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Bones and Sinews

February 23, 2009

When you deal with fossils every day, even unusual or remarkable fossils, it somehow becomes easy to take their existence for granted. If I am repairing fossils or moving them around, I tend to see them as objects that simply “are,” but when I stop to think I can appreciate that every specimen is the result of a series of remarkable coincidences. Of the many billions of organisms on Earth at any given time, what are the chances that one animal will have died in a place where it would be buried before the dark forces of entropy could reduce it to dust or mud? What are the chances that the sediment in which it was buried would not be eroded away in the intervening millennia? What are the chances that the rock containing this rare treasure would be exposed at the Earth’s surface within our modern times? And what are the chances that it could be discovered, recognized for what it is, and collected with the necessary care? Each one of these has an infinitesimally small probability of ever occurring, so each fossil that reaches exhibit in a museum has its own unique story that links together all of these chance occurrences.

Right now, I am concerned with the last parts of those stories.  Fossil-finding is a chancy and laborious task, and many of the fossils that you can see in museums were collected long ago when there was a particular convergence of fossil site, collector, and resources. The fossils in museums connect us to the long-ago times in which the animals lived, but many of them also link us physically to the historical times in which they were collected, and to the life stories of their collectors.  Some of these are famous, almost mythical, such as the ichthyosaurs collected in England by Mary Anning in the early 19th Century, or the mosasaur skull that was taken to Paris as war booty by Napoleon’s army. The examples I have closer at hand are more pedestrian, but they are the ones of which I have direct experience, and thus they strike me deeply. 

We are currently refurbishing part of our gallery, and I have been thinking a lot about Cretaceous reptiles (or, as I said to a friend, “my head is full of mosasaurs”). One of the largest pieces in our Earth History Gallery is a mounted plesiosaur, which bears the wonderful name Trinacromerum kirki. It has been on exhibit there ever since the gallery opened in the early 1970s. I’m sure that many visitors are struck by its fearsome appearance, but how many of them have ever considered how it came to be there?

The plesiosaur, as it appeared on exhibit between the 1970s and 2008

The plesiosaur, as it appeared on exhibit between the 1970s and 2008 (The Manitoba Museum, specimen V-216)

This plesiosaur links us to an earlier age of fossil collecting, for it actually arrived in Winnipeg long before the present museum was ever thought of. In the early 1930s, a Mr. Mayhew of Treherne found the bones  close to where the Assiniboine River cuts through the Manitoba Escarpment (today this is a beautiful and remarkably peaceful place). At that time, the Manitoba Museum had just been founded in Winnipeg; this was a small institution that had its exhibits in the newly built Winnipeg Auditorium (which, interestingly, was a depression-era capital project!). The museum was largely run by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of volunteers. Mr. Mayhew contacted the museum about his find, and in 1932 Professor Stuart Kirk of the University of Manitoba collected the fossil, assisted by the museum’s two staff members, Messrs. Rand and Stokes.

Through 1933, Prof. Kirk worked to prepare the bones. Kirk was just in his early 30s, so he probably approached this exciting project with youthful enthusiasm. I can imagine him with his students putting in time in evenings or on weekends as they endeavoured to complete the preparation. The plesiosaur had been found without a head and lacked some vertebrae and some of the limb bones on its left side, but it was still a remarkable find worthy of exhibit and study.  

One of the people who worked with Kirk at this time was Edward Leith. Ed was then a young teaching assistant, but he would remain at the university for a very long time, being associated with the same department from the 1920s until the late 1990s. Toward the end of Ed’s time there, I shared an office wall and phone line with this remarkably cantankerous, energetic, kind-hearted, and knowledgeable old man. He told me many stories about his early days and the people he had worked with (though I wish I had asked him more about Kirk and the plesiosaur).

Although Ed was destined to live almost to the end of the millennium, the slightly older Kirk was far less lucky, for in the spring of 1934 he died. I haven’t been able to discover why, but from some correspondence it seems that he developed a rapidly-progressing fatal illness. The museum now had a large, partly-prepared plesiosaur filling up its space, and no paleontologist to oversee its preparation. Since this was the early 1930s, job prospects for paleontologists were probably even scarcer than they are today, so the museum scouted around to see who might be available to do this work (presumably for very little compensation). In any case, they lucked out, for they were able to bring in a “ringer”: Loris Shano Russell.

Russell was another young guy, only about 30 years old, but even at this age he must have shown plenty of promise (he was later to become one of Canada’s pre-eminent paleontologists). He traveled to Winnipeg, prepared the bones, and had them mounted and placed on exhibit before the end of 1934.  So the museum had the big skeleton that it wanted as an exhibit draw. But perhaps more importantly, Russell took full advantage of the opportunity to work on these bones, for he also wrote up a full description of the specimen. He decided that it was a new species of plesiosaur, which he named Trinacromerum kirki in honour of Kirk. Trinacromerum kirki has the further distinction of being the first largely complete plesiosaur to have been described from Canada.

The plesiosaur, as exhibited at the old museum after 1937

The plesiosaur, as exhibited at the old museum after 1937

Russell’s mount of the plesiosaur was a relatively simple horizontal layout on a flat surface, and in 1937 it was re-mounted by Ed Leith and others using a more conventional steel pipe framework. It had a somewhat hideous replica skull made of plaster and wood, and the vertebrae and some of the limb bones were also replaced with plaster replicas (the original vertebrae were too crushed to be mounted). In this configuration, the plesiosaur sat quietly through the Second World War and the 1950s, frightening small children who visited the  little museum.

By the 1960s, the world had changed. Winnipeg recognized that it was a large city, and large cities needed appropriate cultural facilities. Moves were afoot to build a new and much larger museum, which would be run by a numerous and professional staff. The new Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature was built as part of the Manitoba Centennial Centre, which also included a planetarium and a concert hall. The wonderfully antiquated exhibits of the old museum were disassembled and most of the specimens disappeared into the back rooms of the new facility, where they formed the basis for its growing collections.

But what was to become of the plesiosaur? Since it was such a splendid piece, it was re-mounted in the Earth History Gallery in the early 1970s, with a few further modifications such as a new and much more accurate skull (fortunately the charmingly inaccurate old one was not thrown out, and we are now saving it for just the right exhibit opportunity!). And there the skeleton sat through several decades, again frightening small children as the world outside continued to change.

By the turn of the new millennium, it was clear to us that the Earth History Gallery was due for major “refreshment,” and that the substantial Cretaceous exhibits were a top priority. But what would we do with Kirk’s plesiosaur? Like our predecessors, we had become very fond of it (did I mention that it frightens small children?), so of course we wanted to keep it.

At the moment the plesiosaur is hidden from view, and is again headless with its  body covered with plastic.  The refurbished replica skull, bearing freshly-moulded artificial teeth (courtesy of artist Debbie Thompson), sits in another room awaiting re-attachment. Meanwhile, our exhibit team is working on the gallery.  I fear that, when its head is returned, it will not recognize the space around it, because most other things will have changed. 

Big skeletons such as this one have become permanent touchstones, for both museums and their communities, and I suspect and hope that Kirk’s plesiosaur will still be on exhibit in Winnipeg long after any of us have had our own chance to become fossils. This specimen links us to many different pasts. Of course it provides direct evidence of the Cretaceous seas in which it once swam, seas that covered the place where I sit writing this. But it also links our museum to long-dead scientists, and to the spirit of an age where museums could be built from nothing by dedicated amateurs. The fossil bones, in their own way, act as sinews anchoring our museum to its own heritage.

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