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From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Alternative Universe of Dinosaurs"

Written by Paul Sutter on Thursday, 19 October 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

This week's memo arrives courtesy Dr. Meg Daly, Directory of OSU's Museum of Biological Diversity.

Just as in good fiction, the alternative universe of dinosaurs shares foundational principles with our universe. We can see that the anatomies of dinosaurs and their contemporaries were shaped by physical forces like gravity, that organisms that inhabit similar environments have similar anatomies, that organisms change over time through development and that species change over time through evolution. These shared principles make it possible for us to use comparisons with modern organisms to understand and interpret the seemingly peculiar morphologies of dinosaurs.

Through this lens of comparative biology, we can fill in gaps in the fossil record and flesh out our understanding of fossil animals. For example, the structure of dinosaur eggs and the way in which adult dinosaurs sit on them is identical to what we see in birds, allowing us to interpret dinosaurs as providing care for their young. Similarly, we can understand the flight mechanics of pterosaurs by comparing them to bats, which are distantly related to them but which also have a wing comprised of a membrane stretched across hand bones.

However, some unique aspects of dinosaur biology remain a puzzle, like the spines, spikes, and armor of ceratopsian dinosaurs. We can see that the elaborations on the skulls of these dinosaurs changed over the life of the animal, typically becoming more pronounced and larger as the animal grew. This is a pattern that has echoes in the horns of modern mammals. Nonetheless, the ways in which the spikes and spines functioned is elusive--were these used in male-on-male combat, as are antlers and horns in modern hoofed mammals? Or did these ridges and frills enable muscle attachment and augment the power of grinding jaws, as do the crests on the skulls of modern gorillas? Were they part of a mating display, highlighting the physicality and foraging prowess of a male, like long tail feathers of birds or the antlers of extinct Irish elk? Did these horns dissipate heat, or increase hearing range, functions demonstrated for antlers and horns in mammals? Because these functions are not mutually exclusive and at least some act in concert in modern animals, comparative biology is silent on the probability of each of the possibilities leaving room for a little mystery.

"Bowfin"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 09 October 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

This week's memo arrives courtesy Marc Kibbey, the associate curator of the Fish Division at the Museum of Biological Diversity. As such it is hard to pick a favorite fish but when pressed, Marc does have a fondness for the Bowfin.

The Bowfin exhibits a fearsome countenance. The pugnacious looking face seems to represent one tough customer, and as it turns out they are indeed aggressive and intolerant of similar sized competitors in their territory. They are voracious predators, sometimes swallowing prey half their size. Bowfin inhabit reedy or marshy areas of lakes, lowland rivers and swamps.

Their coloration matches that of the dense aquatic macrophytes where they lurk, affording them a shadowy lair from which to ambush their prey. Bowfin have caniniform, inward pointing teeth on the premaxilla, dentary and maxilla jaw bones for grasping and holding the prey (for many fish the Bowfin’s gaping maw filled with terrifyingly long, sharp teeth will be the last thing they ever see!).

Characteristics shared with other primitive fish species include extensive ossification of their thick skulls, a high number of vertebrae, and a higher proportion of caudal fin bones to caudal fin rays. Possession of a gas bladder attached to the alimentary tract via a pneumatic duct, homologous to our lungs, facilitates occupation of areas with low oxygen content; they are known to survive up to five days without breathing water.

Want to see a bowfin right here in Columbus? Head to the Grandview Heights Public Library where you can see the Natural Wonders Skelton display until Halloween night.

"It Belongs in a Museum"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 02 October 2017. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

This week's memo arrives courtesy Dr. Katherine O’Brien, a postdoctoral fellow at OSU and the community outreach specialist for the Museum of Biological Diversity. Her goal is to increase diversity in STEM by developing connections between universities, the arts, museums, and the communities they serve. To support this mission, Katherine also organizes the Columbus Science Pub and is an active member of the STEAM factory.

After hearing form Dr. Meg Daly at Science Pub last week it got me thinking about all the other work that museums do besides create engaging exhibits. Museums are always happy to have people come see the exhibit halls or to participate in the events they host. After Dark is great event if you don’t have plans this Thursday you can get into the Halloween spirt right here at COSI, just saying. Museums are also community centers for education, think of all the videos Dr. Paul Sutter puts out to teach us something new every week or answer our questions about the stars. The other role museums play is as storage for specimens, like the Museum of Biological Diversity or Orton Hall on OSU campus.

Storage is a real problem for many museums. The American Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian both have large offsite areas where they house the majority of their collections not on public display. Similarly, the Museum of Biological Diversity houses the natural history collections for OSU dating back to the founding of the school. Don’t think of this like a storage locker where you keep old furniture you just can’t throw out. These storage facilities are really active research spaces staffed by curators that use the collections to investigate the natural world. One great example from this year the museum acquired a large collection of fish from the University of Indiana, around 2,000,000 individual fish. They used this collection to make better maps of species ranges which they used for the fish survey this summer.

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