Exploding Egg

Saying Goodbye to a New Mexico Temple of Science

OK, so maybe the words ‘temple’ and ‘science’ shouldn’t go together in a headline, but of all the science institutions I’ve covered during my 14 year career as a reporter here in New Mexico, possibly the one I revere the most is the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

It has everything a science nerd girl could possibly want, and more — dinosaurs, space exhibits, cool rocks, a big IMAX theater, a planetarium and even a collection of fossilized dino dung, called coprolites.

One of two dinosaur sculptures that graces the front of the museum

I’ve been going to the museum ever since I was a student at the University of New Mexico. I remember getting a chuckle out of the “Evolator” — which is a pseudo-ride in the museum, an elevator that takes you through the history of geologic time.

Before leaving the Land of Enchantment, I wanted to pay a farewell visit to the museum, and say hello to one of my favorite science sources, Spencer Lucas, who’s a paleontology curator there.

Spencer Lucas in his office at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science

Some of the best adventures I had as a reporter came from Lucas’ help and input. He’s taken me to see a lot of New Mexico’s geologic treasures all over the state — and in the process has taught me a lot about them.

In my time as a reporter, we’ve visited the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, and seen it transform from a somewhat secretive site into a now public area that is protected and known as the world’s most important research area for Permian aged animal footprints.

Through that site, you can see what animal behavior was like 300 million years ago. And that’s pretty darned cool considering there were no cameras or video recorders back then.

While visiting Lucas’ office this afternoon, he showed me a couple of his favorite fossils, including this one from Trackways that hasn’t been written up yet:

A scorpion left this impression on the sands in Southern New Mexico 280 million years ago.

The same fossil, with a finger for scale.

This scorpion fossil, which Lucas said is about 280 million years old, is cool because it shows both a track where the creature walked and an outline where it lay in the sand. If you look at the right side of the image, you can see lines where its spine dragged on the ground, and dots where its feet touched. And on the left you can see where it rested before continuing its journey.

Fossils like that are extremely rare, but abundant at Trackways, which Lucas had a hand in preserving.

Here’s another one from the site, which shows tiny jellyfish impressions in the sand:

These circular imprints are fossil jellyfish imprints.

Another one of Lucas’ favorite fossils is much younger, and bigger, than the impressions left at Trackways. Back in the archive — which has always been my favorite hidden part of the museum — he showed me a 3 million year old mastodon jaw:

Lucas holding a 3 million year old mastodon jaw

The creatures, known more for their range in South America, originally evolved in North America about 3 million years ago, Lucas said. And areas like New Mexico, Texas and California mark the northernmost part of where they lived.

“There’s some debate as to when they actually got to South America, and I’m part of that debate,” Lucas said. “Not everybody agrees. But that’s the nature of science and scientists.”

The shelves in the museum’s archives are full of these sorts of treasures. And going into the giant warehouse of fossils has always sort of felt, to me anyway, like walking into a cathedral of science. I’m awestruck by the shear amount of fossils, their size and their range through time.

Lucas in the museum arcive, looking at rows and rows of New Mexico fossils

Lucas collected many of these fossils himself. And in his 22 years at the museum he’s seen it grow immensely as a resource for geologists around the world, he said.

“Before the state of New Mexico built this museum in 1986, what was paleontology in New Mexico?” asked Lucas, who grew up in Albuquerque. “Most of it was from museums in other places. Scientists would come study the geology in New Mexico, collect samples and then take them back to museums in other states. In 22 years since I started here in 1988 we went from virtually no collection to now having over 60,000 catalogued fossils and over 100,000 in the collection.”

The scope of work covers almost every time period and includes unique finds — such as the world’s oldest mammal, the skull of a tiny mouse-like creature that lived in the Triassic period, from about 251 million years ago to 200 million years ago.

The fossil is one of Lucas’ many collected discoveries.

In 2007, when the museum was redying its Triassic Hall, Lucas — who’s always good with a sound bite — held the fossil on his fingertip and told me: “That’s our distant ancestor, many grandpas ago — the first of the begats.”

The museum now houses the largest Triassic exhibit in the Americas. And it allows visitors a rare opportunity to walk through large exhibits of the three time periods when dinosaurs existed: The Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous.

As part of the museum’s effort to increase understanding of these time periods, more recently, while I was a reporter at the Santa Fe New Mexican, Lucas took me to see the only confirmed Tyrannosaurus rex footprint in the world.

It’s safely hidden in Northern New Mexico — but what a thrill it was to look at such a rare find.

Here’s a couple videos of Lucas talking about the site that I took for the paper:

And before leaving from my last visit to the museum before heading out to Portland, I also grabbed a quick video of Lucas talking about yet another cool hidden treasure in the archive — skin impressions from a 75 million year old duck-billed dinosaur:

I’m really going to miss the museum and the access I had to the staff over the years. Budgets may be tight, and Natural History is feeling the pinch as much as anybody, but I hope people realize how important and special a place like this really is.

If you find yourself in Albuquerque, I can’t recommend enough that you pay a visit and check it out.

Farewell, my museum. And stay cool!

Cheers,
-SueVo

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April 21, 2010 - Posted by | Albuquerque, Science | , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. So, FIRST — BOYS get pretty psyched by the museum, too (naughty sexist that you are). I used to take mine there when they were about 7-12, on free museum passes from the paper (hey, I was a poor single mom; the gas and inevitable fast-food stop was prohibitive enough, so it was worth it). Their love of science in general has evolved from fossils and things that blow up to more sublimated passions: cooking (chemistry, at its essence) and a deep desire to be an EMT, respectively. Did looking at fossils help? Who knows, but honestly, it was a kid-friendly place and I could let them look and exclaim over this and that while I mused over something else. Very wholesome, except for the fast food. (But hell, if they want a freakin Happy Meal twice a year, who dies?).

    Also, before marriage, kids and divorce came my way, I went backpacking a few times in the Pecos Wilderness with the boys’ dad, who virtually grew up hiking that wilderness (good, because I would have gotten SO lost). There are places on the high ridges that are like a scene of out of “Heidi” or something, all adelweiss and fragile, fragile soil. And there are seashells.

    Most of them are … oops, lost the name, but they’re snaily sorts of things, and they were, at the time, EVERYWHERE, despite the backpackers, grazing cows (well, cattle didn’t go up that high, but there were goats aplenty, both domesticated and not), and random rangers tromping off-trail or riding their horses where no one else was allowed to. Seashells at what, 13,000 feet? How cool is that?? No, I won’t tell you exactly where, but people familiar with the area know where they are, unless they’ve all been pocketed and taken home. We’re talking 25 years ago or so since I was last up there.

    Let me know how you’re doing once you unpack the computer and, uh, 8-track player …

    Kristie

    Comment by Kristie | April 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. lol yeah OK, I guess boys can share in the fun, too…

    I love finding invertebrate fossils in the mountains here. So bizarre to think that the top of the Sandias was once the bottom of the ocean.

    That’s geology for ya, though.

    Actually, there aren’t any rules about collecting invertebrates (which are creatures that don’t have backbones – spineless wusses that they are). If it has a backbone, though, hands off.

    Thanks for the comment Kristie!

    Comment by SueVo | April 21, 2010 | Reply

  3. Oh, good. I have a couple of those shells in a jewelry box but didn’t want to say so, lest I be arrested. Staying out of jail is one of my life goals.

    Comment by Kristie | April 22, 2010 | Reply


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