Geoscience highlights from the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is among the world’s leading academic institutions and natural science is one of its most celebrated programs. Since its founding in the seventeenth century, the university has been a repository for specimens of scientific curiosity. Over time, these grew into three comprehensive reference collections – the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria and the Harvard Mineralogical Museum. Selections from these were eventually gathered into the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which, in 1998, opened to the public alongside the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology with which it shares a building. Though retaining separate names and administration, the HMNH and PMAE are physically connected, and visitors to either gain entry to both with a single ticket. As one of these more recent visitors, I will share some brief impressions of the major palaeo and geoscience exhibits below.

Mineralogical and geological gallery

Geology displays worldwide tend to look the same – rows of labelled rocks grouped into categories in ascending shelves. Harvard’s geological gallery follows this pattern, but is distinguished by the inclusion of several large and notable mounts. Chief among these are two very large rocks, a gypsum crystal (Fig. 1) and an amethyst (Fig. 2). There are also several, well-preserved meteorites from locations across North America, some of which are shown in Fig. 3.

FIG 1 gypsum
Fig. 1. Gypsum.
FIG 2 amethyst
Fig. 2. Amethyst.

Fossil mammals

A narrow, winding hallway somehow manages to display quite a few large Cainozoic skeletons. The most prominent is the ‘Harvard Mastodon’ (Fig. 4). Notwithstanding the name, it was discovered along with several others in New Jersey in 1844 and was acquired by prominent New Englanders, who bequeathed to Harvard two years later. Of antiquarian interest are the plaques accompanying the donation, which label it as Mastodon americanus – at variance with the modern name, Mammut americanum. Further along are the large Miocene chalicothere Moropus (Fig. 5), the Cainozoic ungulate Coryphodon (Fig. 6) and the early aquatic rhino Teloceras (Fig. 7), among other, smaller mammals. The largest vitrine displays three mammal taxa of South American origin: Toxodon (Fig. 8), the glyptodont Panochthus (Fig. 9) and the giant sloth Lestodon (Fig. 10). Surprisingly, none of the famous mammalian carnivores appear here, although a sabretooth cat (Fig. 11) and dire wolf (Fig. 12) do flank the main entrance to the museum.

FIG 3 meteorites
Fig. 3. Meteorites.

Vertebrate palaeontology

This gallery is dominated by a massive Kronosaurus. Beside it is a skull of the familiar Triceratops (Fig. 13). Other notable specimens include Plateosaurus (Fig. 14), Edaphosaurus (Fig. 15) and the shell of Stupendemys geographicus, a giant freshwater turtle (Fig. 16). Surrounding these are many smaller, but equally fascinating fossils, with a large number of bony fishes from the Mesozoic.

FIG 4 mastodon
Fig. 4. Mastodon.
FIG 5 moropus
Fig. 5. Moropus.


Finally, I should mention with admiration the inclusion of an exhibit whose express purpose is to refute anti-evolution pseudoscience, the type of which is unfortunately still common in the USA. It is reassuring that Harvard, whose faculty includes many of the top names in biology of the present and recent past (Wilson, Gould, Lewontin, and so on), has taken the lead against ‘intelligent design’ and other creationist agendas. This exhibit contains mostly contemporary natural history specimens, but, for illustrative purposes, has included a few fossils geologists and palaeontologists will fondly recognise, such as ammonites and echinoderms.

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