New Mexico: The Zuhl Museum

2019 March 31

On December 4, 2018, Dale took us to the Zuhl Museum at New Mexico State University. The Zuhls were dealers in mineral specimens, particularly petrified wood and other fossils, and they donated their extensive collection to NMSU in 2003.

The first thing you see at the museum is this giant petrified sequoia log outside the front entrance. Petrified wood figures heavily throughout the whole museum.

Petrified wood forms when trees get covered with sediments that have a lot of soluble silicate glasses in them, like volcanic ash. Silicate glasses are slightly soluble in water, and so the silica dissolves from the sediments, percolates into the wood, and replaces the actual wood with silicate rock, like agate. This preserves a lot of the natural structure of the wood, and also takes an excellent polish. It can be used to make some really beautiful pieces.


The galleries are massive, this one gallery is only about a third of the petrified wood pieces on display.

The preservation of the wood structure can be good enough to allow the wood to be identified to the genus or even the species.


There were also other impressive mineral specimens, like these amethyst “cathedrals”. These are basically voids that formed from large gas bubbles in lava, that were then filled by hydrothermal fluids that deposited quartz crystals. Amethyst is quartz that is colored by a combination of radioactive irradiation and substitution of iron for silicon.

They also have a nice piece of the Campo del Cielo meteorite fall. This is a nickel-iron meteorite, so it is essentially a giant hunk of metal.

It is kind of hard to take it all in, there are just so many petrified wood specimens, all unique.


There is also an entire wing of more traditional fossils, like this crinoid. Crinoids still exist in the oceans, but they used to be much, much more common.


Ammonites were cephalopods, related to the chambered nautilus, octopuses, and squids. Their shells had ballast chambers in them so that they could control their buoyancy.


Sometimes, ammonite shells had very peculiar shapes.


And there were trilobites everywhere.

They also had some vertebrate fossils, like this small Mosasaur,


along with this skull of a much bigger mosasaur,

which was big enough that we could look down its throat and see its second set of “throat teeth”!


And here is an excellent cast of an ichthyosaur, showing not just its skeleton, but also the parts that were just soft tissue like its dorsal fin and the top half of its tail.


This femur is from an Atlasaurus, one of the large sauropod dinosaurs.


And, remembering that this blog is supposed to be about insects, here is a fossilized giant dragonfly


a fossilized shrimp,


and a Eurypterid, or “sea scorpion”.

If I put up all my pictures of their fossils, we will be here all day, so just two more: a baby mammoth,

and a dimetrodon, like the ones that left the tracks we saw up at the prehistoric trackways national monument

This last one isn’t a fossil exactly, but it is something I hadn’t heard of previously. It is a variety of Banded Iron Formation like the iron ores that I routinely work with in my day job. But, instead of just having random silicate minerals in the bands between iron oxides, the silicates have metamorphosed into the semiprecious stone Tiger’s Eye, producing a rock known as “Tiger Iron”.

And to wrap up: this last bit isn’t exactly a museum exibit, but it does tie it well with the stated purpose of the blog. You see, the museum had a small courtyard, with a fountain that had been turned off for the winter (but still contained water in the basin).


And in this water, there were . . . mosquito wigglers!


They tended to cluster around bits of floating debris, because mosquito wigglers eat tiny bits of rotting material. While I didn’t notice it when I was taking the pictures, I can also see that there is a dragonfly nymph floating off there to the right. It is upside down and looks a bit pale, so I think it is dead. If it were alive, I expect it would have been chowing down vigorously on the wigglers.


When I pulled a feather out of the water, there were a lot of wigglers attached to it, including this mosquito pupa that was about to emerge as an adult, along with a raft of eggs. Since we were there during the day, nothing was coming out to bite us because it was too dry and also kind of cool, but I bet at night they are pretty fierce in the courtyard.


And one last thing: here is a tiny little water strider, moving so fast that I couldn’t get a clear shot. I think it is one of the ones in the family Veliidae. They are predaceous, and probably eat the mosquito egg rafts and newly-hatched wigglers, but they just weren’t large enough or numerous enough to seriously dent the mosquito population.

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