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Prehistoric puzzles

A sculptor pieces together ancient fossils

By | September 15, 2006

Think you've seen all there is to see of the dinosaurs? Not so fast: a new statistical study by Drs. Steven C. Wang and Peter Dodson of Swarthmore College has revealed that 71% of dinosaur genera on earth still remain to be discovered. That's good news for paleontologists and amateur dinosaur enthusiasts. But it's also good news for Richard Webber, a New York sculptor who has carved out a professional niche reconstructing fossilized remains. Webber worked on the renovation of the American Museum of Natural History's fossil hall in the mid-90s, where he built the Indricotherium, the world's largest land mammal, and helped to re-mount the museum's Tyrannosaurus rex. These days, he works from his studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, amidst a menagerie of half-assembled creatures. A borrowed ribcage of a zebra stands hoisted at attention; a model of a beaky Titanus pecks its way around a desk cluttered with art supplies; a Struthiomimus pelvis perches on a support, waiting for legs; the bones of a 50-million-year-old Oligocene Sespia line up on a dusty yellow legal pad; a metal barracuda hangs from the ceiling, ever-vigilant for bait. But the star of the studio at the moment is a four-million-year-old Odobenus rosmarus -- a walrus -- that Webber is reconstructing for the San Diego Natural History Museum. Webber's walrus is named Ayveq, after the sole male walrus at the New York Aquarium. Webber watched Ayveq the Living for hours over many days to inspire his own portrayal of Ayveq the Fossil. Webber described the process as more experiential than analytic. "I usually end up not observing the animal, but being the animal," he said. Just as paleontologists must recreate history using an incomplete set of data, Webber's job often requires him to reconstruct whole animals using an incomplete set of bones. (Once he was assigned to assemble an entire dinosaur from a single claw.) To do this, he creates a custom armature for each fossilized bone and then mounts each bone in correct alignment and articulation with the others. The remaining body, movement, and attitude of the creature is then filled in by his graceful metal work. Webber's armature technique allows him to avoid drilling into the ancient fossils to make mounts. "I would never drill into raw material," he said. "Something that's been in the ground for 5 million, 400 million years, and all of a sudden it's in your hands...There's something spiritual about that." Nor does Webber like to use vertical supports, which he believes make the fossils look like "carousel horses." Instead, he disguises his mount points by placing them at the animal's natural contact points with the earth. As a result, his animals seem to float through space gracefully and under their own power. And there is a scientific payoff to Webber's artistry as well: his customized armatures allow scientists to remove and study individual bones without damaging them. In addition to Ayveq the Walrus, Webber's most recent work includes a Pleistocene horse, an Oligocene tortoise, an Oligocene Sespia, and an Eocene Protoreodont for the San Diego Natural History Museum. If Wang and Dodson's predictions are correct, he'll have a lot more work to do in the future. "We're currently living in a dinosaur renaissance, with unprecedented numbers of discoveries every year," according to Wang. Perhaps some of these discoveries will make their way to Richard Webber's studio. After their long journey, they'd be lucky to end up in such good hands. Laura Buchholz mail@the-scientist.com Links within this article Estimating the diversity of dinosaurs http://www.pnas.org American Museum of Natural History - Fossil Hall http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/fossils/ Odobenus rosmarus http://www.mnh.si.edu/mna/image_info.cfm?species_id=228 San Diego Natural History Museum - Fossil Mysteries Exhibit http://www.sdnhm.org/exhibits/mystery/index.html Ayveq the Walrus (New York Aquarium) http://www.nyaquarium.com/nyaanimals/286497
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