Putting an exhibit in place

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The entrance to the museum’s new exhibit is under construction.

Creating this museum exhibit took decades of research, hours of filming and interviews, months of conceptual and graphic design, layout, and production, and as many fossils as we could fit in a gallery as big as some living rooms.

The final step is the installation.

A new design by Alaska artist Ray Troll will be exhibited as part of the museum's dinosaur installation.

A new design by Alaska artist Ray Troll will be exhibited as part of the museum’s dinosaur installation.

The museum has a team of talented writers, educators, researchers, interpreters, collection managers, and more, all of whom play a critical part in the creation of a new exhibition. We make as much as possible within the building, whether that’s a new film or a life-sized dinosaur costume.

The education team builds public programs and helps the production team develop and design interactive displays and other hands-on elements. The visitor services department innovates exciting new items to sell in the store so people can take a memory home with them. Many of those items are designed by our graphic artists. Everybody plays a part.

Steve Bouta has been designing, planning, and building exhibits at the museum for 35 years.

Steve Bouta has been designing, planning, and building exhibits at the museum for 35 years.

But when it comes to building the exhibit, literally hammering, sawing, spreading sand on a dinosaur dig site, and putting the panels on the wall, it’s the exhibits, design, and digital media crew that runs the show. Roger Topp, head of the department, led the conceptual design and project development, but in the last few weeks he’s largely moved on to planning the next exhibit.

Steve Bouta, coordinator of exhibitions & design, is master of the installation. He’s an accomplished craftsman with 35 years of experience and is now working on his final exhibit at the museum. Tamara Martz is the exhibit & graphic designer who crafts creative interpretations of scientific concepts and gives them a clean look. Jonah Wright, the team’s assistant preparator, has a critical eye for detail in finish carpentry and lighting. Sarah Day, our student assistant, can sculpt patches of flood plain or a cliff face out of rocks, sand, glue, and paint.

Turning a room into a place to explore and learn.

Turning a room into a place to explore and learn.

Earth sciences curator Pat Druckenmiller talks to a reporter about the museum's new exhibit.

Earth sciences curator Pat Druckenmiller talks to a reporter about the museum’s new exhibit.

One of the driving inspirations behind Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs is the story of museum fieldwork in remote Alaska. Led by earth sciences curator Pat Druckenmiller, the museum has launched more than a dozen expeditions over the last decade. Collection manager Julie Rousseau has helped with logistics for many of them, as well as leading the effort to clean and catalog hundreds of specimens for the museum’s database. Kevin May, paleontologist and museum operations manager, is another familiar face in the field. His curiosity and ingenuity have helped the museum’s team go to great lengths to retrieve a variety of specimens for the collection.

Museum videographers have brought back hours and hours of evidence of this world hidden away in the mud and rock of our backyard. Digital media producer Kelsey Gobroski has helped transform the raw footage into a story that takes viewers on a journey across the state and into the museum’s research labs. Animator Hannah Foss has brought our dino mascot Snaps (get ready to run!) to life on the screen, as well as created original drawings of the dinosaurs that once populated Alaska.

When the exhibit opens on May 23, visitors of all ages will discover the animals and plants of ancient Alaska and understand a world that is long gone, yet still reflected in the world we know today.

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Is it real?

fos·sil ˈfäsəl/ noun
noun: fossil; plural noun: fossils
  1. the remains or impression of a prehistoric organism preserved in petrified form or as a mold or cast in rock.
Dinosaur bone discovery along the Colville River. UAMN photo by Roger Topp

Dinosaur bone discovery along the Colville River. UAMN photo by Roger Topp

Fossils are evidence of past life. They are instrumental to our understanding of how plants and animals evolved and became extinct. That’s why fossils are such an important part of the paleontological work we do at the museum.

There are different types of fossils. Body fossils are the bones, shells, and teeth that have survived a long burial in the earth. Trace fossils are the marks the animals left behind, like dinosaur tracks or even their dung (those are called “coprolites” in earth sciences terms).

But one question often asked is … are dinosaur body fossils actually the real bone or are have those bones been changed into rock?

Exposing a dinosaur bone from the banks of the Colville River on Alaska's North Slope. UAMN photo by Roger Topp

Exposing a dinosaur bone from the banks of the Colville River on Alaska’s North Slope. UAMN photo by Roger Topp

The surprising answer is:  They are real bones.

Bones and teeth are each made of two main ingredients, a flexible material called collagen and a rigid mineral called hydroxyapatite. After an animal dies and its muscles and skin rot away, the very durable bones and teeth can last for thousands or even millions of years.

A 3D skull produced by the museum's digital printer.

A 3D skull produced by the museum’s digital printer.

Even though they’ve lasted so long preserved in rocks and mountains and river beds, dinosaur bones are quite fragile. That’s why museums often put a replica of the original bone on display. There are two steps to this process. A mold is the material built around the original fossil. A cast is a copy of the original fossil made from the mold.

Another option that is becoming more common is to digitally print a fossil. This is done by first scanning the three-dimensional shape of a fossil with a laser or using photographs and then printing the fossil in plastic. A 3D-printed fossil can be viewed by researchers and experts anywhere in the world while the precious specimen stays safely preserved in the museum’s collections.

In the special exhibit Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs opening May 23 at the UA Museum of the North, both real fossils and replicas will be on display. Some of them will even touchable!

 

Solving the ichthyosaur puzzle

True dinosaurs lived on the land, but you can’t talk about ancient Arctic life without mentioning the many types of marine reptiles that made their home in the Mesozoic Era. Three major group of these carnivorous reptiles have been found in Alaska:

Icthyosaurs
Plesiosaurs
Thalattosaurs

Ichthyosaur, on location. Specimen data: UAMES 2437; Name: Shastasauridae indet; Geological formation and age: Otuk Formation, Late Triassic, ~215 million years old; Diet: fish, ammonites; Body length: 7 m+ (~25 feet) Where found: Brooks Range foothills, northern Alaska

Ichthyosaur, on location. Specimen data: UAMES 2437; Name: Shastasauridae indet; Geological formation and age: Otuk Formation, Late Triassic, ~215 million years old; Diet: fish, ammonites; Body length: 7 m+ (~25 feet); Where found: Brooks Range foothills, northern Alaska

One of the best known specimens of ichthyosaur in Alaska was found on the North Slope almost seven decades ago. And it will be on permanent display for the first time in Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs, opening May 23, 2015 in the museum’s Special Exhibit Gallery.

In 1950, a team from the U.S. Geological Survey mapping the U.S. Naval Petroleum Reserve in the western Brooks Range of Alaska stumbled on an amazing fossil – a 12-foot-long partial skeleton of a large marine reptile.

Carl Benson stands with the ichthyosaur fossil he discovered in 1950 while mapping the US Petroleum Reserve No. 4.

Carl Benson stands with the ichthyosaur fossil discovered in 1950 while mapping the US Petroleum Reserve.

Carl Benson, a retired geophysicist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks who was on the expedition, says they recognized it right away. “We knew what it was when we found it,” he said. “We talked about it in the tent that night and during the remainder of the field season.”

It was the only vertebrate specimen they found on their five-month survey, a geologic reconnaissance that completed the first mapping of the area. The team collected lots of fossils on the trip but didn’t have room for something that big. They did cart a huge amount of specimens and rock samples back to USGS headquarters, but the ichthyosaur was the only animal specimen they found from the Triassic period, about 210 million years ago.

Based on photographs, paleontologists at the University of Alaska Museum of the North identified the fossil as an ichthyosaur, a prehistoric marine reptile that resembled modern dolphins and whales. Because of the remoteness of the area, it would be more than 50 years before the fossil could be recovered and it would take another decade before research was completed.

They called it “Fishlift.” A team of Army soldiers and pilots, museum researchers, and a curious insect-like helicopter known as a Chinook set out on an expedition in the summer of 2002 to retrieve the ichthyosaur specimen.

Scientists knew that the animal lived 220 million years ago, a relic of the Triassic Period.  It was the first specimen of its kind ever found in Alaska, and also the first articulated skeleton. Such an important find could not be left to the elements on the chance that the bluff could weather away, yet no museum researchers had been to the site since. The remote location and lack of a suitable landing area prevented it from being removed and preserved.

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Former earth sciences curator Roland Gangloff (foreground) arranged to excavate the ichthyosaur fossil with the help of the U.S. Army.

Recovering the fossil was no small feat. Then-curator Roland Gangloff recruited the help of the “Sugar Bears,” the Army’s B Company, 4th Battalion, 123rd Aviation Regiment based at Fort Wainwright. As part of a training mission, they flew a CH-47D Chinook helicopter to the remote discovery site, 350 miles northwest of Fairbanks.

On arrival, the team, including the museum’s operations manager Kevin May, scoped out the area looking for the site where the marine reptile was originally found. After consultation, the crew spotted the rock formation. They hiked the short distance, scanning the horizon to get their bearings. On the ridge, behind a row of bushes, they found it. The ichthyosaur was in better shape than they had expected. It took five days to excavate the fossil.

After the museum crew had safely encased the fossil in a sturdy plaster jacket weighing about a ton, it was loaded into the helicopter and flown to Fairbanks.

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The museum still owes a debt to the Sugar Bears crew. If it weren’t for their help, the fossil would still be sitting out there.

In a recent issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, UAMN earth sciences curator Pat Druckenmiller and his colleagues confirmed the identity of the skeleton as an ichthyosaur, making it the first one found in Alaska and also the largest and most complete specimen known from the state.

Druckenmiller estimates this particular marine reptile was nearly 30 feet long, a rare fossil discovery for the state. “Ichthyosaurs were amazing animals. The Alaskan specimen is a type called a shastasaurid, which includes the largest marine reptiles to have ever lived – some rivaled the size of living blue whales.”

Ichthyosaurs are also famous for having the largest eyeballs of any animal that ever lived—some were the size of basketballs.

“This particular animal died during the Triassic Period and settled to the floor of the sea that used to occupy the place where Alaska is now located. Since then, the bottom of that sea has been pushed up to form what we now call the Brooks Range.”

Close up view of the ichthyosaur gut contents showing iridescent mother-of-pearl fragments from an ammonite shell and bluish-gray bone fragments from a fish.

Close up view of the ichthyosaur gut contents showing iridescent mother-of-pearl fragments from an ammonite shell and bluish-gray bone fragments from a fish.

The fossil had other exciting stories to tell. While the specimen was being cleaned at the museum, researchers discovered an abundance of small, broken bones and shell fragments in the stomach region. “We found the last meals that this animal ate,” Druckenmiller said. “Finding gut contents in an ichthyosaur of this age is very rare and provides valuable insights into the diet and ecology of Triassic ichthyosaurs. This is especially interesting considering that some of these large animals may have lacked teeth.”

When he joined the museum staff in 2007, Druckenmiller was excited to find the ichthyosaur skeleton in the collection. “When we brought it out of storage, we began cleaning up the skeleton and could see the bones clearly for the first time.” The fossil took about a year to fully clean.

In the interim it’s been stored in the museum’s collection range. The chunks of rock have been removed for study and replaced many of times over so scientists could examine its last meal, among other investigations.

Collections Manager Julie Rousseau (left) and Curator Pat Druckenmiller complete the ichthyosaur puzzle for exhibit at the museum.

Collections Manager Julie Rousseau (left) and Curator Pat Druckenmiller complete the ichthyosaur puzzle for exhibit at the museum.

ichthypuzzle2It looks like a giant jigsaw puzzle, with ribs and gut contents making up the myriad pieces. Displaying the ichthyosaur will be an additional challenge. Once the museum’s earth sciences crew puts the entire skeleton back together, the 25-feet long specimen will take up a large amount of floor space. The exhibit team is working to engineer a suitable platform so that visitors can get an up close look at this special specimen, one of only a handful of other identifiable ichthyosaurs known from Alaska. The northernmost occurrence of any well-preserved Triassic ichthyosaur in North America.

— Theresa Bakker, UAMN Marketing & Communication

From North to South: Finding dinosaurs in Alaska

Not everyone thinks of the Arctic when it comes to dinosaurs, but Pat Druckenmiller, earth sciences curator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, says they lived pretty much everywhere in Alaska.

[Watch a presentation by Pat Druckenmiller on the museum’s YouTube page.]

Evidence has been discovered at sites ranging from the Alaska Peninsula to the Talkeetna Mountains, where both bones and tracks have been found. Fossils and footprints have also been found in Denali National Park and Preserve. And the museum’s earth sciences team recently discovered a major new site for dinosaur footprints on the Yukon River.

Uncovering fossils along the Colville River on Alaska's North Slope. Photo by Roger Topp

Uncovering fossils along the Colville River on Alaska’s North Slope. Photo by Roger Topp

But when it comes to researching the kinds of dinosaurs that lived in Alaska, ground zero has been the Prince Creek formation along the Colville river on the North Slope. That ‘s where most of the bone material has been found in the state.

In fact, Druckenmiller says it’s the best place in the world to find polar dinosaurs. “Pound for pound, there are more bones and tracks that come out of these rocks that tell us what dinosaurs were doing at high latitudes than anywhere else on the planet,” he said. “So it’s a really neat place to work.”

Exposing the pelvic bone of an adult duck-billed dinosaur in a dinosaur quarry during the summer of 2014 on the Colville River. Photo by Roger Topp

Exposing the pelvic bone of an adult duck-billed dinosaur in a dinosaur quarry during the summer of 2014 on the Colville River. Photo by Roger Topp

It’s also a hard place to work. Researchers from the museum have been collecting fossils there for over 20 years, amassing 6,000 or 7,000 different specimens, from bones to bone fragments and other fossils. “We find big bones,” Druckenmiller said. “And we find little bones, too.”

But it’s a big state. And the museum has poked around in other far reaching corners to find evidence of what kinds of dinosaurs lived here, as far south as Chignik Bay on the Alaska Peninsula.

Climbing the ridge to make casts of dinosaur footprints found near Chignik Bay. Photo by Kevin May

When Druckenmiller arrived at the museum in 2007, he found a photograph left behind by the previous curator showing an interesting set of dinosaur footprints running up a ridge along a slab of rock. He also found a note that said they were discovered among rocks that could be from the Cretaceous or possibly Jurassic, which stretches from 150 to 200 million years ago.

“That made me excited because it would mean that these would be the only Jurassic dinosaurs found in the state,” Druckenmiller said.

In the summer of 2010, Druckenmiller, paleontologist Robert B. Blodgett, geologists Sarah Fowell and Paul McCarthy, and the museum’s Kevin May were able to pull together an expedition to the site in Southwest Alaska. They flew out of Chignik, AK in a helicopter and set up camp along a remote mountain range in the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge.

After picking a spot along the mountain ridge, they hiked up a valley. The first valley turned out to be the one where the dinosaur tracks were located. The crew spent the next several days making casts of the footprints.

They were all three-toed, left by meat-eating dinosaurs. The researchers also confirmed that the rocks were Jurassic in age, occurring at the very end of that period. “It turned out that we pushed the fossil record of dinosaurs in Alaska back about 50 million years,” Druckenmiller said.

— Theresa Bakker (Marketing & Communications)

Walking with Snaps

Animator Hannah Foss introduces Snaps, the animatronic dinosaur, to the community at the museum's Open House in January 2015.

Animator Hannah Foss introduces Snaps to the community at the museum’s Open House. Photo by Theresa Bakker

Ever since people realized dinosaurs actually roamed the earth, our imaginations have run wild. Today, most kids grow up with a favorite dinosaur and an understanding of the seemingly limitless possibilities those forms might take. For animator Hannah Foss, creating a life-sized dinosaur costume as part of the museum’s upcoming special exhibit was a dream come true. “Back in 2006 I watched a ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ Workshop video on YouTube and I was gripped with awe. That it was possible to make huge realistic dinosaurs really captured my imagination.”

After coming to work at the museum in the exhibits and design team, it was clear that her co-workers shared her vision. After researching what it would take to make a “real dinosaur costume,” Snaps was born. “Snaps is a theropod, from the Tyrannosauridae,” Foss said. “He likes eating meat with his big carving teeth, but you don’t have to worry because we feed him really well.”

To make the dinosaur seem alive, the team needed to work with materials that would act lifelike. Steve Bouta, the museum’s exhibition and design coordinator, said the frame was fabricated from PVC pipe and bolted in a back pack frame so that the operator could “wear” the beast. “For leg joints, we heated and flattened the end of one length of pipe, cut a slot in the end of the next section, then inserted tab A into slot B,” Bouta said. “We drilled a hole and pinned the two sections together with bolts. The neck is supported by a length of PVC pipe that pivots and turns on a sleeve bearing.”

The team also used sets of U joints and threaded rod to articulate the head, and a simple push-pull control cable to operate the mouth. The tail pivots on pin joints where it meets the body, and half the length is made from flexible PVC sheet. The skull is a combination of foamie and chicken-wire, and the outer “fleshing” of the dinosaur is upholstery foam, the same kind used in your sofa at home.

Snaps at different stages of his development by the museum's exhibits team.

Snaps at different stages of his development by the museum’s exhibits team. Photos by Hannah Foss

When the project is complete, Snaps will have bumpy, ridged skin with scales and a crest of feathers, like the tufted feathers you see on young birds. He’ll have bright beady eyes. Visitors will hopefully like the look of him, but wouldn’t trust him to be left alone near sandwiches or small children.

As part of her research, Foss was surprised and encouraged to find all kinds of people tackling such a big project. “Animatronic puppet building has this wonderful combination of challenge, imagination and magic. Who wouldn’t want to try making their own real dinosaur?”

Snaps meets his public. Hannah Foss is using her skills as a UAF mascot to connect with visitors.

Snaps meets his public. Hannah Foss is using her skills as a UAF mascot to connect with visitors.

Foss knows what kind of connections can be made by using a life-sized puppet to interact with crowds of people. She was a “Nook” polar bear for three years, the mascot for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. There, she learned how to read people and whether they want to interact, how to escape from rough kids, and – most importantly – how to stay in character.

The museum hopes that Snaps will embody the information shared in the exhibit so that a visitor can interpret knowledge of individual specimens, facts, and diagrams as a living, breathing dinosaur. “I hope that people can take what they’ve learned from the exhibit and see what drives all the parts of Snaps, from science’s current understanding of their posture, behavior, diet, down to their recently-discovered feathers,” Foss said.

“I guess it’s kind of like the difference between reading about lion feeding behaviors on a placard and having the opportunity  to be five feet from a living, breathing, pacing lioness waiting for her meal. It’s electrifying and gives you a new respect for this fascinating animal with its own purpose and spark. The wonder and imagination helps you question, helps you learn.”

The exhibits team has been guided by curator Pat Druckenmiller, who is the expert behind the interpretation. He is keen to use Snaps for everything from public outreach to his paleontology classes at UAF. “Snaps is a fantastic teaching tool for all ages,” he said.

The museum’s education department is also excited to take advantage of the costume developed specifically for the upcoming special exhibit Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs. “We would bring him out on a set schedule,” Foss said. “Come meet Snaps, but make sure he doesn’t eat your lunch!”

Snaps takes a nap in between appearances. When the costume is completed, it will feature bumpy, ridged skin with raised scales and a crest of feathers.

Snaps takes a nap in between appearances. When the costume is completed, it will feature bumpy, ridged skin with raised scales and a crest of feathers. Photo by Hannah Foss

— Theresa Bakker (Marketing & Communications)

Unveiling Alaska dinosaurs and other ancient Arctic life

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Exposing the pelvic bone of an adult duck-billed dinosaur in a dinosaur quarry during the summer of 2014 on the Colville River. Photo by Roger Topp

There are no photos of dinosaurs to show us what this fascinating group of animals looked like when they roamed the planet millions of years ago. Although they only left a shadow of their former selves behind as fossils, that doesn’t mean we can’t use a combination of scientific evidence and artistic skills to depict dinosaurs in their life-sized glory.

Pat Druckenmiller, curator of earth sciences at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, said a variety of fossil evidence helps us understand what dinosaurs looked like. These clues include skin impressions, footprints and, of course, bones. We can even look at some of their direct descendants for insight into how they behaved.

“The birds are still here today, but 70 million years ago Alaska was also home to some amazing dinosaurs,” Druckenmiller said. “At the Museum of the North we have amassed the largest collection of Arctic dinosaurs in the world. These came from excavations conducted by the museum across the state.”

Druckenmiller said some areas, such as the North Slope of Alaska, are particularly productive. “These provide a glimpse of how dinosaurs lived and died in the polar regions.”

While paleontologists first discovered evidence of dinosaurs and ancient marine reptiles more than 150 years ago, it’s only been in the last few decades that scientists realized dinosaurs lived in the polar regions, which were much warmer at that time.

As part of an upcoming exhibit on Alaska dinosaurs called Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs, the museum will put many of these compelling specimens on display for the first time.

“I’m very excited to share many of the original fossils we’ve collected over the years,” Druckenmiller said. “These fossils tell stories, not just about dinosaurs, but also about the world they lived in when Alaska was a very different place. It’s an Alaska you’ve never seen before.”

This exhibit was years in the making. Druckenmiller said it took many field seasons to find and then collect the dinosaurs and other fossils. “Just getting them to the lab is only part of the job. Then it takes years to clean the fossils and study them to understand what they mean.”

The exhibit will also include a large original painting of a new species of duck-billed dinosaurs from Alaska. The original artwork measures 11-feet tall by 16-feet wide and illustrates a scene from ancient Alaska during the Cretaceous Period. It was purchased by the museum with a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation.

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This large original painting by James Havens of a new species of duck-billed dinosaurs from Alaska measures 11-feet tall by 16-feet wide and illustrates a scene from ancient Alaska during the Cretaceous Period. Photo by Theresa Bakker

James Havens created his life-sized mural in an Anchorage mall so he could help educate others about his favorite subject. “I invite the public to dabble some paint on the canvas so we can inform them about the featured dinosaur. My goal is to represent Alaska dinosaurs, Alaska scientists, research facilities and local museums.”

The artist and the scientist worked closely together to get the details right, from the color of their skin to the kinds of plants they are walking through. “With each new painting, I have new information to take in,” Havens said, “about the anatomy, environment and social behavior of dinosaurs. With this hadrosaur painting, I’ve even explored the texture of the pads of their feet.”

The painting will be displayed this summer, along with footprints and fossils of dinosaurs and other animals that lived in Alaska more than 100 million years ago when the new exhibit Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs opens at the UA Museum of the North.

— Theresa Bakker (Marketing & Communications)