
A beautiful cross-section of a large ammonite
A specimen of a mystery organism, probably a sponge

Of course, our expeditions would not have been a complete tour of the museum if we had not experienced specimens as they are shown to the public. Our team was allowed to sneak in to the main area of the Peabody Museum through the backdoor. We were greeted by a giant wall of crinoid and arthropod fossils, and a model of a giant deep-water squid hanging from the ceiling. Trekking down to the first floor, we came to a fork in the road: one way would lead to the Archaeopteryx and Paleo-art exhibition (a temporary exhibit), another to the permanent fossil exhibitions. Professor Thomas led us through the impressive hallways of Mesozoic and Cenozoic fossils, commenting on the dinosaur exhibits and the large murals. Pointing at the famous world-through-the-ages murals, she commented on the evolution of dinosaurs and plants, from the beginning of the Mesozoic through the Late Cretaceous dinosaurs and flowering plants. True to the Peabody Museum’s reputation, the exhibits of the dinosaurs – and the later mammals, also with their mural of animals through Cenozoic times –  were mesmerizing. The arrangement of the dinosaurs’ bones in the middle of the hall conveyed the sense of enormity extremely well. In essence, the dinosaurs’ actual skeletons were arranged at the center of the hall, which contrasts the tiny visitor with the enormity of the dinosaurs. Moving past the main dinosaur exhibit to the other rooms, we saw that each was filled with a sense of the impressiveness of life-forms from bygone eras. From the many Ichthyosaurus to the Diplomystus dentatus of Wyoming (of which Wesleyan maintains a sizeable collection in the Joe Webb Peoples museum), the exhibition represented the paleontological worlds with great detail and pristine beauty. The team and I were greatly impressed by the Peabody Museum’s main exhibition halls.

The giant deep-sea squid at the entrance of the Peabody Museum
A group of dinosaurs skeletons throughout the ages displayed at the center of the permanent exhibit’s hall
An exhibition on the Triassic fish’s fossils of the Connecticut River Valley
A mural of mammal life through the Cenozoic era
A picture of the possible siblings to Greg, our resident bison in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum; also pictured is Melissa McKee,  expedition member.
A giant slab of fossilized fish and a palm leaf from the Green River Formation, Wyoming. The Joe Webb Peoples museum also has specimens from the Green River Formation, including fish and palm leaves.

Taking a different turn at the intersection, we visited the temporary exhibition of Archaeopteryx –  a type of animal which has features from small dinosaurs (non-avian dinosaurs, that is) as well as from birds (better called avian dinosaurs) – and the paleo-art created as inspired by these fossils. This non-permanent paleontology exhibition represents the interdisciplinary space between paleontology and art, showing re-imagination and recreation of Archaeopteryx and their environment, by different artists in colorful and fun ways. Due to the fact that many people still think of dinosaurs as scaly, reptile-like creatures, the Archaeopteryx – with its avian features and feathers – presents a new public education challenge for scientist and artist alike: how to show the very close family relations between ‘birds’ and ‘dinosaurs’, many of which we now know to have been feathered? The result was this exhibit: an imaginative series of artworks and creative imagination of Archaeopteryx. The artworks wonderfully educate the public through colorful illustration of various birdlike Archaeopteryx, their natural habitat, eating habits, stature, and living characteristics. We saw Archaeopteryx accompanied by fossils of other organisms: the animals had been buried in limestones deposited in shallow marine lagoons, and these limestones contain beautifully preserved fish, horse shoe crabs, echinoderms, and insects. Our Joe Webb Peoples Museum has a collection of such beautifully preserved specimens from that famous locality where Archaeopteryx was found, Solnhofen in Germany, obtained by curator S. Ward Loper through exchange of specimens with famous German paleontologist Karl von Zittel. As we walked into the exhibition, we were welcomed by artworks illustrating the evolution of Archaeopteryx into modern avian creatures. The painting replicated the famed style of Darwin’s human evolution to display each stage of transition of Archaeopteryx into modern birds.

A pristine specimen of the Archaeopteryx 
An illustration of the various Archaeopteryx (Picture courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History)
A plaster cast of the Archaeopteryx from the Penthouse of the Exley Science Center

Next, we saw an interactive illustration of various Archaeopteryx throughout the Mesozoic, simplistically explaining the various species of the creature through accessible technology. And as usual, we were amazed by the fossil specimens of the Archaeopteryx, beautifully preserved and presented by the Peabody Museum. Both of the exhibits – the Mesozoic dinosaurs and Cenozoic mammals, as well as the paleo-art of Archaeopteryx – impressed us greatly.

An illustration of the evolution of the Archaeopteryx (Picture courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History)

Our expedition to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History gave us new insight into the function of a successful museum, and how we can cooperate to create a great center for paleontological studies. The cooperation between museums, scientists, and the public is key to create a great and publicly-appealing museum, as we saw from the talk given by our professor Ellen Thomas. In addition to visually-impressive yet educational exhibitions in the museum, organized archive and accessible collections of specimens are key to a successful museum. Armed with this knowledge, we will make the Joe Webb People Museum as great if not better than the Peabody Museum – Stay tuned!

By Sajirat Palakarn

For more information, visit:

Special Thanks to Mrs. Melanie Brigockas, Public Relations & Marketing Manager, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.