Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Titans of the Ice Age: When Big was Cool

We have a new exhibit at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History!

Last Saturday, December 14, we opened Titans of the Ice Age: When Big was Cool!  This new exhibit was built by Sternberg Museum staff and features information about Ice Age mammals. The last ice age took place during the Pleistocene Epoch, which lasted 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years ago.  During this time, large portions of Earth's surface (up to 30%) was repeatedly covered by glaciers, and then uncovered when glaciers retreated as climate warmed.  Many of the animals that lived at this time are referred to as the Pleistocene Megafauna because they were bigger than their modern descendants.

This new exhibit explains why the climate was colder during the Pleistocene and why many of the animals were bigger. It compares extinct Ice Age animals to their living descendants and discusses the current scientific hypotheses surround the extinction of the Megafauna around 10,000 years ago.

This new exhibit showcases Pleistocene animals next to their modern counterparts, demonstrating the changes in size, ecology, and behavior within different mammal lineages.  Bison latifrons (the long-horned bison), Panthera atrox (the North American lion), and Mammuthus columbi (the Columbian mammoth), and Arctodus simus (the short-faced bear) are just some of the animals on display.  These animal are distinctly different from their modern relatives.  Understanding these differences is important for scientists, policy makers, and anyone concerned about the future of our ecosystems given ongoing global climate change.

Kansas is well known for our Cretaceous Seaway fossils like mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, sharks, and sea turtles, but we also have a record of the animals that roamed the grasslands at the edge of the ice sheets during the Pleistocene.  Mammoth, horse, bison, camel, and sloth skeletons can be found in gravels and other glacial deposits around the state.  With the unveiling of this new exhibit, we are finally able to tell the stories of the animals that lived not too long ago, but during a time that was characterized by extreme changes in the climate and landscape.

Titans of the Ice Age: When Big was Cool will be open for the next year and is part of a series of exhibits the Sternberg Museum will be building and opening over the next few years.

Come discover what's under the Dome!
Panthera atrox, the North American lion that used to roam the plains during the last Ice Age. This cat was larger than any known lion species - past or present.

Monday, December 9, 2013

New Exhibit Opening!

Opening Saturday December 14th, 2013:

                         When Big Was Cool

By comparing fossils from the most recent Ice Age with their modern descendants, this new exhibit showcases some of the Megafauna that used to roam North America. 

  • Why was the Ice Age cold?
  • Why did mammals get so much bigger?
  • Why did the Megafauna die 10,000 years ago?

The Museum members-only opening is 10am - Noon on Saturday.*
The exhibit opens to the public at NOON on Saturday

Come visit the Museum if you're looking for something to do with the family, an escape from the cold, or to do some holiday shopping at the Excavations Gift Shop!

*Members-only opening includes a guided tour of the new exhibit, Q&A with Museum staff, and refreshments.  If you want to become a member, membership registration will be available on-site Saturday morning. 

UPDATE: KSN aired a nice segment on the new exhibit opening.  Thanks, Molly Hadfield and KSN!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Update: San Diego Museum fossils pulled from auction

The world of vertebrate paleontology has been abuzz over the past week about the pending sale of 12 fossil vertebrate to the highest bidder. What was different about the auctioning of these fossils, compared to other fossil sales, is that they were being sold by a public museum.  The San Diego Natural History Museum de-accessioned 12 vertebrate fossils to sell at auction - meaning they would most likely be sold into private collections where they could no longer be used for education and science. Please see my previous post for more information on the significance of these fossils and why the sale of them would have been devastating to natural history museums, professional paleontologists, and our communities.

In this light, the good news just broke that the San Diego Museum Natural History Museum has pulled all of its fossils from the auction. In their official statement, SDMNH states:
"The San Diego Natural History Museum has made a decision to withdraw the 12 fossils listed for sale in the Bonhams public auction scheduled for November 19, 2013 ... By withdrawing the specimens from the auction, and in light of the recent interest shown by numerous institutions in these fossils, we will be reevaluating how to proceed. This will allow us to revisit alternative strategies that would allow the fossils to remain in the public trust." 
A large outcry of concern from the paleontology community as well as the general public, has resulted in the preservation of these historically and scientifically significant specimens.  Thank you to everyone who joined your voices together to let the SDNHM know the implications of their actions - from the paleontologists who led the charge, to the western Kansas community members who grew up with a love and respect for our natural history. It has been wonderful to see professionals, amateurs, students, museum patrons, and concerned citizens stand on the same side of an important issue.

Well Done.

Laura Wilson
Chief Curator/Curator of Paleontology
Sternberg Museum of Natural History
Fort Hays State University

** As an aside, although the San Diego Museum has not decided how to proceed with keeping these fossils in the public trust, the Sternberg Museum has let them know that our offer to accept their Charles Sternberg collection is still on the table. **

Sunday, November 17, 2013

An Open Letter to the San Diego Natural History Museum

On November 19, 2013 the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) is set to sell 11 fossils on public auction through Bonhams. Six of these fossils were collected by Charles H. Sternberg from the chalks of western Kansas (note that the Canadian chasmosaur dinosaur skull has been withdrawn from auction), and so have significant historical and scientific value. Specimens like the large Xiphactinus have been studied by researchers and been included in scientific publications. The selling of fossils is a direct breech of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's code of ethics. On the subject of commercial sale or trade, the Member Bylaw on Ethics Statement reads:

"The barter, sale or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust. Any other trade or commerce in scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is inconsistent with the foregoing, in that it deprives both the public and professionals of important specimens, which are part of our natural heritage."

Below is the letter I sent to the SDNHM expressing my concern over the sale of fossils. This is not a matter of amateur vs. professional paleontologist, or even commercial collecting, but is about the role of museums in safeguarding our natural history collections.  For a public, federally recognized repository to sell fossils into private collections (sadly, museums just don't have the financial resources to purchase fossils) violates the very essence of a museum. If sold, these spectacular specimens will be lost from public education and scientific research forever.  This is a crucial issue for paleontologists, museum professionals, and members of our community who trust us to care for and preserve our human and natural history heritage.

Please feel free to leave comments on this thread and/or share this thread with others.  If you wish to send comments directly to the San Diego Natural History Museum speaking out against selling these fossils, you can contact them here.

Please feel free to contact me, as well.

Thank you for your concern,

Laura Wilson
Chief Curator/Curator of Paleontology
Sternberg Museum of Natural History
Fort Hays State University

**It should be noted that the decision to sell these fossils was not made by paleontology or science staff at the San Diego museum, but by the Museum President, Board of Directors, and other administrators.

The Xiphactinus mount on auction by the San Diego Natural History Museum. Collected by Charles H. Sternberg and accessioned into SDNHM in the 1920s. Image taken from the Bonhams catalog (linked above).


Thursday, November 14, 2013


From October 30 to November 2, paleontologists from around the world came together for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting. Professors, curators, students, and other paleo aficionados descended upon the unsuspecting city of Los Angeles, California.  Conferences are always a fun and exciting mix of hot-off-the-press science, visiting with old friends, making new connections, developing new research projects, and late night schmoozing. 

This year, Fort Hays State University and the Sternberg Museum were well-represented by students, faculty, and staff. Seven graduate students from the Department of Geosciences attended SVP, including Kelsie Abrams, Tom Buskuskie, Josh Fry, Seth Hammond, Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith, Melissa Macias, and Ian Trevethan.  Undergraduate paleo student Jason Hughes and his guide dog, Indie, also joined the motley crew. Geosciences professor and Sternberg curator Dr. Laura Wilson, Sternberg education director David Levering, and Biological sciences professor Dr. Chris Bennett rounded out the Hays contingent.

Fort Hays State paleontologists at the LA County Museum welcome reception at SVP.
(L to R: Josh Fry, Melissa Macias, Ian Trevethan, Laura Wilson, Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith, Tom Buskuskie, Jason Hughes, Kelsie Abrams)

SVP conferences are filled with scientific talks by top minds in the field, followed by afternoon poster sessions for more discussions on new research.  Evenings allow for a time to take scientific conversations and catching up with friends into a more casual atmosphere. Many of us were there not only to learn, but to educate as well.  Ian presented a poster on preliminary results from his Master's project: "Thermoregulatory status of mosasaurs from the Western Interior Seaway of Kansas, USA". Mackenzie and Melissa both had poster presentations showcasing undergraduate research projects completed at Indiana University and UC Santa Barbara, respectively. In her research, Mackenzie used modern analogs to help study fossils. Her poster explained "Hind limb morphology of carnivorous birds: A morphometic analysis of prey preference and predatory techniques".  Melissa brought us into the world of giant ground sloths with a poster on "New Pleistocene megafauna localities in Santa Barbara County, California: Paleontological reconnaissance of the marine terrace deposits at Vandenberg Air Force Base."

David gave a talk on his Master's research from Oklahoma State University, "Of multituberculates and mass extinction: Evidence of selection for small body size within the Cimolodonta (Multituberculata) across the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction boundary, followed by morphospace recovery and expansion in the earliest Paleogene".  A mouthful, but an interesting look at body size change in a group of mammals during the extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs (or at least the dinosaurs that weren't birds).  Lastly, Dr. Bennett presented a poster on the enigmatic pterosaurs, "Reinterpretation of the wings of Pterodactylus antiquus based on the Vienna specimen".

Another noteworthy event at this year's conference was in the awards ceremony. Every year at the award's banquet that closes the conference, SVP gives out research grants and awards of recognition to students, paleo-artists, and professions alike. One of these is the Romer-Simpson Medal, "awarded for sustained and outstanding scholarly excellence in the discipline of Vertebrate Paleontology".  This is the society's highest award. This year's Romer-Simpson medal was awarded to Dr. Jack Horner, Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. This hits particularly close to home because Jack was Dr. Laura Wilson Master's advisor and mentor since entering the field of paleontology. Laura and her students (technically, Jack's grand-students) have a huge legacy to live up to and pass on to the next generation of scientists. 
Dr. Jack Horner with some of his former and current students after receiving the Romer-Simpson Medal at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting.

Between presentations on cutting edge science, discussions with colleagues, student recruitment, catching up with old friends, making new friends, gorging on ethnic food, and visiting local museums, SVP 2013 was a successful meeting for all! I hope everyone is starting to save for SVP 2014 in Berlin, Germany!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

National Fossil Day: Heading To A Museum Near You

In 2010, that National Park Service and over 270 supporting museums, institutions, and organizations celebrated the first National Fossil Day. National Fossil Day was established to promote the educational and scientific value of fossils, while celebrating this country's fossil resources. It falls on the third Wednesday in October during Earth Science Week - this year it is on Wednesday October 16, 2013. The Sternberg Museum of Natural History is putting on a day of activities and special programming for visitors of all ages in celebration.

On National Fossil Day - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - the Sternberg Museum will be free of charge to all visitors.  We also have extended hours and will be open from 9 AM until 8 PM with a day packed full of special activities:

  • 9:00 AM - 1:30 PM
    • During the morning, we will be opening our doors to K-12 school groups from Hays and the surrounding area to come to the museum for special presentations.  Students will be able to explore the world of paleontology through a series of special exhibits set up around the museum paring fossil and live organisms.
    • The museum will be open to the public at this time, but presentations will be geared towards the visiting school groups. 

  • 2:00 PM - 3:00 PM
    • Join us for a special presentation by Adjunct Curator Mike Everhart on the new Cretaceous sea turtle fossil recently donated to the Museum. After Mike's presentation, we will have a small reception as we thank the Bird family who donated the fossil. 

  • 4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
    • Doors are open to visitors of all ages to explore the Sternberg Museum.  We will have special exhibits and presentations set up around the museum.  These special exhibits will feature live and fossil animals to explain how paleontologists study how extinct animals evolved, moved, interacted with other animals, and interacted with their environment.
  • 6:30 PM - 8:00 PM
    • We will be featuring a series of talks and panel discussions by Museum paleontologists and educators exploring different aspects of paleontology.
      • 6:30 PM - Mike Everhart (Adjunct Curator of Paleontology), "The Sternberg Family Legacy"
      • 7:00 PM - Dr. Laura Wilson (Curator of Paleontology), "A Bird's Eye View of the Western Interior Seaway"
      • 7:30 PM - David Levering (Education Director), "Walking, Running, and Pouncing..."
    • During this time, the Discovery Room will be open to kids of all ages with special fossil-related activities.

So join the Sternberg Museum on October 16th for National Fossil Day - and bring your friends and family!  Hope to see you there!

Monday, September 30, 2013

September Outreach with PBS

In the middle of September, the Sternberg Museum joined Smoky Hill Public Television (our local Western Kansas PBS station) in their Family Fun Day.  Amid the children dragging their parents to booths to play games for prizes and have their pictures taken with beloved PBS characters, the Museum was able to set up a table showcasing extinct and extant animals from Kansas. The live animals are always a hit, and our Hognose snake (Chubs), Great Plains Ratsnake (Buddy), Common Snapping Turtle (Jeffery - don't worry, kiddos, he doesn't snap!), and mice with pinkies were no exception. Snakes will always stir up a mixed reaction from people, but by bringing mice and explaining how fast mice can reproduce (every 30 days!), we can present a convincing argument for the importance of snakes in the ecosystem. Overall, I think most kids were more scared of Clifford the Big Red Dog than of Buddy and Chubs.

The fossils may not always take center stage when live reptiles and mammals are involved, but our smorgasbord of Kansas fossils demanded attention and raised excitement. Perhaps most impressively, we took a life-size skull cast of Megacephalosaurus - a pliosaur plesiosaur from the Carlile Shale of Western Kansas. (Of note, this fossil is also the Sternberg Museum's most recent holotype.  Check out the JVP article by Schumacher et al. from earlier this year.) With a name that means "big headed lizard", our skull cast was quite an attention-grabber. We also had skull casts of a nodosaur dinosaur from Kansas, as well as mammoth and mastodon fossils. The look on a child's face when you tell them they are touching a really fossil is inspiring.

Museum outreach and education is one of the most rewarding parts of being associated with a natural history museum. It is also one of the tenants justifying continued funding of museums. With educational programming geared at children, youth, and adults, the world is truly a student of science.  An informal set-up at a Family Day featuring glimpses into Kansas' past and present ecology and the chance to discuss science with people of all ages is just as important of an educational opportunity as more traditional classroom instruction. Having undergraduate and graduate students excited to help and educate out makes the experience even more valuable and educational.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

ISPH 2013 - Inside fossil bones and teeth

Last week was the Second International Symposium on Paleohistology (ISPH.2013), hosted by the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.  Histology - the study of tissue - is a growing field in paleontology and is infiltrating all aspects of paleontological research. Paleontologists, specifically, study bone and tooth tissue of fossil and modern organisms.  Bone histology directly relates to the growth dynamics of an organism and helps researchers better understand the evolutionary history, development and maturation, and life history of extinct animals. This conference brought together some of the top researchers in the field of paleohistology - everyone from those who established the field decades ago, to the rising stars, to the students just beginning their scientific careers. As the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology grows larger and larger, these smaller, topical conferences seem to be growing in popularity and abundance, as they provide exceptional opportunities to develop projects, share research, and connect without other people in specific subfields. ISPH is no exception and was a fantastic conference with an international line-up of talks and productive break-out sessions; key-note talks were given by Dr. Jack Horner (Museum of the Rockies/Montana State University) and Dr. Jorge Cubo (Universit√© Pierre et Marie Curie - Sorbonne Universit√©s - Paris). Just check out the talk and poster titles!

Adelie penguins have the most northern
(highest latitude) distribution of the three
Pygoscelis species
The paleontology department at the Sternberg Museum and Fort Hays State University was represented by a talk by Dr. Laura Wilson, co-authored by Dr. Karen Chin (University of Colorado, Boulder/University of Colorado Museum of Natural History), entitled: "Effects of Environment and Behavior on Bone Growth Patterns in Pygoscelis Penguins".  The talk focused on analyzing the bone growth dynamics of living Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap penguins in light of climatic, biogeographic, and migration parameters.  Focusing on a modern group of birds, this research provides insight into some of the factors (as well as complications) that needs to be considered when analyzing and interpreting growth patterns. This is a key factor to consider when studying extinct organisms (particularly avian and non-avian dinosaurs), so is highly applicable to paleontological research. 

This is just the beginning of histology research at the Sternberg Museum and FHSU, as we are in the process of setting up our own histology lab where we can produce and analyze our own fossil and modern bone specimens.  We look forward to continued analysis, student research, and intercollegiate and international collaborations into the future!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Graduation News!

Elizabeth, holding one of her thesis specimens
(M. columbi) in the Vertebrate Paleontology
collections at the Sternberg Museum.
Congratulations to Elizabeth Deering - Fort Hays State University's most recent graduate from the paleontology program in the Department of Geosciences.  Elizabeth recently defended her Master's thesis entitled "Identification and Paleoecology of Mammoth Teeth from the Vertebrate Paleontology Collection at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Hays, Kansas"

Elizabeth spent her two year here at FHSU as the graduate curatorial assistant in the vertebrate paleontology collections. She now pursuing jobs in the natural history museum field and research opportunities.  Good luck, Elizabeth!!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Live from the Sternberg

Welcome to the home blog for the paleontology department at The Sternberg Museum of Natural History and Fort Hays State University!

Check here for news on the skeletons in Sternberg's Closet.