Sunday, July 24, 2005

Swimming in Jurassic seas


In recent years, the British Museum of Natural History in London has been dolling up their exhibits, making them less Victorian, more 21st century, not always successfully. One of my favorite places in the museum is what I call "The Hall of the Flat Beasts," a long gallery whose walls are adorned from floor to ceiling with fossilized marine reptiles, collected in the early 19th century, splendidly displayed cheek-by-jowl in a bit of a jumble, Victorian fashion, including a few plaster replicas of important specimens in foreign museums.

One ichthyosaur specimen in the gallery (from Germany) contains six unborn young inside its body, and another has three unborn young with the almost perfect impression of a fourth being born tail first just as the mother died. A Lyme Regis ichthyosaur has bits of another ichthyosaur between its teeth, part of the creature's last meal. To move along the gallery from specimen to specimen is to be taken back 200 million years to vanished Jurassic seas teeming with monsters -- eating, being eaten, mating, bearing young.

No matter how rotund these creatures were in life, when they fell dead to the sea floor and became buried in sediment their skeletons collapsed or were pressed nearly flat, so that when they are revealed in the strata they have an intaglio appearance, like carvings by Renaissance masters. The gallery has not changed since I first visited the museum in 1968. It would be hard to imagine how to improve it and I hope the curators have the good sense to leave it alone, since it happily conveys the passion for fossilizing that characterized early 19th-century England.

See this week's Musing.