Thursday, 25 June 2020

My Trip to the Dinosaur Museum of Frick

In addition to this blogpost I also made an entire vlog-style video about my trip, which you can watch here on my youtube channel.

Switzerland is not particularly well-known for its dinosaurs. A good example of that is that the center-pieces of the most prominent Swiss dinosaur museum, the Sauriermuseum of Aathal, owned by the Siber family of Big Al-fame, are not Swiss fossils, but dinosaurs that came from a quarry in the American Morrison Formation. In large part this has to do with the fact that throughout most of the Mesozoic the pieces of land that would one day become central Europe were mostly underwater, so most fossils one can find here are of invertebrates, fish and marine reptiles. Nonetheless, in certain places dinosaurs did live here and can even be found in rather spectacular quality. One such place is Frick in the Kanton of Aargau. Beginning in the 1970s, mining operations here found various skeletons of the Late Triassic dinosaur Plateosaurus and other animals, almost all coming from the same clay-pit. With the find of a complete Plateosaurus in 1985 it was decided to build a small museum next to the community’s school to house the discoveries. It was finally opened in 1991. I had already been to the museum once with my parents, but around the age of five, so I had barely any recollection of it. As my birthday was approaching, my girlfriend and I decided to therefore repay it a visit.

The presence of Plateosaurus in Frick extends far beyond the museum and the clay-pit. As one leaves the highway and enters the municipality, they are already greeted by a big grey statue of the sauropodomorph prominently standing on the first roundabout. The sculpture’s posture is of course a bit questionable to modern eyes, but I cannot help but love the big guy. It reminds me a lot of those charming Sinclair Oil dinosaur-models from the 50s, but it was actually erected in 2001. Apart from the statue, the dinosaur has also become part of benches and even the community’s trash-bins. On the path from the museum to the clay pit also stood eight pillars with dinosaur-facts written on them for guide-tours. Because we arrived a bit too early in Frick, we went to the pit first. Part of it, called the Klopfplatz, is a public digsite of marine invertebrates where people can freely dig and keep the fossils they find. At the Klopfplatz was even an employee from the museum who helped the visitors (mostly young children with their parents) identify what they found. If you want to see what fossils I found there, I talk more about it in the video I made. 


After that we finally went to the museum. Entering it, we were first met with a big wall displaying the dinosaur family tree. It is pretty late 80s/early 90s with the dinos looking fairly Sibbick-esque and most theropods still being split up into carnosaurs and coelurosaurs. Stegosaurus also still has its Fibonacci-scale back. Stegosaurs making it to the latest Cretaceous may also raise some eyebrows today, though there is actually still no consensus on that, with some finds (not just the controversial Dravidosaurus but also trace-fossils) still suggesting that they did make it that far in India. I do however know some abelisaurs who would object to the Jurassic ceratosaur-end, though I believe they were not yet included in Ceratosauria or well-known enough yet when this family-tree was made. This picture has likely not been updated since the museum first opened, but given how this is a fairly small museum with small funds that is excusable and there is something nice about having such a relic of science-history on a big display. And in the end, this has not aged so badly as to give visitors any majorly wrong ideas. Dinosauria is monophyletic and birds clearly descend from them. No thecodont-nonsense in sight. “It could have been worse, John.”


After that we entered the main hall. Above the entrance on the wall behind us hung what was probably the center-piece of the exhibit: An 8 meter long, nearly complete skeleton of Plateosaurus, the largest dinosaur-skeleton found in Switzerland. There is not really much you can comment on seeing a big dinosaur skeleton, beyond the fact that it is always awe-inspiring and makes you feel like a seven-year-old again. Of course, a nit-picky person like me may notice that the posture of the hands (you may not see it well here but the right wrist is pronated) is not quite up to date. For the longest time Plateosaurus and its close relatives were reconstructed as animals that could switch between bipedal and quadrupedal motion. While this is still true for at least some early sauropodomorphs, a biomechanical study from 2007 by Phil Senter and Matthew Bonnan found out that Plateosaurus in particular could not pronate its wrists and was therefore unable to walk on all fours (unless it weirdly splayed its hands outward or knuckle-walked, but that seems unlikely). I actually talked with one of the museum employees there and he told me that there definitely are plans to renovate the skeleton to rectify this.



To the left of the entrance was a small cinema that would have shown educational movies, but it was understandably closed due to current health-safety risks. To the right was the femur of a Plateosaurus visitors were allowed to touch, as well as a large hip-girdle, legs and a tail. In the center of the hall was the complete fossil of a Proganochelys quenstedti. It was not found in the clay-pit like the other fossils, but instead came from the nearby mountain of Frickberg. Proganochelys used to be the oldest turtle known to science and still is the oldest one found in Switzerland. Only since 2008 have older ones been found in the form of Odontochelys and Pappochelys, but even these have not been able to fully resolve the true origin of turtles. 



The sign above the fossil tells about this mysterious origin, but also shows the (thankfully credited) life-reconstruction of the animal made in 1964 by none other than Zdeněk Burian. It was a neat surprise to see his work here. How dated his reconstruction is I cannot say, though I do not think it can be that bad, given how Proganochelys already looked a lot like modern turtles (apart from the spikes that make it resemble Bowser).



To the right of the turtle was the skeleton of a juvenile Plateosaurus, nicknamed Fabian. In front of it was the skeleton of a small theropod also found in Frick in 2006. It was however only officially named in 2019, when it got the fancy name Notatesseraeraptor frickensis. So far the only known dinosaur unique to Switzerland, the name means “Mosaic-trait-raptor” and refers to the fact that it shares traits from both dilophosaurs and coelophysids, likely being somewhere in-between as far as phylogeny goes. The fossil is accompanied by a very nicely made model, though note it is only 40% of the actual animal’s size, as a sign tells the visitors. It is again fairly 90s in its style of reconstruction, being somewhat shrink-wrapped and Greg Paul-esque (if it should be reconstructed with proto-feathers or scales we still do not know, though there was a very recent study which found epidermal insulation in Coelophysis-type dinosaurs very likely based on metabolic levels), but apart from that it is quite good. Assuming that this was made in the 90s, one really has to commend that the hands are not pronated. It is accompanied by a small tuatara, as the fossil was preserved well enough to determine what the small theropod last ate, which happened to be a Triassic rhynchocephalian. In 2017 another unknown theropod was found in Frick, which is currently being worked on.



The left wall of the hall was made up of display cases showing various anatomical and biological aspects of Plateosaurus. If read from left to right one first learns about the hands and feet of the dinosaur, then its legs, then its skull, then the spine and pelvis and finally the animals and plants it lived with. I was surprised to learn that scutes of aetosaurs have been found in Frick as well. For some reason it never occurred to me that they lived in this part of the world too, though it should have been obvious given that we are talking about the time of Pangea here. I guess popular paleo media has conditioned me to think that the really strange and exotic things can only be found in far-off places like South America, China or Wyoming. I also did not know that aetosaurs, like surprisingly many extinct reptiles, have a common name in German: Adlerkopfechse (eagle-head-lizard), a somewhat literal, but misleading translation of the scientific name. 


At the end of the hall sat another large, nearly complete skeleton of Plateosaurus engelhardti, though this time positioned as it was found in the ground. As such it was actually best to look at the skeleton not from up close but from the upstairs platform where one could look directly down onto it. The end of the hall was decorated with a large mural, showing Plateosaurus in its native environment. I unfortunately could not find out who made it, but I did find out that it was made in 1999 (Edit: I now believe that this was most likely made by Beat Scheffold). As is typical of the time, the dinosaurs are a bit on the skinny side and we see a common trope of Plateosaurus-depictions that was really popular from the 70s onward until 2007: Two Plateosaurus standing next to each other, one on all fours, the other on two legs, to show off the dinosaur’s supposed mobility. Ignoring how dated this has become, the mural is still a lovely piece of art. The panoramic view and the convincing atmosphere of the dry and desolate Triassic make it look like a window through time, with the two surprised sauropodomorphs looking back at us as if they are also observing the equally desolate Holocene. Or I guess Anthropocene, as the cool kids call it nowadays. The background of the muddy bone-bed also blends in nicely with the actual skeleton lying in front of the wall. What the two theropods in the background gnawing away at a carcass are supposed to be I do not know, seeing how this was made before the discovery of Notatesseraeraptor. Most likely they are generalized Coelophysis- or early ceratosaur-type theropods. Funnily enough this mural may therefore have accidentally prophesized the discovery of Notatesseraeraptor in Frick. It could however also be Liliensternus, which was found alongside Plateosaurus in Trossingen, Germany, but is not known from Switzerland. The small herd of running dinosaurs in the background are perhaps meant to be generalized “fabrosaur”-type ornithischians, which have never been found in Frick and according to recent finds may have possibly never even existed in the Triassic. Thanks a lot for that, Pisanosaurus, you silesaurid bastard!.



A staircase led to a small platform hanging above the hall on which marine fossils from the area were displayed. Among them were various invertebrate shells and minerals but also the ribs of some unnamed marine reptile and the bones and skull of an ichthyosaur. The highlights however were a series of pillars on which gigantic ammonite shells were attached, as well as a huge sediment-wall of smaller ammonites and giant clamshells. Down at the hall again a second stairwell right of the entrance led to this year’s special exhibit of the museum: Crinoids in all their beauty! There were large fossils of entire crinoids, as well as cross-sections of singular bone-pieces to show off their radial symmetry. There were diagrams of their anatomy and their lifestyles (including those of the extinct floating and driftwood-attaching ones) and even a small video-screen showing them in life. As someone who really likes crinoids and echinoderms in general I absolutely loved this. Now if only there was also a brachiopod-exhibit…


Unsurprisingly, I really liked our trip to the Sauriermuseum. Some of the exhibits and artwork may be outdated, but not outrageously so (thinking of the raptor-animatronics from a certain British museum) and the staff is aware of and working on it. While it may be small and feels somewhat “local”, for the lack of a better word, this is exactly what gives it its charm. Here Plateosaurus and its contemporaries are local town heroes akin to Willhelm Tell, something which you really have to appreciate. If for whatever reason you happen to stop by in Aargau this is a visit I would definitely recommend. As a souvenir I got myself a little toy plateosaur. I never had one as a child, which is somewhat surprising. Plateosaurus is actually among my favorite dinosaurs, but not due to some feeling of nationalistic pride (the genus was first found and is most common in Germany and has also been found in France). Plateosaurus and its close relatives, the basal sauropodomorphs, have this bauplan which, while basic, also has something really appealing to it. They combine the tail and legs of theropods, the head and neck of sauropods and the teeth and hands of ornithischians all in one body, creating an animal whose shape becomes that of a quintessential dinosaur. Plateosaurus is also large enough to be impressive, but not so gargantuanly titanic as to go insane from just looking at it. Combine these two traits with it being a seemingly placid plant-eater (at least as far as we know, though its smaller South American relative Buriolestes was a carnivore and it has often been suggested that Plateosaurus itself was an occasional scavenger) and you get a perfect, friendly, mass-appealing dinosaur-mascot. Why nobody outside of Frick has capitalized on this yet is beyond me. 

“My goodness, you’ve grown!” old Plateosaurus tells its nephew.
Apart from the Sauriermuseum in Frick there are at least two other major fossil museums in Switzerland: The Sauriermuseum Aathal in Kanton Zürich and the Museo dei fossili di Meride in Kanton Ticino. I definitely plan on (re-)visiting those somewhen in the future, so stay tuned for that!

Related Posts:
Literary Sources:
  • Barrett, Paul/ Naish, Darren: Dinosaurs. How they lived and evolved, London 2016 (2. Edition).
  • Bonnan, Matthew/Senter, Phil: Were the basal sauropodomorph dinosaurs Plateosaurus and Massospondylus habitual quadrupeds?, in Barrett, P.M.; Batten, D.J. (eds.). Evolution and Palaeobiology of Early Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs (Special Papers in Palaeontology 77). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 139–155.
  • Hallett, Mark/Wedel, Matthew: The Sauropod Dinosaurs. Life in the Age of Giants, Baltimore 2016.
Papers:
Online Sources/Further Reading: 
Image Sources:
  • All images taken by me

1 comment:

  1. Great blog post as always! The plateosaurus sculpture at the beginning reminds me of the Marx Plateosaurus figure (http://dinotoyblog.com/2020/07/02/plateosaurus-marx/) although that may just be a coincidence.

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