Southeastern France Collections

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I actually visited three separate collections during my stay in Marseille: the Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Marseille, Muséum d’histoire naturelle d’Aix-en-Provence, and a private collection between the two cities.

Marseille

The fossils in the Marseille collections were bits of a crocodylian of uncertain affinity called Massialasuchus (including the holotype). One previous analysis places it as near the base of Alligatoroidea. I didn’t see a notch for the 4th dentary tooth, but I was unfortunately only able to get a handful of codings off of it.

Massialasuchus

Massialasuchus

Another aspect of these collections that I greatly appreciated was the modern comparative collection (the part I had time to see, at least). I was able to get codings for Osteolaemus sp., Paleosuchus sp., and Crocodylus cf. niloticus. Some of these specimens were old, while others were fairly newly acquired from police who confiscated them from smugglers bringing them across the Mediterranean. Due to the nature of these acquisitions, the exact location is uncertain. There are three species of Osteolaemus and my codings for this one didn’t perfectly fit my advisor’s codings for either of the two original species, which he made before one was split into two. So the current codings may represent a chimaera of species or be the  third species. Figuring this group’s morphology out is his line of work, not mine, but something I’m glad I took note of. Likewise, my Paleosuchus codings didn’t perfectly fit either species as currently coded, so I’ll need to talk that out with him as well. I’m almost certain that the crocodile skulls are Crocodylus niloticus and not the recently split Crocodylus suchus given where the two species live today and how the specimens were acquired.

Osteolaemus, the African dwarf croc

Osteolaemus, the African dwarf croc…with nearly closed supratemporal fenestrae. Weird.

Paleosuchus, the dwarf caiman

A juvenile Paleosuchus, the dwarf caiman

The smallest Nile croc specimen

The smallest Nile croc specimen

And the largest. It was so big that I couldn't fit the articulated skull and jaws in the photo frame with my tripod legs completely extended.

And the largest. It was so big that I couldn’t fit the articulated skull and jaws in the photo frame with my tripod legs completely extended.

The jaws by themselves just barely fit--and only diagonally.

The jaws by themselves just barely fit–and only diagonally.

I’d come up with some ideas for new characters during this trip and was very happy to have a good ontogenetic sequence of crocodylian to test them on. If you only look at a single skull in a couple species, you might have taxic differences or you might be seeing ontogenetic variation. I was able to toss out some of the possible characters and keep others.

Aix

The collections in Aix also had a strong comparative collection. I only had a day here, so I didn’t get to sit down and code every species. I took plenty of pictures, though. Their fossil crocodylian material was pretty scrappy. There was supposedly one decent specimen, but someone who was unavailable that day had it in his office. Most of the material there is already being worked on. They had a nice photo station set up for us to use.

A large Chinese alligator. It looks almost as weird as the crazy Field Museum specimen.

A large Chinese alligator. It looks almost as weird as the crazy Field Museum specimen.

There was a weird moment when someone who looked like a big-wig administrator came by briefly and made introductions with my host, but ignored me after a very brief “who are you and what are you doing here?” look down at me. Either sexism, ageism, or both at work there—and none of those options are pretty. I’ve had this sort of thing happen to me a couple times before. If my male companion makes a point to introduce me—or I make a point to force my own introduction when they’re trying to not look in my direction—this type of person suddenly makes eye contact with me and seems thoroughly confused that I’m there. Especially when I contribute something intelligent to the conversation when they’ve either been ignoring my presence or treating me like a student who’s barely started in this field and has no knowledge of it. Frustrates me to no end.

Private

Most journals nowadays (in paleontology, at least) won’t accept publications on specimens held in non-accredited institutions—especially if they’re private collections as opposed to a public institution trying to get accreditation. But this one private collector in south France has two crocodilian holotypes and several other skulls of the same species in his collections. He’s more than willing to have researchers come by to examine them. He’s printed out labels and either made or had someone make support structures and boxes for many of his specimens (he has a decent variety) that look very nice. His fossils are housed in their own room set back in what looks like an above-ground basement. I’m ambivalent about the location… On one hand, it seems to be located in a place that would have less temperature fluctuation than most places in a house without AC, as it’s surrounded by solid concrete walls and has no windows. But on the other hand, I didn’t notice any temperature or humidity controls. It’s probably worse off than some accredited locations, but better off than others. I’ve seen fossils housed in what amounts to a warehouse (which worried their collection managers, but no better options were available to them).

Acynodon, a hylaeochampsid eusuchian

Acynodon, a hylaeochampsid eusuchian

Allodaposuchus, also a hylaeochampsid

Allodaposuchus, also a hylaeochampsid

Closing Thoughts

Well, that was my last post for this trip. It’s become apparent that I have a lot more work to do modifying my advisor’s matrix than I had banked on. Which is going to be a good thing in the long run, but will mean a ton of extra work for me this year. I got to code quite a few species and started making some real headway on adding new characters and characters states. The variety of things I look at on my remaining two international trips won’t be quite so large as on this one, and will instead be focused on building up my sample size for morphometric analyses. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the little-studied Chinese species in late September, though. See you then!

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In and Around Marseille

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This is a combination post for sightseeing, birding, and exhibits. I was too busy finishing up that service project when I wasn’t in collections.

The only sightseeing trip I got to take was when my hosts tried to take me swimming in the Mediterranean my first day there, but a storm rolled in and we had to leave. But I did get to see some gorgeous landscapes in the process.

The tail end of Marseille and the prison from the Count of Monte Cristo are in the far-off background. In spite of swimming not being allowed there, quite a few people were swimming in that little inlet in teh center of the photograph.

The tail end of Marseille and the prison from the Count of Monte Cristo are in the far-off background. In spite of swimming not being allowed there, quite a few people were swimming in that little inlet in the center of the photograph.

Vertebrate fossils (I can't remember what kind) were found when crews were digging this old tunnel

Vertebrate fossils (I can’t remember what kind) were found when crews were digging this old tunnel

I didn’t get any good bird pictures, but I managed to get one lifer without really trying. As soon as we got to my host’s house, a little Crested Tit hopped into a nearby tree and started chittering while foraging for seeds (EDIT: I also saw Pallid Swifts and Grey Partridges). There were probably Mediterranean Gulls flying around where we tried to go swimming, which would have been lifers for me, but they were too far off in the distance for me to tell them apart from common Yellow-legged Gulls. I’d like to come back here someday and go to a nearby natural park a former UI postdoc from France recommended to see what else I can find.

I also didn’t have time to walk through the exhibits of the Marseille museum. Which was a bummer because what I saw on the way to/from my host’s office looked pretty awesome. They even had a taxidermied Mediterranean Monk Seal, which is one of the most critically endangered mammal species. They also had the best, most dynamic mosasaur mount I’ve ever seen.

Notice how the end of its tail is downturned? That's a recent finding. Mosasaurs had previously been reconstructed with paddle tails (imagine a moray eel's shape), but someone looked at the shape of the vertebrae and realized their natural position was to be ever so slightly angled. After that, at least one specimen was found with the outline of an upper fin preserved. It's nowhere near as pronounced as in derived icthyosaurs, though--more like the primitive icthyosaurs, which means it was probably only just starting to evolve.

Notice how the very end of its tail is downturned? That’s a recent finding. Mosasaurs had previously been reconstructed with paddle tails (imagine a moray eel’s shape), but someone looked at the shape of the vertebrae and realized their natural position was to be ever so slightly angled. After that, at least one specimen was found with the outline of an upper fin preserved. It’s nowhere near as pronounced as in derived icthyosaurs, though–more like the primitive icthyosaurs, which means it was probably only just starting to evolve in at least some species.

I have two more posts to make for my Western Europe trip, but they won’t go up until the second week of August. I’m leaving for Natural Trap Cave in a few hours and will be there for a week!

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First Impressions of Marseille

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  • I was expecting it to be hotter here. It was much hotter and muggier in Basel. No complaints here!
  • The landscape is actually reminiscent of scrub habitat on ridges and valleys in parts of the American Southwest.
  • But the rain my first afternoon here? Reminiscent of the light afternoon storms in my old college town. 🙂
  • It’s so windy here! Also like my college town.
  • My host says Marseille is a dangerous place…not what I was expecting. Lots of fighting (some fatal) between people wanting to control the local drug trade. We passed a car whose window had been broken into on the walk to his car. There was still glass all over the sidewalk.
  • Parts of Marseille look pretty from far away- peach and cream houses nestled into scrubland hillsides and around a bay of the Mediterranean. But when you look closer, it’s very run down. Graffiti everywhere, and none of it pretty. The (I assume) newer buildings lack the peach and cream theme and are strictly utilitarian, not aesthetic.
  • But my host lives in a small town nearby. It’s quite pretty here.
  • You can see a big cave from their window. Seems Pleistocene bears have been found there.
  • I’m very much enjoying staying with him and his wife. Having conversations in mixed English and French is actually pretty helpful since what I can say isn’t as restricted as trying to speak only in French. And he’s able to translate when she and I don’t know what each other said.
  • Collared doves EVERYWHERE.

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