TO MANY OF US, if we’re shown a piece of rock embedded with a fossil — say, a plant with tiny leaves — it’s interesting for a little bit. Then: Got anything else? We live in a 15-second TikTok world.
But, if only you could ask someone who really knows about that fossil, like Caroline Strömberg, curator of paleobotany at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
You’d suddenly find that this 1½-inch plant segment lived 380 million years ago, and that its story is awe-inspiring. That plant represents the start of things — big, big things — on this planet.
These plants, with leaves that looked more like tiny, spiral flecks on a stick, were the earliest evolutionary attempt at leaves. Over those millions of years, continents collided, and the little plant ended up in a lime quarry near Bellingham.
That’s where it was found by researchers when they took a rock from the quarry and hit it with a hammer, breaking it in half and revealing its treasure.
Strömberg, a UW biology professor, loves talking to us nonscientists about her work.
About explaining things to laymen, she says, “They can’t believe the long time ago that this little plant lived, just grasping those vast number of years.
“Or, that at one point, the surface of continents was empty. There was nothing. It was a harsh environment to live in. And then there were these tiny plants that started along waterways, rivers and wetlands. It’s so cool that the evolution of plants affected everything on Earth.”
There are plenty such stories in the astounding collection at the Burke, the largest natural history museum north of California and west of Montana.
It has cataloged 18,491,286 artifacts. They range from a 10-foot skeleton of a giant, extinct ground sloth to the 9 million fish eggs and larvae that probably form the largest such collection in the world.
The pandemic closed the museum. It is supposed to open in January, but we know how it is with COVID plans.
Meanwhile, the experts at the museum haven’t gone anywhere. They’re still here, ready to share their enthusiasm. You just have to say to one of the researchers, “Tell me something interesting.”
LIKE: WHAT THE Seahawks logo could have looked like.
Back in 1975, Seattle got a professional football franchise, and the owners went about selecting a name and logo. Fans sent in 1,741 suggestions in a name-the-team contest, with 150 of them offering the same “Seahawks” name.
Then, general manager John Thompson said in a June 17, 1975, Seattle Times story, NFL Properties was asked for a helmet design that “utilizes the region’s great Indian culture.”
Thompson said the NFL graphics people got some books on tribal art, and found inspiration, most likely in “Art of the Northwest Coast Indians.” It was of a supernatural eagle used in ceremonial dances by Kwakw
That mask, however, is part of a collection at the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine, although it was loaned to the Burke for about a year in 2014.
What if the NFL designers had found their inspiration from another mask, one that’s at the Burke? It’s of a ferocious-looking sculpin, meaning a bullhead. Look at those spines on the back, at that mug that means nasty business.
In nature, when threatened, a bullhead opens a large mouth with teeth, blows bubbles of air, and makes grunts and whistling sounds, says Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, curator of Northwest Native Art, with its collection of 11,000 pieces.
Inside the mask is a human face. The mouth on the mask, as well as the fins and the spines, can move when the dancer pulls strings, imitating a real-life bullhead.
The masks, says Bunn-Marcuse, are part of a chief’s “box of treasures,” meaning a family’s cultural property, including “titles for individuals; songs associated with those names; and resource-gathering rights, like where to go fishing, where to go berry-picking.”
As for a bullhead for a Seahawks mask? “Very dramatic,” she says.
OR LIKE: THE giant ground sloth found at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
On Feb. 14, 1961, four construction guys were working on an anchor for a tower at the airport. They were using a caisson, a watertight structure within which work is done.
The guys looked inside the caisson, and, whoa!
Orville Gossage, Efeo Cecotti, Don Stites and Gordon Simmons — really, they deserve mention for the astounding discovery — had come upon what researchers said were “perfectly preserved” bones of a giant ground sloth that went extinct 10,000 years ago. Only the head was missing.
They were slow-moving giants, at 10 feet and around 2,200 pounds. As plant-eaters, they’d raise themselves up on their back legs to grab a branch to munch on, says Greg Wilson, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology.
He says they arrived in North America some 9 million years ago from South America.
Then, 10,000 years ago, the age of this fossil, large mammals on this continent went extinct. Perhaps it was due to an ice age, perhaps from overhunting. It was easy for humans to track such a ponderous creature.
The skeleton, with a new cast head, is on display at the museum. “It’s spectacular,” says Wilson.
OR LIKE: WHEN snail shells were used as currency.
Cowries are beautiful, glossy shells from the marine snail family Cypraeidae. At the Burke, you can see 250 of them that, even in the 1900s, were used as currency.
“People ask me, ‘Do you polish these shells? They’re so shiny.’ No, I tell them,” says Melissa Frey, manager of the museum’s invertebrate zoology collections. “When there is an animal living inside, they have a mantle that extends over the shell. It keeps it protected from getting damaged and remains highly polished.”
The Bank of Belgium has a museum, devoted, of course, to money.
“All characteristics of money, i.e. durability, handiness or convenience, recognizability and divisibility, are embodied in these small shells,” says a research paper from the bank. “They are small and very easy to transport, and their alluring form and looks offer them a perfect protection against forgery.”
Plus, says the paper, the inch-long “money” shells are almost all the same size and shape. “Weighing them often sufficed to determine the value of payment.”
Cowries as currency were used in large parts of Asia, Africa, scattered places in Europe, and the countries in Oceania, such as Australia and Fiji.
At the Burke, seeing cowries in person, you’ll understand why cultures prized them. “They’re beautiful,” says Frey.
OR LIKE: WHAT’S stored at -112 degrees F, and is one of world’s largest collections of wild animal tissue?
The Republic of Vanuatu is a country comprised of some 80 islands in the South Pacific Ocean. According to the Happy Planet Index, run by a British economics think tank, Vanuatu is among the four happiest nations in the world (the United States ranks 108).
It also happens to be the home of what’s estimated at 2,500 to 10,000 of the endangered, unusual and notoriously skittish Vanuatu megapode birds. Good luck getting a telephoto shot before the foot-long birds disappear in the brush. Locally, the birds are known as scrubfowl.
Sharon Birks, manager of the museum’s genetic resources collection, traveled there in 1996.
“They’re the only birds in the world that don’t sit on their eggs,” says Birks. “Instead, they like to nest near the side of a volcano stream, or hot sand. They can also make mounds just like a compost pile that generates heat.”
Some island men went on a pig hunt and came back with megapode eggs they dug up to eat. They agreed to give some eggs to Birks, and she had her samples.
They’re now part of 75,000 tissues stored in vials in a freezer at -112 F. Each year, the Burke sends samples of the samples to 1,500 researchers around the world.
Oh, yes: The Burke has backup generators in case of a power outage. And in case everything collapses, “We have 50 pounds of dry ice,” says Birks.
OR LIKE: GARBAGE as an archaeological treasure.
A few hundred years from now — who knows? — some future archaeologist might sift through your garbage at a solid waste site. It’ll tell the nitty-gritty story of your life.
At the Burke, “several times a week,” calls come in about people digging in their backyards and finding what they believe is historic treasure, says Peter Lape, the museum’s archaeology curator.
Take Item No. 1-2177, received on March 13, 1959: ” … dug up from a yard in Laurelhurst on the point, precise location unknown. Retrieved by children digging.”
It turns out to be one of Seattle’s first coffee mugs, carved from a walrus skull.
Then there is the garbage found during excavations for a new project.
In April 2011, construction crews were digging 38 feet down near the Paramount Theatre for the light rail tunnel.
They found what had been left when that part of downtown was regraded. The neighborhood houses were literally demolished.
The families lived in homes with outbuildings such as chicken coops and storage sheds. They left a lot of garbage, including cups, chairs and a number of old shoes.
Among them were a pair of women’s shoes, stuffed with a Yiddish language newspaper.
Most likely, said a translator, it was from The Forward. The newspaper still exists and says on its masthead: “Jewish. Fearless. Since 1897.”
The artifacts showed the arrival of German and Eastern European immigrants to Seattle.
Then there is the Rainier Beer bottle found in 2013, when Bertha was excavating the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel near where the south end now exits.
It dates to sometime in the 1890s, give or take a few years. By then, Rainier Beer was a local success, founded in 1878 by Andrew Hemrich, a first-generation German from a long line of brewmasters.
Back then, where Bertha was digging, the area was water and mud flats, with piers. Squatters built shacks on those piers, says Lape.
“They tossed the beer bottles,” he says.
OR LIKE: FROM the world’s ugliest fish to the wonders of fish ears.
Have they got the fish specimens: 9.4 million fish eggs and larvae, 2.5 million heads of fish, 800,000 north Pacific Ocean salmon scales that can be used to tell the age and health of the fish. Tens of thousands of alcohol-filled jars with fish.
So, plenty to choose from in the 5,000-square-foot collection that the Burke Museum has at the UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.
About that fish in a jar. It’s a pickled anglerfish that lives in the deep sea.
Says National Geographic, “It is quite possibly the ugliest animal on the planet, and it lives in what is easily Earth’s most inhospitable habitat: the lonely, lightless bottom of the sea.”
The anglerfish, says Katherine Maslenikov, ichthyology collections manager, gets its name from a modified dorsal fin that sticks out of its head like a fishing pole.
It’s a pretty clever setup. The fins have light-producing bacteria living in the tissue that act like a lure. A larger fish believes it’s prey, gets closer, and adios. The anglerfish engulfs the fish with its large mouth and sharp teeth.
This particular anglerfish didn’t know what happened to it. It was sucked up 3,300 feet by a big pipe off the coast of Hawaii that pulls up cold water to replace conventional air-conditioning. A local high school monitored the holding tank with a video camera and saw the fish, which didn’t survive because of the pressure and temperature change.
Now about the fish ears.
In their ears, fish have bones called otoliths. They’re kind of like our middle ear, helping them orient and maintain balance.
The white ear bones are a form of calcium carbonate and protein, which is laid down at different rates throughout a fish’s life. This leaves bands like growth rings in a tree.
Rockfish, for example, can live to 100 to 200 years.
“You have a time capsule in one individual,” says Maslenikov. “You drill very small holes in every ring of an otolith, and you can analyze the chemistry of every year of a fish’s life, what conditions have changed in the ocean over many decades.”
The ear bones also can be used to track radioactivity. “A really old rockfish would have been there when the first atomic bomb was tested,” she says.
OR LIKE: WASHINGTON’S first dinosaur found on a beach.
Back in 2012, Jim Goedert and David Starr, two friends who liked fossil-hunting, made their annual trip to Sucia Island Marine State Park in the San Juans. There is no ferry there, so you take your own boat or, in the case of the two men, have a seaplane drop you off.
The park is well-known for its Cretaceous rocks, from a period than began 145 million years ago and ended 66 million years ago. As they say, this kind of time span is hard to get your head around.
You need a permit to look for fossils, and the two men had one through the Burke.
In a previous trip to the island, Goedert, now retired from BNSF Railway as a signal inspector, and Starr, a retired stockbroker, had spotted a loose nondescript bone rolling around the beach.
“It didn’t look significant,” remembers Goedert.
But on the 2012 trip, they spotted a foot-long bone embedded in a rock.
It was time to call the Burke.
Soon, the fossil was excavated and taken to the museum. It was part of a femur that measured 16.7 inches long by 8.7 inches wide. A complete femur would have been twice as long.
It took a while to figure what animal it belonged to, says Christian Sidor, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology. “It didn’t have a ball and socket. It took a lot of interpretation,” he says.
The conclusion was that it came 80 million years ago from a theropod dinosaur, the group of two-legged, meat-eating dinos that included the famed Tyrannosaurus rex.
For example, the femur had a hollow middle cavity for bone marrow, unique to the theropods.
“It’s not going to win any beauty contests,” says Sidor about the femur chunk.
But it was the state’s first dinosaur. We don’t have the right type of rocks needed to preserve such creatures, says Sidor.
“We lucked out that the dinosaur happened to die and washed up to sea,” he says, maybe from as far south as Baja, California, or maybe Northern California. Then, as the Earth’s tectonic plates moved, it ended up in rock in the San Juans.
The dinosaur is now headed to become the official state dinosaur, thanks to a campaign by the fourth-grade class at Elmhurst Elementary in Parkland. The bill went as far as the third reading in the 2020 regular session of the state House and Senate.
Not that it’ll matter to Goedert.
“Actually, I don’t like dinosaurs,” he says. “They get more attention than they deserve. For fossils, I like whales and birds.”
OR LIKE: THE world’s largest spider.
Oh, no, not again about that pickled Goliath birdeater, the world’s largest spider!
Rod Crawford, curator of arachnids at the Burke, sighs when asked about the most notorious specimen in his spider collection, which is approaching 200,000 specimens.
In the museum’s “open lab” concept, where visitors can look at the work being done by researchers, he was asked to put the Goliath’s jar by the lab window. “They twisted my arm,” he says. “That’s what little kids think is cool.”
Crawford understands the public’s fascination with, and sometimes queasiness about, spiders.
“But it’s poorly preserved in those years in formaldehyde (it’s now preserved in alcohol). All the hair has fallen off,” he says.
And, most important, “It has nothing to do with Washington spiders.”
Crawford also complains that the big spider was named a birdeater. “One guy back in the 18th century found one specimen eating a baby bird. Since that time, it’s only been observed eating insects. That’s totally ignored.”
Anyway. The spider arrived at the South Park Fruit Company in Seattle on July 16, 1934. It was found in a banana shipment from Cuba. The curiosity was brought to the museum.
The leg span on this spider is about 6 inches: a juvenile, really. A full-grown one would be about the size of a newborn puppy.
Now, if you people were only as interested in that cool spider Crawford spotted on a Klickitat trail …