Previously, I started describing my coolest-ever summer trip, which involved a stay in NY at the AMNH. There’s much more to show and tell about the AMNH exhibitions than I could fit into my two previous posts, but continuing that here would totally ruin the concept for this series. Thus it will have to wait for other posts. Now, let me continue with my next stop on that trip: Salt Lake City!
Arriving there I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the smallest category of rental car that can be booked from Germany (i.e., the cheapest, thus the one I could afford) was not available in Utah. State law! That meant a free upgrade for me :)
The Mormon city was a somewhat weird experience for me. On the one hand, for a few blocks in the center it had the feel of a gargantuan metropolis that clearly is a capital city, on the other hand it was quite obviously a small town within a large metropolitan area. I was later somewhat surprised to learn that SLC itself has only about 190 000 inhabitants! That explains, in part, whey I never saw a Big City, just a spread-out, obviously centrally planned town that happened to have a lot of buildings appropriate for a State (or even Country) Capital. I spent quite some time driving around and walking – WALKING in a city in the US (expect NY or SF) without getting curious looks from cops. Yeah, it is a European stereotype about the US, but I have had it happen to me: if you walk, you’re immediately suspicious, especially if you dress OK. SLC, on the other hand, managed to have that university-town feeling that is usually lost in capitals and other very large cities.
I spent some time checking out Capitol Hill, and was struck by the odd placement of the Utah State Capitol. It seemed a bit as if the planners had been high when they drafted the plans, because the building is so obviously “just off” the position it would need to have to dominate the view of the approaching avenue. Later, I read with great pleasure Bill Bryson‘s description, where he noted the exact same thing.
The view from Capitol Hill is quite nice (the mountains in the background that you can’t escape in Utah are responsible for quite a large part of that), and it emphasized again how placid and small-town a place SLC is: there are very few large buildings in view, nearly everything is green suburbs.
After some more sightseeing (no, no religious buildings etc. for me, thankyouverymuchindeed) it was finally time for some dinosaurs and other fossilized critters. And that was at the Utah Museum of Natural History. Because I hadn’t had much time preparing my trip I wasn’t able to prepare much for the visit, and had the bad luck of curator Scott Sampson being away – but I found myself in the very capable hands of lab technician Monica Castro. She showed me around, and I was able to snap a lot of pictures. I didn’t have any specific research interest in any collection specimens, but rather was having a general look at mounted and disarticulated specimens with digitizing in mind. How, when, what with, and with how much time and effort involved would someone be able to scan a complete dinosaur? And what specimens would be prime candidates? That was what I was thinking about at that time, not knowing that I would soon be served a complete Plateosaurus on a platter…. erh, CT scanner.
The UMNH (I’ll stick with the name it had back then; they are moving and will change name soon) has some nice stuff on show, including an endocast of a dinosaur brain. Stupid me – I forgot to write it down or take a picture of the sign, but I think it is from Allosaurus – at least wikipedia says there is an Allosaurus endocast.
Dinosaur brain endocast (Allosaurus? – yell in comments if you know better!)
at the UMNH.
There’s also a lot of stinkin’ mammal stuff, including the old favorite of all kids and news people: Smilodon fatalis! Yeah, I know, we’ve all seen that one over and over again, but it is a nice mount, especially with the painting in the background. For once the big cat is not killing a mastodon or an early hominid, but just standing there looking ferocious. So here you have it.
The exhibits had clearly been done quite a while ago, and didn’t have any of the glitz we have come to be used to, but they were nicely done. Instead of a Bigger-Heavier-Faster-Meaner show, there was a lot of interesting stuff that is usually shoved aside for only the nerds to stumble across, while Joe Plumber can have his T. rex-vs.-Triceratops or Allosaurus-vs.-Stegosaurus centerpiece. The UMNH has, for example, a “boring” hadrosaur hip on show (“Daddiiiiiiiiieeee, that’s just an old rock, where is THE DINOSAUR????“), but it has a bunch of clearly evident bite marks on it. For the less osteology-savvy they are marked with arrows, and the accompanying label explains this in simple (i.e., child-level) and clear language.
There were a bunch of mounted dinosaurs, too, but nothing really spectacular, and I’ll get to them another time. I was impressed, however, by how much legs the UMNH has. Literally, not figuratively.
An amazing collection – and there were other skeletal elements as well, providing a cool sample of Allosaurus ontogeny. I am still waiting for Scott to publish a wonderful paper on this. There was a nice drawing of ontogenetic changes, with the juveniles scaled up to adult size to highlight the shape change in the femur, on exhibit back then.
Oh, and I met one of the more explicit cases of floppy-handedness in theropods (in Allosaurus – what else at the UMNH?)- but back then I wasn’t yet knowledgeable enough to recognize the problem. Here it is!
On that note I’ll end this post; the next one will take us to Denver, CO, and the DMNS. It has Ken Carpenter in it, too!