Bakker blogs: You can’t have a dinosaur as a pet, but you sure can pet a dinosaur!

You know that saying, “You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose”? Well this is like that. Sort of.

We know you can’t actually adopt a dinosaur for a pet, but you can pet a dinosaur at HMNS’ new Hall of Paleontology! Curator Dr. Bob Bakker tells us how (and who) in this latest Bakker blog.

—————

Dinosaur “mummies” conjure up visions of B-movies with Cretaceous monsters wrapped in funereal linen, chasing Brendan Fraser across Egyptian sand dunes.

hall mummy bottom amnh-v
The most famous duck-bill dino mummy is likely the edmontosaur at New York’s American Museum. The “skin” you see is an impression in the rock.

Our new Prehistoric Safari features two dino mummies: our fantastic Triceratops, Lane, and a slab of duck-billed dinosaur we nicknamed “Trigger.” Lane’s perfectly preserved skin is beautiful, but so delicate we can’t let visitors touch it (even the PhDs held their breath when they moved the specimen). But Trigger’s hide is totally petrified and rock-hard, so we want you to pet it.

Go ahead, give Trigger a gentle touch. Lots of folks get goose-bumpy when they run their fingers over the finely textured scales that covered this 4-ton veggie-saur, which chomped down on bushes in Utah some 73 million years ago.

In truth, most “mummified” dinosaurs aren’t exactly mummified in the original sense. True mummies preserve the actual skin and much of the body muscles, which become dehydrated and shrunken around the skull and skeleton.  The Egyptians were masters of religious mummification and devised clever ways to prevent the decay that usually rots out the soft tissue. Nature can mummify human bodies, too — when burials occurred in desert sand. Hot winds suck out the water from the sand and extract the juices from the deceased, leaving a body with leathery skin and desiccated innards.

hall Mum Leo -Poster copy

Dino mummies ≠ Egyptian mummies.

Usually, dinosaur mummies appear as if they have real skin shrunken over their ribcages and faces. But if you look closely, you’ll see that all the skin tissue is actually gone. What’s left is the impression of the skin, preserved in fine-grain sand and mud. What happened is this:

The dinosaur died and dried out. Scavengers were kept away somehow (that’s the tricky part) until sediment buried the carcass. Microbes finally destroyed all the skin tissue, but not before the sediments had been pressed tightly against the body. As the sand and mud hardened, the sediment recorded the impression of the outer skin surface — many “mummies” capture the skin texture with fabulous fidelity.

Lane the Triceratops goes one step better. There are genuine remnants of the original skin material preserved as dark, carbon-rich residue. We’ll do some high tech probing of this stuff to search for organic molecules. (No, we won’t get genetic material, Jurassic Park fans — DNA is too big and complicated to survive more than a few thousand years.)

Our Prehistoric Safari has a fine cast replica of a third dino-mummy, the famous duck-billed Brachylophosaurus named “Leonardo” from Malta, Montana. Leo, as he is known affectionately, has skin impressions over the arms, shins and flank. However, his claim to fame is his innards. The contents of Leo’s stomach and intestines are still there, faithfully recording his last meal. Tiny fragments of Late Cretaceous leaves fill the gastrointestinal tract, and you can see the progress of the digestive cycle.  Leaf bits get smaller passing from the stomach to the lower guts, showing that digestive juices were doing their job of breaking down the food.

Leonardo is the only herbivorous dinosaur specimen which gives us a glimpse into the food-processing organs deep inside the body.

But back to the petting —we have several pettable specimens in the exhibits and on the touch carts. Feel free to stroke bones, teeth, even our wonderful selection of coprolites (though you might want to look that word up).

Question for the Curator: Did Leonardo have a Crop?

We recently received a question through our YouTube channel asking about Leonardo the Mummified Dinosaur. Our viewer wanted to know what evidence there is to support that Leonardo might have had a crop. We passed the question along to Dr. Bakker, our visiting curator of Paleontology.

“In most of the articles I’ve read about Leonardo mention is made of evidence of a crop. Can someone tell me the nature of that evidence? Is the evidence sufficient for a near certainty, a likelihood or only a possibility?”

leo-head-sculpt2

A crop in today’s birds is a specialized pouch, an enlargement of the gullet, where food can be stored before final swallowing. Sometimes there are glands; sometimes not. Usually there are muscular walls and partial partitions so the bird can control swallowing and regurgitation.

The throat skin in Leonardo is distended below the jaws in the region where a crop would be expected to be if Leo were a big turkey. The distention is globular, swollen side-to-side, and not flattened, and the skin shows only weak indications of folds and furrows. That’s why everyone, from the very beginning, labeled this distention a “crop”.

leo-in-chamber-delin2The hi-energy x-rays showed no internal structures here. And there were no small ferrous-iron specks of the sort seen in the stomach and intestinal zones, where masses of chewed vegetation were packed. A chip was removed from the crop, exposing some of the interior – there were no masses of vegetation. The distention was filled with very fine, very clean sand.

Next time we x-ray Leo, we will probe the interior of the “crop” with greater intensity.

Other duck-bill mummies do show a distention in this area but these specimens are flattened side-to-side so the distention appears more like a dew-lap than a crop. Leo is unique in showing so much three dimensional preservation of internal cavities.

One of many lingering mysteries in Leonardo….

Terra Cotta Warriors myths…busted!

Middle Ranking Officer
Creative Commons License photo credit: Richard.Fisher

As you may have noticed from the anticipation, excitement, and general hullabaloo…we recently opened an exhibition chock full of Terra Cotta Warriors. And while museum people tend to find every exhibit that comes through our doors fascinating (part of the reason we take the leap from avid exhibition attendees to employees of said institutions) there are some things – King Tut, T. rex, and the Terra Cotta Warriors among them – that seem simply to have universal appeal.

Other exhibitions do well with particular demographics (history buffs loved Benjamin Franklin, engineers and art lovers packed in to see Leonardo da Vinci, kids couldn’t get enough of the Dino Mummy) but some topics fascinate across the board. Whether from historical importance, sheer size or the stunning nature of a discovery – some artifacts from our collective past stand out, almost demanding that we come and experience them for ourselves.

Due to this, Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperorhas created a lot of conversation – both in our exhibition halls and online – and so we thought we’d address some of the common questions here – and do a little mythbusting of our own.

The Terra Cotta Warriors on display at HMNS are fake. FALSE.

The exhibition contains 17 authentic Terra Cotta figures, including 11 warrior figures – but also court officials, acrobats, musicians, servants and more. Its fascinating to see the incredible detail crafted into each individual warrior – as well as the ways in which various stations in society were represented in clay. The warriors are imposing, the generals are enormous – but the kneeling servant is child-size.

All of the artifacts on display were excavated from the necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, China’s First Emperor. They were brought to Houston as part of an agreement with the Museum of the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huang, Peoples Republic of China.

The exhibition does contain a few replica figures, however these are labeled as such. The replicas were included to represent horses and carriages that have recently been excavated, and are too fragile to travel.

Some confusion may also have arisen due to the existence of the Forbidden Gardens, in Katy. This display recreates the Emperor’s entire necropolis, in one-third size replica figures.

This exhibit has been to Houston before. FALSE…and TRUE.

We’ve heard this several times, but no one seemed to know where the rumor came from. The exhibition itself is newly created and has certainly never been to Houston before it opened here May 22. However, the misconception seems to have arisen from another exhibition that came though Houston, with Terra Cotta Warriors. Thank you to Laurie, one of our intrepid volunteer docents; Donna; one of our fabulous Museum bloggers; and David, a collections registrar from MFAH, for helping us track down the answer!

In 2000, the Museum of Fine Arts hosted The Golden Age of Chinese Archeology; Celebrated Discoveries from the People’s Republic of China, an exhibition of Chinese art that did contain several authentic figures from the terra cotta army. Organized by the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition covered a large span of time – from the prehistoric era to the late 10th century A.D. – and surveyed a broad range of highlights of Chinese archaeology.

Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor, currently on display at HMNS, is a totally new exhibition that contains the most Terra Cotta Warriors and other “Level One” artifacts ever allowed to travel outside of China at once – there are 11 warriors alone, alongside many other kinds of tomb figures, such as acrobats and musicians. It’s also a much more specific look at the time in which the warriors were created – around the end of the 2nd century B.C. – the first time the lands today known as China were unified. A visit to this exhibition is the very best look at these marvels you could possibly get outside of Xi’an, China where the Warriors were discovered.

All of the Terra Cotta Warriors have been found and excavated. FALSE.

aerial-view-terra-cotta-warriorsIt is estimated that 7,000 or more warriors were created to accompany the Emperor to the afterlife – but only 1,000 have been fully excavated. Just recently, two decades after initial excavations ceased, Chinese authorities began new excavations in Xi’an, utilizing new technology that will preserve the warriors’ original colors.

Though excavations continue in the necropolis, the actual tomb of Qin Shi Huang remains intact, due to the high levels of mercury found in the surrounding soil – suggesting that the “rivers of mercury” said to have flowed through the tomb were actually left there and likely stil make the area to toxic to excavate.

Have you heard a Terra Cotta myth that needs debunking? Leave it in the comments and we’ll do our best to get to the bottom of it!

Crickets: Trick or Treat? Let your little one find out at Tricks, Treats, & T-Rex!

Why would you bother Trick-or-Treating for the same old boring candy? Aren’t you exhuasted from the same old M&Ms, Snickers Bars, and Sour Patch Kids? Do you like a good crunch with nutty overtones? Perhaps you have a love for adding the element of slow-roasting to your main dish or maybe you just like the smell of good old fashioned food coming from your oven! Have you ever thought of adding a little cricket to your crock pot or putting some grasshopper in your gazpacho?

A cricket is looking at you
Creative Commons License photo credit: fdecomite

Throughout human history, bugs have been a traditional source of protein. Did you know that hamburger is roughly 18% protein and 18% fat? Cooked grasshopper is 60% protein and only 6% fat! Shrimp and lobster are also considered arthropods; other creatures that share that phylum? Try insects and spiders – Yummy!

Taste for yourself… or better yet, let your kid do it for you! This Saturday from 10am – 2pm, HMNS is serving up bugs for food at Tricks, Treats & T rex – try our “Cajun Crispy Crickets,” or “Chirpy Chip Cookies”…mmmmmmmmmm Mmmm!

We wouldn’t leave you hanging on all of the other fun stuff happening here – you also get to see Mad Scientists perform crazy chemistry demonstrations, you get to touch real brains and eyeballs, and best yet -your ticket includes a show to a world-renowned illusionist, Steve Wallach! It’s a heck of a deal for $5 (nonmembers) or $4 (members)!

When you purchase your tickets you also get the opportunity of purchasing tickets to Dinosaur Mummy CSI at the group rate!