Getting to know Greg, Wesleyan University’s own taxidermic American bison

You may have wandered around the 4th floor of Exley Science Center, looking for your class in room 405, and caught a glance of a bison. And if you had just awoken from a short sleep the night before, you may have even thought that this bison was one of your sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations. Fear not: there really is a taxidermic bison on the 4th floor of Exley in Wesleyan’s Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History, and he goes by the name Greg! In 1875, Georg Brown Goode, an ichthyologist and Wesleyan alum (year of 1870), received Greg (who had been stuffed in Carson City, NV) from John Wallace. G. Brown Goode was the son-in-law of Orange Judd, who funded the building of Judd Hall in which the Wesleyan Museum was originally based, and he was the first Curator of the Wesleyan Museum at its establishment in 1871.

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

Greg at his former residence in the Wesleyan Museum in Judd Hall back in the summer of 1957. Image from Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.

Greg being moved after the dissolution of Wesleyan Museum in Judd Hall,  1957.

Image from Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.

Greg is an American bison (Bison bison), the U.S. national mammal and the largest terrestrial animal in North America. Male bison weigh up to 2,000 pounds, whereas females weigh up to 1,000 pounds.[1] Despite their size, bison can run at speeds over 30 miles per hour—which is why Yellowstone National Park warns visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from all wild bison.[2] In his old age, Greg no longer quite reaches those speeds, so feel free to get a bit closer! During Greg’s time at Wesleyan, American Bison went from becoming virtually extinct in the wild to having their population rebound in what is considered one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time.

Scientists estimate that there were 30 to 60 million bison living in the continent when the first European settlers arrived in North America, ranging all the way from northern Canada to northern Mexico, and from western New York to eastern Washington.[3] Bison were commonly referred to as buffalo by European explorers due to their perceived resemblance of Asian and African buffalo. As Euro-Americans began to settle westward, they changed the Bison’s native grassland habitat through plowing and farming, as well as introducing domestic cattle, which brought diseases and competition for grazing. Farmers and ranchers began killing bison to make room for their animals. In addition, as native American tribes acquired horses and guns, they began to kill bison in larger numbers than before. Some U.S. soldiers even killed bison to spite their native American enemies who depended on the animals for food and clothing. Western railroads greatly accelerated the decimation of the American bison by bringing hunters who would shoot the animals out of the open windows of moving trains. The bison were not only killed for sport, but also for their skin, bones (used in making fertilizer)[4], and tongues (a culinary delicacy).[5]

Had it not been for a few private individuals and government action, the American bison would be extinct today. In 1884 there were only 325 out of the many millions bison left in the wild, including 25 in Yellowstone National Park. Congress finally tasked the U.S. Army with enforcing laws prohibiting the killing of any birds or animals in Yellowstone.[6] Congress’s efforts proved successful—as of July 2015, Yellowstone’s bison population is estimated at 4,900 individuals. Private organizations also helped save the bison population. In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt formed the American Bison Society with zoologist William Hornaday, with the aim to start a breeding program at the New York City Zoo (Bronx Zoo today). By 1913, the American Bison Society had enough bison to restore a free-ranging herd to Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, and this herd have helped reestablish other herds across the United States and Mexico.[7] Restoring bison herds is not only an enormous victory for the U.S. national mammal, but also for the whole grassland ecosystem, because the unique spatial and temporal complexities of bison grazing are critical to the successful maintenance of biotic diversity in grasslands.[8]

Bison in private herds in part account for the rebound in the bison population of North America. In the 1870s, when the bison population was dwindling, people began to realize that owning bison could be profitable. Ranchers started collecting the few remaining bison scattered across the prairies to breed them in private herds.[9] It is estimated that by the year 2000 at least 250,000 bison were living in private herds, and 92,000 of these bison were raised for meat. Bison can process North American grasses more efficiently than cattle, and their meat contains less fat and cholesterol, making it an attractive option for human carnivores.[10]

According to Dr. James Derr, Professor of veterinary pathobiology, most bison alive today are genetically different from their wild ancestors. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ranchers who owned much of the remaining bison population bred their bison with cattle to try to create better animals for meat. It is believed that only about 1.6 percent of today’s bison population is not hybridized.[11] Wesleyan’s Greg dates back to the time severely declining numbers of bison, and represents the original American bison before hybridization.

Some of Greg’s favorite puns. Illustrations by Melissa McKee.

By Melissa McKee

For more information check out

http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0606.html?mcubz=2

[1] U.S. Department of the Interior, 15 facts about our national mammal: the American bison.

[2] Portman, J., 2011, The great American bison: PBS.

[3] Portman, J., 2011, The great American bison: PBS.

[4] U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2014, Time line of the American bison: National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge Complex.

[5] Winkler, P., 2014, In the beginning, bison: Smithsonian National Zoological Park Conservation Biology Institute.

[6] U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2014, Time line of the American bison: National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge Complex.

[7] U.S. Department of the Interior, 15 facts about our national mammal: the American bison.

[8] Knapp, A. K., Blair, J. M., Briggs, J. M., Collins, S. L., Hartnett, D. C., Johnson, L. C., and Towne, E. G., 1999, The keystone role of bison in North American tallgrass prairie: Bison increase habitat heterogeneity and alter a broad array of plant, community, and ecosystem processes: BioScience, v. 49, p. 39-50.

[9] Polziehn, R. O., Strobeck, C., Sheraton, J., and Beech, R., 1995, Bovine mtDNA discovered in North American bison populations: Conservation Biology, v. 9, p. 1638-1643.

[10] Portman, J., 2011, The great American bison: PBS.

[11] Portman, J., 2011, The great American bison: PBS.

The Connecticut State Fossil

On an otherwise mundane and maybe even a little boring and long list of state symbols, ranging from the state flower: “mountain laurel” to the state song: “Yankee Doodle,” Connecticut has an unusual symbol which is not well-known among its inhabitants: a state fossil. The Constitution State’s very own state fossil is Eubrontes giganteus, commonly known as a (large) example of dinosaur tracks or footprints.  Wesleyan University proudly displays these fossils (among other dinosaur footprints) in a very visible spot on the wall of the Exley Science Center, in its first-floor main corridor next to the science library and the ‘Fish Bowl’, where many people pass by them every day. Connecticut and Wesleyan University played an instrumental role in the academic field of paleontology in America, as documented by the discovery of our state fossil.

One of the Eubrontes giganteus at Exley

Now, you might wonder as to why a quiet New England state such as Connecticut would have a dinosaur footprint as state fossil: the quaint colonial-era towns and rustic environments do not appear to mesh well with the Jurassic-Park-settings such a fossil seems to evoke. In truth, Connecticut is home to one of the earliest-known and most prominent fossil-bearing formations in the United States, with red rocks in the Connecticut River Valley being the destination for American fossil hunters since 1836. The fame of Connecticut’s fossils started when Edward Hitchcock, professor of Geology at Amherst College, was made aware of what appeared to be gigantic bird footprints along the river bank near the border between Massachusetts and Connecticut. At that time, it was not known what dinosaurs were: their huge skeletons were first described as ‘dinosaurs’ (terrible lizards’), that is, now-extinct, gigantic relatives of modern lizards, by the English paleontologist Sir Richard Owen in 1842. Professor Hitchcock remained convinced that these gigantic 3-toed footprints were made by prehistoric birds. It was not until 1954 that Richard Swan Lull finally described the maker of these footprints fossils as a carnivorous theropod, a type of dinosaur. Connecticut might have been famous for the clam chowder and the friendly New England towns to the public, but for the paleontological community, Connecticut’s fame as a destination for research was anything but “new.”

The Dinosaur footprints along the wall of Exley

The name assigned to the fossil which is now the Connecticut state fossil was Eubrontes, in classical Greek “true thunder,” possibly to indicate the heavy impact of the footsteps of these “thick-toed birds”.  However, we now know that Hitchcock’s early idea was, in fact, closer to the present scientific theory about relationships of dinosaurs to living animals, i.e., they are close relatives of birds, rather than of lizards. In fact, scientists now talk about ‘avian dinosaurs’ (that is, birds), and ‘non-avian dinosaurs (dinosaurs), and many species of dinosaurs are known to have been feathered. Professor Hitchcock’s original theory, while inaccurate, expressed an observational idea that was not far from our modern understanding.

A Connecticut River Valley dinosaur footprint displayed in Exley (Otozoum moodii)

The discovery of the fossil footprints and their collection in the 19th century made the Connecticut River Valley widely known as a key fossil-hunting area in the New England region, and in the 19th century American scientific community, Connecticut was a prominent location for research in paleontology. In addition to the dinosaur footprints, thousands of fossil fish have been found, which were living in the lakes in the dinosaurs’ habitat.

In 1966, workmen from the Connecticut State Highway Department found hundreds of specimens of the three-toed dinosaur tracks (and other tracks) around Rocky Hill, Connecticut. This led to the establishment of the “Dinosaur State Park” just three weeks later by the then-Governor of Connecticut, John N. Dempsey. The museum in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (4th Floor Exley) was named after the late Professor Joe Webb Peoples, who was instrumental in the establishment of Dinosaur State Park. If you are interested in who Professor People was and what role Wesleyan University played in the shaping of American paleontology, visit the Joe Webb People’s Museum on the fourth floor; there are more surprising stories of our University waiting to be told.

To commemorate that dinosaurs once (about 200 million years ago) walked in Connecticut and that their footprints are abundant in Dinosaur State Park, Eubrontes giganteus was designated the official state fossil in 1991. For any curious students wanting to see our state fossil for themselves, just look along the wall of Exley; you will find several enormous pieces of history right before your eyes.

 

By Sajirat Palakarn

Introduction to the Joe Webb Peoples Museum

On the Fourth Floor of the Wesleyan Exley Science center is the Joe Webb Peoples Museum, named after the late Professor Joe Webb Peoples, who was chair of the Geology department (now named Earth and Environmental Sciences), from 1935 until his retirement in 1975. He was highly influential in the establishment of Dinosaur State Park when dinosaur footprints were discovered on state land in 1966.

The museum has collections of beautiful minerals (including a large collection of Connecticut minerals), and amazingly preserved fossils. The dinosaurs leaving the footprints roamed around lakes in which is now the Connecticut River valley, about 200 million years ago. Thousands of fish living in these lakes (and insects and plants) were preserved as fossils, and are well represented in the collections at Wesleyan.

In addition, the museum has beautifully preserved fish, leaves and insects from the Eocene Period, when the world was much warmer than today (about 40-45 million years ago). These organisms lived in what is now Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. There are also fossil plants from the coal deposits in Illinois (about 300 million years old), as well as fossil sea lilies (crinoids) which lived in shallow warm seas in what is now Indiana at about the same time as the coal forests grew. Many of these fossils were collected by S. Ward Loper, who was curator of the Wesleyan Museum from 1894 to his death in 1910.

Sadly, few people are aware that Wesleyan has these unique resources. The collections have not been well curated, and not much used in education and outreach.

In this series of blogs we will tell stories about the Wesleyan museum collections, the Wesleyan Museum, and the people who were involved with the museum over the years, and make the Wesleyan community aware of this great resource.

Front view of the skull of a Megacerops, better known by the synonym of Brontotherium. This is the skull of a very large herbivore (up to 14 ft in length, 8 ft  shoulder height), browsing on low-growing vegetation, living on the North American continent in the Eocene period.  These animals became extinct when global climate cooled at the end of the Eocene.            This specimen was collected in 1889 by Yale Professor O. C. Marsh in the White River badlands of South Dakota, and bought by the Wesleyan Museum in 1929.

 

posted by Ellen Thomas

Research Professor in E&ES, University Professor in CIS