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Bringing Bones To Life

Renovations and a refocused mission signal a new beginning at the Texas Memorial Museum.

By Ben Rehder

The folks at the Texas Memorial Museum - the exhibit hall of the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas in Austin - knew what they were doing when they designed the layout. As you enter through the main doors into the Great Hall on the second floor, the first thing you notice - how could you miss it? - is the skeleton of a giant birdlike creature soaring high above you. Suddenly you understand how a mouse must feel when being shadowed by a hawk. Thus are you introduced to the Texas pterosaur, a prime specimen of the largest flying animal ever found and rightly considered one of the greatest discoveries in the history of paleontology.

"It's the thing people really remember," says Ed Theriot, director of the TNSC since 1997. "Kids come in and they immediately notice it, and you hear them screaming about the big bird, and of course they want to know if it could eat you." It couldn't. What's more, it wasn't a bird, it was a reptile. More on that later.

First, a little background on the museum is in order, starting with the fact that its mission has been refined in recent years. For much of the museum's 68-year history, its collections included a modest number of items related to cultural history: Navajo rugs, antique firearms, pre-Columbian pottery, Mexican folk art and more. Today, those holdings are gone, and the emphasis is solely on the natural sciences. The changes began five years ago, under Theriot's watch, and he calls the decision a "no-brainer."

"Frankly, we didn't have very much in the way of a cultural history collection in terms of numbers or one that told the story of Texas," says Theriot. "With the advent of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum almost next door and the Center for American History collections here at UT already, we had become redundant. Our natural history collections, on the other hand, were extensive, with specimens or objects from at least 95 percent of the counties in Texas, and we were very active in Texas natural science research. We didn't change so much as our mission statement caught up with the reality of who we really were."

The changes continued in the summer of 2007, when museum staff took advantage of a closing for fire- and life-safety improvements to reorganize and update many of the dioramas and to implement a new service that delivers on-demand exhibit information directly to visitors' cell phones. But some things stay the same, as repeat visitors will notice. The museum is still divided into four distinct display areas, each with its own unique story to tell.

The Hall of Geology and Paleontology, arguably the showiest of the exhibit halls, features more than 5,000 square feet of fossils (from dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures), as well as an impressive array of native meteorites, rocks and minerals. The displays are presented in chronological fashion - from the earliest days of the planet to the age of dinosaurs up to the present day. Theriot points out that the land we call Texas has been home to some of the world's strangest and most spectacular creatures, and this hall certainly backs that up.

The Onion Creek mosasaur, for in-stance, immediately calls to mind a mythical sea serpent. With a slender 30-foot-long body (the head alone measures nearly 5 feet), whale-like flippers, and a flat, powerful tail, the mosasaur moved with speed and agility through the shallow seas that covered much of present-day North America during the late Cretaceous period. A loosely hinged jaw, like that of a snake, allowed the mosasaur to swallow large prey. The museum's specimen was found, as the name implies, on the banks of Onion Creek, four miles outside the Austin city limits, in 1934, by UT geology students.

An eye-catching, albeit headless, example of a glyptodon anchors the Ice Age display, where it shares space with a giant ground sloth, a Colombian mammoth and a saber-toothed cat, among others. The glyptodon was a large, armored mammal related to the modern-day armadillo, and one might liken its size, shape and weight to a Volkswagen Beetle. Unfortunately, it moved much more slowly - only a couple of miles per hour - which made it vulnerable to ambitious predators, including the native human population.

Other highlights include Eryops megacephalus, an amphibian whose 6-foot-long skeleton reminds a casual viewer of an alligator, though they are not related; the dimetrodon, a long, lizard-like animal with a distinctive spinal fin or "sail" and two rows of teeth; and an interactive computer station that will answer all your questions about meteorites.

The Great Hall is home to Natural Wonders: Treasures of the TNSC, an aptly named exhibit. The theme that binds this diverse collection together is that each item is truly a wonder of nature, and each provides insight into the history of the natural world.

Take the aforementioned Texas ptero-saur. Consider the fact that its wingspan was as broad as a small airplane, and you'll understand why pterosaurs, the first vertebrate to take flight, ruled the skies from the late Triassic period to the end of the Cretaceous period (228 to 65 million years ago). This specimen was found in Big Bend National Park in 1971.

Also on display is an extensive collection of gems and minerals be-queathed to the museum in 1969 by Col. E.M. Barron, a former Texas legislator. Recent acquisitions include a dazzling 1,778-carat blue topaz, roughly the size of a man's fist and heavier than a full can of soda.

Did you know that one-quarter of all animals on Earth are beetles, with more than 350,000 species described to date? You won't doubt it after seeing the artfully presented scarab beetle collection, on loan from research associate John C. Abbott.

Colors of Nature alternates the brilliant color photographs of Greg Lasley and John Ingram. The current exhibit, Antarctica: Life at the Bottom of the World, features Lasley's vivid shots of Antarctica's incredibly varied and abundant wildlife, including penguins, seals, whales and birds.

Of course, a visit to the museum wouldn't be complete without a stop at the Great Hall's gift shop, where you'll find everything from fine jewelry to T-shirts to educational posters, books and games.

The Hall of Texas Wildlife brings you face to face with some of our state's most interesting native fauna - bison, javelinas, snakes, turtles, ringtail cats and prairie chickens - while showcasing the ecosystems in which they live. Most memorable is the diorama of a cougar protecting its downed prey, a white-tailed deer, from coyotes looking for an easy meal.

Texas boasts more than 266 species of fishes, and the renovated Fishes of Texas exhibit brings them to you in style, via a video guide, an interactive multimedia display and mounted specimens from the TNSC's collection. The star of the show is "Splash," a replica of the Texas-record blue catfish caught in Lake Texoma in 2003.

Night Shift gives you a glimpse into the world of animals that come out after sundown and explains how they are physically suited for their nocturnal ramblings. For example, many of the mammals on display have a reflective layer, called the tapetum lucidum, in the back of the eye. This layer increases the amount of light caught by the retina, improving vision in low-light conditions. Additional sensory input comes by way of specialized whiskers called vibrissae, which play a role in the detection of obstacles.

The Hall of Biodiversity houses the museum's newest exhibit, Explore Evolution, which "gives a modern shine to Charles Darwin's 146-year-old theory on evolution." Indeed it does. Here, seven galleries investigate evolution in organisms ranging from the smallest to the largest. You'll learn how research into evolution is fundamental in advancing modern medicine, agriculture and biotechnology. For example, one gallery addresses the rapidly evolving HIV virus that causes AIDS and how scientists are striving to understand it in order to develop a vaccine and a cure.

This is a hands-on area - "more of a learning center and less of a traditional static exhibit," says Theriot - with a variety of interactive displays. You can measure the beaks of finches from the Galapagos Islands and discover that physical changes occur in response to environmental pressures and food availability. Play a round of "fly karaoke," in which you listen to a fly's courtship song, then attempt to record a duplicate version. Use a microscope to study core samples of a newly discovered single-celled diatom found deep beneath Yellowstone Lake. Analyze fossil evidence from Pakistan that links modern whales to their four-legged ancestors. Compare human and chimpanzee DNA and understand the key differences. Or take a video tour of an ant fungus garden.

Theriot says, "We want people to come to the museum, look around and say, 'Wow.' We hope they come away inspired and wanting to learn more." Mission accomplished.

Details

The Texas Memorial Museum (512-471-1604, www.utexas.edu/tmm/)
2400 Trinity Street, on The University of Texas at Austin campus
Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m.
Admission: Free
Parking: Available (for a fee) at the U.T. parking garage, located at 2500 San Jacinto Blvd., just north of the museum

Track Down Dinosaurs

To view world-class examples of dinosaur footprints, make tracks to the small building just outside the museum's main entrance. There, you'll find two trackways: one from the broad hind feet of a sauropod dinosaur that could have weighed up to 30 tons, the other from a carnivorous theropod, which, despite its much smaller size, might have been stalking the sauropod as prey. Both creatures lived during the early Cretaceous period, more than 100 million years ago. The internationally famous trackways were collected from the limestone bed of Paluxy Creek near Glen Rose, Texas, in 1939. Unfortunately, the footprints are deteriorating. "Years of constant exposure to moisture have taken their toll," explains TNSC Director Ed Theriot. "We have begun plans to restore and move the tracks and are awaiting an estimate from an accredited stone curatorial company to do the work."

Bone Lab

Want to see how fossil specimens are properly prepared, catalogued and studied? Found a fossil, bone fragment or gem you'd like to identify? Then visit the Paleo Lab on the Texas Memorial Museum's first floor. There, you can watch a working paleontologist in action, ask questions and handle a variety of "touch specimens." Discovery Drawers presents fossils from the museum's collection and provide a range of informational resources, such as how to plan a field trip and how to care for and display your own specimens. "It's not so much an exhibit as an actual working lab," says TNSC Director Ed Theriot. The lab is staffed during regular museum hours, including special event days.

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