Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Saving Sego Lilies

It takes seven years for a sego lily to grow from a seed to a flower, but if something happens to its home, it can be gone in an instant. That’s why a team of staff has made it their job to save the lilies living at the site where the new Utah Museum of Natural History will be built.

Why go to all that trouble for some plants? Because we’re causing trouble for them. A new building will disrupt the communities that live at the site, but we’re doing all we can to help preserve and protect the small slice of Utah landscape we’re affecting.

In June 2007, volunteers fanned out across the 17 acre plot in the Salt Lake City foothills, where the Museum will one day move, searching for signs of sego lilies – Utah’s official state flower. Each time the salvage team spotted the thin, grass-like leaves of a lily, they dug deep around the plant to retrieve the bulb, buried 6 or 7 inches in the dirt. They moved the plants into pots, and the pots into an outdoor “gated community” at the University of Utah Biology Research Garden. There the lilies will snuggle until 2010, when the new Museum is built and it’s safe to return them to their home in the foothills.

Saving the sego lilies is just one part of the Museum’s effort to take care of the land; staff has also collected seed from plants and rescued tarantulas and other invertebrates that live on the site. Architects are designing the new building to be as friendly as possible to the environment. We know we’ll never be able to eliminate our impact on this piece of the planet, but we hope that, by doing our best to respect and preserve the creatures that live there, we can be proud to one day call it our home too.

To read more about the environmental impact the new Museum will have on the site, check out our official Environmental Impact Statement.

Click below to explore a map of where the new UMNH building will be.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Still Life: BYU's Rhino and the Museum Specimen Controversy

What belongs in a museum? And how far should museums go to get those things?

These are questions that Utahans have been asking themselves this week, as controversy rages over a rhinoceros soon to be on display at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum at Brigham Young University in Provo. According to the Salt Lake Tribune:

"Bean officials recruited museum benefactor Fred Morris of Draper last year to hunt a rhino at South Africa's Mkuze National Park. The park sells the rights to hunt excess rhinos to finance its conservation efforts, officials said....The Bean's plan is to mount the rhino skin on an artificial form as part of an ongoing taxidermy exhibit at the museum through January and later add the mount to a waterhole diorama. In that exhibit, the rhino would join an elephant that was also obtained by a modern hunter."
Angry words have been flying ever since news of the rhino's hunt hit the public. "If the private university wants stuffed animals in its museum, it should display Teddy bears," said one commentator. "It's education and conservation in its most lifeless form," railed another.

Representatives from the Bean Museum argue that the rhino was killed legally and in line with good management practices.
"Our only intent has been to use it as an educational mechanism for promoting public appreciation of the conservation of these magnificent animals," a Museum spokesman told the Tribune.

So what is the place of dead animals in museum displays? As one of the angry commentators pointed out, the Utah Museum of Natural History has "a collection of moldering mule deer, a spray of birds from Farmington Bay and a scene of Boulder Mountain carnivores, including a bear and bobcat" on display in our Biology Hall. We also have many more specimens that we use in teaching and for research. Are these valuable? Ethical? [author's note: our mule deer aren't moldering, by the way.]

One major difference between UMNH's specimens and the BYU rhino is that most of those on display here were killed or donated more than 30 years ago. We are still adding animals to our collection, but only for research and education purposes, and as UMNH Director Sarah George told the Tribune, "We focus on Utah."

Still, some people are uncomfortable with the idea of displaying dead animals at all. Here at UMNH, we've made the decision that it's worth it. The unique opportunity for observing a real specimen that you might not otherwise see can be a valuable experience. And as for the rhino? You'll have to decide that for yourself.

Tell us your opinion on displaying animal specimens. What kind of experiences have you had with them?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Uncovering Utah's Deep Sea Mysteries

500 million years ago, there were jellyfish living in western Utah. Hard to believe, isn't it? To start with, western Utah is terrible jellyfish habitat - there are no oceans for hundreds of miles! If you went there today, you'd have a hard time finding anything that swims at all, much less a deep-water, ocean-loving creature like a jellyfish. On top of that, 500 million years is a very long time - how do we know what was there?

These are some good questions, and luckily there are good answers. We know that jellyfish were there because two geologists from the University of Utah found them. Or, to be precise, they found fossilized traces of the creatures' remains. Researchers Richard D. Jarrard and Susan Halgedahl spent time cracking open rocks at the fossil site west of Delta, where other ancient animal traces had been seen before. They were pretty excited by what they found - the remains of four different species of ancient jellyfish.

"It's hard to imagine anything more difficult to create a fossil from than a jellyfish that's less than half an inch in size...They just don't have any hard parts at all," Jarrard told the Deseret Morning News. Most of the time, their soft bodies decay and become part of the environment around them, even in areas where the conditions are right for preserving fossil traces of harder material like bones or shells. But not this time.

Why not? And how were there jellyfish in western Utah at all? While today it's a desert - dry as a bone - for hundreds of millions of years, starting around 570 million B.C., western Utah was under the ocean. California and Nevada weren't around, and the west coast of North America ran right through our now-desert state. In the deep water over the present-day fossil site, the jellyfish swam, ate, bred, and died. And for a while during those hundreds of millions of watery years, the guck at the bottom of the western Utah ocean was just right for a jelly to float down and leave its mark. That ocean bottom became the Marjum formation of sedimentary rock, where the jellyfish fossils were found.

After finding the fossils, Jarred and Halgedahl sent them to experts at the University of Kansas, who determined that the fossils are related to modern jellyfish, are much older than any jellyfish fossils ever found before, and are also surprisingly sophisticated. That's exciting for scientists trying to work out the mystery of how life started on Earth, giving them important clues to life in the oceans way far back in time. Hurray for the jellies!

What might the landscape where you live have looked like 500 million years ago? How could you know?

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Earth moves fast in Yellowstone

Quick, look down! The ground is moving!

Can't feel anything? That's because the movement of the Earth's surface is usually pretty slow by human standards. North America, for example, is floating around the planet at about 2 centimeters per year, as fast as your fingernails grow. The Earth's surface is in constant motion, squishing up mountains as land masses run into each other, stretching open deep underwater, and sliding down under continents to be melted by the planet's hot interior. If you could watch Earth's 4.5 billion year history in fast-forward, it would bustle with activity. In your lifetime, though, most of the changes will be too slow to see, other than the occasional abrupt events like earthquakes and volcanoes.

But not in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is one of the most geologically active places in the world, providing unique opportunities to observe change happen fast enough to notice in a lifetime. Small earthquakes rumble through more than once a day (on average); hot water and steam burble from the ground and then shift to a new spot; geysers erupt regularly then stop, or lie dormant and suddenly start again; and according to new findings just released by the University of Utah, the ground swells and recedes like a slowly breathing giant.

In the course of 2.5 years, from July 2004 to December 2006, the Utah geologists used satellites to measure the exact elevation of the caldera, or giant volcanic crater, that lies within the Park, both by bouncing radar beams down and back up to orbit, and by communicating with receivers stationed on the ground. In that time, the land rose 18 centimeters (7 inches), growing faster than your average human child, and three times faster than anyone had seen it grow before.

The scientists attribute this quick expansion to a pancake-shaped blob of molten rock the size of Los Angeles, gurgling six miles underground. This blob of magma originated as part of a "hotspot," or gigantic plume of hot molten rock, that starts 400 miles beneath Earth's surface, travels up through the Earth's layers, then spreads out to a 300-mile pool lying 30 miles underground. From there, hot magma sometimes breaks off, rises up, and fills a chamber below the Park. It's the heat from that chamber that powers Yellowstone's geysers and keeps it so geologically active, and the magma is likely responsible for the recent uplift.

One thing the scientists say for sure is that it's not a sign of an imminent eruption. So if you want to see our Earth systems in action, pack your bags and head for the Park.