Parisian Palaeontology: Visit to Galeries d’Anatomie Comparée et de Paléontologie

It’s no secret that I love natural history museums. The creepier the better. But time doesn’t always allow for trips of leisure so getting to visit a new natural history museum is a pretty big deal for me.

Last week I took a break away from my project and hopped on the Eurostar to Paris. Along with seeing all the typical tourist sights I just couldn’t leave without seeing the Galeries d’Anatomie Comparée et de Paléontologie, one of the four museums that make up the National Museum of Natural History.

Whether you’re a die-hard bones and fossils fan or not at all, this collection is really a sight to behold. As you walk in to the main gallery you’re greeted by what could only be described as an army of skeletons. Each one stares forward, almost menacingly, as you enter and begin to absorb the grandeur of the gallery.

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Entrance to the Galeries d’Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie (unfortunately camera flash was prohibited so I could not do the scene the justice it deserves)
Army of extant animals
Army of animals
Cetaceans towards the back of the gallery
Cetaceans towards the back of the gallery
As viewed from the stairwell balcony
As viewed from the stairwell balcony

Cabinets lining the walls are arranged so elegantly with each specimen identified by a handwritten label. Despite all common names being in French and me not having one word of it, I managed to identify the unfamiliar beasts by their Latin binomials. Although it’s a “dead language”, Latin as it is used in taxonomy is on a par with music notes and maths symbols in its ability to transcend language barriers and be the universal language of biodiversity – something I could dedicate a whole other post to! But for now, back to the bones.

Carnivore skulls in one of the cabinets showing the beautiful handwritten labels
Carnivore skulls
I wonder if these guys were sourced from a restaurant...
I wonder if these guys were sourced from a restaurant…
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Tiny bat skulls and jaws

There’s something for everyone with cabinets dedicated to the breadth of the animal kingdom. My favourite of were the tiny bat skeletons in the photo above. The crania were no bigger than my thumb, and the minute teeth lining the jaws were mesmerising.

The gallery upstairs is filled with extinct animals, from as far back in time as the early tetrapod Eryops to dinosaurs and Pleistocene mammoths. There’s even a Diplodocus guarding the front entrance to the gallery similar to Dippy at the NHM in London! For dino fans there’s also complete Allosaurus and Iguanodon skeletons, alongside Sauropod legs and skulls of a T. rex and a Triceratops. But if you’re more pulled by the recent, there’s Quaternary carnivores, Mastodons, and the giant Irish Elk to admire.

Extinct animals in the upstairs gallery
Extinct animals in the upstairs gallery

Despite dinosaurs being a sure way to draw many children into studies of comparative anatomy, even downstairs among the skeletons kids were falling over themselves with excitement and interest. I could not conceive a more magnificent way to present this branch of science to young minds.

The walls of the uppermost balcony (seen in the picture above) are lined with cabinets containing invertebrate fossils, again wonderfully displayed and labelled. Everything from ammonites to brachiopods and bivalves, but the spectacular preservation of trilobites will always catches my eye. Here, there were so many different species to witness, with some fossilised flat on the substrate like those in the photo below, and others curled up in little balls.

Trilobite fossils
Trilobite fossils

Everything displayed in the galleries just begs to be photographed and the visit really allowed me to combine my passions of palaeontology and photography. With all the more tourist-y attractions ticked off my list I would love to return and visit the remaining three galleries of the National Museum of Natural History, particularly the Grand Gallery of Evolution.

If you ever do find yourself in Paris and fancy a visit, this and the other galleries that make up the Muséum National D’Historie Naturelle can be found at the Botanical Gardens (Jardin des Plantes). Students under 26 years of age are admitted free of charge, otherwise you’ll need to pay into each museum separately. I could not recommend this museum more as a place to spend an hour of two while in Paris. I guarantee you will be blown away by the magnificent array of skeletons no matter what your interest in anatomy or palaeontology may be.

Summer Spreadsheets

Since it is what consumes me right now, I’d like briefly to share a little bit of what I’m getting up to this summer. I may not be spending the time island-hopping in Greece or lounging in the Spanish sun, but I am lucky enough to be doing my work in the wonderful surroundings of London’s Natural History Museum. It’s only natural then to think I’m getting the chance to work on some rare dinosaur bone or groundbreaking ancient DNA analysis. Nope, instead I’m spreadsheeting my way to September*. Far away from the public galleries in the basement of the NHM’s Department of Earth Sciences sits the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology. This index is the result of the lifetime’s work of Dr. John Williams who, for almost 40 years, worked for BP (British Petroleum). During this time Dr. Williams was able to assemble a personal palaeopalynology (ancient pollen and spores) literature collection. Over the years this collection has developed into a fully cross-referenced card index and associated library of publications and today it contains over 25,000 references.

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One of the JWIP’s many drawers of index cards

The JWIP (because it’s full title is a bit of a tongue twister!) unfortunately isn’t much to look at, but what it lacks in beauty if makes up for in comprehensiveness.  The database is made up of those little index cards every student is familiar with, all of which are handwritten and stored alphabetically in countless filing cabinets. The data have come directly from published literature, including reports and theses, that Dr. Williams personally examined up until the end of last year. It contains over 250,000 index cards, with sections displaying data on fossil occurrences, stratigraphy, and taxonomy. The cross-referenced nature of the database means you can search for anything by starting with anything from publication author to geographical location. For someone like me with an tendency to organise obsessively, this project was a perfect fit.

Searching for the right cards...
Searching for cards on the genus Aquilapollenites

Aside from its unfortunate looks, the JWIP is unfortunate in a much graver sense. Its not digital. Digital databases are much more familiar to many of us, the Paleobiology Database being one example. No matter where you are in the world, if you have a computer and an internet connection you already have a vast amount of data at your fingertips. Index card databases such as the JWIP were once a common sight in laboratories and doctor’s surgeries during the 19th century and for the time were considered the height of sophistication. But the digital era soon crept in and made many of these index card set-ups obsolete. Nowadays, digitisation is a hot-topic in museums, libraries, and archives across the world. Museums like the NHM are swiftly choosing the most appropriate specimens to put in line to have their photograph taken and their details noted down. The ultimate goal of this process being to ensure longevity of the data associated with the collections, and also to allow the data to become more accessible, portable, and up-to-date. As it stands right now, the JWIP is available to any researcher seeking fossil pollen occurrence data – provided they travel to the NHM basement and sieve through the cards by hand, whilst recording the information they need.

Aquilapollenites attenuatus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Aquilapollenites attenuatus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This is where my project comes in. Over the summer I’ll be digitising, databasing, and analysing the part of the JWIP that belongs to Aquilapollenites, an extinct genus of fossil pollen. Species in the genus were at peak in the Late Cretaceous, along with the dinosaurs, some even surviving the extinction event that many dinosaurs didn’t. If that wasn’t cool enough, some Aquilapollenites species such as A. mtchedlishvilii are important index fossils that mark the boundary between time periods in rock formations of North America. I know, far too much awesomeness right there. When I finished placing all of the handwritten information from the 600 or so cards directly into spreadsheets, I had filled in over 24,500 cells. That’s a lot of data. As of this week I have a full two months left to work on my project and well on my way to getting some exciting results! Using the digital database I’ve created I’ll be able to use statistical and GIS software to assess the diversity patterns and historical distribution of the species within Aquilapollenites. Such a study has not been preformed before on this genus, and has only been made possible by the exhaustive nature of the JWIP. Despite the JWIP being a completely non-digital database it is an invaluable source of fossil occurrence data, possibly the most comprehensive of its kind available today. It is hoped that my project will kick start the essential process of modernising the JWIP, highlight its importance in paleobiogeographical studies,  and guarantee that it is around for more exciting projects in the future. I’ll report back soon with what interesting patterns the data throw up. I’d like to think that if the JWIP was already digital I may be able to sit in that Spanish sun and do my analyses from there. But for now all that is in front of me is a fun summer full of spreadsheets!   * I actually do work on some “conventional” specimens too. Check back here later in the month to read about the Miocene mammals I’m curating!

I suppose an introduction is in order!

So, I’ve jumped on the #scicomm bandwagon and started my own blog.

First of all, welcome and thank you for visiting! I know that what’s on offer here at the moment is somewhat limited but I hope that as time goes on and I start to build up more posts you’ll find something that tickles your fancy. I don’t admit to being an accomplished science writer in any shape or form so this blog will be as much for my improvement as your enjoyment! As you can probably tell by the name I (eventually) settled on, my writing will be primarily palaeo-flavoured, but with a few living creatures thrown in to liven things up (pun intended).

Many of you reading this might already know me, so I won’t bore you with details. Originally from Ireland, I’m currently at the NHM in London in the final weeks of my my MSc. Soon I’ll begin my PhD and I thought since I actually have some big-girl/real-world science-ing to do, now would be the perfect time to start colonising a blog of my own. Communicating science to the masses is something I have always been passionate about and now I’m taking my own slice of the action. In contrast to a lot of science sometimes, the tone of this blog will always be informal and free of ridiculous jargon – I’d like for everyone, no matter what their experience with science, to be subjected to able to read my ramblings.

And these ramblings will mostly be about what I get up to as a research student in Palaeobiology. For a little more context, my current and future research mainly focuses on the diversity of extinct organisms, from tiny fossilised pollen spores to colossal dinosaurs, across huge chunks of geological time. A pretty big topic by any standards. However, my interests go much further beyond just fossils, mostly thanks to my background in zoology and obsession with natural history collections (the creepier the better!). I’d love to incorporate some of those topics here too because, let’s be honest, everything needs some degree of fluffiness to keep it interesting. Above all, I’ll endeavour to portray, as accurately as possible, what its like to be a Palaeobiologist-in-training by writing about places I go and events I attend amongst other ramblings on everyday life in the world of palaeo.

Whether you find yourself here for fossils, insight, or just an aul nosey, I hope you find something that tickles your fancy! I would be delighted to hear from you, and of course constructive feedback is always welcome! Please do comment on my posts or get in contact with me on Twitter (even if you’re just in it for retweets of cool dinosaur pics).

Once again, thank you for visiting my little corner of the internet! I hope to see you back here soon!