Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Collection Spotlight: NMNH Vertebrate Paleontology




Fig.1. Hatcher the Triceratops and Stan the T. rex are center stage in “The Last American Dinosaurs” at the National Museum of Natural History (Credit: Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution).

In this new article series, we will highlight interesting collections and the people involved with them. Last week we spoke with Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Here is what he had to say about this intriguing (and old) collection.

If you wanted to know Dr. Sues’ favorite collection specimen, he would probably stop you from finishing the question.

“This would be like asking, ‘Which of your children do you love most?’” he wrote in an email. “We have so many wonderful and important fossils that I cannot choose one particular specimen.”

Even if one were pressed to choose, the museum’s Department of Paleobiology holds one of the largest vertebrate paleontology collections in the world, with many type specimens. Among the over 1,500 cataloged dinosaur specimens are the subjects of the new exhibit “The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World.” This exhibit focuses on the extinction of dinosaurs, 66 million  years ago. Instead of simply showing dinosaurs and where they came from, “The Last American Dinosaurs” examines the extinction event from an ecological and evolutionary perspective. What happened to the environment 66 million years ago and how did it recover? Did other species die off or flourish? Answering these questions are important for understanding this ancient event.

Just as this exhibit shifted to show the ecosystem-wide changes, the collection of vertebrate paleontology focuses less on a purely encyclopedic view of animals. Sues called the encyclopedic emphasis “impractical” and said that the collection has become more centered on the curator’s research. Curators also receive and maintain specimens or collections which have been donated by other institutions.

Indeed, the curators work to maintain collections and complete their own research. The Department of Paleobiology has work being done in a wide range of topics, from the evolution of plant-insect interactions to the history of whales. Sues is interested in the evolutionary history and diversity of late Paleozoic and Mesozoic reptiles, amphibians, and mammal precursors.

Like other collections-holding institutions, Sues cites money and personnel the main problems his department faces. Nevertheless, a goal for the collection is to make it more accessible by digitizing important specimens. A digitized dinosaur can reach a diverse audience, from students to researchers or possible future donors. Another goal for Sues and the department is to maintain specimens for long-term preservation and accessibility. After all, we want these fossils to survive for a little while longer.



Glossary

paleobiology
The relatively new discipline which combines natural science with earth sciences, and current studies with fossil studies, to study molecular evolution and evolutionary history of life.
vertebrate paleontology
Sub-field of paleontology which studies the behavior, reproduction, and appearance of extinct vertebrate animals through fossils.
type specimens
The specimen on which a new species was founded and represents the ultimate standard for all subsequent comparisons

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