Friday, December 28, 2012

US research trip part 9: Charleston, South Carolina, and the Charleston Museum

Given my research focus on eomysticetid baleen whales, it was necessary for me at some point during my Ph.D. to travel to Charleston, South Carolina, to visit Al Sanders and photograph the holotype of Eomysticetus whitmorei. This was the number one objective for my entire month-long excursion. I absolutely loved Charleston, and would love to have an excuse to return.

We moved to New Zealand in March, after a short California winter and after about a month of "nice" weather in Dunedin, were plunged back into four months of winter - we basically had an entire year of winter. Oddly enough, even though it was late October, my visit to Charleston was the first time I felt warm outside since my move to New Zealand. It was also the first time in a long while I could comfortably wear a T-shirt at night in a long while. I really enjoyed Charleston - it's a beautiful city, with so many historical buildings you nearly trip over them.

St. Michael's Episcopal Church, the oldest church in Charleston, built in the 1750's. The plaque on the side of the church claimed several signers of the Declaration of Independence as members (several of whom were interred in the adjoining cemetery).

Fort Sumter, as viewed from waterfront park on the east side of Charleston. It's the tiny one on the right, next to the radio antenna. For the uninitiated, the American Civil War began right here in Charleston with the bombardment of the Union-held Fort Sumter (technically, the civil war opened with Citadel cadets firing upon the Union ship Star of the West). It was pretty neat seeing current students jogging around town in "Citadel" sweats (Citadel is a military academy). Just north of St. Michael's church in Charleston, you can find a plaque indicating that the previous building on the site was used for the South Carolina Assembly, where the political leaders of the state voted to become the first state to secede from the Union, shortly following the election of Lincoln.

Speaking of the civil war and all things aquatic, here's the world's first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship, the H.L. Hunley - it's about 2 meters in diameter and about 5 meters long or so... I would not have wanted to be a crewmember (least of which because the Hunley sank several times, including after it sank the Housatonic). The first operational submarine - the Turtle - was also an American vessel, dating from the American Revolution, where it unsuccessfully attempted to sink a British ship in Boston Harbor. The Charleston Museum is the oldest museum in the United States, and was established in 1773 - to put it another way, it's doors had nearly been open for an entire century before the Civil War began.

Ah, finally onto fossils and "older" endeavors. Although the Charleston Museum primarily bills itself as a history museum, with a focus on Civil War history - it has extensive collections of Oligocene and Pleistocene mammals and marine vertebrates, mostly due to the efforts of recently retired natural history curator Al Sanders, who I had the pleasure of meeting during this trip (Al had also attended the 2006 SVP meeting, but as a shy undergrad I didn't introduce myself). Here, Ewan Fordyce is photographing parts of the holotype skull of Eomysticetus.

Because the SVP meeting was held in Raleigh, North Carolina, two other paleocetologists decided it would be an opportune time to make the trip south to Charleston. My friend Eric Ekdale (postdoc at San Diego State/San Diego NHM; with camera) flew down, and I had the privilege of driving down Ewan and former Otago Ph.D. student Tatsuro Ando, now at the Ashoro Museum of Paleontology (in background). A week earlier I politely asked Ewan if he knew how to drive on the right hand side of the road; when he explained that he learned to do so during his postdoc in Washington D.C. (before I was born), I made a mental note that I'd be the one driving from Raleigh to Charleston.

Ewan and Eric maneuver the skull parts of Eomysticetus.

Retired curator Al Sanders and current collections manager Jennifer chat in collections 
during our visit.

Eric examining the holotype petrosal of Eomysticetus; other earbones including the Micromysticetus type petrosal sit on the table.

A quick pause during furious note taking at the Charleston Museum; the holotype of Micromysticetus rothauseni sits next to my notebook.

The holotype of the diminutive mysticete Micromysticetus rothauseni, with both petrosals in articulation. It's a beautiful, if incomplete skull.

One of the infamous Oligocene seal femora from the Chandler Bridge/Ashley Formations, which I've discussed previously. It was nice to see the actual specimen.

The Charleston Museum does have a handful of paleontology related exhibits, although you still wouldn't have any idea from the exhibits that there were any fossils in collections. Here's a spectacular squalodontid, similar in size to our NZ squalodontid. This is a pretty scary looking beast.

A mount of an undescribed pelagornithid from the Chandler Bridge Formation; this one is also on display at the USNM. If I'd had time, I would have loved to have photographed the original specimen.

A mounted cast of the skeleton of Gavialosuchus, also a pretty fearsome looking creature. I think eomysticetids were the only things preserved in the Chandler Bridge that didn't have big sharp point teeth (or pseudo teeth for that matter). Actually, that may not be entirely true (stay tuned for a future post on the eomysticetid Yamatocetus canaliculatus for more on that...).

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