By Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao
I grew up in a small city in the Andes of Colombia, where during my teenage years the local Museum of Natural History fueled my passion for the natural world. That museum, far from being on the list of the world’s most famous, is humble, but filled with specimens that extremely well represent the current diversity of vertebrates in my country of birth. I have ever since been fascinated by museums of natural history, where a new experience has made me even fonder.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for the first time, whilst undertaking a fellowship at Princeton University. After this experience, museums of natural history will never be the same to me. When I arrived at the museum and found myself a map, I didn’t know exactly where to start or what to expect. All I knew was that I was in one of the world’s most famous museums of natural history. Quickly, after unfolding the museum’s map by the foyer, I realised that the top floor was dedicated entirely to fossils. So I made my way upstairs, bypassing all the artistic, and perhaps now historic, dioramas. When I arrived at the fossil collection, I realised that before my eyes was the very story of vertebrate evolution, as close as I could possibly get. It was like once again reading all of my undergrad text books on vertebrate zoology. Most of the quintessential fossils that have been fundamental for shedding light on vertebrate evolution were there. Key breakthroughs in the evolution of vertebrates include: the development of jaws, the colonization of the terrestrial environment, and the conquering of the skies through active flight.
The fossil collection gave me the opportunity to see iconic specimens representing the evolution of different lineages at various stages. For instance, I found a specimen of Dimetrodon, a synapsid reptile forming the basal lineage of mammals. I also found Hesperornis, a toothed bird that has enabled us to understand the evolution of modern birds. In the hall of mammals, there were specimens of Glyptodon (a giant armadillo), Megatherium (a giant ground sloth), and Dyprotodon (a giant wombat), all of them part of the Pleistocene megafauna.
Hence, I came to realise that big museums of natural history are always worth a visit wherever you are, not precisely because of the opportunity to see extant animals, but rather extinct ones! After all, zebras and polar bears are still roaming the earth as we speak, but fossils represent a sample of the earth’s life history that is no longer with us. Museums of natural history with good fossil collections are a lens through which we can explore the exciting history of life on earth.
As a part of my PhD at the University of Queensland, I’ve recently had the opportunity to visit Beijing, where I could explore the city on the weekends. After settling in, I quickly found out about the existence of the Paleozoology Museum of China in Beijing, which is affiliated to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Thanks to the media I had good reason to believe this museum was worth a visit. National Geographic magazine had published on its front cover of July 1998 news about feathered dinosaurs discovered in China, all of which have become crucially important in supporting the dinosaur origin of modern birds. Consequently, I didn’t hesitate to go for a visit.
As its name suggests, the museum is fully dedicated to extinct animals. With that in mind, I entered the building with high expectations of finding feathered dinosaurs. Not far from the main entrance, I was inside the so-called dinosaur hall, where I found a fine collection of fossils from the early Cretaceous (130 mya), resulting from obliteration by an erupting volcano. This sample has been dubbed as the “Jehol Biota”, and represents the assemblage of fossilized animals and plants that once lived in Liaoning Province in northeast China. The collection includes fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, as well as basal flowering plants. Amongst the reptiles there are a few specimens of feathered dinosaurs, exquisitely preserved in slabs where feather prints have been captured. Specimens of now well-known dinosaurs include Microraptor and Confuciusornis. Whilst the former is special because it has feathers present not just in its forelimbs but also in its hindlimbs, the latter is the earliest toothless beaked feathered dinosaur found to date.
After spending a couple of hours wandering through the museum, I asked myself, wouldn’t it be nice to have the opportunity to see all these great animals alive? Well, some people have dreamed about it, such as in Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park. But beyond that, I may just settle for the dream and let my imagination travel back in time to the various times in the history of earth represented by the various fossils in front of me. I then realised how wonderful life is, it is just not possible to fully describe its value, or why it is so important to us. Yes, animals and plants have provided food, medicine, shelter, clothes, and many other goods and services to our species now and well into our earliest origins. But standing in those halls, where the history of vertebrate evolution is right before my eyes, as I imagine Pterosaurs soaring the skies, I reflect on the fact that maybe I don’t wish any animal from the past to be back. After all, they are now extinct and that has been the unchangeable course of events on earth.
Instead, what I did consider is that as a society and individuals, we are extremely privileged to have the opportunity to be amazed by a time slice of the wonderful life’s history as it happens. After all, standing in those halls full of fossils, which once were real animals, is like watching humpback whales breaching, or shorebirds departing in their arduous migrations. There is simply no explanation as to why we are amazed by life, I just feel so excited about it. Maybe it is because the diversity of life, now and well into the past, is a story of fantasy, one where magic is even greater than in the most elaborate sci-fi novels. Partly perhaps because all that is left from animals in the past is primarily their skeletons, eggs, and footprints. I don’t really need Avatar and other sci-fi movies to let my imagination fly. To me it’s enough to read books about vertebrate paleontology, or visit museums of natural history teeming with fossils.