Saturday, August 26, 2017

Hobart - part one

Hobart is Australia’s second oldest capital city and a walk of its streets can produce some surprising rewards. Recently I had the chance of representing not only the National Dinosaur Museum, but Canberra’s scientific education institutions at the 2017 CONASTA conference - held yearly for Australia’s science teachers - with the National Capital Education Tourism Program (NCETP) folks. I visited a number of historical and scientific institutions (more on them later), but it was Hobart itself that really caught my imagination.
Walking along the harbour you will notice a number of vessels docked that you can approach, and some you can even sail upon. As the city is located at the bottom of Tasmania and faces Antarctica, the harbour is home to a number of polar exploration vessels, including the Australian built icebreaker, Aurora Australis. Having spent a lifetime supporting polar research, sadly the time for this ship is almost up as the Australian government has recently announced the retirement and replacement of the Aurora, with a new ship promised by 2019.

The HMS Lady Nelson

For a natural historian the vessel that really put a smile on my face was the replica of the HMS Lady Nelson.
The original Lady Nelson was ordered to Australia in 1799 to help survey the continent’s coastline and help claim more territory for the British Empire. To complete its mission the vessel joined Matthew Flinders and the HMS Investigator in creating the first complete map of Australia.
NOTE: The original copper printing plate for the very first complete map of Australia was on display at the Tasmanian Museum. This is part of a touring display of France’s own investigation of Australia and its part in the mapping of the island continent by Nicholas Baudin, called 'The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800 – 1804' (There will be a report on this later as well). 

The Lady Nelson was the 1st vessel to sail through the Bass Strait from west to east, discovered Port Phillip and went on to help establish colonies throughout Tasmania and NSW.
One of the soldiers from the colonies that sailed on the vessel was Francis Barrallier, a man who would become an explorer in his own right, and who helped create some of the charts the voyage produced. He was later asked to find a way across the Blue Mountains that hems the city of Sydney in, and though he failed to do this he did come back with the very first evidence of the Koala. One day he noticed some aboriginal guides were preparing to cook parts of an animal they called a Colo, but he noted as a native monkey thanks to the feet he managed to procure from them. It would take a few more years for a complete specimen to be found.
Keep an eye out as you get around Hobart
 for all the Thylacines....extinct...
pffftttt....there's one standing on a barrel. 
In 1989, as part of the celebrations around the 200th anniversary of Europe’s colonisation of the continent a replica of the Lady Nelson that had been built for the occasion sailed for the 1st time through Tasmanian waters.
Under the care of the Tasmanian Sail Training Association, the Lady Nelson still sails today and can be hired for long and short cruises. On the weekend they also take the vessel for short tourist sails along the Derwent River, and I was lucky enough to take one of those.
Reasonably priced, the ship 1st leaves the dock under power from its engines, which drive it some way up the river. The engines are then turned off, the vessel turned about and heads back under power from its sails. The quiet of the river, the snap of canvas in the wind – this was cool!
You can help haul on a rope to set a sail or just sail along and enjoy the voyage as the crew train new members on how to sail one of the few tall ships still plying the waters today.   
Another wonderful opportunity from the deck of the Lady Nelson as it sails the Derwent is the unobstructed view of Mount Wellington, and its famous Organ Pipes geological formations. These are columns of dolomite, an igneous rock that formed as Australia broke away from Antarctica- ending the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana that had existed for nearly 500 million years.
Soaring high above Australia’s 2nd oldest capital city is the evidence of its ancient, geological past. How many cities can claim that?

On a paleontological point, the first people recorded to have climbed Mount Wellington were George Bass and the botanist/palaeontologist, Robert Brown. Brown would describe a large number of plants and fossils from across the world, including Australia, ad many species would also be named after him.

St David’s Park

One of the famous shopping opportunities in Hobart is the Salamanca Street Markets, which run past the docks where these ships sit. For fossil collectors make sure you drop by the Lunaris Gemstones stall as they sell very nice Tasmanian fossils, such as slices of Jurassic tree fern from the Lune River formation. I picked up a nice Permian brachiopod, and my fellow fossil collector Phil C (from the previous account about our trip to the Wellington Caves) mentioned if you check out a lot of the rocks along the Salamanca Markets you can find fossils in situ.
The far end of the market terminates at an English style park flanked by two carved stone lions. The park itself was formerly a cemetery that dated back to the early years of the original Hobart colony. Today most of the graves have been removed, yet a number still remain. It’s not often you can come face to face with one of the original First Fleeters who settled Sydney (and later Hobart and the failed colony on Norfolk Island), not one of the very first Europeans born in the colonies, but you can find them here.
A lot of the headstones were in poor repair or had fallen after years of disinterest in the spot, so when the Hobart council purchased the land in the early 20th century and built it into the lovely park you can walk today, one full of enormous, mature trees and impressive graves. There is also a long wall that contained many of those damaged headstones, so you can walk along this sombre path and get a short snapshot of the people who helped create the city about you.   
As for those stone lions, they were built by an English Stonemason who had got on the wrong side of the law and sentenced to 10 years as a convict. In Hobart he redeemed himself by returning to what he knew best, working stone, and these two stone lions were built to adorn a Hobart Bank. Funnily enough the bank’s managers blew everyone’s money (partly on their expensive building I am sure) and the financial institution crashed, the building was eventually pulled down and after some time the stone lions made their way to their current home.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Utah Part 3 the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum

There is a lot to see in Utah, especially around the dinosaur rich region of Vernal. The town is the gateway to the National Dinosaur Monument; while Vernal itself displays a number of old-time dinosaur roadside signs and statues. Just a few minutes’ drive away is also a town called Dinosaur, with streets named after the dinosaurs found in the region (all been covered in Utah part 1 and 2 if you are interested to learn more about these locations).
I showed up bright and early at opening on a weekday, during winter, and had the run of the place…and what a place. This museum is a hidden treasure, and if you are in the area, stop on by, you won’t be disappointed. Not only does it contain high quality displays and a number of real fossils, it also uses its space in a clever way, and I often found myself smiling and thinking ‘nicely done.’
There are three main halls, all circling a large rotunda, with a few small side spaces for temporary exhibits – and the majority of these contain specimens from the nearby, world famous, Unita basin.
The first version of the museum was opened in 1948, and has clearly undergone a number of renovations as the display today is fresh and dynamic. After entering a reconstruction of the local geological formations, where many of the fossils were found (this includes the display of a palaeontologist field camp), visitors are confronted with a canyon wall embedded with fossils along various layers, encouraging you to try and figure out what they are and where/when they belonged.
This path leads to the first hall, where three dinosaur skeletons make up the Jurassic Gallery. Central is a Stegosaurus skeleton, which you can walk partly around, with fossils showing specific features lying about it. This includes the part of the stegosaur spine where it was once believed a second brain was housed. Today it’s believed this large cavity held a glycogen body, a mysterious structure also found in birds.
Further back is Allosaurus, feeding on the unlucky skeleton of a medium size sauropod, Haplocanthosaurus. One of the clever features I must tip my hat too is the mural behind these dinosaurs.
The mural is not only world class, it has a sense of humour, something rare in the world today. If you look closely you will noticed the painting seems to be incomplete, especially around the edges and at the head of the Haplocanthosaurus. The reason for this is a simple one, the head of the sauropod has never been found, so how can you paint the head of an animal when you don’t know what it looked like? Clever!
There are some nice touches in this room, including a number of hands-on activities for the kids. This all leads to a small ramp with light boxes embedded inside. This path is like a time leap, skipping visitors from the Jurassic to the Eocene- the other great fossil beds the region is known for.
What first confronts you is an impressive fossil wall, covered in the small, brick-like slabs of fossil material from the Green River Formation. Visually stunning, this wall shows the incredible diversity of species collected from these rocks, and is a real eye opener.
The display also includes a number of the enormous mammals that once lived in Utah, including the bizarre Uintatherium. This includes a life-like diorama of a moment in the ancient past, with two of the great beasts fighting each other- their combat watched by the various creatures they shared their world with. 
This includes a strange creature called Stylinodon; one of the last and largest taeniodonts, a group of herbivores that grew as large as a leopard, and are unrelated to any modern species of mammal alive today.
Utah also has an outcrop of Precambrian rocks, and the museum has a small display of some specimens collected there. This includes a large wall-relief revealing where the rocks are in relation to many of the modern features of the state.
Another clever idea is the use of windows in the museum. These often open onto a model, such as a mammoth - models that would take up invaluable space if they had to be kept inside.
The museum also houses a small display of fluorescing minerals, as well as paleo-art by Prussian born Gerhard Ernest Untermann, Sr., also known as “The Artist of the Uintas.”

In the main rotunda is housed the largest display in the museum, the enormous skeleton of a Diplodocus. This stands over a mosaic geological map of Utah, and it’s impressive to get up so close to something this large.  
One of the last displays is about the long anthropological history of the region. This includes articles and images from the Fremont Indians - an unfortunate name I feel as it reflects the name of the river, named after John Charles Frémont - a man distinctly not Native American. The local people were related to the Utes and Navajo, so it would be nice to have a name that reflected this culture, but that's my own, personal opinion.

Once outside, there is also a garden walk, containing over a dozen life-like models. These are not just dinosaurs, but numerous prehistoric creatures, including pterosaurs and models of Mochops, which I might be mistaken, but could be the only life-size models on display anywhere (I could be wrong about this, so please let me know if I am).
all in all, a great museum, well worth a visit.