By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015
[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]
“…Edward Hitchcock’s collection of fossilized tracks and traces of dinosaurs is one of the largest in the world and the Beneski Museum of Natural History exhibits them as fine art, carved by nature… Under soft lighting, a saturation of textures emerges from or deepens into the flat rocks. The 200-million-year-old footprints are so exquisite…”
The United States houses the world’s best exhibits of natural history. From the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington D.C., which opened in 1910 and now cares for 126 million specimens (the largest collection ever), to smaller local displays of high quality, like the University of Nebraska State Museum, in Lincoln (85,000 specimens catalogued since 1871). Its “Elephant Hall” and skeletons of the North American megafauna —which vanished 5,000-10,000 years ago— are spectacular.
But my latest encounter with fossils just happened at the Beneski Museum of Natural History in Amherst College, where precious casts of dinosaurs’ footprints are showcased as fine art, sculptured by nature. An award-winning facility (for its architecture), the Beneski Earth Sciences Building (2006) blends a permanent exhibit for the public with a research collection of 200,000 objects available to scholars and students, and the teaching labs.
I returned to inland Massachusetts attending an invitation to present a seminar at the UMass Amherst Graduate Program in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. A privilege to reach an audience of 70, including faculty, postdocs and graduate students, and discuss with them my research on acceptance of evolution. Professor Jeffrey Podos, the host, organized a visit to the Beneski Museum during my two-day stay. What a treat.
“…More than feeding the public’s dinosauria-frenzy, the goal of the Museum is to educate about the geology and paleontology of New England by taking advantage of the fossils’ beauty…”
Although the collection of dinosaur tracks is the main treasure guarded by the Beneski Museum, its 1,700 objects on display for the general public are, not only introductory for what the visitor will experience once face-to-face with the fossilized footprints, but also cleverly distributed in three floors within the building’s brick, steel and glass structure. More than feeding the public’s dinosauria-frenzy, the goal of the Museum is to educate about the geology and paleontology of New England by taking advantage of the fossils’ beauty.
Beneski’s main hall welcomes the visitor with gentle, almost unpretentious bone casts of a dire wolf and a sabertoothed cat (both roamed 100,000 years ago). Behind them, however, enormous skeletons of a mammoth and a mastodon capture all the attention, to the point that the wolf, cat, and the soon-to-be-seen cave bear and Irish elk appear small in contrast to the tusks protruding out of the proboscideans‘ (elephants’) skulls.
This floor includes two more displays. The evolution of the Equids (horses), which took place almost entirely in North America, from ancestral forms of dog-sized quadrupeds, which over 50 million years —since the Eocene— gradually increased in mass, decreased in the number of toes —from 5 to 3 and to the single middle digit on which modern horses gallop— and changed their diet from browsing to grassing, as revealed by their teeth. All visible traits in the fossil record and unequivocal evidence in support to Darwinian evolution.
“…Brontops was a browser shaped like a colossal rhino and with two blunt horns over the snout. On display, its cast shrinks the presence of its wall-of-fame, equally extinct hoofed companions…”
The last prominent display in the main lobby is of ungulates. On a wall, half of their skeletons, as seen from aside, come out as 3D sculptures mounted on the silhouettes of their flesh. The largest is a Brontothere, member of a lineage that became extinct 30 million years ago, and that was remotely related to today’s rhinoceroses, which, by the way, belong to the odd-toed mammals (together with horses and tapirs). This Brontops was a browser shaped like a colossal rhino and with two blunt horns over the snout. On display, its cast shrinks the presence of its wall-of-fame, equally extinct hoofed companions.
The Museum’s tradition goes back to the foundation of Amherst College (1821) and the hire of Edward Hitchcock, who by 1825 had left the Congregational ministry to become Professor of Chemistry and Natural History. His “Ichnology Collection” of fossilized tracks and traces of dinosaurs became one of the largest in the world and the Beneski Museum exhibits casts of them in its lower level. I counted 25 by 15 steps while assessing the tracks’ gallery. It was divided in four alleys with eight parallel displaying walls. On them, and under soft lighting, a saturation of textures emerged from or deepened into the flat rocks. They were so exquisite.
“…Footprints of early Jurassic dinosaur transients were left on muddy soils along the Connecticut River Valley. The tracks dried out, hardened and rock formed over time…”
Footprints of early Jurassic dinosaur transients were left on muddy soils (200 million years ago) along the Connecticut River Valley, and the geological chronology of this ancient plateau is explained in the third floor of the museum. The dino-tracks dried out, hardened and rock formed over time. Nowadays, we know they belonged to the hind limbs of bipedal species like Eubrontes (3-toes), Grallator (3-toes), Otozoum (4-toes), and the quadrupedal Anomoepus, with 5-toed forelimbs and 3-toed hind limbs.
“…As former clergyman, Hitchcock could not avoid espousing the fallacies of Natural Theology, and during his entire career attempted —and failed— to prove God’s existence in (from) nature. A dead-end path taken with his contemporaries Louis Agassiz, Richard Owen and Adam Sedgwick, who also opposed Charles Darwin’s proposal of evolution via natural selection…”
As former clergyman, Hitchcock could not avoid espousing the fallacies of Natural Theology, and during his entire career attempted —and failed— to prove God’s existence in (from) nature. A dead-end path taken with his contemporaries Louis Agassiz (Harvard), Richard Owen (British Museum) and Adam Sedgwick (Cambridge), who also opposed Charles Darwin‘s proposal of evolution via natural selection. By 1845, Hitchcock became President of Amherst College, at times when highly educated academic administrators were still on demand. But not surprisingly, a later President, Julius Seeyle, a Reformist Pastor, prohibited, in 1877, the teaching of evolution on campus. In retrospect, Hitchcock’s Ichnology Collection —rather than his bureaucratic and creationist distractions— was destined to become the most valuable possession of the Beneski Museum.
Despite the abundance of splendid natural history exhibits in the U.S., where evolution is so creatively communicated to the public, only 40 percent of Americans —or just 60 percent of New Englanders— embrace the reality of evolution. A regrettable contradiction in a nation that continues to lead today’s most meaningful scientific discoveries. — © 2015 by Evolution Literacy all rights reserved.
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