Brussels Exhibits

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I didn’t have a lot of time to spend at them, but the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) has some fantastic exhibits. I don’t usually spend time in mineral galleries because it’s very hard to make an attention-grabbing and aesthetically-appealing exhibit on minerals. You almost always just get case after case with rows of minerals divided by class with labels telling you their name, their formula, and where that specimen came from. Something about the RBINS geology exhibit made it slightly more interesting. Maybe it was the irregular layout? I’m not really sure. I’d still like to see an exhibit genius make a great exhibit on minerals, though.

One of the many forms of asbestos

One of the many forms of asbestos

Sometimes minerals and rocks can superficially look like fossils, which trips a lot of hopeful amateur fossil finders up. A crack in the rock allowed mineral water to seep in. It then spread in a branching shape. When the water went away, it left behind something that looks like a fossil plant but isn't.

Sometimes minerals and rocks can superficially look like fossils, which trips a lot of hopeful amateur fossil finders up. A crack in this rock allowed mineral water to seep in. It then spread in a branching shape. When the water went away without the minerals, it left behind something that looks like a fossil plant but isn’t.

Sting wrote a song about this gypsum formation once

Sting wrote a song about this gypsum formation once

RBINS has a very large hall devoted to dinosaurs—the largest in the world, in fact. A very large percentage of it is taken up by multiple Iguanadon mounts. The museum has 30 in all and they’re the symbol of the place. They were an important discovery because, prior to that, there was a lot of misunderstanding about what their posture was like. The first skeletons found of this species were very fragmentary. At first, it was only teeth and reconstructed as a giant Iguana. Then more bones were found, including what we now know is a thumb spike. Reconstructions shifted to the quadrupedal rhinoceros-looking thing of Crystal Palace fame (Which has fallen into disrepair, by the way, in spite of its historic significance. Some locals are trying to lobby the place’s caretaker to actually take care of it.) with a horn on its nose. Then, the RBINS collected the Bernissart Iguanadons and reconstructions shifted to an upright, kangaroo-like posture. And finally, we figured out that the tails couldn’t bend like that because of ossified tendons along the spine, and thus the modern posture (quadrupedal adults, possibly bipedal juveniles).

In the background, the old "kangaroo" posture; in the foreground, the modern quadrupedal posture

In the background, the old “kangaroo” posture; in the foreground, the modern quadrupedal posture

Cryolophosaurus, an allosaur from Antarctica (when it used to be covered in lush forest habitat)

Cryolophosaurus, an allosaur from Antarctica (when it used to be covered in lush forest habitat)

If you take Age of Dinosaurs, you'll be using another cast of this Coelophysis in lab (offered every fall by the Earth and Environmental Science department).

If you take Age of Dinosaurs, you’ll be using another cast of this Coelophysis in lab (offered every fall by the Earth and Environmental Sciences department).

The tiniest dinosaur in the hall, Archeopteryx. It's cool to see a reconstructed 3D mount of one rather than a cast of a pancaked slab.

The tiniest dinosaur in the hall, Archeopteryx. It’s cool to see a reconstructed 3D mount of one rather than a cast of a pancaked slab.

I would like to take a moment to cheer about something. RBINS has a T. rex mount. If you’ve ever been to the Field Museum in Chicago, you’ve seen Sue, another T. rex mount. The craftsmanship of Sue’s mount is excellent. Next time you’re there, take a moment to notice how, rather than simply being utilitarian, it’s also a work of art. There are wavy lines holding the vertebrae on. And if you go to the second floor and stand at the corner behind Sue and to its left (I say ‘it’ because we don’t actually know what sex it is), you’ll see that it stands in a very dynamic pose.

But there’s a problem. Two, actually, that result in one unfortunate effect. Take a look at the heads of the ribs. They aren’t actually attached to the vertebrae—they kind of float a little above them. And the gastralia (belly ribs) are also not mounted, though you can see them in a case on the second floor. Both of these purposefully create the effect of making Sue look more svelte. See, T. rexes actually had sizeable guts. But people don’t like to think of the king of the dinosaurs as having a big belly. Even ABC’s Dinosaurs got the gut size backwards, with Earl the Megalosaurus being the fat one and Roy the T. rex being about as slender as any of those puppets got.

So when I saw that the RBINS actually mounted their T. rex correctly and completely, I was ecstatic. The world should know that T. rex had a potbelly. Then maybe we can all agree that Allosaurus is much cooler.

The dynamic front view

The dynamic front view with the gastralia visible at the level of the knees to ankles

Seriously, look at how big that belly is.

Seriously, look at that belly.

I traced another view for you in case you were having trouble visualizing the belly in the flesh. Pretend it's covered in tiny feathers. I already spent too much time drawing this to add them.

I traced another view for you in case you were having trouble visualizing the belly in the flesh. Pretend it’s covered in tiny feathers. I already spent too much time drawing this thing to add them. Oh, and the bush is there because someone’s head blocked my view of the foot. *grumble*

But Dinosaur Hall doesn’t actually only contain dinosaurs. There are a small number of other Mesozoic critters in there, including crocodyliformes such as Bernissartia.

Alligatorellus, a tiny little atoposaurid crocodyliform

Slab and counterslab of Alligatorellus, a tiny little atoposaurid crocodyliform

Crocodilaemus, a little pholidosaur crocodyliform

Crocodilaemus, a little pholidosaur crocodyliform with a stubby tail

A small gallery on the bottom floor is devoted to mosasaurs, a group of marine monitor lizards. Some of them were quite large, upwards of 50 ft (some estimates say more, but exact lengths haven’t been settled on). You can see one mounted in the basement of Trowbridge Hall. The “rock” it’s in is fake, but the bones are real.

One of the most historically important fossils in existence (granted, I think this is a cast of it)

One of the most historically important fossils in existence (granted, this is a cast of it; the real one’s in Paris)

Mosasaurus is historically important because, when Georges Cuvier examined it and realized it was a giant lizard, that was the first time anyone in the Western world really thought about the fact that things could become extinct. Prior to that, real life was like a video game as far as anyone was concerned—you can shoot all the animals/monsters in sight, but they’ll still respawn later (migrate from elsewhere, in the case of the real world). It’s also the reason there’s a misconception out there that every dead reptile is a lizard. Once Cuvier correctly identified a giant extinct lizard, lesser anatomists jumped on the bandwagon and started giving things names ending in -saurus, which comes from the Greek word for ‘lizard’.

The extinct animals are only part of the displays at RBINS. There are quite a few galleries devoted to modern organisms.

Brussels used to have a zoo, but the animals weren't replaced as they died. This elephant was the last one.

Brussels used to have a zoo, but the animals weren’t replaced as they died. This elephant was the last one.

I like it when taxidermists show behavior

I like it when taxidermists show behavior. There’s some good examples of this in Mammal Hall in UI’s own natural history museum. Look for the little weasel peeking into a log and the mouse trying to escape predation on the end of a reed.

And then there's bad taxidermy... The mounts themselves are actually good, but their arrangement it a problem here.

And then there’s bad taxidermy… The mounts themselves are actually good, but their arrangement is a problem here.

If you ever find yourself arranging an exhibit, please make sure your dead animals aren't staring intently at each other's butts.

If you ever find yourself arranging an exhibit, please make sure your animals aren’t staring intently at each other’s butts.

Part of this hall was devoted to comparative anatomy. Most animal exhibits are set up based on environment, geography, or phylogeny. It was nice to see one set up to discuss the evolution of various body parts and systems. I wish I’d had more time to spend here because this looked like quite a good gallery.

The vasculature inside your lungs

The vasculature inside your lungs

Lampreys are weird. Some of  the anteriormost gill arches here are homologous with our jaws.

Some of the anteriormost gill arches in this lamprey are homologous with our jaws.

If I were a fish, I would have nightmares about lampreys attaching themselves to me and sucking my blood.

If I were a fish, I would have nightmares about lampreys attaching themselves to me and sucking my blood.

Another thing I enjoyed about the RBINS exhibits is that there was a huge swath of galleries devoted to invertebrates. Oftentimes, they get overlooked, with vertebrates getting a disproportionate amount of the attention. But here, there were galleries for molluscs, poriferans, arthopods, tiny things living in soil, and even for zooplankton. It was awesome.

Foraminifera are single-celled amoeboid plankton with calcium carbonate shells and lots of pseudopods.

Foraminifera are single-celled amoeboid protists with calcium carbonate shells and lots of pseudopods.

Is it just me, or does this Difflugia pyriformis (another amoeboid protist) look like a Pokémon?

Is it just me, or does this Difflugia pyriformis (another amoeboid protist) look like a Pokémon?

Vorticella campanula, a ciliate protozoan

Vorticella campanula, a ciliate protozoan

I don't remember the species, but some snails grow really elaborate shells.

I don’t remember the species, but this snail has a really elaborate shells.

The Australian trumpet, the largest living snail in the world (up to 30 cm)

The Australian trumpet, the largest living snail in the world (up to 30 cm)

The living nautilus species actually aren't the only living cephalopods with external shells. But the shell of this argonaut, a type of octopus, isn't actually homologous with plesiomorphic cephalopod shells--it's unique to this genus. It's an agg case that's excreted by females and lacks the air chambers of a true cephalopod shell.

The living nautilus species kind of aren’t the only living cephalopods with external shells. But the shell of this argonaut, a type of octopus, isn’t actually homologous with plesiomorphic cephalopod shells–it’s unique to this genus. It’s an egg case that’s excreted by females and lacks the air chambers of a true cephalopod shell.

This is a giant roly poly, pill bug, whatever you want to call them. Those little crustaceans that live in rotting wood and curl into balls will you pick them up. The ones living on the bottom of the ocean, like this Bathynomus giganteus, can reach over a foot in length.

This is a giant roly poly, pill bug, whatever you want to call it. It’s an isopd just like those ittle crustaceans that live in rotting wood and curl into balls when you pick them up. The ones living on the bottom of the ocean, like this Bathynomus giganteus, can reach over a foot in length.

They had three species of Pachnoda beetle, all with very different and striking coloration and patterns. This is P. sinuata.

They had three species of Pachnoda beetle, all with very different, striking coloration and patterns. This is P. sinuata.

This is Damon spinatus, a whip spider. There are some pretty freaky-looking arachnid groups out there.

This is Damon spinatus, a whip spider (a different group from both true spiders and whip scorpions). There are some pretty freaky-looking arachnids out there.

Sminthirus viridus. Springtails are kind of adorable.

Sminthirus viridus. Springtails are kind of adorable.

Oribatid mites look like tiny, underground tanks on legs.

Oribatid mites look like tiny, underground tanks on legs.

And then there was the gift shop…

Shelf after shelf of Papo figurines (and this was only one section of them)? Yes, please, take my money. I wasn't using it anyways.

Shelf after shelf of Papo figurines? And this only one section of them? Yes, please, take my money. I wasn’t using it anyways.

Anatomically correct animal figurines are my weakness. I managed to tear myself away from the modern animals and some of the extinct ones, but I still came home with eight new figurines. I swear they were trying to make me go broke. On the plus side, they make for fun minis in tabletop games (D&D, Pathfinder, etc…) when they’re small enough. Also good as visual aids for Age of Dinos students when they’re learning about various extinct animals.

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