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Inside the Collections: Paleontology and the Big Bone Room

Paleontology Collections Manager Carl Mehling gives us a behind-the-scenes tour of the Big Bone Room, which houses some of the largest items in the Paleontology collection. Its holdings include one of the largest complete limb bones in the world: the 650-pound thigh bone of the long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur Camarasaurus. More than 3 million specimens make up the Museum's world-class paleontology collections, and only a small fraction can be displayed at any given time. The rest are stored behind the scenes, where they continue to be studied by Museum scientists and their colleagues. Created by American Museum of Natural History.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] >>CARL MEHLING: This is called the Big Bone Room, for obvious reasons. This is where we keep the oversized collection of dinosaur fossils. For big specimens like this they basically have to be out on open shelves just because of their size. Everything in this room, basically, is real dinosaur material from mostly North America. And it spans the time of non-bird dinosaur time from about 210 million years ago to 65 million years ago. The stuff in here is for research, generally. Sometimes some of it comes out for display, temporary display, but for the most part this is the raw material from which all the science that everybody learns about regarding dinosaurs, where it comes from. So this specimen is a sauropod bone from the late Jurassic of North America. And you can see these grooves in here, and this edge, which really should be a smooth line is all torn apart. That's tooth mark from some gigantic meat-eater that was making a meal out of this guy. Only 0.02% of our Vertebrate Paleontology Collection is on display. All the rest is in storage rooms on site behind the scenes. That's the beak of a Triceratops, the bone part of the beak. In life it was covered with keratin like your fingernails and would have extended a little bit past the end of the bone. This is a scale model of the skeleton of T. rex that was built 100 years ago to try to figure out how to mount the real specimen. A cast of the same model was used to figure out how to mount the one that was rebuilt in the renovation of the 1990s. This is the left femur of Camarasaurus, one of the long neck plant eaters from the Jurassic. And as far as I know, it's the biggest bone in the collection. We just weighed a little while ago because it's going to be going on a temporary exhibit for a couple of months, and it's about 650 pounds. Some times people ask me, you know, when will science be finished with these specimens. And we never really will be because there's always going to be either a new line of inquiry that nobody's ever thought of, or a new technique to which you can subject the specimens to get other information. It's easy to think of this collection as New York's, or America's, but it's actually part of the entire world's collection of natural history specimens. And we are a repository that takes care of that forever. [MUSIC PLAYING]