Sun Yat-Sen University

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I came here for one fossil and got two! Okay, the second one is just a set of dorsal vertebrae and a couple osteoderms. But it was still worth a few characters, even if they aren’t particularly helpful. But still, brand new specimen. Yay!

The skull is an unnamed species which was just described this year. Unfortunately, only the dorsal surface is visible and a substantial portion of it is either covered in a thin layer of matrix or the surface of the bone was accidentally prepared away. It…needs some love from a good preparator. A lot of love, actually.

It’s the first known Eocene alligatoroid in China. The only other Asian alligator that old is Krabisuchus, which I saw in Thailand in January. I really hope they can find more specimens in the future and prepare them well. Krabisuchus was only published in 2010 and before that we didn’t know there were alligatoroids in Asia in the Eocene.

Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

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There are three species of crocodylian at the IVPP which have previously been assigned to Alligatoroidea—Alligator luicus , Eoalligator chunyii, and E. huiningensis. E. huiningensis is known from a single partial skull and jaws. There are more specimens of E. chunyii, all at the IVPP. The holotype of A. luicus is actually at a small museum in Linqu, Shanwang Province, but a cast of the skull is kept here. I couldn’t get in contact with anyone in Linqu in time to go myself, but I’m going to be collaborating with a student at the IVPP whose project involves redescribing the species (it was only ever a short blurb). We coded all of the above together. He’ll be going to Linqu to see the Aluicus holotype—which is an entire skeleton—but it’s unfortunately embedded in resin…apparently fossils from that formation are crumbly and someone made a poor decision to preserve it that way instead of using a thin, clear layer of glue. I hope he can get some extra information out of it.

Eoalligator huiningensis. Notice the very un-alligatorine notch near the front of the snout where the big 4th dentary tooth would slide into.

Eoalligator huiningensis. Notice the very un-alligatorine notch near the front of the snout that the big tooth in the lower jaw would slide into.

I also took pictures of every Alligator sinensis skull they had (the modern Chinese Alligator) plus some dried out baby crocodylians. I’ll add them to my morphometrics analyses to increase sample size.

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Baby Chinese alligator skull

While I was there, I also looked at a jaw from an animal called Wanosuchus. It’s just the jaw, and no one’s sure quite where it belongs, so I figured why not look at it while I have the chance.

No mandibular fenestra, so not a Eusuchian, but beyond that....eh?

No mandibular fenestra, so not a Eusuchian, but beyond that….*shrug*

I headed back to Beijing to fly out at the end of my China trip. I had half a day to spend in the city before leaving for the airport. I didn’t get around to it while looking at crocodylians, but I did partial coding of Lystrosaurus youngi before I had to catch a taxi since it hasn’t been published in a good-sized phylogenetic analysis yet. Once I review all the pictures I previously took, I’ll ask my other collaborator at the IVPP (the aformentioned one’s advisor and my host during the EAPSI program) to do the remaining codings.

Lystrosaurus youngi

Lystrosaurus youngi

 

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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Basel Collections

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The Basel museum is predominantly a mammal repository. There are a few cabinets of crocodylomorph fossils, mostly scraps. But they do have a few good skulls I was interested in seeing.

There was a nice, nearly complete, 3D Diplocynodon ratelli skull and jaws. Its sutures were almost as good as that braincase in Paris. It’s also an example of why modern fossil restoration doesn’t restore parts with similarly-colored material. Back in the day, fossils were restored purely for display, so they wanted them to look as un-jarring as possible. Nowadays, they care more about making it easier for future scientists to tell what’s real from what’s fake. It’s not always as easy as it sounds because some of them do a really good job of making their parts look real.

You can pretty easily tell by the coloration that part of the tip of its snout is fake here. There are other fake bits visible, like parts of the jaw joints, but the lighting in this picture makes it a little harder to tell.

You can pretty easily tell by the coloration that part of the tip of its snout is fake here. There are other fake bits visible, like the same part of both jaw joints, but the lighting in this picture makes it a little harder to tell. If one couldn’t tell the jaw joints were fake, though, they might code them (and the restorer won’t necessarily have looked at other specimens of the same species to restore them), resulting in false codings.

There were also two skulls of a species that used to be called Hispanochampsa muelleri, but it turned out to be synonymous with Diplocynodon, so now it’s D. muelleri.

Dorsal view of D. muelleri's skull with jaws

Dorsal view of D. muelleri‘s skull with jaws

And the ventral view! Someone prepped out both sides of this slab while still keeping it safely supported by the matrix. Nice prep job!

And the ventral view! Someone prepped out both sides of this slab while still keeping it safely supported by the matrix on the sides. Nice prep job!

They also had a partial skeleton of an Italian Diplocynodon. I had originally planned to go to Italy to see more of them, but that didn’t work out, unfortunately.

Italian Diplocynodon in lignite

Italian Diplocynodon in lignite

They had a few other crocodylomorphs outside the crown group, as well.

Alligatorellium, an atoposaur

Alligatorellium, an atoposaur

Pelagosaurus, a teleosaur (a type of obligately marine croc)

Pelagosaurus, a teleosaur (a type of obligately marine croc)

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Collections Work: In the Collections

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Unless you’re lucky or clever, your time in the collections while on a research trip is going to be limited. Which means that making efficient use of your time can be the difference between getting everything done and either needing to go back or just missing out on some information.

The exact specifics of what constitutes “efficient use of your time” is going to vary depending on what type of data you’re collecting and what questions you want to answer. Below is how I make use of my time visiting collections.

Step 1: Triage

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When I enter a new collection, the first thing I do is triage the specimens in my study group. I take my sticky notes and my pen and go through all the drawers. If I see a specimen I want to look at, I stick a note on the front of the drawer. If it’s a full drawer that I’d have to sort through again to find what I want, I write its number on the sticky note (multiple specimens will go on the same note if they fit). I use different colorsfor different levels of importance. There are some specimens I want to spend a lot of time fully examining. Others I just want photo documentation of. And there are some that aren’t directly related to my research, but if I have time, I’ll look at them for comparison. This will probably eat up the first hour of your visit, but if you have a lot to go through, it saves you time and/or hassle later. If it’s a small collection (only a few specimens or a few drawers), triage is not necessary; just get right to work.

After you’ve gone through everything, you might consider making note of how many important, somewhat important, and not important specimens you have to go through. You could plan out when you’re going to look at each specimen or set of specimens (Day 1: important specimens 1 and 2 in the afternoon; Day 3: take pictures of somewhat important specimens…). Or you could just wing it and gauge if you’re going through things quickly enough as they come. Figure out what works for you.

Remove the sticky notes from the drawers as you finish examining each specimen. And don’t put the sticky notes on the specimens themselves or on their labels. You don’t want to leave glue residue on anything important.

Collect your data

This one’s self-explanatory. Take your pictures, code your characters, take your measurements, etc…

Draw specimens

If you have time you can draw some of your specimens. This is especially useful if you have an important specimen whose sutures aren’t showing up very well in your pictures. Better to draw them while it’s in hand than to draw from memory and unhelpful images later.

Scientific specimen drawing can be as simple as “Here’s the rough outline of my specimen, its important holes, and here’s where the sutures are”. It can also be as complicated as one of Ernst Haeckel’s absolutely breathtaking artworks.

Jaw-droppingly beautiful

But, uh…that last one is not what you’ll be doing during a research visit. You’re here to do science and don’t have time for art. That’s something you do if you have the specimen on loan or it’s at your home institution. My drawings are somewhere in the middle. I do the outlines, but I also shade them to record the topography. I’ll go through my process in another post.

Take breaks

This one is important and underrated. Many people try to go through the collections at top speed nonstop. Sometimes you have to if you don’t have much time. But your brain can’t be on constant overdrive without ramifications. You’ll start missing or misinterpreting things. You might have to spend longer mulling over whether that suture really does extend all the way to that foramen or not. Taking breaks is especially important if you’re going to be doing this for weeks and weeks. You will get burnt out if you don’t pace yourself.

I usually take about three breaks a day—mid-morning, lunch, and mid-afternoon—though this can vary greatly depending on when I start, how tired I am, and how focused I am [not]. I don’t rush my lunch if I can avoid it. I take half an hour or an hour. If there’s a park nearby, I recommend taking your lunch there. You’re going to be in the bowels of some building all day; enjoy the sunshine and fresh air as you’re able.

You might even consider taking a post-lunch nap. There’s a reason this is the norm in some countries (e.g., China). Studies have shown that short siestas increase your work output and quality during the afternoon. Anything longer than an hour is too much; you’ll feel tired after. If you can’t nap, sitting quietly for ten minutes, perhaps with your eyes closed, is still enough to help a little bit. It seems like 10-30-minute power naps are consistently the best.

Can’t power nap? Tough cookies. Learn to. If you’re in academia, this is one of the best ways to maximize your productivity prior to looming deadlines without harming yourself. The others being eating healthy and getting enough exercise.

You can, of course, caffeinate yourself, but it doesn’t work as well. And do you really want to rely solely on a drug to function when you have a choice not to? It’s not like some mental and physical illness cases where medication is necessary. But if you do choose to caffeinate, it will be more effective if you time when you consume it based on your circadian rhythm. This will both increase its effectiveness in the short-term and minimize the long-term tolerance you build to it.

Oops!

Did you break a specimen? Don’t worry; you won’t be thrown out or ostracized (unless this is a common theme with you, in which case you need to seriously rethink your specimen handling strategy). We all do this at some point. Fossils are millions of years old and removed from their fossilization conditions; they aren’t exactly stable. And we’re turning them around every which way trying to see everything.

If you break a specimen tell the collections manager. They need to know so they can either put that in the preparation workflow or decide it’s not worth fixing/able to be fixed and just record the specimen’s new state (2 pieces instead of 1) in their database. Don’t try to hide what you did. Next time someone goes to pick up that specimen, they’ll be working under the assumption that it’s a single piece and suddenly half of it has fallen off, the pieces have ground together on the way down, and there’s a pile of infinitesimally small bits of specimen in the box. Or worse–it’s broken into more pieces. Failing to report breakages will make people mad at you, and rightfully so.

I actually recommend taking a collection care class. Or even just a workshop on specimen handling if you can find one being offered. Some of it will be common sense, but sometimes people lack that. And sometimes it’s things you just wouldn’t have thought about it if someone didn’t point it out.

Actually…

Do you have an important identification observation to make that differs from what’s on the card? Maybe that’s not a jugal; it’s an ectopterygoid. Or maybe that Crocodylus fossil is actually Allognathosuchus and the label just hasn’t been updated anytime in the last century. Collection managers are very busy and simply don’t have time to learn everything about all the fossils in their care. They may be an icthyosaur specialist in charge of fossil herp collections that include snakes. Or, if they’re at a small institution, their job title may be a more general “paleontology collection manager” of a collection ranging from jawless fish to mice to dinosaurs. They rely on visiting researchers to keep their information up to date.

Post-visit

Thank the collections managers whenever you present research that includes their specimens. When you publish, send them a copy of the paper for their records. That’s the only way they’re going to be able to keep up with all the updates on their specimens.

Collections Work: Collections Kits

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Taking the bare minimum (camera, notebook, writing utensil) into collections and hoping for the best is a horrible idea. Sometimes things go wrong–an SD card goes bonkers, the lighting is horrible for pictures… Other times you really wish you’d paid more attention and taken a good photo of that phylogenetic character that’s uncoded in your matrix.

Whenever you start visiting collections for research, you should start building up a collections kit–things you regularly take with you because you might or will need them, just like a dancer’s dance bag. Exactly what you take will vary depending on what data you’re collecting and what questions you’re trying to answer, but some things are ubiquitous. Below is what I take (or, in some cases, have considered taking) into collections.

Computer

I take my laptop, but if you have a tablet you may prefer that. It would be an easy way to access all the scientific papers you could want. If you choose the laptop route, do yourself a favor and invest in a lightweight one; you’ll be carrying it around a lot. If you have any spreadsheets of data (like caliper measurements or character matrices), save yourself some time later and enter them straight into your files in the collections.

Camera

It can be a good point-and-shoot or it can be a DSLR. I’d been taking my Canon EOS Rebel XSi into collections and was about to invest in a good macro lens when someone introduced me to a point-and-shoot (a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS) which cost pretty much the same amount as a decent macro lens and has good macro itself on top of good telephoto and phenomenal IS. I’m a birder with shaky hands, so those last two things are very important to me. I decided I’d rather buy a new camera than spend two or more times that amount on the decent macro and telephoto lenses I sorely needed. Extra bonus? Point-and-shoots weigh less than DSLRs and take up less space.

The advantage a DSLR has over a point-and-shoot is better resolution. If you use a point-and-shoot, you’ll want to make that ISO number as low as possible to maximize your resolution for specimen photos (though I’ve heard that each model is designed around a specific ISO and quality is only minimally increased below that?). Camera shake is more of a probably at low ISO numbers, so this is where you’ll want to use a tripod and a timer or remote button to take that picture.

Also, if you have a DSLR, get it serviced every few years. If you’re uncomfortable poking around the delicate mirrors and sensors yourself (as you should be), take it to a professional to have it done. University Camera here in town is great.

Tripod

When I first bought my Rebel, I bought an accessory kit on Amazon that included everything I needed and more for a great price. It came with a cheap tripod which I though was just what I needed. It was light, took up very little space when folded up, and it worked. It wasn’t high quality, but I just needed something to hold my camera still at a specific height and angle.

…But then I found out that the horizontal bars between my tripod’s legs got in the way of taking specimen pictures all the time. If you’re taking pictures from the side, that’s not an issue, but when you take them from above…

So when my tripod finally broke, I shelled out the money for one with an arm that extends the camera away from the legs. Sometimes I need that extra distance even without the horizontal bars because some of my specimens are big. The legs can also be splayed out even farther than the default max if you want to get a good close-up shot of something small. I’ve enjoyed using it, but it is more annoying to transport because it’s so big and heavy.

Camera cleaning supplies

Lens wipes, the air squirters with brushes on them, q-tips. They don’t take of much space or weight much and you might end up in a dusty back room if that particular institution doesn’t get a lot of funding for collections care. You don’t necessarily need to take these to the collections, but you should at least take them with you during your travels.

Extra camera battery

Just in case you forget to charge the one you’re using and it dies in the middle of the day. That sucks.

Extra SD card

Also just in case. I’ve had one decide to stop working on me before.

Camera manual or cheat sheet

Unless you’re very familiar with all the digital camera settings, you should consider bringing one of these with you. The best setting is going to be different between collections (lighting!) and between fossil specimens (color and luster vary due to the differing chemistry of the fossilization process in different rock formations). Also based on what the purpose of a picture is (depth of field is a common one to change to highlight either whole specimens or single features).

Bidirectional bubble leveler

Helps to make sure your images are taken from a consistent angle. Maybe not important if you just want pretty pictures, but very important for 2D morphometric analyses. I used to have one that slides onto the tops of cameras (lost it somewhere), but now I have one on my tripod head. You should also consider bringing one to put on your specimens to check that they themselves are sitting at a consistent angle to one another (again, not as important if you aren’t doing 2D morphometrics).

Scale bar

Don’t forget one of these. You’ll kick yourself later. So much extra work and so much introduced error… If you do happen to forget one, use something you have on hand as scale and measure it later, like that restaurant punch card in your wallet, or the lid to a pen. You could bring along graph paper and use that, but there’s no guarantee of good contrast between the paper and the specimen. I have a scale bar that’s shaped like a credit card and always carry it around in my wallet.

Support

Something to prop specimens in place because they aren’t all going to sit the same. Many of them have bits broken off. I use a hacky sack with bright colors that are easily removed in Photoshop. Other people use moldable erasers, but I’d rather not risk leaving an oily residue on the specimens. If you use something like that, test it beforehand on something innocuous to see if it leaves any residue. Also make sure it doesn’t leave bits of itself behind or take bits of specimen with it.

But use whatever works. I’ve been thinking about sewing some microfiber or jersey knit beanbags. Sometimes the shadows in the big stitches of my hacky sack have to be removed manually rather than using the magic eraser tool to get rid of them on the computer with one click. Big time-sucker.

Contrast

Some of my specimens are dark, some are light, and some are in between. Most collections won’t have photography stations set up for you, so you should bring your own fabric to place your specimens on. Try white for the dark specimens, black for the light ones, and some mid-range colored one for the in-betweeners. Don’t use a color that’s liable to be a fossil color, like red or orange. Turquoise, lime green, purple, or something like that would work better. I use my black laptop sleeve for the dark contrast and blank pages in my notebook for the light contrast because I keep forgetting to add fabric to my kit before leaving home.

Other photography supplies

You could get crazy—bring lamps and a tabletop light tent to stick your specimens in so the lighting is diffused—but that would be crazy. Lamps would be a pain to cart around. I do not recommend it unless your travel will be limited in scope and you know for a fact that the place you’re going doesn’t have their own. Light tents aren’t as useful without them and, depending on what you work on, your specimens might not fit in it anyway. Sometimes they also diffuse the light too much and the specimen looks “flat” in pictures.

FD filters will make it look more like your specimens were photographed under natural light instead of the fluorescents you’ll almost always be under. Sometimes that looks better, sometimes it doesn’t; depends on the fossil and the lighting conditions. But filters also decrease the quality of your images a little and aren’t as useful for scientific photography as artistic photography.

A lens hood might not be a bad idea, especially if you end up stuck in a room with giant windows that can’t be covered; less risk of flare.

A white balance card could be useful if you’re particular about true-to-life color. Otherwise, just use the presets on your camera. I don’t think true color is important for most types of scientific photos. I just pick the preset that lets me see what I want to see best.

Notebook or pad of paper

I prefer to take notes in a notebook, but you might want to do it on your computer instead; ymmv. You can also use the paper to draw specimens, which can be done much more quickly than doing it on the computer (unless you have an artist-friendly tablet with a stylus).

Drawing supplies

Going along with the previous idea, I bring drawing supplies to illustrate the most important specimens. How to draw study illustrations in collections is a whole post in and of itself, so I’ll eschew the details here and talk about that later.

Important checklists

As in, things you want to observe about each or some specimen(s). In my cases, that’s a character list for phylogenetic analyses. I highly recommend printing long checklists off beforehand and bringing them along in a folder. You have no idea how much time it saves vs. scrolling up and down in Adobe Reader. Plus I feel like I concentrate on things better if I’m looking at hard copies than at a screen.

Examination Aids

Hand lenses and flashlights are a huge help when it comes to seeing little tiny character states or looking into the depths of some specimen’s ear hole.

Any important papers

If you reference any frequently, consider bringing hard copies. Otherwise, pdfs on your computer are just fine. Unless you have a tablet, in which case the pdfs will probably always be just fine.

Sticky notes or tabs

You know those neon tabs you can buy to demarcate your books and folders? They’re really useful for keeping track of which drawers and specimens you still need to go through. More about that in a later post.

Brussels Collections

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Brussels has provided the most taxonomically varied collection I’ve visited this trip. I was able to code a couple gators as well as my outgroup and some basal members of other clades.

Diplocynodon darwini

Diplocynodon darwini

For alligatoroids, they had several skulls and skeletons of Diplocynodon darwini, a species from the Messel Pit in Germany which I’ll be seeing more of in the fall. They also had a skeleton of Baryphracta deponiae, which may or may not be synonymous with Diplocynodon depending on who you ask. The skeletons were complete and in articulation. Too complete in some ways…I can’t look at the skeleton when it’s covered in osteoderms. And I can’t look at the palate or the lingual side of the jaws when they’re tightly articulated to the skull on a slab of rock. But they do make for gorgeous display pieces. There was also the holotype and paratypes of Allognathosuchus wourtesi, but people have been skeptical of this name for years and I agree. It’s some teeth and some jaw bits, but they look nothing like the teeth and jaw bits of Allognathosuchus in NA. It’s most likely some sort of Diplocynodon, but I don’t know if it’s its own thing or a junior synonym of something else. That’s something for the diplocynodontine specialists to figure out.

Baryphracta

Baryphracta

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Bernissartia, with Iguanadons in the background

The outgroup in my phylogenetic analysis is Bernissartia, the sister taxon of last collection’s Koumpiodontosuchus. The frame the skeleton sits on is not exactly sturdy, but it doesn’t need to be because the skeleton spends almost all its time just sitting there. Whoever designed it did a fantastic job of making it modular, though, because it’s very easy to take off different parts of the skeleton, which I’m sure every croc researcher who passes this way is highly grateful for.

Maroccosuchus. I've never had to contort so much to examine a specimen in my life

Maroccosuchus, with a 5’5″ human for scale

There are two groups in analyses of Crocodylia which are kind of a pain: tomistomines and gavialoids. Molecular analyses tend to group them together inside Crocodyloidea. Morphological analyses tend to put Gavialoids at the base of Crocodylia. Which is separate from what you’d expect given the “longirostrine problem” wherein unrelated groups of very long-snouted crocs can get pulled together in morphological analyses because their snouts go through some of the same changes as they lengthen. I was able to look at two basal members of these groups: Maroccosuchus, a basal tomistomine, and Eosuchus, a basal gavialoid.

 

Eosuchus

Eosuchus

I also looked at “Crocodylusdepressifrons, which is a basal crocodyloid that needs its own genus name, but nobody’s bothered to rename it yet. I’m not sure if the croc specialists have other things on their plate right now or if there’s some taxonomic or phylogenetic uncertainty at the base of the crocodyloid tree that needs to be worked out before people go erecting new names.

Crocodylus depressifrons

Crocodylus depressifrons. This was part of an almost complete skeleton on display

There was also a “crocodylian sp” from the Messel. I don’t know if someone’s figured out what it is since the label was made. It’s one of those specimens with everything preserved but you can’t see anything helpful.

It's a cute little Crocodylian sp., though

It’s a cute little crocodylian sp., though

They also had Goniopholis simus, but it’s ouside my analysis, so I didn’t examine it. One of my labmates will likely be trekking here to look at it someday, though.

Working in the Brussels collections was a bit different. I’m pretty sure there’s a minotaur somewhere in this building ’cause holy crap is it labyrinthine. And don’t go through the wrong door and let it close behind you or you might be trapped on a stairwell that can’t be exited without either having an employee key card or setting of an alarm. Felipe (another croc researcher who was working here at the same time) and I figured that out the hard way when we tried to stop by our host’s office on the way out at the end of the day instead of calling her to come collect us.

Like French collections, specimens are brought to you here instead of you being let loose among the cabinets. We had a visitor room and a cart full of specimens to work on. But some specimens couldn’t be moved there—either because they were big and on display or too frail to move much. In those cases, a student who works at the museum was assigned to be our babysitter. Poor kids had to sit there and watch us look at dead things for hours on end.

Working here was also interesting for other reasons. Maroccosuchus couldn’t be flipped and was on the floor because no table was nearby and it’s frail. Which meant I was contorting every which way trying to look at characters. Sprawling out on the ground, flipping upside down, doing the car mechanic slide underneath its (as it turned out) practically nonexistent braincase and palate. *grumble* And out in the collections, I was climbing up a slippery slope to view specimens displayed in stadium-seating-style so all could be viewed by the public. I actually had to brace my ankles against the fossil stands below me to keep from slowly slipping downhill. Also, I may or may not have slid down the slope on my butt to get off of it…

The slippery slope of doom

The slippery slope of doom

There were about two days’ worth of work for me here, but because I left early on Monday (I was quite sleepy and my mind stopped working early that afternoon), I went in for half a day on Wednesday. It meant I didn’t get to do any sightseeing, but I’m honestly okay with that. Being in Brussels was driving me crazy and I just wanted to leave as soon as possible. It’s not that it’s a bad place, it’s just really not my cup of tea. And this headache I’ve developed isn’t helping.

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