A Guided Tour of Nation’s Oldest Science Museum, NaturallyPhiladelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, 1812-2012
When I, a reporter for The SandPaper, got wind of a 1962 Beachcomber article that referenced a petrified crab brought and donated to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University – celebrating its bicentennial in 2012 as the nation’s oldest natural history museum – I decided to make a trip to Philadelphia to check out the sea fossil with my own eyes.
The petrified, or fossilized, crab was picked up years ago by a Long Beach Island freelance writer, A.V. Stratton. According to a June 21,1962, Beachcomber article, Stratton recalled he had been perusing the beach looking for shells to skip across the water, when he happened upon the stone crab. Taking it home, he put it to use as a paperweight – or when the need arose, a hammer – before deciding to drop it off at the academy on a day when business took him to the city. (The article did not say when this took place; evidently it was during the 1950s.)
Curator Henry A. Pilsbry scraped the fossil, and even tasted it, according to Stratton, before concluding it was at least 100,000 years old. It was classified as an ancestor of the dungeness crab, a popular seafood crab, which dates back to the Pleistocene Age, 500,000 years ago. It was reported at the time as the only whole fossil of its kind.
As part of the academy’s bicentennial celebration this year, the public is encouraged to join a 20-minute, behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s collection of 18 million specimens. A different collection is highlighted every month through March 2013. July is reptile, amphibian and mammal month, and features a tour of the herpetology or mammalogy collections. Tours take place at 11 a.m., Thursday through Monday. Tickets cost $5 for academy members and $7.50 for nonmembers.
On July 12, I was the only person signed up for the tour, and I got full access to the specimens collection. Paul Callomon, collections manager in Malacology, Invertebrate Paleontology and General Invertebrates, was indulging in tea time with some of his colleagues – a tradition held for many years at the academy. After a quick introduction, he delivered disappointing news: Stratton’s petrified crab was nowhere to be found. But Callomon had located a pagurid crab, related to the dungeness crab, which had been dredged off the beach in Wildwood in the early 19th century.
The fossil looked and felt like a regular rock; it was bland and bumpy. But when looked at closely, the faint outline of a crab could be detected.
“It’s quite rare to find well-formed fossils in New Jersey,” said Callomon. “There’s not enough rock. It’s very sandy off the coast.”
He went on to explain that many of the seashells found at Long Beach Island have a black or gray tint, which means the shells were on their way to becoming fossilized.
When a sea specimen dies, it sinks under the sand, and seabed begins to grow on top of it. Iron begins to leak out of the sand into the specimen, coloring it black. If the specimen isn’t disturbed in the process, the weight of the compounded sand turns it into rock.
“Those black shells are tens of hundreds of thousands of years old. But the beach (on LBI) is shallow with a sandy bottom, and it’s in constant motion. The sand is dredged up for the beach and in heavy storms, so the (fossilization) process is often interrupted,” said Callomon.
After chatting about the crab, Callomon led a tour of the malacology (study of mollusks) collection. He pointed out some of Pilsbry’s finds; Pilsbry was the academy’s first professional scientist, starting in 1888. He died in 1957 in Florida, while preparing to come back to Philadelphia to finish a paper at the academy.
Pilsbry and William H. Dall, a prominent malacologist who worked at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., had a long-standing rivalry to see who could collect and describe the most new species. Pilsbry won, with more than 5,600. Between the two scientists, more than 10,000 new species were identified, more than double the number a malacologist could expect to identify during the course of a career.
George W. Tryon Jr. founded the Malacology Department on Dec. 31, 1866. He donated his shell collection, which was the biggest in the world at that time.
“The appeal in this department is that there are so many things to collect and specialize in, and it’s cool,” said Callomon.
He went on to explain that the rate of discovery of new mollusk species has not slowed since the 1850s; everything keeps evolving. He said there are 130,000 different known mollusk species, and there are probably just as many that haven’t been identified yet – especially on the coral reefs off the Philippines and other Pacific islands.
Nowadays, DNA calculations are very specific, so it’s easy to tell the differences among the family, genus and species of mollusks. Slit shells, for example, haven’t evolved much through the past 180 million years. Scientists know this because shells have so many different features that make them easily distinguishable.
The academy’s malacology collection includes 174 dry and alcohol lots collected from LBI. A lot can have anywhere from one shell to 1,000 shells in it. Forty-one families are represented by these lots, including one cephalopod (squid), 18 marine bivalves, one freshwater bivalve, six land snails, 12 marine snails, one freshwater snail, one sea slug and one land slug. The oldest lot catalogued from Long Beach Island was collected in 1897 by U.C. Smith.
As one example of the academy’s ongoing value to research, its 1940s collection of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico was recently studied for comparison to new specimens collected since the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill. The gulf was much cleaner in the 1940s.
The next expert to meet was Vertebrate Zoology Collections Manager Ned Gilmore, who happens to be a long-time friend of The SandPaper’s managing editor, Jay Mann, an avid fossil collector. The two met in 1993 in Middlesex County, where they were searching for amber fossils.
Before unlocking the first of many cabinets in the mammal collection, Gilmore directed a question: “You don’t mind looking at dead things, do you?”
“I’m in a natural science museum. Looking at dead things is what I’m here to do,” I replied.
Gilmore chuckled and unlocked the first cabinet, which held drawers and drawers of Hoffmann’s sloth study skins, donated by the Philadelphia Zoo sometime during the 19th century.
The academy collects and studies animal skins to aid researchers in their studies. When preparing a study skin, the insides of the animal are extracted, and the skin is dried and stuffed with cotton. Wires are most often used to hold the arms and legs in place.
The odor of musty chemicals and mothballs inside the collection drawers is extremely potent. But Gilmore and other academy staff who opted to participate in the tour are so acclimated to the stench they don’t notice it.
There were many interesting animal parts, including Asian and African elephant skulls; gophers that resembled wild guinea pigs; a two-headed kitten; the upper jaw of a sperm whale; a True’s beaked whale skull that was collected in 1940 on Island Beach at the Phipps Estate, four miles south of Seaside Park; and a long-finned pilot whale skull from Long Beach Island, which was donated by the famous paleontologist Edward D. Cope in 1868. There were even a couple of Franklin’s ground squirrels that were brought in from Tuckerton in 1867, when they flourished between New Gretna and Manahawkin before dying out a few years later.
“And it all fits in a cabinet,” summed up Carolyn Belardo, the academy’s senior communications manager.
In honor of its bicentennial, the academy is holding many interesting and fun events that are based on each monthly theme. A two-for-one admission discount takes place on Saturday, July 21.
October’s monthly theme is seashells, featuring a tour of the malacology collection. The Philadelphia Shell Show and Festival will take place Oct. 20 and 21 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. For more information about the museum and its special events, visit ansp.org.