Black Hills Institute

Today’s post is by Sami Mesarwi, a member of the Museum’s marketing staff who recently traveled to South Dakota to visit the Black Hills Institute. 

If the company you work for had to send you on a business trip anywhere you wanted to go, where would it be?  Paris?  London?  Shanghai?  How about Hill City, South Dakota?  Probably wouldn’t be a first choice for too many out there… And while I would have said the same before my trip to the Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research (and I probably still wouldn’t be able to pass on Paris), this paleontological-Mecca should definitely be in the running for you dino-die-hards out there.

Black Hills Institute Outside Facade
The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research

I’ve always loved dinosaurs. 

In fact, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is still one of my all-time favorite books (I may have grown up thinking that Crichton’s logic used in the novel to try and resurrect dinosaurs using the DNA found in preserved mosquitoes, as well as amphibians to fill in the holes, was flawless, but I’ve come a long way since then).  So, going on this trip seemed like it was going to be quite enjoyable from the start.  Our mission was simple enough: to go up and get some photos of the fossils that will eventually be on display in the museum’s upcoming new paleontology hall, opening summer 2012.

A coworker and I took the trip up to South Dakota in April, a time when Houston weather had consistently already warmed up to 90+ degrees outside.  However, surprising to all of us on the trip, we were greeted by snow in South Dakota!  Even though it was April, it was a Winter Wonderland—the color of the snow that covered the ground literally blended in with the sky’s horizon. Needless to say, it was pretty cold.  But I was able to get some pretty nice still shots out of it.

Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland!

Day one of our trip to South Dakota was a whirlwind of sights and sounds from within the Black Hills Institute. 

Everyone met up inside the Institute with the famed Peter Larson, the Yoda (though not quite as old) of casting fossils and of T. rex.  He gave us a brief history of his background and of the Institute while in the main lobby area, a who’s who of dinosaurs from several different eras.  In addition to the infamous SUE the T. rex, there were examples of Triceratops, Struthiomimus, Acrocanthosaurus, what seemed like an infinite amount of ammonites, and so much more, all filling an area about the size of an average backyard in the suburbs.  It was amazing—I’ve never seen so many dinosaurs in a compact area before.

Pete Larson
Pete Larson in the zone.
Dino Showroom
The Black Hills Institute Showroom

Onwards we continued to the prepping areas (a separate building from the museum itself), showcasing a few dinosaurs in the development and mounting stages. Pete told us about several of the specimens we’d be getting here at HMNS, before all of the paleontologists on hand broke into a discussion about the immaculate condition some of the fossils were in (I can’t give away too much about what in particular we’re getting—you’ll just have to wait and see!).  Before this trip, I thought I could hold my ground pretty decently well in matters of dino-speak.  But boy was I wrong.  Being surrounded by so many accomplished and literally world-renowned paleontologists (including Pete Larson, Dr. Robert Bakker, and so many others) was really very exciting.  But also quite humbling.

Pete then took us to the casting/molding area, where several Black Hills employees were diligently working to create some very impressive casts of fossils that they had.  They poured the liquid silicone rubber into the two mold halves, and, with some of the smaller ones, fastened them together with—interestingly enough—Legos! Turns out those colorful, little building blocks aren’t just fun to play with, but are also way more practical than you would think…

Pete Larson Bob Bakker
Pete Larson and Dr. Bob Bakker examining a recent find.

Our second (and final) day of the trip allowed for us to talk up close with Pete himself. 

Pete told us all about the Black Hills Institute itself and how it came to be—in 1974, as an earth science supply house, providing teaching specimens for colleges and universities, before branching out into doing museum exhibits.  In fact, as Pete points out, the products coming out of the Black Hills Institute can be found on every continent in the world (though he was mindful to exclude Antarctica from the list—hardly as impressive now, if you ask me).  After he answered our countless questions, Pete allowed for us to roam around the Black Hills Institute at our leisure, getting some shots of whatever it is that we wanted.  We took still shots of some of the specimens that will be making an appearance in the new paleontology hall, as well as some of the stars of the show.

After that, we grabbed a quick lunch at the corner bistro before heading back home to Houston.  Though we did make a quick stop on the way back… As we were only about 15 miles away from Mount Rushmore, we went ahead and visited the famed monument on our way to the airport. Quite breathtaking, I must say!  To me, the tranquility of the park where the monument is located, coupled with the remarkable stature of the presidents whose faces are forever immortalized in the mountain’s façade, were equally as impressive to me as the mountain goat we saw.

Mt. Rushmore
Mount Rushmore.

All in all, the trip to Hill City, South Dakota was so much cooler (both, literally and figuratively) than I originally anticipated.  While the city itself isn’t exactly the largest out there (population: 948), or the most exotic of your travel destinations, it should absolutely be a front-runner for all of you dino-enthusiasts out there.

Ankylosaurs aren’t very aerodynamic*

But they can still fly!

Ankylosaur Flying! [1.21.11]
Quite a view! See the entire set from the move on Flickr.

If you’ve never seen a dinosaur fly, then you weren’t in the vicinity of the museum around 11 am last Friday – at which time it was almost impossible to miss our airborne ankylosaur.

Pretty cool! The ankylosaur – an original created for the 1964 World’s Fair – has been a much loved part of our paleontology hall for decades. As part of the ongoing construction associated with our current expansion, the ankylosaur – along with several other displays from the hall – was de-installed and will be stored until it re-emerges in our new paleo hall in 2012!

Carolyn recorded this video – it’s amazing how fast this big guy hopscotched over our entire new wing!

More on the Ankylosaur!

HMNS Flickr Set“Warwick Towers Survive Dinosaur Attack” on Swamplot | Flickr set from allison362

*Excellent point, via twitter from @laelaps

Archimedes, Atoms and Archaeopteryx

Peter L. Larson, paleontologist and geologist, is a paleontologist and the president of Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota. Larson is on the research team investigating Archaeopteryx and other fossils at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Today he blogs about the fossil Archaeopteryx and how high powered X-rays helps us learn new things about this unique fossil.

  
Paleontologist. Pete Larson (left) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The discovery, sale and subsequent scientific examination of the sole surviving thousand year old palimpsest recording the work of Archimedes (who died in 212 B.C.) has made it possible to study fossils using high energy x-rays to map the distribution of elements across the surface of the rocks containing their remains. A group of scientists gathered at the Stanford Synchrotron Laboratory in Menlo Park California to study one of the iconic “missing links” of evolutionary biology, Archaeopteryx. This investigation was able to show that not only was there original material from the living Archaeopteryx preserved in the dino-bird skeleton, but that the “feather impressions” were not impressions of feathers, but the feathers themselves, preserved in the limestone matrix for more than 145 million years. This research has opened a door to a new dimension for the study of fossils. It gives us a new way to study soft tissue, the chemistry of preservation, and details that everyone thought were lost in time.

For details about the X-ray Fluorescence imaging of the Thermopolis specimen of Archaeopteryx, see the May 10, 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Take a tour of our current Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution exhibit with Pete in the video below, and don’t miss your opportunity to ask him questions during our upcoming online webinar session. Join us on June 17 at 10 a.m. as Larson answers questions about Archaeopteryx, the exhibition and his own research. Register here, or see instructions below.

Archaeopteryx: Tour the Exhibit with Pete Larson from HMNS on Vimeo.

To register for our online webinar with Pete Larson
1)      Click here.
2)      Click “Register.”
3)      On the registration form, enter your information and then click “Submit.”


How To Make a Perfect Fish – Two Views

Ed Note: Many fossils from the periods discussed and the Solnhofen locality are currently on display in Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution. Join a live online discussion about the latest research into the title fossil with paleontologist Pete Larson on June 17.

Intelligent Design – For Jurassic Fish

Louis Agassiz

Right now,  in the 21st Century, the “Intelligent Design” is the latest development in arguments about Creation versus Evolution. Bur it’s not a new idea. The Father of Fossil Fish Science, Louis Agassiz, used Intelligent Design to explain Solnhofen sharks and bony fish in the 1840’s and 1850’s.

Here’s how Agassiz laid out the argument:

Expert Engineering in Fins and Jaws
Fish today have bodies that fit their environment. Bottom-living sharks and rays have flat bodies. Fins and teeth are “designed” to crush clams and crustaceans these predators find hiding in the sea bottom. In the open sea water, fast-swimming mackerel have thin scales, plump, streamlined bodies, and tall, narrow tail fins that seem ‘designed’ to catch small fish in fast attacks.

Jurassic Fish Were Built For their World
Each and every slice of geological time had fish shaped just right to fit their ancient habitats. The Solnhofen Gyrodus had the deep body ideal for hovering in quiet water near a reef. It carried incredibly strong teeth, dental tools that let the fish bite off chunks of coral and snatch clams embedded in the reef.

In Every Period, Fish Habitats Were Balanced
Each extinct habitat was balanced by precisely the right sort of predators and prey. Gyrodus pruned the reef, eating away excess algae, crabs and coral growth. That way the reef stayed healthy and no species became over-abundant. The aggressive reef predator Aspidorhynchus hunted the Gyrodus and kept its numbers down to just the right levels – not too rare, not too common. The big, fast teleost predators, like Thrissops, did their job in keeping Aspidorhynchus numbers in check.”

According to Jurassic Intelligent Design, the entire Solnhofen reef ecosystem was crafted by an unseen Creative mind that planned every detail.

Serial Creation, Agassiz’s view of Creation was not static. The entire World Ecosystem was revolutionized by change every million years or so. At the end of the Jurassic, many fish species went extinct. New species appeared. More extinctions and more waves of new species appeared at the end of the Cretaceous. More and more extinction-replacements occurred all through the next  Period, the Tertiary.

These revolutions were necessary because the World Climate changed fundamentally. Jurassic seas were tropical and Jurassic lands were as steamy as hot-houses. But the climate got cooler in later Periods. The fish that were perfectly designed for the Jurassic were not optimized for the Tertiary Period. Each new wave of extinction and replacement was required to maintain the exquisite balance in reef and coral-biter, coral-biters and Apex Predators.

The Theory of Natural Selection

Charles Darwin

Darwin and the Perfect Fish
Charles Darwin too was worried about perfectly designed fish. He recognized the extraordinary adaptations in predators that let them catch prey and the delicate balance among species in most habitats. But Darwin argued that natural processes could make ecosystems perfect, or nearly so. His theory had only a few simple steps:

All jaws and fins and bodies vary in all species
When a naturalist studied hundreds of specimens of Gyrodus or a living species, jaws and teeth and fins varied within the the species. Studies of domestic animals – Darwin liked pigeons – proved that much of the variation was genetic. Breed a tall pigeon female with a tall male and the chicks were, on average, tall. Breed a bigger than average goldfish with another big goldfish, and their young will be bigger than average.

Variations Pop Up All the Time
In 1859, when he wrote “The Origin of Species”, Darwin didn’t know where variations came from. The understanding of genes wouldn’t come until after 1900. But Darwin did know that new genetic variations arose in every population.

Nature is Cruel and Most Individuals Die Young
A big reef fish might spawn a hundred youngsters each summer. Few would live beyond six months. Only 1% or less would survive to breed. That’s the basic calculus of ecosystems.

Nature “Selects” the Genetically Fortunate
If a fish or wild pigeon hatches out with just the right genes, it gets an advantage. It can live longer, grow faster, and reproduce earlier than its relatives. Generation after generation, the lucky genes accumulate. In a thousand generations, a fish or bird species can be transformed.

Natural Selection Works All the Time to Keep Systems Nearly Perfect
Nature keeps selecting the lucky genes and keeps most of the species ideally “designed” most of the time.  That’s how Jurassic predators were kept fine-tuned to their prey. When climate changed abruptly, old species died out and new ones evolved.