It is fair to wonder what the interest in dinosaurs in North America would be without the contributions of Yale University and the Yale Peabody Museum. At the center of the golden age of dinosaur collecting during the “Bone Wars” of the 1870’s and 1880’s, and again when interest in dinosaurs had fallen significantly during the 1960’s, Yale has had a profound influence on dinosaur research and paleontology.
Othniel Charles Marsh is one of the most interesting characters in paleontology history. There are several good books written about him; most focus particularly on his role in the explosion of paleontology and dinosaur research, and the resulting “Bone Wars” between himself and his rival Edward Drinker Cope. Much has been said and written about O.C. Marsh, but the short version is that he was a man who was fascinated with fossils and ancient life, and he studied paleontology. After graduating from Yale, he used his smarts, ambition, and the extremely good fortune of having a very wealthy and philanthropic uncle, George Peabody, to help advance his career. With Marsh’s urging, Peabody donated $150,000 to create a museum of natural history on the Yale campus, and O.C. Marsh was one of the early curators. The building was finished in 1876, making the Yale Peabody Museum (YPM) one of the nation’s oldest natural history museums, and one of the first university natural history museums. The original building was torn down in 1917; the current building was then built and opened to the public in 1925. For a great read, I strongly recommend the recent (2016) book by Richard Conniff called House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth. Conniff tells the history of the Yale Peabody Museum, and it is full of interesting stories about the men and women who built the YPM into the world-class research powerhouse that it is today. It is the best book I’ve ever read about a museum, and I can’t think of another that is even close.
During Marsh’s time at Yale, the university and museum funded numerous expeditions to the American west in search of fossils. Thousands of tons of material were shipped back to New Haven, and over a period of roughly 25 years, O.C. Marsh identified and named hundreds of new species, and many of the most well known dinosaur genera, including Allosaurus, both Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus (see below), Camptosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus, Ornithomimus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops, among many others.
Marsh and Cope were prolific fossil hunters, and even more prolific fossil-namers. Many of the species they named overlapped with others, and quite a few early dinosaurs have since been recategorized. But the “Bone Wars” generated tremendous interest in dinosaurs among the American public and directly led to the rise of paleontology as an academic pursuit in North America. This period of dinosaur enthusiasm is considered the first “golden age” of dinosaurs.
The Great Hall of Dinosaurs at the Yale Peabody Museum is one of my very favorite dinosaur “rooms.” This large space is full of fantastic fossils, several of which are historically important. It also contains the most amazing mural in all of paleoart: The Age of Reptiles, by Rudolph Zallinger, then a recent Yale graduate in fine arts. Painted between 1943 and 1947, this 110′ by 16′ mural displays hundreds of ancient plants and animals, from the time when verterbrate life first appeared on land around 360 million years ago through the time when the non-avian dinosaurs died out around 65 million years ago. If you follow the mural from right to left, you pass through the various geologic time periods. Zallinger did an amazing job creating a scene that flows smoothly across the wall through time: dozens of plants and animals are shown in environments that reflected the best scientific knowledge at the time he painted this beautiful artwork. The achievement by Zallinger is spectactular, and it is the first thing I noticed when I entered the Great Hall.
The first dinosaur skeleton that most people see is also one of the most iconic among all dinosaurs, the Brontosaurus. The holotype fossil of this genus, this terrific sauropod is one of the most famous dinosaurs. It is long and tall, and yet was probably not even fully grown. For many decades, the name Brontosaurus was relegated to the dustbin of history, as scientists declared it a junior synonym of Apatosaurus. In 2003, the YPM finally succumbed to the science and renamed their display Apatosaurus. But then in 2015, a group of paleontologists reviewed the various dinosaurs in this sauropod family and decided there were enough differences between Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus to place the creatures in separate genera once again. While not all paleontologists have accepted the claim that Brontosaurus is officially back, it certainly is at the Yale Peabody Museum. In fact, it never really left.
Ironically, the skull on the YPM Brontosaurus is actually that of an Apatosaurus. When O.C. Marsh first described the Brontosaurus, he decided that its head was probably similar to the Camarasaurus, a sauropod that lived at the same time and for whom many skulls had been found. So YPM constructed a skull for the Brontosaurus based on the Camarasaurus. It turns out that a Camarasaurus skull is not a particularly close approximation for what a Brontosaurus skull probably looked like, and over 100 years after this Brontosaurus was first discovered, YPM placed a skull from the much more closely related Apatosaurus on the skeleton. So today, even as Brontosaurus may once again be considered a separate dinosaur from Apatosaurus, at Yale the two dinosaurs are still inextricably linked.
The Great Hall is filled with amazing fossils. Right next to the Brontosaurus is a rare juvenile sauropod, in this case a small Camarasaurus. Juvenile sauropods are quite rare in the fossil record, even as Camarasaurus is one of the more common dinosaurs found from the Morrison Formation in the American west. Another of Marsh’s discoveries, the Jurassic herbivore Camptosaurus, stands nearby. One of the most iconic American dinosaurs, Stegosaurus, is nearby. Along the walls are dozens of interesting prehistoric creatures, from early amphibians like Limnoscelis to Permian period synapsids like Edaphosaurus. Many of the specimens are holotypes or rare finds. Limnoscelis is considered one of the earliest reptile-like amphibians, and I have not seen another fossil of this important animal anywhere else. Two fossil mounts of great historical importance are also displayed here: two Cretaceous birds named by O.C. Marsh: Icthyornis and Hesperornis. These toothed birds helped establish the link between reptiles and modern birds, and they became good examples of Darwin’s then recent theory of evolution.
At one end of the Great Hall is a large collection of fossils. A few full-body mounts including Centrosaurus and Edmontosaurus stand out, but a few partial fossils have been drawing a lot of attention in paleontology lately: fossil skulls of Torosaurus and Triceratops. A relatively recent theory by paleontologists Jack Horner and John Scannella proposed that Torosaurus was not a valid genus, instead that Torosaurus specimens were actually fully mature Triceratops. Not everyone has agreed with this theory, it is still debated today, and more recent studies have kept the two genera separate. At Yale, this is a sensitive topic since Torosaurus is a particular favorite here: a wonderful outdoor statue of this dinosaur greets visitors to the museum. The display inside the YPM is terrific, too. Three really wonderful Triceratops skulls sit next to a large Torosaurus skull. One of the great things about paleontology and modern dinosaur research is that even really old discoveries, like these ceratopsian skulls at Yale, many of which have been at the YPM for almost 140 years, have received “new life” by being at the center of an important debate about how dinosaurs may have changed as they grew, and what the fossil evidence shows that allows scientists to be confident in naming separate dinosaur genera and species.
While Yale was certainly at the center of the first dinosaur “golden age,” which lasted from roughly 1870 to about 1920, the effects of the Great Depression and both World Wars put dinosaurs on the back burner for the public, and funding and interest in paleontology waned for several decades. During this time, relatively few dinosaur discoveries were made and public perception about the ancient creatures started to change. Rather than still being considered new and exciting discoveries from the ancient past, dinosaurs were starting to be viewed more as evolutionary failures: slow, cold-blooded, and stupid. Although this was not the original view of many early paleontologists, by the mid 1960’s it was quite common, among the public and even among many scientists. Fortunately, a Yale University paleontologist named John Ostrom changed that line of thinking and helped spark a dinosaur revolution that continues today.
Ostrom was doing field work in Montana in 1964 when he and his team discovered a new dinosaur that would change the public’s understanding of these ancient animals forever. This relatively small theropod dinosaur named Deinonychus had a long stiff tail, slashing claws, and a huge, sickle-like second toe on each foot. The name means “terrible claw,” and Ostrom’s description of this amazing dinosaur had a profound effect on our understanding of dinosaur behavior, and sparked what has been called the “dinosaur renaissance.” Many of Ostrom’s students, such as world-renowned paleontologist Robert Bakker, continue this work today, theorizing that dinosaurs were lively, warm-blooded, relatively intelligent creatures that were capable of much more than they had been given credit. Over the next decades, compelling evidence would be found that supported hypotheses that dinosaurs were social animals, that they were capable of attacking and defending in coordinated groups, and that they spent time raising their young, among many others. To Ostrom, the dinosaur connection to modern birds was fairly evident in Deinonychus, and research this century has since cemented that theory among most evolutionary biologists.
At the opposite end of the Great Hall of Dinosaurs sits one of the most amazing fossils ever found: a giant sea turtle from the Cretaceous period called Archelon. It is massive, nearly 11 feet tall and equally wide. I think most of the children that I saw visit the Great Hall spent the longest part of their time looking at the Archelon, despite some pretty amazing dinosaurs nearby. The creature is missing its right rear paddle, and the bones around the paddle indicate that it is likely this paddle was bitten off when the turtle was young, and then it grew and just used the other three paddles during its long life. This huge sea turtle was found in South Dakota in 1895 and is displayed at YPM right under a very large Xiphactinus, which shared the same Western Interior Seaway during the Cretaceous period.
Beyond the Great Hall of Dinosaurs lies a wonderful exhibit called the Hall of Mammalian Evolution. Many of O.C. Marsh’s early finds were ancient mammals from Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota. The gallery at Yale holds a wonderful collection, with all the stars of the post-dinosaur period, including a large collection of ancient horses. Darwin was quite taken with Marsh’s collection of horse fossils that suggested a straight-line of evolution from Eohippus (the dawn horse) to the modern Equus. It turns out that the evolution of horses was more complex than Marsh or Darwin surmised in the 19th century, but the fossils at Yale provide a good snapshot of some of the first fossil evidence that Darwin’s theory of evolution was sound.
Besides the great collection of fossils, the Hall of Mammalian Evolution also boasts a second beautiful mural by Rudolph Zallinger, called The Age of Mammals. While much smaller than the Age of Reptiles mural in the Great Hall, the second mural is equally packed with prehistoric life and is very colorful and vibrant. It’s a wonderful piece of art, and without doubt a highlight of the YPM. Both of the murals at YPM were featured in a multi-issue series of Life Magazine in 1953, and his work has greatly influenced paleoart.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
Well, fossils of ancient creatures are really the highlight of the YPM, but there are some other nice displays. A Yale archaeologist named Hiram Bingham was the first western scientist to report on Machu Picchu in 1911, and the YPM has a nice display about its “discovery” including numerous artifacts. Upstairs there are some wonderful dioramas featuring Connecticut wildlife; these are particularly well done, the scenes are very evocative. When I visited, YPM was still celebrating their 150th anniversary and had a display featuring numerous important and interesting discoveries. If natural history is not your thing, I would strongly recommend a stroll through the beautiful Yale University campus, most of which is just south and east of the YPM.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
It is no secret that the Yale Peabody Museum is quite old. I really love it, but there is no question that it deserves an update. With the large collection in storage at the YPM, I’m sure they could mount more great fossil skeletons if they had more room. Fortunately, Yale is currently fundraising in an effort to do exactly that. Some of the plans have been unveiled and are quite spectactular. While this will undoubtedly take a number of years, I can’t wait to go back when it is finished.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
Unfortunately, my children weren’t with me during my visit. There were, however, quite a few young children that visited while I was there, and they definitely enjoyed the Great Hall of Dinosaurs. As mentioned above, the Archelon was a particular favorite among the children I saw. I overheard a couple of young boys talking about the “giant turtle” and asking their mom if it was real. I didn’t see any school groups when I visited, but the YPM has always been a leader in promoting science education among children, and they have many programs available for youngsters. Be sure to check their website for more information before you go.
OVERALL RATING, Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, CT: 40.5/50.0
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (8.0 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (8.0 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (9.0 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (8.5 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7.0 out of 10)
Overall Rating Information:
40-50: Excellent, one of North America’s top museums.
32-39.5: Very Good, well worth spending half a day.
25-31.5: Good, worth spending a couple hours.
Below 25: Hopefully, a museum on the way up!