The Machine Inside

Let’s take a stroll through the Ontario Science Centre’s current special exhibit: Biomechanics – The Machine Inside!

A touring exhibition developed by the Field Museum and Denver Museum of Nature & Science, this is a really fun exhibit exploring all kinds of aspects of biomechanics. (But get those garbage cans away from the entrance wall, OSC, that’s terrible show and everyone wants to take pictures in front of the cheetah!)

We start off in ‘Built to Survive’, and a section on the materials and shapes that organisms have evolved for different purposes. A couple of things I liked right away: the use of both living and extinct organisms, including animals AND plants, and the abundance of real specimens throughout the exhibit. Here we get to learn why round shapes are a recurring theme.

Next up, pipes and pumps! We get to try our hand at pumping blood all the way up to the top of this sitting giraffe’s head. It’s surprisingly difficult!

And last in this section, insulation and radiators, including this delightfully creepy deer straight out of one of my old physics textbooks, which used to have problem sets that read along the lines of ‘A fully loaded penguin sled is travelling at 2 m/s…’. But I kid – it’s a nice way of visualizing the square-cube law.

Right next to the deer is an endlessly entertaining thermal camera screen where you can see your hot and cold spots. Fun things to compare: your friends with cold cold hands, your own overly hot face against everyone else’s, etc. etc. Also fun: how rad people wearing glasses look.

The next major theme we get to explore is ‘moving around’, focusing on locomotion and feeding adaptations. There are some classic examples here, like how different bird wing shapes are adapted for different flight styles and needs.

And we also get to have fun flinging fish faces around! This is the sling-jaw wrasse, and it’s a cool example of how the bones in fish skulls work together to allow many kinds of fish to protrude their jaws. This area also has lots of great slow-motion videos to help us see weird and unusual movements, and overall this section has the best ratio of hands-on interactive stuff to specimens and static displays in the whole exhibit.

A final section of the exhibit covers the biomechanics of sensing your environment, a cool part of biomechanics that’s easy to gloss over in favour of things like biting and flying but is just as important. So here we get to learn about bat echolocation, magnetic sensing in sea turtles, and how eyes evolved over and over again.

And this is a great spot for me to segue into one of my favourite parts of this whole exhibit, the incorporation of biomimicry throughout! How do morphological adaptations inform the design of human technology? I thought this example of a bat-inspired cane for people with low vision was really interesting – the cane sends out ultrasound which bounces back and make it vibrate, giving more information to the person using it compared to traditional canes. Not sure if this is widely in use, but seems interesting!

Another cool biomimicry example: the bumps on humpback whale fins are inspiring better designs for wind turbines and airplane wings, because it turns out they help increase the angle of attack without stalling, and enhance lift. Neato stuff.


This is a cool exhibit that was a good fit for the interactives-heavy Ontario Science Centre, and seemed to be keeping the attention of visitors big and small when we visited on a Saturday a few weeks ago. (It certainly kept a group of palaeontologists busy for several hours!) While the first and last sections could use a few more hands-on interactives compared to the excellent middle section on feeding and locomotion, that feels like a pretty minor complaint considering the variety of ways information is being communicated throughout the exhibit. One other thing that would have been cool to see would have been the biomechanics of animal combat, but I’m obviously biased in that direction. All in all, super fun and definitely worth checking out if it comes to your town! Biomechanics: The Machine Inside is at the Ontario Science Centre until May 7th.

Life on the Edge

Storytime! When I was an undergraduate student at Dalhousie University, BACK IN THE DAY, I spent my summers making slides of rocks brought up by drills from offshore Nova Scotia and identifying and counting coccoliths (or, nannofossils). One of my supervisors for these projects was Dave Scott, a micropalaeontologist who also taught me invertebrate palaeontology at Dal. One day, unprompted, Dave offered up the fascinating personal tidbit that he hated seals, and when pressed for some kind of explanation for hating such a universally beloved animal, explained that it had to do with his time spent on Sable Island many years ago. Sable Island is a ridiculous, giant sand dune that is, hilariously, part of Halifax despite being located 300 km away in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s inhabited by feral horses, about 5 human beings, and seals, and that’s about it. Why did Dave hate the seals on Sable Island? “One hissed at me.”

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This year’s SVP in Salt Lake City was chock full of exciting dino stuff. My first visit to the Natural History Museum of Utah since its move to a brand-new building (I last visited in December 2008, just prior to its move) during the conference’s opening reception was a real treat. Utah has such a great fossil record for dinosaurs, and it was awesome to see new takes on old classics like this Ceratosaurus – take note of the osteoderms running down the midline of the spine!


Also extremely excellent: not one, but TWO glass floors over bonebed recreations. This is the famous Cleveland-Lloyd bonebed, full of classic Morrison dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Diplodocus. There was also a Gryposaurus quarry from the Kaiparowits Formation. Great stuff all around, possibly the only type of display I enjoy more than Walls of Stuff.


The Jurassic dinosaurs might be the best known dinosaurs from Utah, but the record of Cretaceous dinosaurs from Utah is slowly being filled in. There were excellent displays of material from the Kaiparowits Formation (similar in age to what we find in Alberta), like this beautiful Gryposaurus skull and some excellent ceratopsians, as well as dinosaurs from the earlier Cedar Mountain Formation.


There are some cool dioramas scattered throughout the galleries that bring the fossils on display to life. These reward close inspection of the corners and crevices – I was delighted to see this little varanid lizard skulking at the corners of a dinosaur’s nest.


One day during the poster sessions at the conference hotel, we were also treated to some original vintage palaeo-art by Bill Berry. Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs has a great post about this art display but I couldn’t resist sharing these highly charismatic Stegosaurus, as well. (Bonus Vintage Dinosaur Art comment: if you haven’t been following LITC already, then you might not know I’ve started guest blogging over there! I’m trying to share vintage dinosaur art from my own collection once a month or so, hope I’ll see you over there!)


The SVP fundraising auction is another great opportunity to spot new and vintage palaeo-art, dinosauriana, and amazing crafts by society members. This spectacular Eryops would surely have come home with me if only I had an unlimited budget.


And I would literally wear this vest every day in the field if it had been in my size.


The 90s nostalgia was strong with this one, a truly amazing set of Dinotopia enamel pins. Amazing!!

And whatever delightful nonsense this was, we need more of it next year.

SVP is a great chance to share new science and also geek out over goofy things with my colleagues. If you haven’t done so already, please check out my previous post about SVP presenters and how you should tick the box to to opt in to an oral presentation at next year’s SVP in Calgary. See you in my frozen homeland next August!

Party Like It’s 508 Ma

That post title is horrific but it’s the best I could do. I hope nobody dies from awkward Will Smith musical references. Please feel free to get or not get jiggy with the rest of this post. ONWARDS!


After a ~4.5 day cross-Canada road trip with the husband and the dog, I’ve landed in Toronto and started up my new gig at the Royal Ontario Museum. I kicked things off in style last week with a visit to the ROM’s signature weekly event, Friday Night Live. The museum turns into one of the coolest nightclubs in Toronto, where you can dance by the light of the purple Futalognkosaurus.

I knew that FNL was popular, but I honestly wasn’t prepared for the huge number of people that show up to this event. I’ve been reading a lot of Colleen Dilen’s excellent evidence-based museum blog Know Your Own Bone, and she frequently talks about the struggles museums face in attracting millennials. Well, the ROM was full of millennials last Friday night and I bet it will be again next week. While a lot of folks were clearly there to drink and dance and sample a bunch of different food, I also saw a lot of people spending time checking out the exhibits and talking with their friends about what they saw. I’d love to see some research into how FNL-attendees engage with the museum exhibits, and how this compares to things like fancy museum galas for donors. Interesting stuff here, indeed.

Here are some new things since I last visited the ROM galleries in 2015!











Check out the new Dawn of Life Preview Gallery! The upcoming gallery hopes to feature the stories of the Palaeozoic Era – how life diversified in the Ediacaran and Cambrian, how animals colonized the seas and then the land, how plants evolved, the Great Dying, and more. It’s all great stuff, and highlights for me included these super Burgess Shale profiles featuring the real fossils and beautiful life restorations of the animals preserved as tiny smudges on slabs of shale. (Wiwaxia is a personal favourite, but it’s hard not to like the new-look Hallucigenia as well.)


CHIHULY! A jaw-dropping special exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s amazing glass art. Not particularly science-oriented, but the abstractions of natural objects are beautiful and the physical skill required to make this kind of sculpture is pretty mind-boggling.

20160930_211503Can you spot the ammonite/nautilus?

I’ve got some really cool projects coming down the pipeline from both my work with Lindsay Zanno at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences as well as new work in David Evans’ lab here, and I’m excited to share more Toronto adventures here over the next two years. Stay tuned!

Discovering Dinosaurs, Revealing Teamwork

It’s a wonderful feeling when you get to be part of something that celebrates teamwork.

Yesterday was the opening reception for the University of Alberta’s new exhibit, Discovering Dinosaurs: The Story of Alberta’s Dinosaursas told through U of A Research. The exhibit features the work of almost all of the current people in Phil Currie’s lab, as well as many of our alumni and colleagues.

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Many animals have skeletons besides dinosaurs.

I was reminded of an old post on this blog today when someone brought up the all too common question of “Is that real?” in museums. In 2011 I had visited the Smithsonian natural history museum for some of my Euoplocephalus research, and spent a day browsing the galleries and shamelessly eavesdropping on people’s conversations. I was dismayed by the number of people saying things like “What’s that!” and then walking away without finding out, or saying “Look, a T. rex!” to things that were patently not T. rex. In the comments on that post, there was some discussion of the fact that visitors to museums often mistake any skeleton as a dinosaur skeleton.

Anyway, that in turn reminded me of a photo I took in the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History‘s marine gallery a while ago:

Despite being surrounded by all manner of marine specimens, including a fleshed out model of a sei whale up above, the museum has to explicitly say that a pilot whale is not a dinosaur. In fairness, the museum (sadly!) does not have any dinosaur skeletons, what with Halifax being located on top of the Cambrian-Ordovician Meguma Terrane, and with the Fundy Geological Museum fulfilling the role of the dinosaur-having museum in Nova Scotia.

What lessons can we learn from this?
1. Museum people: put a dinosaur in your museum. There’s no excuse not to have one.

2. Everybody else: many animals have skeletons besides dinosaurs.

3. ????

*Bonus! Sable Island is a super neat place that not many people have heard about outside of the maritime provinces – you can read more about it at their National Park page!

Back to Hwaseong

This week I’ve been in Hwaseong city, Korea for the Hwaseong International Dinosaurs Expedition Symposium. I started this blog back in 2010 as a way to document my experiences working in the dino lab in Hwaseong, and so it was wonderful to be able to return more than three years later and see what’s new. The symposium highlights research following the conclusion of the five-year Korea-Mongolia International Dinosaur Project. Many thanks to Dr. Yuong-Nam Lee, the city of Hwaseong, and all of the other organizers and staff who invited us to present our work at this excellent conference!It was a special treat to see the new ankylosaur skeleton prepared and mounted in the lobby of our hotel! Watch out Tarbosaurus, you’re about to get a face full of tail club.

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