Vast collection of dinosaur eggs calls for browsing, brainstorming

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 

During our first day of working at the museum, our team explored the vast collection of Chinese dinosaur eggs in the basement of the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History in Hangzhou, China. The first few hours were spent browsing specimens on shelves that we would later be examining, as well as a large number of pieces in the collections room being prepared to be shipped to a museum exhibit in Japan later in the month. There was much excitement over specimens like Elongatoolithus eggs with embryos exposed inside and nicely preserved clutches of eggs buried in neat layers of three.

Heather Davis gets lost in a fantasy of dinosaur bones, eggs, geodes and other amazing specimens in the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History. (Photo by Christian Heck).

After a delicious lunch back at the hotel with Adrienne Mayor, a Stanford professor specializing in studies of ancient folklore about griffins (which she claims were really dinosaurs) in various regions in Asia, the team assembled again in the basement of the museum to begin brainstorming about research projects for the next four weeks. We further discussed the work of the past two years’ teams, and established some goals and priorities for this year.

Michael Bustamante takes a closer look at a specimen in the collections room of the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History. (Photo by Christian Heck).

A common problem with the eggs in the museum is that there is usually no field context – the eggs are acquired by the museum individually, without any knowledge of clutch arrangement or orientation (or sometimes even locality). This makes it very difficult to describe the egg accurately. We decided we needed some better framework for describing and classifying the huge number of eggs on the basement shelves and that the initial problem to solve is finding an accurate and reliable way to determine which side of the egg faced up in the nest, even without the context of clutch arrangement. Essentially, the task was to develop a method to determine which part of the egg is the top, and which is the bottom.

The task was to be approached by various teams: a sedimentology team gathering field context later in the trip and analyzing sediments available in the museum, a porosity group examining pore area and microstructure on the eggs, and a thinning group, which looks at the thickness of the shell at various sections of the egg.

The research team gets its first look at a clutch of eggs. From left are Danny Barta, Heather Davis, Dave Varricchio and Michael Bustamante. (Photo by Christian Heck).

Each of these groups spent the afternoon thinking and discussing options for approaching the research problem of understanding egg orientation, and presented preliminary proposals for research work to the team at a pre-dinner group meeting, where input was shared and brainstorms were criticized.

Our dinner was an interesting one – served in “hot pots,” a broth was given to each of us and thinly sliced raw meats were available to cook in the broth which was heated by a pad next to our plates. A waitress brought out a bowl full of live shrimp which were cooked in the broth until they were bright red, right there at the table. After a day full of eggs and interesting food, our team was pretty tired and headed back to their rooms to rest and prepare for another big day of museum work! 

Blog post by Hannah Wilson

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