March 28, 2012
Las Vegas, Nevada, is not a city I immediately associate with dinosaurs. To judge by the billboards along Interstate 15 approaching town, slot machines, strip clubs and performances by has-been comedians is what the town is all about. But, strange as it may seem, Las Vegas has a natural history museum, and the small building is home to some of the worst dinosaurs I have ever seen.
In execution, the Las Vegas Natural History Museum feels less like a true museum and more like a curiosity cabinet cobbled together out of taxidermy mounts and anthropological items. A lion pouncing on a bucking wildebeest greets patrons along the main corridor, and a glass case shows off a collection of African ceremonial masks without providing any cultural context for the items. Splintering whale bones and life-size shark models decorate the nearby marine life gallery, and despite the fact that Las Vegas has no immediate connection to human origins, a gallery downstairs presents a series of disturbingly inaccurate early human mannequins. “Lucy” certainly deserves better. But I wasn’t there for the trophy room of stuffed mammals or the Egyptian tomb exhibit. I had come for the dinosaurs.
The first thing I saw upon walking into the Engelstad Family Prehistoric Life Gallery was an utterly atrocious Deinonychus. Plastered with feathers, the sickle-clawed predator looked as if it had been tarred and feathered for some Early Cretaceous offense. While I have repeatedly griped that there are too many naked dinosaurs in books, movies and museum displays, this poor creature made me reconsider my insistence on this point. No wonder some people feel that feathered dinosaurs look stupid—when restored without careful reference to living birds, some downy deinonychosaurs really do strain our love for dinosaurs.
A few other creatures, such as our sail-backed cousin Dimetrodon and a model of the extinct whale Zygorhiza, inhabit the hall, but the dinosaurs are given top billing. Almost all are sculptures or animatronics. A brown, dopey-looking Herrerasaurus squats in the corner of one exhibit, sharing little resemblance with the actual predatory dinosaur, and visitors can push a button to make a seafoam green Allosaurus bellow ineffectually. Nearby, a small pack of Troodon pose to chase away a nest-raiding mammal, and while I was disappointed that these dinosaurs were not feathery, a look back at the dreadful Deinonychus made me feel that it may have been best to leave these dinosaurs without plumage. The grand centerpiece is a diorama of that most famous face-off: Triceratops versus Tyrannosaurus. The ornery horned dinosaur constantly jerked and snorted, and the Tyrannosaurus—a recent recipient of some mechanical surgery based on the square cut in its right side—was poised to charge.
I couldn’t figure out what the point of the exhibit was. The displays provided a minimum of educational tidbits, such as the difference between “bird-hipped” and “lizard-hipped” dinosaurs, but I did not see any of the visitors look at the other panels. The monstrous dinosaurs seemed to speak for themselves, at least with the help of pushbutton snarls. Fossils were almost absent from the hall. A few isolated dinosaur track slabs were scattered through the hall, and a small glass case contained a single vertebra from Camarasaurus, but that was nearly all. (There is another display about dinosaur eggs, but that part of the room was so dimly lit that I couldn’t read the explanatory panels or see the eggs.) Another exhibit, about Nevada’s changing landscape, noted that the time of the dinosaurs is poorly known in Nevada, and the prehistoric hall is certainly a testament to that.
There’s more than one way to display dinosaurs. Not every museum has to be Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History or the American Museum of Natural History. There are so many stories to tell about dinosaurs lives—how they grew, ate, fought, reproduced and more—that small, regional museums have ample opportunity to show off aspects of dinosaur biology that might get missed in the famous fossil halls of bigger, older institutions. And local museums can play an important role in displaying pieces of local geologic history that may be hidden in collections elsewhere. But the Las Vegas Natural History Museum’s paleontology hall feels more like a tourist trap, populated by low-grade dinosaurs presented without any unifying story or aim. Dinosaurs have much to tell us about evolution, extinction and past worlds, and it is a shame to see them treated as mere monsters made to roar on command.
December 20, 2011
Wherever you go in the United States, you’re probably no more than a few hours away from a dinosaur skeleton. The “ruling reptiles” are virtually everywhere. From field sites to museum displays, the country is dotted with dinosaurs, and to coincide with Smithsonian magazine’s new Evotourism feature I have compiled a short “Dinotourism” subset of destinations for the Mesozoic-minded.
The Dinosaur Diamond: Utah and Colorado form the heart of dinosaur country. A scenic byway system called the Dinosaur Diamond links some of the top spots along the border of the two states. Among the highlights are the Allosaurus-rich bonebed at the Cleveland-Lloyd dinosaur quarry in the west; Dinosaur National Monument and the dinosaur-infested towns of Vernal and Dinosaur, Colorado to the north; Fruita, Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey Museum to the southeast; and dinosaur track sites around Moab, Utah to the south. Some of the points along the byway are also within a few hours of other dinosaur attractions around Salt Lake City and Denver, making the Dinosaur Diamond an especially handy system for anyone in want of a Jurassic road trip.
Dinosaur Park: Dinosaurs are not only found out West. Maryland recently set aside a small patch of exposed Cretaceous time in the form of Dinosaur Park in the town of Laurel. If you plan your trip right, you may even get to poke around the remaining fossil-bearing layers on open-house days. Don’t expect to find any complete dinosaurs, though—you need a sharp eye to detect the small, isolated bones and teeth that come out of this site.
American Museum of Natural History: No list of top dinosaur sites would be complete without the American Museum of Natural History. The Allosaurus vs. Barosaurus battle in the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda and the fourth floor dinosaur halls are magnificent galleries of dinosaurian celebrities, made all the more rich by the imprint of history. Even though the dinosaur halls received an overhaul in the 1990s—including some chiropractic work of Tyrannosaurus and the correct head for Apatosaurus—many of the old specimens could not be moved or altered, and so they remain in the same positions as they were mounted in when famous paleontologists such as Barnum Brown and Henry Fairfield Osborn stomped around the place. The AMNH is also remarkable for placing their dinosaurs in an evolutionary context. If you follow the pathways through the exhibits carefully, you can see the big picture of dinosaur evolution.
Petrified Forest National Park: Although this park in eastern Arizona does not boast many dinosaurs, that is exactly what makes it significant. Petrified Forest National Park preserves a spectacular landscape of the Late Triassic time before dinosaurs became the dominant vertebrates on land. The slender, graceful theropod dinosaur Coelophysis has been found here, but most of the animals this creature lived alongside belonged to groups such as the crocodile-like phytosaurs, the “armadillodiles” called aetosaurs, and powerful, deep-skulled predators called “rauisuchians,” among others you can see at the park’s visitor centers. If you want to see the vestiges of the early days of the dinosaurs, this national park is one of the most beautiful places to go.
Museum of the Rockies: There are plenty of dinosaur exhibits in American museums large and small, but the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana sets itself apart by putting research and significant specimens up front. The skull of a juvenile Daspletosaurus, the “Wankel rex,” parts of “Big Al” and a complete growth series of Triceratops skulls are just a few of the remarkable displays in the museum’s dinosaur hall. Even better for hardcore dinosaur fans, the museum updates the plaques attached to the exhibits to highlight recently published research and even provides citations for those who want to track down the relevant papers when they get back home.
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History: Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History may initially seem to be a strange addition to this list. Their dinosaur hall is painfully drab and out of date (although a renovation is scheduled in the years to come). But what makes this place an essential stop for any dinosaur aficionado is Rudolph Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles mural. This fresco secco is a masterpiece of modern art and represents dinosaurs as paleontologists understood them during the mid-2oth century. (The often-reproduced smaller version on books and posters came from a draft Zallinger created for himself as a guide—the actual mural is different than the scaled-down reproductions you have seen before.) Even better, the dinosaur hall juxtaposes this outdated imagery with that which replaced it. At the back of the hall is a leaping Deinonychus—the sickle-clawed theropod described by Yale paleontologist John Ostrom in 1969 that helped spark the “Dinosaur Renaissance.” If you kneel down just right, you can see the predator against a background of Zallinger’s plodding dinosaurs.
St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm: Dinosaur bones are great, but tracks hold their own charms. After all, footprints represent the actual behavior of once-living animals, and the St. George dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm in southern Utah has an abundance of fossil tracks. Modeled after the working-museum model of Dinosaur National Monument, this site is a museum built over an early Jurassic track site covered by dinosaur footprints. Particular track specimens line a pathway around the museum, but visitors can also see the intact surface on which many footprints are still preserved.
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: What’s better than one Tyrannosaurus? A Tyrannosaurus trio. That’s the view taken by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County‘s new dinosaur exhibit, which presents a growth series of three Tyrannosaurus rex as its centerpiece. But that’s not all. The new exhibit mixes updated skeletal mounts of Carnotaurus, Triceratops and other dinosaurs with beautiful artwork and interactive displays. The top floor of the exhibit, in particular, features multiple displays on paleobiology and how paleontologists extract information about dinosaur lives from fossil bone. An additional perk—the museum has detailed dinosaur puppets that regularly put on shows and sometimes wander the museum halls. The adorable, fuzzy Tyrannosaurus juvenile alone is worth a visit.
Fernbank Museum of Natural History: During the past two decades, South America has yielded some of the most impressive dinosaur giants. The casts of two such creature form the centerpiece of Georgia’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Although reconstructions of the enormous theropod Giganotosaurus can be seen at other museums, the Fernbank is special in presenting the carnivore alongside a cast of the absolutely immense sauropod Argentinosaurus—perhaps the largest dinosaur of all time. If you want to have that feeling of being dwarfed by Mesozoic giants, this display is what you might be looking for.
Field Museum of Natural History: If Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History has one claim to dinosaurian fame, it is “Sue,” a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus rex. There’s no better place to get a feel for what the great Cretaceous tyrant was actually like. But don’t let Sue’s star power outshine the museum’s other dinosaurs. In addition to the big Brachiosaurus out front, the Field also places dinosaurs in the context of evolution in their Evolving Planet exhibition. Paleo-art fans will also find much to enjoy—the Field is home to some classic renderings of prehistoric life by the highly-skilled paleo-artist Charles R. Knight.
Dinosaur Provincial Park: This isn’t an American dinosaur site, but is important enough and close enough to squeeze its way into the list. Located in Alberta, Canada, the strata of Dinosaur Provincial Park has supplied many of the world’s major museums, including the AMNH, with spectacular dinosaur fossils and continues to yield more information about dinosaur biology, ecology and evolution near the end of their reign. This park is also within a few hours’ drive of the Royal Tyrrell Museum and the dinosaur-populated town of Drumheller, Alberta.
This is just a short list of a few highlights—there are plenty of other field sites and museums out there, including Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (a.k.a. The Evolution Museum). Do you have additional recommendations? Let us know in the comments.
December 14, 2011
New discoveries, historical tidbits and paleo-pop are all regular features here at Dinosaur Tracking, but there is far more dinosaur news out there than even this blog can cover. This week, especially, has seen a flurry of new research and dinosaurs in the headlines. I’ll be getting to some of the new papers during the remainder of this week and next, and here’s a rundown of recent dinosaur happenings.
Guard dinosaur: Need to leave your car unattended for a while? Why not employ a dinosaur to stand guard. That’s what an owner of a crashed car did in Clothiers Creek, Australia. Granted, the plastic Tyrannosaurus may not have been as frightening as an actual trained theropod, and the efficacy of toy dinosaurs as deterrents is unknown at this time, but it’s better than nothing.
Giants From Abroad: Last weekend, Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute opened the exhibit “Giant Mysterious Dinosaurs.” Among the featured guests, most being skeletal reconstructions of dinosaurs from Argentina and Mongolia, are the relatively small ceratopsian Psittacosaurus and casts of the immense sauropod Argentinosaurus. The exhibit also has a local hook: dinosaur aficionado and Philadelphia resident Don Lessem organized the traveling display.
Jersey Dinos: Pennsylvania isn’t the only East Coast town to be visited by dinosaurs. Earlier this month, New Jersey residents got a preview of Field Station: Dinosaurs, a temporary animatronic dinosaur park plunked down in the wetlands of Secaucus and due to open in May. (See the video above for footage from the press conference.) Early reports state that the park will include 31 robotic dinosaurs scattered across a path through the Jersey swamp. I hope some of New Jersey’s own dinosaurs make an appearance. Tyrannosaurus is an undisputed fan favorite, but I would love to see the garden state’s own tyrannosauroid, Dryptosaurus, on display along with the state dinosaur, Hadrosaurus.
Pleo, Take 2: Robotic dinosaurs aren’t just growling, jerking monsters of roadside prehistoric parks. In recent years toymakers have been trying to encapsulate dinosaur attitudes in home versions of the prehistoric creatures. Among the latest is Inu, a baby sauropod that looks like the next iteration of the previously released Pleo toy. With these little mechanical dinosaurs, at least you don’t have to worry about the complicated dietary needs of a real, fast-growing baby sauropod.
An Adventure How Many Years in the Making?: Jurassic Park IV will happen eventually. We have been hearing that for years now, and the series’ scientific adviser Jack Horner has even dropped a few hints about the plot. (Pssst… the genetically-modified dinosaurs may be altered even further to become true monsters). Now Steven Spielberg, the director and producer behind the series, has reaffirmed that the movie is on his to-do list, although who knows when the movie will actually make it to screens. Just remember what I said, Mr. Spielberg: We need feather-covered raptors this time. And please, please, avoid the family drama schtick of your other dinosaur project, Terra Nova.
Oh, to be a Dinosaur Hunter: Finally, the “Kids Post” section of the Washington Post has a profile of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s own paleontologist Matthew Carrano.
November 16, 2011
Eastern Utah’s fossil-filled Cleveland-Lloyd quarry is best known for its fossils of Allosaurus. From the time the site was opened in 1929 to the present, the scattered remains of at least 46 Allosaurus have been collected from the roughly 147-million-year-old slice of Late Jurassic rock. But Allosaurus has not been the only dinosaur found there. Rare pieces the huge herbivores Barosaurus, Camarasaurus, Camptosaurus and Stegosaurus have been picked out of Cleveland-Lloyd, as have the remains of other predatory dinosaurs such as the early tyrannosauroid Stokesosaurus, the massive Torvosaurus, the well-ornamented Ceratosaurus and a poorly known theropod named Marshosaurus.
Up until about a year ago, I had never heard of Marshosaurus. Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus and, to a lesser extent, Torvosaurus were traditionally promoted as the predators of the Late Jurassic in North America. That’s why I was surprised to see the restored skull of Marshosaurus set into an explanatory display in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History during the reception at last year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference. The skull looked slender and quite unlike the deep skulls of the bigger Morrison theropods I had previously learned about. What was this dinosaur?
Marshosaurus was not a new dinosaur that had slipped under my radar. Quite the opposite. In 1979 paleontologist James Madsen, Jr. named and initially described the dinosaur on the basis of a virtually complete pelvis and a few elements of the upper jaws found in the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry. Madsen acknowledged that this wasn’t much to describe a new genus from and lamented that there was simply not enough funding to sift through, prepare and study the dozens of other bones at the site that might belong to the new, relatively small dinosaur. Nevertheless, the known parts of the theropod were clearly different from those of other dinosaurs found at the site, including small Allosaurus, and so Madsen gave the creature the title Marshosaurus bicentismus in honor of the famous paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh and the bicentennial anniversary of the United States of America.
Parts of Marshosaurus later turned up in other dinosaur bonebeds. Additional skull material, a partial vertebral column, and other portions of the skeleton were found at northeastern Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument in a slightly geologically older part of the Morrison Formation called the Salt Wash Member. (The Cleveland-Lloyd site is part of the stratigraphically higher Brushy Basin Member.) Taken together, the collected remains of Marshosaurus seem to represent an approximately 18-foot-long predator which was in a lower weight class than the giant Allosaurus and Torvosaurus of the same environments. What variety of theropod Marshosaurus was, however, has been unclear until recently.
In his 2010 revision of the dinosaur Megalosaurus, paleontologist Roger Benson included Marshosaurus in his analysis of theropod relationships. Benson found Marshosaurus to be a relatively basal member of the Megalosauroidea—a large and varied group of predatory dinosaurs which presently includes the sail-backed spinosaurs in one subgroup and dinosaurs such as Torvosaurus and Megalosaurus in another. This would mean that Marshosaurus would be an early and archaic member within this large group which generally represents the form of the megalosauroids before the big split between the Spinosaurus and Torvosaurus lineages. Further analyses will test these hypothesized relationships, and perhaps additional Marshosaurus material will be identified from places like Dinosaur National Monument and the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry in the future. We still know very little about this dinosaur. For one thing, how did this relatively small carnivore make a living alongside so many other more imposing predators?
Benson, R. (2010). A description of Megalosaurus bucklandii (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Bathonian of the UK and the relationships of Middle Jurassic theropods
Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 158 (4), 882-935 DOI: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.2009.00569.x
Madsen, J. 1979. A second new theropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of east central Utah. Utah Geology 3(1): 51–60.
October 20, 2011
When I was a young dinosaur fan, Spinosaurus was one of my most favorite dinosaurs. What could be more fantastic than a giant predatory dinosaur equipped with a bizarre sail? But Spinosaurus as I knew it during the 1980s—imagine a fin-backed Allosaurus—looked significantly different from the dinosaur as we know it today. The reason for the big change is largely attributable to the discovery of a different, related dinosaur in England.
In 1986, Alan Charig and Angela Milner described a very strange, crocodile-snouted dinosaur they called Baryonyx. The Cretaceous creature turned out to be the key to identifying what is now one of the most famous dinosaur groups, the spinosaurs. Paleontologists had been finding pieces of spinosaurs for over a century, but often the teeth of these dinosaurs were confused for those of crocodiles, and the original Spinosaurus fossils were destroyed during Allied bombing of Germany in WWII. When Baryonyx was discovered, however, paleontologists began to recognize the similarities between it, older discoveries and similar dinosaurs that were soon found in South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Some, such as Suchomimus and Spinosaurus from Africa, had sails, while others—including Baryonyx—did not, but the initial discovery formed the basis for the great spinosaur makeover. (Even before new Spinosaurus material was found, the relationship between it and other spinosaurs like Baryonyx was used to restore the predator with heavy-clawed hands and an elongated snout.) In the above video, created by London’s Natural History Museum, paleontologist Angela Milner explains how the dinosaur was discovered and why Baryonyx is so peculiar compared to other predatory dinosaurs.