Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Visiting the Sauriermuseum Aathal - Part 1: The Howe Quarry Dinosaurs

 


Once again, last month I have been to another famous Swiss dinosaur museum, this time the Sauriermuseum Aathal. This is a place very dear to my heart, as it probably is the one museum I visited the most throughout my life so far, so this will be in equal parts me reviewing things, as well as being nostalgic about it. Now, because during my trip I took something like 364 photos, we will obviously not be able to look at them all in one post. This is simply part one of many to come, focussing for now on the history of the museum and the Howe Quarry specimens.

A Little History

The history of the museum is mostly the same as the story of its founder, Hans-Jakob Siber. Siber is often nicknamed Köbi, though because English-speakers for some reason cannot pronounce Umlaute, most Americans just call him Kirby. Kirby Siber was born in 1942 in Zürich to his father Hans Siber, a successful accountant for the fashion house Grieder, which sold Elizabeth Arden’s cosmetic-products. While Switzerland remained neutral during World War II, the Allies did not really have good systems of navigation, so they occasionally dropped their bombs on Swiss cities, mistaking us for the Germans. Siber nearly died in one such air-raid, when in 1945 a bomb landed just 500 meters away from his house, this being one of his earliest memories (Meyer 2014, p. 26). Siber graduated from Gymnasium with Latin being his main subject (same as me, by the way) and went on to study film-studies at the University of Montana. During this time, he created various experimental movies, though he became rather frustrated with the lack of interest people had in his favorite genres. When he was just 22 he got a call from his father back in Zürich. Hans, having gotten into mineral-collecting just like his son, wanted to give up his job of working for Elizabeth Arden and instead open up his own business with his son: A mineral-store in the heart of Zürich. Thus, in 1964, the Siber+Siber company was born and Kirby became its main mineral- and fossil-collector, travelling throughout the world in search for lucrative specimens and through his own digging-expeditions also becoming a self-taught paleontologist.

Fig. 2: The museum-building on the left, then still a cotton-spinning factory, as it looked in the 1930s.

In the course of this career, he made some momentous discoveries in the 70s. First, he uncovered the remains of the largest Archelon specimen known up to that time, which he later sold to the Natural History Museum of Vienna (where it should still be viewable), though before that he showed the giant turtle in the yearly mineral-exhibit of the company’s second shop in Aathal. A few years afterwards, again with the intent of selling the specimen to the Vienna museum, Siber and his team discovered an Edmontosaurus-bonebed at the Mason Ranch of South Dakota. Out of the remains they assembled a full skeleton and brought it to Switzerland in 1981, where it became the first complete dinosaur to ever be mounted in the country. Like with the Archelon, the dinosaur was a major success with audiences at the mineral exhibit and led to a breakdown of the traffic leading up to Aathal. Unfortunately, Siber’s contact-man at the museum went into retirement before another deal could be talked out, so the skeleton turned into a financial setback. The success among visitors did however leave an impression on him. The majority of the 80s Siber spent with his family on expeditions in Peru. Here he was able to get digging rights to Miocene and Pleistocene mammal sites, due to the fact that the Natural History Museum of San Marcos in Lima was extremely dissatisfied with the paleontologists from a French university who were previously granted those rights. These had promised to give the museum at least one full whale-skeleton from the site in return for access, but instead only bothered to excavate the skulls of the animals (due to being the most important part for identification) and essentially smuggling these out of the country under the guise of “diplomatic gifts” (Meyer 2014, p. 120). “I think a Swiss person is more likely to keep their word than a French one”, Hernando de Macedo, then curator of the museum, is quoted as saying (Meyer 2014, p. 120). Siber would prove him right, as he and his team would not only deliver the museum a whale-skeleton, but also erect a smaller museum, the Museo the Sitio Sacaco, on-site, built right around another whale eroding out of the desert dunes to protect it from further weathering. The expeditions bring with them many more complete whales, many of which Siber is able to sell to museums in Germany and Japan, as well as other mammals, such as a fossil horse and even a marine sloth, Thalassocnus. At least one new species was found, which was eventually named Balaenoptera siberi. Unfortunately, five years of successful cooperation came to an end in 1990 as French diplomats, apparently set out for revenge, convinced the Peruvian government to pass a law that allows fossils to be exported out of the country only to established museums. As Siber was not directly associated with any such institution, being more of a private commission-worker, this meant he could not work as usual anymore, so he moved on to North America.

Fig. 3: The first dinosaur to be exhibited in Aathal before the museum even existed, the humble four-ton Edmontosaurus.

After some research, he found that the famous Howe Quarry of the Morrison Formation in Wyoming, where one Barnum Brown had dug out around 25 sauropod dinosaurs, was not actually abandoned in 1934 due to the site being depleted. Instead, the actual land-owner of the ranch, Barker Howe, had felt like he had been tricked by both Brown, the Sinlcair Oil Company which financed the digs and the American Museum of Natural History, as he was the only party that did not financially benefit from the dinosaur-boom which the quarry generated. Thus, he revoked the rights and wrote them over to his family, leading to the site being abandoned, despite there possibly still being some skeletons to be found. Thus, Siber actually located the living descendants of Howe and managed to work out a fair contract with them that would financially benefit them while he was allowed to search for dinosaurs. So the quarry was reopened in 1991 and new fossils were found almost immediately. The most well-known discovery made by Siber and his team the same year was the find of a nearly complete Allosaurus jimmadensi a few hundred meters away from the quarry, this being the famous Big Al, the same one that you probably know from the Walking with Dinosaurs-spin-off. Unfortunately, the skeleton later turned out to have accidentally been found on land owned by the US government, so Siber was not allowed to excavate it or bring it to the museum. With the fossils he did have rights to, he went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and offered them along with his services, but the museum’s president (who, if I am not mistaken, would have been George D. Langdon Jr. at the time) very rudely told him that they would not work with amateurs like him. Obviously feeling insulted, this caused Kirby Siber to go full Bender Rodriguez: Learning from the mineral-exhibits of the 70s and using the money he had acquired selling whale-skeletons in the 80s, in 1993 he purchased the old cotton-spinning factory opposite the mineral-shop in Aathal and turned it into a dinosaur museum to exhibit all the Howe Quarry saurians.

And from there everything escalated in possibly the most beautiful way possible.

Fig. 4: Siber posing with a sauropod bone during the first Howe Quarry expeditions in the 90s. He is thankfully still with us and, despite technically being in retirement, still goes on big digs.

Museum Entrance and the Howe-Quarry-Dinosaurs

And here we are now. One of the first things you notice about the museum is that from the outside the building looks very small, but once you enter it the interior appears ridiculously large, like you just entered a pocket-dimension. A paleontological TARDIS if you will. This is immediately exemplified by the fact that the entrance hall alone has room for an entire sauropod replica and then a gift shop too to the right outside of the frame. And would you look at that, there’s Mark Hallett’s old reconstruction of Mamenchisaurus at the back.

Speaking of paleoart, entering the first hallway, one is immediately greeted by some absolute classics. Next to Burian, Gurche and Hallett you could also find Barlowe, Sibbick, Paul and so on.

The entrance to the Howe Quarry exhibit was very charmingly decorated in a wild west log-cabin aesthetic. On the one hand that is probably how most of the architecture at the place was really like, on the other most people across Central Europe simply love that style, probably thanks to Karl May.

My girlfriend Miranda posing in the hallway, behind her a photo of Kirby Siber with the remains of some truly titanic beast. The door on the right led into a small exhibit room about fossil amber (more on that in a future post), the right one further back to a permanent exhibit about dinosaurs in comics, satires and movies (again, more of that in the future), and the door far back on the left to the hall housing the fully reconstructed Howe dinosaur-skeletons.


Yours truly with the skull of Big Al Two. This was the actual original skull, not just a replica. Unlike the more famous Big Al One, this guy here, discovered in 1996, was found in the Howe Quarry itself, so Siber could bring it home, totally unlike England in the last EuroCup. The brain-cast on the lower left is not actually all that small if viewed from up close. Clever girl? Who knows?

Also the original specimen was this skull of Camarasaurus “E.T” or SMA 0002, unearthed in 1993.

Rear-view of “Max”, the diplodocid Galeamopus, which the Siber-team found in 1995. This specimen was actually different enough from the original type species, G. hayi, that it was assigned its own new species, Galeamopus pabsti, honoring Swiss paleontologist Ben Pabst, who had accompanied Siber on many expeditions.

To give you a better idea of his size, here is me standing next to Max (admiring his thickness). I am about 1.73 meters tall, to give you a reference point, the dinosaur is estimated to have been about 18 meters long. In the foreground stands Diplodocus “H.Q. Eins” (Howe Quarry One), on its hind legs from the floor below to fill up the whole building.

Again me for reference point. H.Q Eins is estimated to have been about 17 meters long. The dinosaur was not complete (which is the likely reason why it has not been assigned a definitive species yet), the hindlegs and pelvis were mostly missing and had to be reconstructed with plaster, though as the plaque tells us, this gave the museum the freedom to display it in a more dramatic pose. That diplodocids could rear up into such a posture is generally agreed on to have been plausible, though there is a debate if they were high-browsers who regularly did this to reach high tree-tops or if they were grazers who only did this on occasion. I think they were high-browsers, bite me.

The mentioned plaque used an old drawing by Robert Bakker to my delight, showing a mother defending her child from a small pack of Allosaurus. I wonder if Bakker made this drawing during the time he hypothesized that sauropods gave live birth to single young.

Again, speaking of art, there was also a nice painting of how the Howe Quarry may have formed. Unfortunately, I could not make out the signature of the artist, though at least the date is 2008. The idea of the Howe Quarry once having been a mud-trap still stands its ground, as most of the sauropods here were found with their legs still standing upright and their feet fully articulated (Foster 2020, p. 115). The same explanation does however not seem to be valid anymore for the, perhaps more famous, Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry of Utah. Unlike the Howe Quarry, none of the dinosaurs at the Utah site are preserved standing up and in fact, some even have Allosaurus-bite-marks on their feet, which you would not expect if these animals died being stuck in mud.

Behind the Diplodocus, in a rather cute sitting posture, was also “H.Q. Zwei”, a 9-meter long Kaatedocus specimen found in 1992. The species name is self-explanatory, the genus name is a mix between the name of Diplodocus and the Crow-word for “small”, so its full name means “Siber’s small Diplodocus”. Imagine not only owning a private dinosaur museum but also exhibiting a dinosaur named after yourself. Studies were actually done on the neck of this specimen which showed that sauropods actually had a great deal of flexibility in them, another point for them holding their necks in elevated positions, not horizontally (Christian et al. 2011).

Another hint towards a vertical/diagonal neck-posture might be “E.T” from earlier, here shown as the nearly complete skeleton as it was found on site. While yes, this is just the pose it died in, the articulation still indicates that this neck-posture was anatomically intended. Camarasaurus was always one of my favorite sauropods, Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis is probably to blame for that.

At the top floor again was Othnielosaurus “Barbara”, found in 1996. I unfortunately forgot to take a picture of Barbara’s life-painting, which actually showed her with proto-feathers! This must have been a pretty new update, because on my last visit about three years ago she was still shown with scales.

H.Q. Eins was eternally damned to stare at a Camptosaurus, perhaps as a divine punishment that we humans are too feeble-minded to understand. If this one also had been given a name I unfortunately could not find out. I was honestly a bit surprised actually taking a good look at the skeleton. Camptosaurus is one of those dinosaurs that is often included in your classic dinosaur-books, but not one you ever actually bother to look up in more detail. Thus, all the old Sibbick- and Zallinger-esque illustrations made me believe that it was basically just a proto-Iguanodon, so seeing the skeleton up close I was actually shocked how gracile and bird-like the animal really looked, basically being just an overgrown dryosaur.

And here we have the full mount of Big Al Two, though of course with the head here being the replica, the real one being in the vitrine from before. While Al Two is not as beaten up as Al One, it still had broken neck-vertebrae, a broken shoulder-bone and a few broken ribs, attesting to a pretty tough life. Despite so many mauled Allosaurus specimens, it is somehow always Ceratosaurus who gets shown getting beaten up in Morrison reconstructions.

Underneath all those giants lies “Toni”, found in 2000. Despite his small size, he may actually be the scientifically most important find that the Siber-team made at the Howe Quarry. Except for the skull (the one you see here is a reconstruction) it is a nearly complete skeleton of a baby sauropod that was less than 2 meters long. Consensus is that he died around the age of 1 to 1.5 years, making him the only sauropod-fossil ever found so far from this age-range. What species Toni actually belonged to is still being discussed, though he is agreed to be some sort of basal titanosauriform. This makes it very plausible that Toni is actually a juvenile Brachiosaurus (Foster 2020, p. 132). It would be quite ironic if the smallest dinosaur found at the Howe Quarry actually belonged to one of the largest species of the Morrison ecosystem.

Finally, the Siber-team also found three stegosaurs at the quarry, though these were housed separately from the other dinosaurs in the fossil-wood/plants exhibit probably to spice that one up. The one you see here is named “Victoria” (the specimen at the back), who was not your Stegosaurus proper, but is actually assigned to Hesperosaurus mjosi. The numbered sections you see are actual skin-impressions that were found with the skeleton. As expected, they show small, hexagonal, non-overlapping scales (sorry to anyone who wanted to reconstruct them with a fuzzy underside), as is typical for most large dinosaurs. Victoria also preserved impressions of the surface of one of the back-plates, which show a smooth, non-scaly texture, heavily suggesting that these were indeed covered in keratin-sheaths.


Another Hesperosaurus was “Lily” here, who was preserved with a nearly complete skeleton. Despite living in the Morrison, Hesperosaurus is considered to have been more closely related to either English Dacentrurus or Chinese Wuerhosaurus, rather than Stegosaurus.

One of the dinosaur’s skulls was neatly reconstructed in what I can only call a “kaleidosauroscope”. See, stegosaurs had beaks. Take note, Jurassic World.

And finally there was Hesperosaurus “Moritz”, who was perhaps the most beautiful mount out of the three, but I decided to show you him here from afar, both to tease you and so that the fossil wood exhibit is the actual center of attention as it should be. Paleobotany deserves respect too, you know.  

And that was the (way too long) part 1. Next time we will look at the special exhibits. Expect trilobite-movies, feathered dinosaurs, dinosaurs in art and cultures around the world, meteorites and a whole lot more!

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Related Posts:

Literary Sources:

Papers:

  • Christian, Andreas et al.: Neck posture in sauropods, in: Klein, N/Remes, K./Gee, C. et al. (eds.): Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs. Understanding the life of giants, Bloomington, 2011, p. 251 – 260.

Online Sources/Further Reading:

Image Sources:

  • Fig. 2: Wikimedia.
  • Fig. 3: Meyer 2014, inset.
  • Fig. 4: Meyer 2014, inset.
  • All others taken by me.