Public Seminar: Natural History Museums in a Changing World

The Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History is thrilled to welcome the seminar presenter for the Summer Research in the Sciences programme at Wesleyan – Dr. Warren D. Allmon. Aligning with our current mission of resurrecting Wesleyan’s natural history collections, Dr. Allmon was instrumental in the rejuvenation of the Paleontological Research Institution’s (PRI) internationally-known fossil collections. The Museum of the Earth in Ithaca NY is his brainchild, housing a wealth of natural history specimens in an 8,000 square feet facility. 

Natural History Museums in a Changing World

Exley SCIE58

June 14th, 2018 – Thursday

12 noon to 1.15pm

Dr. Allmon’s research primarily focuses on macroevolution and paleoecology, mainly on the molluscs  (and specifically, Gastropoda – snails) of the Cenozoic in the family Turritellidae. Dr. Allmon is currently involved in research, funded by the National Science Foundation, on comparison of evolutionary “tempo and mode” in marine gastropods from the Cretaceous of the Western U.S. and the Plio-Pleistocene of Florida. He also is involved in deciphering affinities of the problematic fossils in the Devonian rocks around Ithaca, NY. 

Pliocene marine molluscs from Sarasota, Florid in the Wesleyan museum collections. Turritellidae is one of the more well-represented groups in our collection of 5,600 seashells.

Dr. Allmon is the Director of the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, NY and the Hunter R. Rawlings III Professor of Paleontology in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University.

Wesleyan collection photos courtesy of Andy Tan’21. Cover photo: Busycon carica from Rocky Neck, Connecticut. 

On Parade: Seniors Week, Reunion and Commencement

 

As the Spring comes to an end, we celebrate the fruitful school year that has passed by, once again a little too swiftly.

For us at the Joe Webb Peoples museum, nothing is more suitable for this time than to showcase the spectacular specimens that we have been restoring, as well as the exhibits we have been curating throughout the academic year 2017-2018, with overwhelming support and response from the community. In this series of blogs, we started our rediscovery of the Wesleyan collections only less than a year ago, and we look back at a year of considerable progress.

Naturally, we will start with Shelley the Glyptodon, Wesleyan’s new favourite animal. Shelley is the replica of a giant armadillo that lived in Argentina about 11, 000 years ago, fighting her friends with her spiky tail. After sixty years in the Foss Hill tunnels (her carapace, or shell), and in the penthouse of Exley (her tail), she was re-discovered and restored over the academic year. Friends of the museum have came up with this beautiful and apt name for her. Thank you all!!

 

 

We have also recently restored over 50 of the hundreds of taxidermy birds collected in the late 1800s. Meet our spectacular Resplendent Quetzal in the Fishbowl Room in Exley on 24th May 2018. This marvellous creature hails from the cloud forests of Guatemala, sporting long beautiful tail feathers male birds use to woo the ladies during breeding season. He will be on temporary exhibition just for the occasion, but will return to more permanent exhibits next year!!

 

 

The corridors on Level 3 of Exley are swimming with Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs, giant marine reptiles that were marine apex predators in the Age of the Dinosaurs. Walk down the history of life as we celebrate their discoverer – Mary Anning – a woman in science who was never given credit for her discoveries during her lifetime.

 

 

The Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History  is on  Level 4 of Exley, and contains where our rarest and most spectacular specimens of rocks, fossils and minerals. Many other specimens, like the cast of  Archaeopteryx below – an early bird-relative  that lived in the Jurassic -, and a cast of a giant salamander thought to have been a human drowned in Noah’s flood have been saved from obscurity for display in our museum. Housing a collection steeped in 190 years of history, the museum is a relic of the history of Sciences at Wesleyan since its founding.

 

 

The collection used to resided in Judd Hall, from 1871 to the closure of the Former Wesleyan Museum in 1957. If you have stories to share about the Wesleyan Museum, Professor Ellen Thomas and Professor Ann Burke can be contacted at ethomas@wesleyan.edu and acburke@wesleyan.edu respectively.

 

 

 

Dinosaurs Among Us: The Missing Link

Birds are a unique group of creatures. They don’t seem to quite fit the bill for any other major group of animals with which we are familiar.

They are warm blooded, but don’t suckle their offsprings like mammals. They lay eggs, but have feathers instead of scales like reptiles. They don’t swim in the water and secrete slimy mucous all over themselves like amphibians. They have wings, but not segmented legs and shells like insects. They really are an unusual bunch.

It has long puzzled scientists how large flying animals first took to the air. By the late 19th century, dinosaurs achieved their celebrated status mostly due to the work of the rather aggressive palaeontologist, Richard Owen, who notoriously published many of his colleagues’ work as his own. He was known to have assembled a large collection of dinosaurs for the British Museum. 

In Solnhofen, Germany, lies one of the most beautiful fossil beds in the world. In the age of the dinosaurs, the site was a shallow reef teeming with life. Horseshoe crabs skated along the bottom, fish roamed the waters, shrimps with weirdly long arms snapped at little seastar-looking floating crinoids, flying reptiles roamed the skies. As with many beautiful things, this rich collection of fauna did not persist for long. As the reef grew, it emerged from the ocean and formed small isolated pools of water. The fragmented habitats became increasingly salty and oxygen-poor, suffocating all animals that lived within them.

Modern horseshoe crabs like this ancient counterpart, Mesolimulus walchi, are harvested for their haemolymph, which are used in pharmaceutical testing. These animals from the Solnhofen Limestone are morphologically practically unchanged since emerging about 400 million years ago. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Fortunately for us, these conditions are ideal for the preservation of fossils. Animals that died on land and fell into the lakes were also remarkably well-preserved. Darwin was a contemporary of Owen. After the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin was soon bombarded by criticisms from his colleagues about a missing link in his theory.  If animals gradually changed over time into new forms, as his colleagues were quick to note, there ought to be intermediate forms between animals. Animals with wings would have evolved from animals without. The fossil record, however, appeared to be resolutely silent on  these intermediate transitional forms. This conundrum became a painful source of embarrassment and anxiety for Darwin for a very long time. He wrote:

“Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.”

In 1861, just two years after the publication of The Origin, a key piece of evidence in the dinosaur-bird conundrum was found. A single fossil feather was found in Solnhofen. And perhaps a little prematurely, it was described as Archaeopteryx, meaning “old wing”. A final piece of the biggest puzzle in Darwin’s career was in place, demonstrating that descent with modification is the way in which life evolved on Earth. 

An exquisite replica of the Archaeopteryx lithographica from the Solnhofen Plattenkalk, Germany, present in the Wesleyan Joe Webb Peoples Museum Collection, with detailed soft tissue preservation indicating the presence of feathers as in a bird-like creature, but a tail skeleton as in reptiles.

In the same year, a complete skeleton of the Archaeopteryx was unearthed. It resembled a chimaera – an intermediate form between reptiles and a modern bird. It has a beautiful feathery plumage, at that time thought to be limited to birds, but it also has jaws lined with sharp teeth, and a long bony line of vertebrae in its tail. Archaeopteryx was not a modern bird, but it clearly was an animal that took to the skies, although there still is debate about how able a flyer it was. Thomas Henry Huxley proposed in the 1860s-1870s  that dinosaurs were more like big, non flying birds than like lizards, and John Ostrom (Yale) discovered much evidence in support, and was an enthusiastic proponent (1970s-1990s). In view of Archaeopteryx, and the fact that quite a few dinosaurs were feathered, as now known from numerous finds in China, scientists are now convinced that birds not only are descended from dinosaurs, but are, in fact, dinosaurs. 

Wesleyan’s natural history collection houses almost 200 taxidermy birds, many dating back to the late 1800s. We have engaged a professional preparator to restore the birds to their former beauty. Having sat in our collections since the 1800s, not always under the best conditions for preservation, many of the delicate specimens were crumbling with age, and notoriously challenging to restore. These marvellous avian dinosaurs will soon make their exodus from exile to various campus locations in a series of touring exhibitions. Get a sneak peak into these living dinosaurs!

Professor Ann C. Burke’s favourite chicken toy, Gallus gallus plasticus, registering displeasure at having to share her territory with a newly restored Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus. Photo courtesy of Wisly Juganda ’20.

The Wesleyan collections also house some of the finest of dinosaur tracks in the world, from the Connecticut River Valley, originally seen as tracks of giant birds by Edward Hitchcock in the 1830s. Recent studies used guinea fowls and ostriches as experiment subjects to study the tracks left by dinosaurs. The similarity between these tracks is astounding. The prevalence of these tracks in Connecticut, which has possibly the densest record of such fossils from the early Jurassic in the world, has seen the Eubrontes sp. being listed as the Connecticut State Fossil.  Eubrontes was left by a large bipedal dinosaur, possibly related  to  Dilophosaurus, which would more appropriately be called a non-avian dinosaur.

Eubrontes sp. tracks on display in the Elxey Science Centre. Note the three-toed form of these non-avian dinosaur tracks, similar to those made by chicken feet. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan 21.

In science,  facts trump it all. Dogmas and laws get scoffed at and discarded in the face of new evidence. It is a bold practice that acknowledges the limits of human knowledge, and one that owns up to, and moves on from, its mistakes. Even veteran scientists are often confronted with new discoveries that fundamentally shift their worldview. Join us in childlike wonder in encountering oddities that will surprise you at every turn in the Joe Webb Peoples Natural History Museum on Level 4 of Exley.

Cover photo: Detail of the pennaceous feathers of Pharomacrus moccino moccino, the Quetzal,  from Central America. Courtesy of Wisly Juganda ’20.

Jurassic Fish: Salted Sardines in the Rocks

Driving along the highways of Connecticut, many don’t realise that the rocks by the side of the roads holds a looking-glass to one of the most famous times in geological history – the Jurassic Period.

The natural landscape of the Newark and Hartford Basins in Connecticut, as it was about 200 million years ago, would look very unfamiliar. The land that we know and on which we live today was at times a desert, at other times submerged under a series of lakes. These were not mere shallow pools of water, but lakes so deep that the waters could become stratified, that is, form distinct layers. The shallows were aerated by wind and tide, and teeming with life. The deeper layers were so far below the surface that oxygen could not be mixed in from the atmosphere, and these waters lacked oxygen for much of the time, so that fish could not live there. The lakes went through cycles of flooding and drying, and were connected during periods of flooding.

More than 6 genera and 13 species of fish have been found in Connecticut. Wesleyan’s collections hold a large number of an especially puzzling and intriguing fossil genus,  Semionotus. Even after 150 million years, the glossy sheen on the scales of these fish are so well-preserved that visitors often ask if they are lacquered. The excellent preservation allows researchers to see the large array of shapes of body shapes and dorsal scales, suggesting that these fish may have undergone what scientists often call the Founder’s Effect.

Fossil deposits are found only in some strata in the rocks, with gaps corresponding between them, representing the duration of the flood-dry cycles in these Jurassic rift basin lakes. Fossils are only preserved from the stages of the cycles when deeper parts of the lakes lacked oxygen, as seen by the microlamination of the shales: no animals were burrowing to disturb this fine layering. By looking closely at the fossils from these intermittently connected lakes, scientists realized that Semionotus commonly displayed a large morphological diversity soon after they were introduced into a large continuous habitat, formed by large scale flooding of the basin.

 

Three specimens from our collections showing variability in body shape and dorsal ridge scale morphology. Currently on view in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum on Level 4 of Exley Science Centre. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

This phenomenon is observed today in a number of settings, including  the most famous example, Darwin’s Finches from the Galapagos Island. The Galapagos are volcanic islands that had no birds before the arrival of the mainland finches. To minimise competition, the finches quickly evolved into many species that utilise very different resources on the island. Some fed on seeds, other prefer insects, cactus berries, nectar, worms in hollow trees and so on. The empty ecological niches on the islands provided the birds with an opportunity to diverge into different lifestyles that facilitated rapid speciation, whereas the mainland species remained as a single species, which could not outcompete other birds that had already filled corresponding ecological niches.

 

The huge diversity of beak shape, colour and body size in Darwin’s Finches demonstrates the  array of ecological resources which they use. Introduction of bird feeders in recent years have reversed the divergence of beak shape in several finch species.

 

Founder’s Effect commonly provides a more hopeful outlook on anthropogenic change in the modern times, and brings into discussion whether new environments caused by human activities might drive some species to increase morphological diversify. If this were true, the loss of species due to human activities might be offset.

Cover photo: Semionotus sp. scales detail from the Wesleyan Joe Webb Peoples Museum collections. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Names of our Glyptodon

The results of our ‘name Glyptodon‘ contest are in, and she will be called:

 Shelley the Glyptodon‘.

Here we want to share the many creative and inventive suggestions made, and thank you all for participating, by suggesting names or voting for your favorite, as well as for showing your appreciation for our own Wesleyan Shelley the Glyptodon

We asked to suggest a name for our Glyptodon, as well as explain whether and why she would like that name.

A committee of five looked at the list of proposed names independently, and each person selected five names. The  names mentioned most often by the people in the committee made the short list, on which was voted. 

Ariel: Gender neutral name in Spanish; title of the most famous book ever written by a Uruguayan, José Enrique Rodo.

Amy Dillo!: She will ADORE this name. Because it is her name. I would know, because I too have spent a lot of time in the Exley basement and that’s what she introduced herself to me as.

Beetle!: Yes! Glyptodons were about the same size and weight as a Volkswagen Beetle so it is a nice reminder of how cool she is. Also, it’s adorable to call big creatures with small names. Beetles are so small and she is so big (#no_body_shame).

Big Bertha: She’s the size of a car! She ought to be honoured for her size.

Big Turtle Thing: I think it doesn’t matter to her because she has not been sentient for many years.

Boaty McBoatface: She’ll appreciate the nod towards a previous naming competition (for a research vessel). She’ll appreciate the publicity that descends upon her institution for such a quirky, creative name.

Cardina/Cardinah: Yes! Of course, it’s perfect.

  1. Wesleyan connection: it sounds very close to Cardinal, our beloved
  2. Cardo means hinge in Latin. Doors had to be taken off hinges to bring our new friend to public view
  3. Dinosaur relation: glyptodons which are described as “giant armadillos” are related to dinosaurs, hence Dina (which is close to Dino, short for dinosaur). Armadillos are sometimes referred to as “modern-day dinosaurs” because of their bony shell
  4. Dina/Dinah in Hebrew means vindicated which means show/prove to be right/reasonable. That is the purpose of fossils- they are evidence that these magnificent animals once roamed the earth

Carol: She has the wisdom and self- confidence of a 60-year-old woman with three adult children. She is strong and stern, but caring, too. She has earned our respect and deserves to be treated like the self-possessed woman that she has become.

Dorothy Larmour: Dorthy Larmour screams glamour, fun, and prestige. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with that?!

Edna: Edna = female Eddie (the Glyptodon from the movie Ice Age).

Ellen: Because it will remind this lucky Glyptodon of the efforts of her brilliant, cool creator, who has created something that the whole Wesleyan community will enjoy in the years to come!!!!! If you want the name to reflect the efforts of women in science, choose the name of a professor whose scientific work inspires Wesleyan students.

Genesis: Because she is the first to be here!

Georgette: It is sophisticated and pretty.

Gippy: Of course! Gippy wants everyone to know that she’s a glyptodon, not a dinosaur. If she could, she’d jump up and say, “yippie.”

Giuliana: It is a very popular argentinian name and argentina is one of 3 countries glyptodons have been discovered in. It also begins with a G like the species name and looking at the fossil she looks like a Giuliana

Gjerta: Of course – Gjerta means protection, and if her large shell is any indication, she certainly needs a lot of it.

Gladys the Glyptodon you Gorgeous Giggling Gal! Good Golly it’s Grand to Gaze upon you Gladys!: It’s a name that is simple, elegant, and sonically pleasing. I have no doubt she’ll love the name.

Glapys the Glyptodon: Aside from the appealing alliteration, Glapys is a pun on both the given name “Gladys” and the Latin word “lapis,” which means stone.

Gleep Gloop: Yes, it sounds like beep boop which is a fun sound noise.

Glenda! (The Glyptodon): She’s a good old gal and she’s ready to greet everyone like a friend. Glenda is a friendly good old gal name.

Glynda: Yes, because the ancient heritage of her name means good and pure, which is fitting with her stately new home in Exley.

Glynda: Glynda the Glyptadon is a wonderful name; the alliteration alone makes it worthwhile, as well as the reference to Glinda, the good witch in the Wizard of Oz. The melding of theatre and science in this name is what a Wesleyan education is all about. Glinda, like Glynda, brings joy and happiness, as well as a feeling of home; Glynda welcomes students home to scili much like the ruby slippers bring Dorothy home to Kansas. Also like Glinda, Glynda maintains her beauty and grace despite having lived much longer than anyone would have expected. This name would pay homage to a very powerful magic heroine, and after all, magic is really just science in the end.

Glynis (full name: Glynis the Glitch): Yes, definitely. The name reminds everyone of who she is and how she came to be (again) at Wes: Glynis is simply the only good name for a Glyptodon (Glynis comes from good, even holy, is the only name that starts with “gly,” and is a bit old- fashioned like the Glyptodon that she is). And “the Glitch” is the only good “last” name for a lost Glyptodon who was found by chance, and with a “slight” glitch (no head). Glynis loves that her name captures her identity, her history, and her quirky yet old-fashioned personality.

Glypta the Good Witch: Yes!! It will make her feel both pretty and powerful, and remind her daily that she is good, which is a hard thing to remember for anyone.

Glypto-Rhonda: She will love her name because she chose it! You see she’s a fighter. She’s been taking a break from the ring for the past 10,000 or so years. But now she’s back and ready to get back in the spotlight! She actually chose this name after she was watching some old fights (for training purposes) and came across a fighter with fire in her eyes. She believes Ronda Rousey deserves the belt and Glypto-Rhonda has proclaimed that she’s gonna win it in her name! Get ready to see her whip her opponents tails, with her own! Glypto-Rhonda’s back in the game!!

GlyptoBae: Yes!! She is the collective bae of our entire school- a friend, lover, confidante, leader to all. She is a Glyptodon, but she is OUR GlyptoBae.

Glyptodonatella: The Glyptodon is well-travelled. She has a love for multi-syllable names. She is fierce and deserving of an equally fierce name.

Glyptodon McGlyptodonface: Who wouldn’t love this name?

Glyptomaniac: Modeled after the word kleptomaniac, which describes a person with irresistible urges to steal, this name is appropriate because she has yet to fail to steal my heart or the hearts of those around me. Mesmerizing. Iconic. Glyptomaniac.

Groovy Tooth: She’s been called “glyptodon” in the past, for her grooved (Greek: glyptos) teeth (dont). After awakening from decades of slumber, I’m sure she felt just a little left behind. Who wouldn’t, when surrounded by strange phrases like “that’s lit, man” and “rad, bro”? Therefore, I’m sure updating her name to “Groovy Tooth” would would help her feel a stronger sense of belonging at the new Wesleyan, while still preserving the essence of her original name.

Guiomar: I have been thinking of names for our beloved Glyptodon. After some research I see that the glyptodon originates from South American countries, often times from places where Portuguese is spoken. I looked into some Portuguese names and I found the Unisex name “Guiomar” — unisex because since we don’t know it’s specific biological gender. Guiomar (pronounced Gee-o- mar) is the name of a famous war hero. I think that is fitting for our glyptodon who has survived a type of war itself; and emerged a celebrity hero for all to bow down to!!! Source; https://www.behindthename.com/name/guiomar  Other definitions of Guiomar describe someone who enjoys the freedom to do as they please, loathes restriction, and loves to be the center of attention! I find that quite fitting as well.

Gwendolyn: Yes I think she’ll love it because it’s a name full of character–just like her! We can call her Gwen (Stefani) for short. The name reflects her star quality.

Gyna: Yes because is close to her species name.

Jeff: All good things are named Jeff.

Joni Mitchell: I think she will love it or at least she would if she heard Joni Mitchell sing California. Beautiful song.

Karen: No, because no one loves being named Karen, they just are.

Lulu: Yes, she will love the name. It rolls off the tongue, “Lulu the Glyptodon.” Plus it really fits her personality. In addition it’s a somewhat gender neutral name, and it is a variation on lolo, which would be too near to “armadillo” which glyptodons are related to.

Mary Shelley (fondly just Mary): I think she will love the name because it speaks to her physique (she has a shell) and her style (she’s a classy lady). She also is a fossil that has been put back together again, with some missing/replacement parts, and I think she’d appreciate the allusion to Mary Shelley’s infamous novel, Frankenstein.

Lionturtle: The lion turtles are ancient beings that gave humans the power to control elements. This allowed them to venture deep into the spirit wilds. Many years ago a man named Wan ventured to four separate lion turtles to collect the powers of the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Thus began the cycle of the Avatar. In more recent history, a lion turtle taught avatar aang how to non violently strip a bender of their powers. Because of this awesome power, avatar aang successfully stopped the imperial campaign of the fire nation without taking Phoenix King Ozai’s life. I believe the Glyptodon represents a similar power to the Wesleyan community. Only she doesn’t give us the power of bending — she gives us the power of friendship.

Maya: Maya is a very fun name. It’s playful, spunky, full of zest—just like our friendly neighborhood Glyptodon. The name Maya  invites us to create nicknames: MyMy, Mypie, MayaPapaya, and  many more. In Hindu tradition and philosophy, the name Maya has significance as a reference  to mystical powers, similar to the mysterious aura that the fossil emits. Maya is a strong name, suitable for a strong Glyptodon!.

Mishell Oldmama: Yes – to be linked to a powerful person in history as Michelle Obama would be a privilege!

My Cherie Armour: It bespeaks of her inner beauty, and attractiveness.

Noodle: My sister’s dog is named Noodle and she’d be thrilled to know there’s a Glyptodon named after her..

Ozzy: It’ll be short for Ozbourne the Odd Born and she’ll love the pride it gives to her uniqueness and individuality!

Pleistocene Pam: She’ll fondly recall how she flourished between the Pliocene and Holocene epochs

Richael Moth: Yes, because she is the heart and soul of Wesleyan University and deserves to give the commencement address every year.

Rita Goode: First name derived from Emerita, the highest title given to female faculty by recognizing a lifetime of scholarship and impact on learners. Last name honors the first curator of Wesleyan’s Museum of Natural History: George Brown Goode, class of 1870.

Rolly-Poley: She will adore the name so much that when we yell “Come here Rolly-Poley,” she will roll into an enormous ball of cuteness..

Scary Mary “Shelly”: Duh, because she is monstrous and scary.

Selena: You know..

Shangela (so we’d scream halleloo): Every time you pass the Glyptodon, do you ever scream “halleloo”? Is that just me? I swear I can hear someone else saying it when I sit in SciLi. Our Glyptodon – just like Shangela from RuPaul’s Drag Race – has charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. She oozes confidence that it takes to become America’s next fossil superstar. Her camp exudes success over her minions throughout Wesleyan. It is only appropriate then we name her after America’s Number 1 drag talent, as they both share all these attributes. They set examples of what a Wesleyan student should achieve to be and have persevered after all these seasons.

Shelley: Yes because it will make her feel powerful and safe.

“Shelly” Long, long ago: She’s likes to binge watch old Cheers episodes.

Shelley: It is a name with which she can relate and identify in very personal ways. In other words, she can see herself in that name. Moreover, it’s a name that rolls off one’s tongue and, if she doesn’t like it, it will equally roll right off her back..

Shellie: I think she will absolutely love her name! She has a beautiful, eye- catching shell and we should all let her know. It’s also a fun and playful name, reflecting her whimsical and free-spirited nature. I honestly don’t think any other name would sit right.

Shelly: Shelly is a very motherly name, showing her protectiveness of her young Glyptodons. Also her large shell makes her recognizable by name.

Spike X Lee: Absolutely! It rejects gender normative naming conventions and acknowledges both her awesomeness and the building she lives in (X Lee = Exley).

Snorlax: Yes! Glyptodon is part of the superorder of placental mammals known as Xenarthra. This clade of mammals also includes sloths, which I believe Snorlax is modeled after. It is presumed large glyptodonts were bulk feeders, as is Snorlax. The Glyptodon and Snorlax share many physical similarities, such as their round shape, feet with three claws, slow movements, and pronounced jaw structure. In addition, the Glyptodon’s appearance of waking from a long slumber fits perfectly with Snorlax’s reputation for being a heavy sleeper. Snorlax is known for being very docile and friendly, and I believe that if Wesleyan’s Glyptodon adopted a name associated with the adored Pokemon creature, then many students will come to love the Glyptodon and become fans of it in a similar way. It’s a fun name that will get the Wesleyan community involved, and I believe Snorlax perfectly captures the character and personality of our Glyptodon.

Sunnyside!: She will love the name because when I looked up pictures of glyptodons I was struck by how much they are like big, happy eggs! If not Sunnyside, we should definitely call her by some other egg-related name– it’s just too fitting, given the huge rounded shell! I chose this name specifically because it is a positive, nice sounding name that fills you with warmth.

The Glyper: Its unique-ish; Win one for the glyper!.

Volkswagen Beetle: She is dead, she can’t think. I didn’t become an archaeology student because I wanted to deal with things that are alive!!! But we will love her.

Willburina: at first she may be concerned about its unusual nature, but when she realizes there are no others of her kind around to make fun of it, she will be fine.

Xena!: You bet she will. The Glyptodon’s superorder, under scientific classification, is Xenarthra, which means “strange joints.” Their vertebral joints have extra articulations unlike other mammals. Xena’s carapace also looks like Xena the warrior princess’s armor. That Xena, according to Wikipedia, used her “formidable fighting skills to help people.” Will this Xena help people? You betcha! (She’s already helped me by making Wes a more inviting place to be. I’m not exaggerating when I say visits to her, and bringing friends to see her, got me through midterms.) Additionally, Xena comes from the Greek “xenos,” which translates to “stranger.” Poor girl has been missing from Wes’s collections for a while. So much has changed since she last saw the WesWorld. She’s a stranger in a strange land. But she’s back, like any great warrior princess, to claim her name and prove her badassery.

 

 

The Wesleyan University Ward & Howell Collection and Its Impact on the History of Science

We are excited to welcome Melanie McCalmont to Wesleyan.

Melanie McCalmont is a geographer and data scientist. She has a Master’s degree in Geography, and a Master’s degree in Life Science Communication, both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Melanie is the national expert on historic 3-dimensional relief models. She has been a relief model consultant to the Library of Congress, Yellowstone National Park, the Chicago International Map Fair, American Geographic Society Library, the MacLean Collection, and numerous universities and private collectors. She is a frequent speaker on the Ward’s Natural Science collections and the history of geovisualization.

Her book, “A Wilderness of Rocks: The Impact of Relief Models on Data Science” (2015) is available through Friesen Press and on Amazon.

Melanie is visiting the Earth & Environmental Sciences Department for in the week of April 16-23 April, to study its historic relief maps, as part of her research for her upcoming book, a biography of Edwin E. Howell, a master maker of relief maps as well as fossil casts, and one of the group of people who installed the Wesleyan fossil casts in the Judd Hall Museum of Natural History in 1870.

She will talk about the Wesleyan collections on Thursday, April 19, 11:50am-12:50 pm, in Room 405, Exley Science Center, Wesleyan University. Lecture open to the public.

The Wesleyan University Ward & Howell Collection

and Its Impact on the History of Science

Abstract:

Wesleyan University has a rare and historic asset of 19th century natural science specimens and geologic relief models. The supplier, Ward’s Natural Science, was a driving force behind establishment of most US natural history museums from 1865-1915.  Using primary sources (diaries) from 1870-1871, this presentation describes how Wesleyan’s collection was crafted, installed at Judd Hall, and along with other Ward specimens had a lasting impact on education and the public since 1870. We will also cover Wesleyan’s historic geologic relief models (3D maps). Crafted before aerial photography and space imagery, these models were the first accurate geovisualizations of government datasets, and have surprising links to modern technologies. Today’s researchers are mining these historic collections to create new insights and even discover new species!

Unseen Wesleyan: Penthousing

The labyrinth of tunnels beneath the carefully manicured landscape of Wesleyan has inspired the imagination and indulgence of many generations of students. There is always something about the Forbidden that beckons.

 

One of the pieces you pick up; profound life quote from a concerned well-meaning trespasser, perhaps after one too many Bloody Marys. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Yet there is one secret that our campus holds to which many may not be privy to. Above Level 6 of Exley Science Centre lies a Penthouse, where lies a large swathe of treasures, and other glamorous junk. Professor Ellen Thomas affectionately coined the term “penthousing”, meaning the activity of purging the space of decade-old decaying items, in search of the next star exhibit.

A significant portion of the former Wesleyan Museum’s collections were flung into the Penthouse of Exley upon its completion in 1970, while others continued to collect dust in the Foss Hill tunnels since the museum’s resolution in 1957. In the summer of 2017, students working on the inventory of museum objects first started to look around that penthouse, and found the first evidence for the existence of our Glyptodon – its tail.

 

Lost meandering down the hallways of reminiscences. How many chapters of Wesleyan history do these halls keep? Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

The interesting thing about unseen spaces is that people who have access to them often put very little effort into making them presentable. In the penthouse lies a ludicrous number of expensive old scientific equipment in what some of the museum Inner Circle calls “Scientific Purgatory” – atoning for the sins of being outdated in hope of exodus some day in future. These include a sonar imaging device, x-ray tubes, and distillation contraptions – any brewers out there?

Even so, the Penthouse is chock full of other little treats, and some not-so-little ones. We found by a bit of an accident, a beautiful skull that belonged to some kind of elephant relative. The identity of the animal that had it is still a mystery to us. Some are whispering about how it looks suspiciously similar to the skull of a baby Mastodon, especially in view of its teeth – we’ll keep you posted. Stay tuned.

 

The Penthouse of Exley is one of the many hidden storage spaces of treasures at Wesleyan. Recently, a gorgeous elephant skull came out of storage in Shanklin. Note the flat-topped teeth used for grinding. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

 

Cover photo: Cage lock and stray crates in the Penthouse of Exley. Andy Tan ’21.

 

Oeningen Formation: Science, Sink or Swim

Science was not like it is today in the 18th and even 19th century: things people used to do in science at that time – not too long ago -may  appear very odd to us. In Wesleyan’s collections lie several keystone artifacts to this rather fascinating episode in history.  Before science (as we consider it now) existed, people thought  that living species of animals had always existed and will always exist – the idea that there was such a thing as ‘extinction’ was not realized. It was not until the 1830s that one of the most important figures in the history of paleontology played a role in awakening the world of science to the actuality of extinction. She was Mary Anning, the daughter of an English cabinet maker, who discovered groundbreaking specimens pivotal to this paradigm shift, but she was not given credit for her important contributions during her life time.

Ichthyosaurus communis, a replica of a fossil specimen found by Mary Anning on the coast of Lyme-Regis, in Southern England; third floor, Exley Science Center.

Even when the celebrated star in paleontology, Georges Cuvier, published a first authoritative paper on extinctions in 1879, the general public did not take it lightly that Divine Providence was  doubted by the idea of extinction of creatures, which had been designed and made by that Providence. Even when described by a man who mesmerized the European public with the fascinating animals he put together from a box of disarticulated bones, the community did not warm up to the concept of extinction. Why would God create animals only to wipe them out later? This idea was contrary to the prevalent notion that everything created has its permanent, perfectly designated place and purpose in the world, fitting  into the Great Chain of Being.

Cuvier’s brainchild – the osteology collection in the Natural History Museum in Paris. The spectacle is impressive today, and one can easily be imagine that it was  mind-blowing in the 1800s.

The Oeningen Formation in Germany contains a vast trove of beautifully preserved fossils, including some spectacular plant leaves, with leaf veins visible, and what have been called ‘perhaps the richest insect deposits in Europe’, dating back to the late Miocene (~6-11.5 million years).  In the 1700s, long before the research by Mary Anning or Georges Cuvier, an odd fossil was dug up from these sediments. The identity of the remains was an enigma. To the contemporary scholars, this could only be the remains of something that still existed on Earth, because the concept of extinction had not yet been worked out. Swiss scholar – scientist was not a job title back thenJohann Jakob Scheuchzer gave the scholarly community the most obvious answer to this conundrum in 1726, illustrating the tension between science and religion. This must have been “The Man Who Witnessed the Biblical Flood”, in Latin ‘Homo diluvii testis’.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling fresco panel depicting the Great Flood according to the Bible. All living things were killed except two of each kind, and the family of Noah, who found grace in the eye of God. Which of these men were fossilised?

Other naturalists expressed doubts on the human origins. Johannes Gessner (1758) though it was a catfish, the Dutch naturalist Petrus Camper (1777) thought it was a lizard – at that time, the distinction between amphibians and reptiles had not been made. Georges Cuvier looked at the fossil in 1811 (at which time it was on display at Teyler’s Museum in the Netherlands -where it still is). He removed sediment covering part of it so he could see a larger part of its skeleton, including its front legs. This was a man who boasted he could reconstruct an animal from a single tooth, and he quickly determined that the fossil was that of a giant salamander which no longer lived on Earth. The fossil was named Salamander scheuchzeri by Friedrich Holl (1831), then given a new generic name, Andrias, in 1837 (by Johann Jakob von Tschudi). Perhaps taking a jive at Scheuchzer’s ideas, the new name, Andrias scheuchzeri, meant “image of man of Scheuzer”. The Joe Webb Peoples Museum on Level 4 of Exley houses a cast of this giant salamander, measuring about 3 feet in length.

Picture of Homo diluvii testis as published by Scheuchzer

 

Andrias scheuchzeuri, an extinct giant salamander once thought to be the remains of the man who witnessed The Flood. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Science has come a very long way in a very short period of time, but people are still catching up.  Science ‘as we know it’ has had a place within the last 10% of the ~ 5000 years of recorded history only. It has only been 300 years since we first looked at the Moon and decided that there are no people living on it. It has only been less than 100 years since the advent of modern medicine. 50 years since the first moon landing. 15 since the first human genome sequenced. Today, we still sometime struggle with beliefs that fossils are the work of the Devil.

The Oeningen Lake Beds from where our salamander hails is one of the world’s richest site for plant and insect fossils. Note the intricate venation still preserved. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21

Living in a time when the authority of science as a source of empirical truth (or even the existence of such a thing as ’empirical truth’) is undermined by political and religious leaders, the increased understanding provided by scientific pursuit is under daily threat.

Come to the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History on Level 4 of Exley, and feast your eyes on our fossils with a beauty superseding any text written in stone.

We stand on the shoulders of Giants…

Cover photo: Andrias scheuzeri spine details from the Wesleyan Joe Webb Peoples Museum natural history collection. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Deinotherium: Stranger Than Fiction

Working with fossils, it’s not difficult to think that science is often stranger than fiction.

Wesleyan’s new star – our Glyptodon – is something that defies our every expectation of an armadillo. With her domed carapace, exquisite scutes and odd bone projections on her cheeks, she looks like a creature from a science fiction film.

Another odd piece that we recently plucked out of the Penthouse of Exley was another odd customer. With short proboscis – trunk-like structures like that of an elephant, and an unusual, downward curving pair of tusks, she was quite an odd sight.

 

The uncrating of the Deinotherium jaw and tusks from its 60 year-old crate. Dusty. Photo courtesy of Miah Tran ’21.

 

This creature has a rather unfortunate name. She was called “terrible beast”, derived from the Ancient Greek, deinos meaning “terrible” and therion meaning “beast”. She was a Deinotherium, a giant extinct elephant relative that lived from the middle Miocene (about 12 million years ago) to the middle Pliocene (about 3 million years ago). There is no consensus, even today, as to how these beasts used their peculiar-looking tusks that apparently serve no apparent purpose apart from prodding themselves when they nod their heads.

 

Artist reconstruction of Deinotherium featuring “self-prodding” tusks and oddly short proboscis. Illustration courtesy of LD Austin.

 

Nevertheless, this creature is by no means the oddest thing the fossil record has in stock. Evolution is a large series of experiments in nature where many body plans have been put to test. The Burgess Shale collection at Wesleyan holds some of the  legendary and mind-blowingly strange fossils from the middle Cambrian, about 550 million years ago. Stranger things lurk on Level 4 of Exley in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History awaiting your discovery.

After the summer, this grand Deinotherium will join the Glyptodon on the museum’s developing series of exhibits around campus. Leave a comment and tell us where you would like to see this animal on campus!

 

Two inquisitive youngsters paying homage to the formidable Deinotherium in the former Wesleyan Museum. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives.

 

The Deinotherium skull and lower jaw placed together, while we are planning for the best way and place  to exhibit them, in Wesleyan machine shop. Together again after 60 years of storage in separate crates, first in the tunnel under Foss Hill (1957-1970), then in the penthouse of Exley.

Cover photo: Deinotherium teeth detail showing premolars used for crunching. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

 

Our Star Glyptodon

After almost a year of collaborative efforts, our Glyptodon, a copy of an original in a museum in Dijon, France, is finally in her place. Come gaze at her gorgeous scutes and adoring smile – it’s there, look carefully. Her favorite spot outside the Science Library, in the lobby of Exley, is decorated with pebbles that resemble those in the bed of the River Lujan, by which she was found in 1846. The screen next to her will tell you about her tumultuous journey from being hunted, to being neglected to finally being loved by all at Wesleyan.

 

The skull of our Glyptodon is a resin replica made by Gaston Design. It was painted to look like fossilised bone, and to match the rest of the cast. The original skull and feet are still missing. Photo courtesy of Olivia Drake.

 

The biological sex of our Glyptodon cannot be determined from the skeletal remains. In honor of the many hidden women figures in the sciences, and in a tribute to a tradition practised by Sir David Attenborough, we assume that our Glyptodon was female.

We are very heartened that our hard work has been appreciated by the community in many ways. Here are some rather comical, but nonetheless appreciated reactions to our GlypGlyp.

 

Alison Gross’18 shows her appreciation of Glyptodon. Video courtesy to Xandra Ellin’18.

 

A little dated, but we couldn’t resist adding this photo of a young prospective Glyptodonologist from the early 1900s to our list of people appreciating the Glyptodon. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives.

If you are wondering, there is so much more in the Wesleyan storage places from where Glyptodon came: she is a mere tip in the sea of icebergs in our collections. The Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History collections on Level 4 of Exley holds over 100,000 fossils, minerals and meteorites. Many of these are world-class specimens that are held by few other institutions in the world. Come feast your eyes on some of nature’s most elusive treasures.

Don’t forget to propose a name for our Glyptodon so that we know what to call her when we walk by.

 

A shout out to everyone who brought the exhibition to fruition. Dr Ellen Thomas and Dr Ann C. Burke, for their mentorship and expert insight. Bruce Strickland, our Glyptodon Engineer, for mounting the pieces together and advising on restoration. James Zareski, for building her a marvellous pedestal like the one on which she used to stand  60 years ago. Joel Labella, for advice and enthusiastic help in restoration. And in a flourish of self-praise, Master Glyptodoners, Yu Kai Tan and Andy Tan restored the cast to its former glory.

 

The Glyptodon Crew. From left to right: Joel Labella, Bruce Strickland, James Zareski, Yu Kai Tan (me), Andy Tan, Dr. Ellen Thomas, Dr Ann C. Burke, David Strickland. Photo courtesy of Olivia Drake.

 

Cover Photo: Frontal portrait detail of Glyptodon skull. Photo courtesy of Olivia Drake.