Adventures in Argentina: Museo de La Plata and an Excursion into the Permian Period

Research advances are not just made in the field, but also by collecting data from other museum collections. Scott Rufolo brought useful information back for the Canadian Museum of Nature from recent travels.

This autumn, I attended a meeting of the International Council for Archaeozoology, which was held in Mendoza Province of Argentina. I will talk about this experience in a future entry, but for now, I’d like to share some tales of my palaeontological adventures in Argentina.

Collage: Two volcanic landscapes.

A field of dark volcanic debris in southwestern Mendoza Province, produced by the no-longer-active volcano seen in the background. Depending on the nature of their iron content, the volcanic ejecta weathers into varying shades of red, grey and black, which contrast beautifully with the greenish yellow of the vegetation. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer

Being in that country for the conference afforded me the opportunity to make a professional visit to Museo de La Plata, South America’s largest natural-history museum, as well as take some vacation time in order to explore several of Argentina’s other wonderful museums and palaeontological sites.

Collage: Exterior of Museo de La Plata and a sculpture of Smilodon.

Main entrance of the Museo de La Plata. Take note of the statues of reclining felines that flank the stairwell. Having frequently visited the New York Public Library when growing up, the entrance of whose main branch is guarded by two magnificent lion sculptures, I have always had a fondness for monuments in the shape of great cats. But as you can see here, the ones at Museo de La Plata aren’t just any old big cat sculptures. Rather, they’re representations of Smilodon, the sabre-toothed cat that stalked the ancient grasslands that were the precursor to today’s Pampas region of eastern Argentina. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer

 

As a research assistant with the Palaeobiology Section of the Canadian Museum of Nature, I work closely with our dinosaur palaeontologist Jordan Mallon in order to support his research endeavours. Jordan is particularly interested in the ecological role of the feeding behaviours of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs found in Alberta, and so is always on the lookout for new data concerning the teeth, jaws and skull shape of the various species of duck-billed and horned dinosaurs that once roamed western Canada.

View of the palaeontology gallery.

One of the vertebrate palaeontology halls at Museo de La Plata. The dinosaur skeleton in the centre is a cast of one of the famous Bernissart specimens of Iguanodon from Belgium. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The size of the teeth and the bones of the skull may be related to the mechanics of biting and chewing, so measurements may furnish information about the probable diet of these herbivorous animals.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Royal Ontario Museum traded the fossil skulls of three Canadian dinosaurs, two ceratopsians (the horned dinosaurs) and one hadrosaurid (a duck-billed dinosaur), for specimens from South America. Two of these, examples of Centrosaurus apertus and Prosaurolophus maximus sent to Argentina in 1944, wound up at Museo de La Plata in the city of La Plata, located southeast of Buenos Aires.

Collage: Dinosaur skulls in the museum.

Top: At Museo de La Plata, the two dinosaur skulls from Canada may be seen on exhibition, illuminated on either side of the darker Tyrannosaurus rex cast in the middle. Bottom left: Centrosaurus (specimen 79-XI-23-2) is missing its jaws. Bottom right: Prosaurolophus (specimen 79-XI-23-1). Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The whereabouts of the third—a Chasmosaurus skull traded around 1932—are unknown, but it is likely in either Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. No descriptions or measurements of these specimens have been published to date.

Founded in 1888, Museo de La Plata [website in Spanish] houses over three million natural-history specimens and archaeological objects. The beautiful building sports a neoclassical exterior that shelters an interior replete with many architectural elements and exhibition cases that preserve their Victorian-era charm.

Collage: Interior of central rotunda, a fossil exhibition.

Left: The central rotunda of the Museo de La Plata, accessed by the main entrance. In the centre is a bust of Francisco Pascasio Moreno, founder of the museum and a prominent Argentinian explorer and natural historian of the Victorian period, surrounded by beautiful murals depicting scenes of prehistoric life. Right: A display of skeletons from various species of glyptodonts and ground sloths, extinct mammals that lived during the Pleistocene Epoch (between about 2.6 million and 12 000 years ago). Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Centrosaurus and Prosaurolophus skulls were put on display for the first time during a renovation of the palaeontology halls about 10 years ago, where they remain today. I was able to examine and measure them on a Monday, when the museum is closed to the public.

A man perches in an exhibit, measuring a dinosaur skull.

Measuring the Centrosaurus skull. The museum was closed at the time and no one could be found to turn on the lights in the exhibition halls, so the orange flashlight had to be used for much of the work. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer

Neither had been cleaned since initially being placed on display, however, so there was quite a layer of dust coating them. In fact, such an amazing amount of dust can accumulate in a decade that it was (almost) like having to excavate them all over again! Through much sneezing and watering of the eyes, I measured, drew and photographed the two skulls.

The resulting metrical data will be added to Jordan’s database for Late Cretaceous dinosaurs of North America, and we also hope to generate three-dimensional computer models of the skulls from the photographs. Moreover, I dutifully set the collections manager for vertebrate palaeontology at the museum on the hunt for any information that he may be able to find about the location of the missing third skull. Hopefully, he will soon report back with some useful information dredged up from the museum’s archives and gleaned from conversations with South American colleagues.

Before leaving Argentina, I was able to visit several sites in Mendoza Province with exposed tetrapod trackways dating to the Permian Period (approximately 250 to 300 million years ago).

Collage: A man sits on a rocky hill, an illustration showing a Chelichnus gigas making tracks, C. gigas footprints in rock.

Left: This image shows me posing next to a trackway made by Chelichnus gigas, which may have been a caseid—a member of an extinct group of herbivorous reptiles. Right: A drawing showing what C. gigas may have looked like. Bottom: Footprints left by C. gigas. Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature, Verónica Krapovickas et al. © Taylor and Francis Group

These sites record the footprints of a variety of early reptiles, and are located in a region with spectacular landscapes and geology.

Collage: A huge sinkhole, a natural rock arch over a river.

Top: Pozo de las Ánimas, or Well of Souls. The sinkhole was formed by the dissolution of limestone layers by the movement of subterranean waters. Bottom: Puente del Inca, or Bridge of the Inca. A natural arch formed over the Vacas River by an unknown geological process. The waters of nearby hot springs have deposited colourful mineral layers upon the arch and one of the banks of the river. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer.

In Buenos Aires, I was certain to spend a day at the Bernardino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum, whose exhibitions include mounts of many of the distinct species of South American dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals.

Collage of skeletons: dinosaur, glyptodont and giant ground sloth.

Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales Bernardino Rivadavia in Buenos Aires. Top left: Skeleton of the sauropod dinosaur Amargasaurus cazaui mounted to depict an adult female in the process of laying her eggs. Amargasaurus possessed an unusual double row of spines running along the back of its neck. And, it’s familiar to those of us who work at the the museum’s research and collections facility, because we have a cast of this very skeleton in our cafeteria. Right: Giant ground sloth skeleton. Bottom left: Glyptodont specimens. Note the spiked tail of the one mounted on the wall. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer, Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

I leave you with more photos to enjoy from my travels to these places—quite a few, in fact. I hope you’ll forgive me, but Argentina is blessed with a wealth of natural beauty and great museums, so it was hard to limit myself to just a small number.

Collage: A mountain range, a river.

Top: The Andes Mountains, which form the border with Chile to the west. Bottom: The river that cuts through sandstones of the Areniscas Antigradas Member of the Yacimiento Los Reyunos Formation, exposing several sites with trace fossils, including the C. gigas footprints mentioned above. Images: Gregory Huyer © Gregory Huyer, Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Next time, I’ll share some pictures of the flora and fauna I encountered, including a bold, cookie-eating troop of coatis and a tiny relative of the guinea pig that raided our lunch with just as much gusto!

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One Response to Adventures in Argentina: Museo de La Plata and an Excursion into the Permian Period

  1. Pingback: Adventures in Argentina, Part 2—A Zooarchaeological Conference in a Land of Great Natural Beauty | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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