Vancouver Aquarium

22 December 2009. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Today we visited the Vancouver Aquarium in green Stanley Park, west of downtown Vancouver. Under a foggy sky reminiscent of Seattle (which is quite close to Vancouver, less than 200 miles to the south), the Amazon rain forest exhibit inside the aquarium was a welcome change in climate.

[looking west towards the mouth of Burrard Inlet between downtown Vancouver and North Vancouver]

With a shark tank smaller than the aquaria in San Francisco and Monterey, California, the main draw of the aquarium for me was the Beluga whale tank. Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) are entirely white in color, and inhabits the arctic and sub-arctic waters of the north. They are smaller than I had expected, but nonetheless it was very thrilling to see a few in person.

[statue of a stylized whale in front of the aquarium entrance]

Another impressive critter is the arapaima (Arapaima gigas), which is a large freshwater fish that inhabits murky waters of the Amazon Basin. The fish is a true air-breathing one, swimming slowly up to the surface to take a gulp of air every 1 0 minutes or so.

A nice tank showing four-eyes fishes (Anableps anableps) allowed visitors to view the animals from "within" the tank and up-close to examine the subdivided eyes that allow the fish to see both above and below water at the same time (via different shaped lenses).

[tank of four eyes (Anableps anableps) containing a two-eyes (Homo sapiens)]

[translucent sea jellies in the Vancouver Aquarium]

Although small and a bit crowded by California aquaria standards, the Vancouver Aquarium is a great place for both kids and adults to get their fill of fish and mammals from around the world. Thumbs up!

[tank containing endangered Banggai cardinal fish (Pterapogon kauderni) native to Indonesia]



Museum of Anthropology, UBC

23 December 2009. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

"I come to give you something, and the gift
Is my own beaten self; no feast for the eyes;
Yet in me is a more lasting grace than beauty"

~Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus

Arriving in Vancouver on the 21st of December, my fiancee and I dropped by the Museum of Anthropology after hearing complements about its architecture. Unfortunately, it was a monday and the museum was closed for maintenance.

[front entrance of the UBC Museum of Anthropology, tucked quietly into a seaward corner of the beautiful campus]

We returned on Wednesday to browse the relatively small exhibit of Native American objects inside a cavernous modern structure, its concrete and glass components giving a serene but cold vibe amidst the foggy shores of the peninsula.

[one of the totem poles outside the museum building]

Most of the large objects displayed in the museum are totems and ceremonial utensils and containers; the textual descriptions about them are somewhat vague, leaving one to guess about the exact origin and purpose of each object if the entire essay that accompanies each object is not read in whole.

[a modern rendition of a traditional Native craft]

Adjacent to the main exhibit hall is a exhibit akin to the "Visible Vault" idea that our own LACM anthropology displays are organized by: a large number of specimens are displayed in cases and drawers as if one was examining a collection area behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the UBC exhibit was either still under construction (parts of the area was indeed closed), or the research specimens were displayed simply without adequate description. It was nice for visitors to walk through and be impressed with the sheer number of objects, but difficult to learn anything from the exhibit unless one was accompanied by a specialist/docent of that particular topic.

[an object clearly linking human beings with the rest of nature; its exact meaning is unknown to the visitor]

The remaining exhibit area displayed pre-18th century dinnerware from Europe; while serving as an excellent example of historical culture, many of the objects would not be considered spectacular by the common eye. Maybe beauty IS in the eye of the beholder.

[a collection of European household dinnerware and furniture...]

In all, the highlight of the Museum of Anthropology was its very modern architecture. The outdoor area also seemed to have some sort of reconstructed Native buildings and ceremonial grounds in progress; perhaps a second visit is warranted?

[the exterior of the UBC Museum of Anthropology; the entire institution felt more like an art museum]

By the way, I got the quotation at the beginning of this entry from a free book on "classical Greece and the origins of social theory" the UBC Sociology department was giving away... maybe I learned something after all!



AMNH, Day 5 (final day)

18 December 2009. New York, NY

The day began rather cold, around -12 C. I got to the museum by 0840, to look over the remaining exhibits that I have not visited. I began working promptly at 0930, unpeeling the borophagine molds I made the day before.

[exhibits: a west coast Native American boat stretching the length of the south entrance foyer]

[Friday morning cleaning of the elephants by exhibits staff, quite a sight to see the immense size of these mammals with a human scale]

After the borophagine molds are all done, I picked another batch of teeth to clean. I turned my attention to hyaenids, which will take longer to clean for the thick glue present on most specimens.

[a cast of the holotype of "Peking Man" Homo erectus, part of the batch of specimens lost in World War II during the evacuation of important scientific specimens from Beijing to the U.S.]

[the only reconstruction of the "Peking Man" locality of Zhoukoudian I have seen with a model and painting of the giant hyena Pachycrocuta brevirostris stalking the hominine Homo erectus]

By 1300 (more than three hours later), I finally finished cleaning the hyaenid teeth. While waiting for the second-round molds to set, I went upstairs to pack my tools into a box to mail back to LACM, so that on the way back I can carry everything else directly onboard, without worrying about losing my baggage (again).

1530. I am done with everything I set out to accomplish in New York on this trip. I cleaned up my work area, and went downstairs to see the three special exhibits (frogs, extreme mammals, and the Silk road). I bought a Dunkleosteus toy for my fiancee, and a wooden carved camel for myself.

[exhibits: a skull of the giant archaic mesonychid Andrewsarchus mongoliensis on display in the extreme mammals special exhibit; it's the length of my leg!]

[exhibits: a model of the giant perissodactyl Indricotherium stands in front of the entrance to the extreme mammals special exhibit. The animal stood around 18 feet at the shoulder]

I went up to Dr. Ni's office before the museum closed, and sat down to do some last-minute microscope photographs of enamel microstructure on his fancy microscope system. I photographed a few teeth of Osbornodon renjiei (a hesperocyonine dog named by now LACM curator Dr. Xiaoming Wang), and called it done.

Dr. Ni rode the subway with me until I had to get off at 103rd Street. We bid farewell, and promised our next meeting in Beijing (he is returning to Beijing in February for several months to do research, and will probably overlap with our 2010 field season in China).

[the subway station gateway to the American Museum of Natural History at 81st Street]

Verbatim from my field notes on the last night in New York:
"This trip has been very productive overall, but my stay in the hostel was a lot less than pleasant; the data collected should allow a preliminary conclusion to be made from my dissertation research, while pointing to areas that will require additional data collection to improve."

My flight for Edmonton is (so far) on time for departure, connecting in Toronto mid-day tomorrow. A snowstorm is headed for New York from the south, and I cross my fingers hoping to escape another round of chaos!

[waiting to leave NYC at New York JFK International Airport]

Live from New York City, it's Jack with another research trip!


AMNH, Day 4

17 December 2009. New York, NY

I spent the day working on both enamel microstructure and molding specimens for microwear.

[exhibits: the spacious east entrance to the museum]

Last night I called Delta Airline, the delivery company, and spoke with the hostel staff where I was staying about my baggage again (it has become a routine since the beginning of this trip). Someone at the hostel was actually responsible enough to check their storeroom. And behold! They had my lost baggage there all along, and no one had bothered to check on it even after I inquired about it more than 10 times over the course of 4 days! Ok, calm thoughts, happy thoughts, channel the fury into research energy...

After my routine exhibit hopping in the early morning, I picked out the specimens suitable for molding, and tried to get in touch with Ms. Jeanne Kelly, the chief preparator in the Division of Paleontology. I needed to work with her to pick the best chemical to clean the surface of the teeth with to achieve 1) the cleanest tooth surface possible and 2) the safest technique by not damaging any specimens.

[exhibits: the reptiles hall with a very large snake skeleton]

[exhibits: a mount of the largest living lizard, the komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis]

I did not find her until after lunch, so I spent the morning hours examining microstructure of hesperocyonine dogs (I did not plan on doing it, but hey I have the time, so why not?). I had lunch at the "Shake Shack" just southwest of the museum's south entrance with Dr. Ni. At noon the temperature was chilly and a few degrees below zero (Celsius).

[the chilly south entrance of the American Museum of Natural History on a December noon]

In the afternoon I met with Jeanne and she set me up with my own supply of cotton swabs, gauss, acetone, and ethyl alcohol for cleaning teeth. Since some of the specimens in the Frick Collection were collected over 100 years ago, Jeanne said, there is no detailed record on what glue the previous preparators used on all specimens. Thus it took some experimentation and tenacity to get the surface clean.

I spent about two hours scrubbing teeth. Once the 20 specimens I chose were clean, I examined their microstructure before molding with a small applicator gun for two rounds. The first round cleaned off any remaining particles on the surface, and the second round molds are carried back home for casting.

[the chosen specimens being cleaned before the teeth are molded with a high resolution dental impression kit]

I returned to my hostel room with slightly swollen fingers from scrubbing teeth all afternoon, but slept without a worry as my research plan seem right on track now with the commencement of the tooth-molding.

One more day of full-on research and it's back home for Christmas; TGIF!



AMNH, Day 3

16 December 2009. New York, NY

I spent essentially the entire day working on enamel microstructure. After a quick breakfast, I went to the museum and spent another hour (0840~0940) going through the exhibits. Then I went upstairs to examine borophagine enamel, which from Archaeocyon to Borophagus was all done by lunchtime.

[exhibits: the wall of biodiversity, where representatives from all major groups of animals and plants are placed side-to-side for an impressive display of life as we know it; it's displays like this that highlight what a museum can do to inspire wonder!]

[exhibits: the horse evolution section of the fossil mammal hall; the extinct three-toed horse Hipparion raises high above its relatives. I was surprised not to see a skeleton of Hipparion on display; they are relatively common and AMNH sure has the resources to obtain one!]

As far as I could tell, the sky was actually clear this morning. However with wind chill the temperature was still only a few degrees above zero (Celsius). I continued working on microstructure after lunch and finished Epicyon and the rest of Borophagus before moving on to the hyaenids.

[oh I was just studying hyenas when the cabinet next door revealed the holotype of Barbourofelis morrisi; we (LACM) found the first upper teeth of the smaller B. whitfordi in the Dove Spring Formation of southern California...the study is being published in the next issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology]

Unfortunately much of the Shanxi hyaenid collection was covered in thick layers of shellac or glyptol (or whatever consolidant they were using in 1920's China!). As a result there was a lot of glare on the tooth surface which meant I could not see the microstructure on many of the specimens.

[examination of enamel microstructure involves shining bright light on fossil teeth to illuminate the internal structure; it takes a lot of tweaking to get the lighting right, and for sure gives you nausea at the end of the day]

By 1600 I was essentially done with microstructure analysis; I had planned to spend the next two days molding specimens for microwear analysis, but that hinges on whether my bag arrives or not!

[a table full of loan tags shows the number of specimens examined each day; a good chunk of the research time involved writing up withdrawal tags so temporarily removed specimens don't get lost. It is a time-consuming but crucial step in good house-keeping and curation]

1720. I wrapped up work a little early today and went downstairs to the Hall of Sea Life with Dr. Ni Xijun to attend the annual holiday party of the AMNH. I was lucky enough to catch it on my trip. In addition to the free food, I got the chance to greet Mark Norell and John Flynn, two of the paleontologists on staff at the museum. Apparently I also shook hands with the AMNH director, but I did not know her by name or by face.

[the Hall of Sea Life the morning before the annual AMNH holiday party]

All in all a good day of work, food, and schmoozing.

Please, I need my bag by tomorrow!



AMNH, Day 2

15 December 2009. New York, NY.

0900. I hopped on the "C" Train going south-bound on Central Park West and got to the museum before my start time of 0930. With some time to kill, I headed straight for the mammal exhibits. I figured by visiting a few exhibits every morning before work I could get everything in without losing valuable research time.

[exhibit: a diorama of African hunting dogs Lycaon pictus looking into the distance for prey]

[exhibit: an impressive display of a growth series of the dinosaur Protoceratops discovered in Mongolia by the Central Asiatic Expeditions in the 1920s]

0930-1240. I continued to photograph the specimens of borophagine dogs, and after that was done I proceeded to the cabinets (4 of them) holding hesperocyonine dogs. Hesperocyoninae is a sub-family of dogs that was ancestral to borophagines and the modern canines we know as dogs, wolves, foxes, jackals, and their relatives. Most of the hesperocyonines I photographed are Oligocene in age, with a few ranging into the early Miocene.

A peek outside during lunchtime revealed overcast skies with temperature around 3-5 degrees C (37-40 F). I am not to sad to be indoors...just saving outdoor playing time for when I am in California!

[exhibit: a mounted skeleton of the little known marine mammal Palaeoparadoxia; our very own 2010 mammal hall in the LACM will feature a comparably complete skeleton of this genus from our own California coast!]

The afternoon began with an overview of the Chinese hyenas in the American Museum collection; several species of the Hyaenidae were jackal-like, wolf-like, and mongoose-like in their appearance, as discovered by previous researchers. For this reason, hyaenids are interesting parallels to study if one were to understand the ecological evolution of true dogs.

[a cart full of hyena heads for photographing...many of them from China, and some from Greece]

I photographed 28 specimens in the afternoon, mostly hyaenids from the famous Baode locality in Shanxi Province, China. After all the photographing is done, it was 1700 and I still had some time to kill before I have to leave the museum. So, I went up to the 10th floor of the Frick Building (the building with all the mammal fossils) and chatted it up with Dr. Ni Xijun, having some great green tea in the process.

[exhibit: the AMNH's diorama on the living spotted hyena Crocuta crocuta is larger than ours in the LACM; however, both are equally unflattering by showing the hyena as a scavenger. Spotted hyenas are specialized hunters that are smart enough to scavenge (they are not obligate scavengers like the vultures)]

Writing up the day's work in my fieldbook (yes I treat museum visits much like fieldwork; it's the best way to get a lot done in a limited amount of time), I realized that my luggage still has not arrived. Since I am done with photographing, I would begin the next phase in my data collection - examining teeth under the microscope for microstructure differences. This next task will take me at least a whole day, so hopefully the rest of my equipment will arrive by beginning of Day 4 in order for me to stay on track to clean and mold a sample of teeth to make casts for examination of surface scratches as an indication of the fossil dogs' and hyenas' diet.

[my hands are shaking with is the holotype specimen of Tunggurictis spocki, an early hyena found in the Tunggur Formation of central Inner Mongolia discovered by the Central Asiatic Expedition]

Tired, hopeful, but a tiny bit frustrated at Delta Airline for my delayed bag,