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.

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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….

On the Sixth Day of HMNS…hunt dinosaurs with Dr. Bob Bakker

There’s always a lot happening at the Houston Museum of Natural Science – especially during the holiday season. Today’s post is just one of the 12 ideas for fabulous family fun we’ve put together for you (it’s a take-off of everyone’s favorite holiday classic, The 12 Days of Christmas) We’ll be sharing the possibilities here every day until Christmas Eve. Best of all, most are activities that last past the holiday season – some, year round. You can also check them all out now at the spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site.

Today, hunt dinosaurs with famed paleontologist and HMNS curator of paleontology Dr. Robert Bakker. The video was shot in May 2008 on the ranch in Montana where Leonardo, the mummified dinosaur on display in Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation, was found. Dr. Bakker tells us how a fossil like Leonardo was made, then takes us through the process of fossil hunting – from how to train your eye to find the smallest fragments to what to do once you’ve got a good layer of fossils going.

And – don’t miss Leonardo’s world premiere at HMNS! This spectacular mummified fossil – covered 90% with skin and including mummified internal organs – is going back to his permanent home in Malta after the exhibit closes on Jan. 11. Leonardo is truly a wonder – it evokes, more than any fossil I’ve ever seen, a real sense of what dinosaurs must have been like in life. You won’t want to miss seeing this in person.

Check out the first five days of HMNS:
On the first day of HMNS, explore The Birth of Christianity.
On the second day of HMNS, shop for Sci-tastic gifts.
On the third day of HMNS, meet Prancer the reindeer.
On the fourth day of HMNS, discover the making of The Star of Bethlehem.
On the fifth day, move it, move it with Madagascar 2in the Wortham IMAX Theatre.

Draw A Dino Contest: Winners!

Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who entered the Draw A Dino Contest, in honor of the world premiere exhibition of Leonardo, the mummified dinosaur in Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation.

We were totally amazed and overwhelmed by the fabulous dinosaur drawings that poured through our doors throughout the contest. The creativity – and scientific understanding – of our entrants is astounding.

The contest was judged by HMNS curator of paleontology Dr. Robert T Bakker, and winners were chosen in two categories: Scientific Accuracy and Artistic Effect. It was such a tough decision – and we were so impressed with every entry – that we’ll be posting a slideshow where they can all be seen – I hope you’ll come back soon to check them out – there are some very cool kids out there!

And the winners are…

Scientific Accuracy

Dr. Bakker picked Todd Blackmon’s drawing in the category of scientific accuracy because Todd did something very scientific – he labeled his drawing, pointing out the anatomy of T. rex. This is something Dr. Bakker himself always does in his drawings, because it helps people to learn and remember.

Here’s what Todd had to say about his winning illustration:

“My reason for entering the contest was to have fun. I wanted to follow the rules of the contest and draw T-Rex and point out his features. It was very challenging to look at the huge dinosaur and make him fit on a piece of paper.”

T. rex by Todd Blackmon

Artistic Effect

Dr. Bakker chose Myria Perez’ drawing for the category of Artistic Effect because of the compelling scene she created – a scene that’s both emotionally compelling and based on current scientific understanding of the circumstances surrounding Leonardo’s death, from the hypothesized flooding event to the cracks that can be seen in Leonardo’s abdomen today. If you visit the Dino Mummy exhibit, you’ll see just how accurate Myria’s artistic vision truly is.

Here’s what Myria had to say about her creation:

“Creating “Leonardo’s Death”
Creating Leonardo’s death was a thrilling experience!  I learned so much about his lifestyle.  Before I started the final drawing, I decided to have an action scene because I am certain Leonardo’s last moments were filled with action.  I wanted to draw a picture that showed that action and a lot of detail. 

The first sketch I did of Leonardo was just an idea based on what I could remember about the exhibit and how he died with the wound.  After the initial sketch, I went online to find pictures of Brachylophosaur and thought about different positions I could place Leonardo in.  I decided on a pose for him: slightly tipping, an open mouth out towards the sky, and his tail curved around the wound a Daspletosaurus gave his side. 

Leonardo’s last moments probably included rain and a flood to perfectly preserve him as a mummy.  I decided to have the water up almost to his knee, but with enough room to let you see the details of his wound.  One of my favorite parts about drawing this scene was there was a lot of splashing and action with the blood trickling down and the rain.  The blood from his side oozes from his side and then splashes in the water. 

I was able to show this by shading dark to light under the water ripples so it would look like it faded.  I found it challenging to show the rain hitting Leonardo and sliding down his body off into the water after being blown by the wind.  The part of the drawing that took me the longest was all of the small hard to see scales over the entire body of Leonardo.  The scales are larger on the front of his legs because he would have needed better protection to walk through the brush. 

Creating  “Leonardo’s Death” is a drawing experience that has changed how I will look at my future drawings.  “Leonardo’s Death” has been my most successful drawing so far!”

“Leonardo’s Death” by Myria Perez

Congratulations to Myria and Todd! They’ll both receive $200 gift certificates to Texas Art Supply – keep drawing! – and a signed dinosaur drawing by Dr. Bakker himself. And, thank you to everyone else who entered – we’ll be posting a slideshow of all their creative, fun and thoughtful drawings here soon.