October 11, 2011
Sauropod dinosaurs were some of the largest animals to walk the earth, but they started off small. Many newly hatched sauropods were so diminutive that they could have stood in the palm of your hand. It’s easy to forget this fact. Both because juvenile sauropod specimens are rare and because museums often make room for only the most impressive specimens, dinosaur exhibits the world over often feature the remains of adult (or near-adult) animals without providing any indication of how the behemoths started their lives. Now, with the addition of a small Apatosaurus, Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Museum will be among the exceptions.
The Sam Noble Museum will introduce the public to the reconstructed skeletal cast of a juvenile Apatosaurus on Friday, October 15. The dinosaur, which stands just under three feet high, will be placed beneath a much larger representative of the same genus in the museum’s “Clash of the Titans” centerpiece. According to a press release announcing the specimen’s unveiling, the cast is principally based on the bones of an incomplete young Apatosaurus found in Oklahoma by paleontologist John Willis Stovall in the 1930s. As far as I am aware, there is only one other baby Apatosaurus on display, an even smaller reconstructed skeletal cast nicknamed “Ajax” at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
October 6, 2011
Two summers ago, I visited Dinosaur National Monument for the first time. The park was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, but, I have to admit, I left a little disappointed. Ever since I was a dinosaur-crazed kid I wanted to see the famous quarry wall strewn with hundreds of bones representing some of the most famous Late Jurassic dinosaurs. But when I arrived, the building that housed the bones had already been closed for three years. The geology of the site worked against the edifice by expanding and contracting by minute amounts over and over again—so much so that parts of the building had shifted dramatically and put the entire structure at risk of collapse.
Not long before my initial visit, though, it was announced that the park would receive more than $13 million to restore the building and welcome visitors once more. I couldn’t wait for the grand re-opening, especially after I spent more than a week and a half looking for new fossils at the monument with the Natural History Museum of Utah field crew this past summer. I saw the quarry building from the road every day I was in the field, but I had to wait until October 4, 2011 for the doors of the quarry to once again open to the public.
As it stands now, the famous quarry wall is only a portion of what once was. The site once extended about 100 feet to either side of the current quarry face, and the bonebed also extended upwards to a higher hill that paleontologist Earl Douglass and his co-workers removed during the early 20th century. Many of the fossils they discovered in those parts of the quarry can now be seen at museums such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. (Those old bones were recently refurbished in a new dinosaurs exhibit I got to see during last year’s SVP conference.) Nevertheless, the quarry face is still a beautiful site. Partially articulated limbs, a sauropod skull situated on the end of a vertebral string, parts of various spinal columns and numerous isolated bones can be seen poking out all over the rock face. That’s how they will remain—prep work has stopped on the fossils, and they will stay in their place as a lesson about life and death 149 million years ago.
The bones are the main draw, of course, but the new museum also boasts some impressive extras. Several skeleton casts on the lower level introduce visitors to some of the charismatic creatures seen scattered over the quarry wall, and a beautiful mural by artists Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger fleshes out Late Jurassic dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus, Torvosaurus, Dryosaurus and Apatosaurus, in addition to the many small mammals and reptiles that lived alongside them. Make sure you turn around to look at the mural behind the baby Stegosaurus cast when leaving the building—I don’t think I have ever seen an illustration of an Allosaurus chomping down on a baby Stegosaurus before.
More updates and improvements are scheduled but were not ready at the time of the big unveiling. The museum will include virtual displays that will explain how so many dinosaurs came to be accumulated in one spot, as well as what bones on the quarry wall correspond to which dinosaurs. Even without those extras, though, the new quarry wall is a fantastic testament to deep time, evolution and a lost world we are still striving to understand.
For more details about Dinosaur National Monument, see the Dinosaur National Monument Quarry Visitor Center Project blog. The blog is written by Dan Chure, the park’s paleontologist.
October 3, 2011
I love dinosaurs, and I love puppets. Put the two together and I can’t resist. Among other things—such as the brand new dinosaur hall, which I’ll talk about in a later post—that is what brought me to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County last week. The institution has put together several shows featuring beautifully designed dinosaur puppets, and after seeing a sneak peek on YouTube, I just had to check one out for myself.
I was probably the oldest dinosaur fan in attendance for the museum’s afternoon “Dinosaur Encounters” program. Shortly after I arrived at the North American Mammal Hall where the shows take place, a small collection of toddlers, young children and their parents gathered around. The kids looked astounded when the museum’s fuzzy Tyrannosaurus puppet came roaring out onto the stage. While our host talked about thinking like a scientist and making observations to better understand prehistoric life, the dinosaur walked around the hall, snapped its impressive jaws, and bellowed its heart out. I think many of the kids in attendance were too young to even be scared. Most of them stared in wide-eyed amazement at what, to all appearances, was a real dinosaur right in front of them.
After the show I got a chance to get a closer look at the dinosaur thanks to its puppeteer, Brian Meredith. Drenched in sweat from running around in the hot suit for 15 minutes, Brian pointed out the relatively simple operation of the juvenile tyrannosaur. He simply steps into the dinosaurs body cavity and thinks like a tyrannosaur—as he walks, the dinosaur walks, and a series of strings and other instruments inside let him move the dinosaur’s body parts. The dinosaur’s deep-throated roaring, I was surprised to find out, was not pre-recorded but actually Brian growling through a sub-woofer to make what I consider to be some impressive dinosaur sounds. The hardest part of the operation, Brian said, is seeing where you’re going—the only view he gets of the outside is through a small opening in the tyrannosaur’s neck. Clearly, being inside a dinosaur isn’t easy.
September 30, 2011
A dispatch from Smithsonian.com’s associate web editor Brian Wolly:
Earlier this month, I took an extended vacation overseas ostensibly for a friend’s wedding but also to explore continental Europe. The wedding date conveniently allowed me to be in Munich for the start of Oktoberfest, an overwhelming experience in and of itself that’s better left for another Smithsonian blog. But when I read in my guidebook that Munich had a paleontology museum, and a free one at that, I couldn’t pass up the chance to contribute to Dinosaur Tracking. Since Bavaria’s very own Archaeopteryx was named 150 years ago today, on September 30, 1861, here’s my account of the small but charming Paläontologisches Museum München.
Located on the campus of Ludwig Maximillian University, the museum has a quaint, meditative quality that outstrips its otherwise aged appearance. When I visited, high school art students were sketching the fossils of their choosing; had they not been there, I’d have been mostly on my own. All the captions were in German, understandably, so I was left with just my imagination to decipher the stories behind these dinosaurs and other fossils. Considering that most of what I know about dinosaurs I learned from Brian, I had a great time comparing notes from three years of producing the blog to the objects in front me. For instance, on the second floor was the museum’s shrine to Archaeopteryx, including a couple of model reconstructions and the Munich specimen, a subject that we’ve covered heavily in this space. The 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx historically has been considered the direct ancestor of birds, a designation that is recently under dispute.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon, the museum was the perfect antidote for my Oktoberfest-addled brain. For more photos, check out the gallery and let us know in the comments what other great paleontology museums you’ve discovered on your vacations.
September 28, 2011
Old dinosaurs have a way of hanging on. New discoveries are announced every week, and our understanding of how dinosaurs actually lived is constantly changing, but the public image of dinosaurs doesn’t always keep up with the pace of scientific discovery and debate. I was reminded of this tension after stumbling upon a short, 1970 documentary called Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards.
Dinosaurs regularly popped up during my early elementary school education. From preschool through third grade, at least, dinosaurs made a cameo or more during the school year, and I remember at least one field trip to see the animatronic dinosaurs at the Monmouth Museum in central New Jersey. The dinosaurs jerked and bellowed, as the robotic creatures are wont to do, but what really stuck with me was seeing Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards in one of the museum’s little alcoves. Animatronic dinosaurs were nice and all, but in the era before computer-generated dinosaurs were the rule, the stop-motion dinosaurs in the film were the closest thing to seeing the real animals come alive.
Created by special effects artist Wah Chang, the dinosaurs of the short film were as I had always known them. They dragged their tails, moved slowly and were generally covered in a drab palette of muted greens, browns, greys and reds. All the standard behavioral tropes were there, too: “Brontosaurus” lived near the side of the swamp, hadrosaurs escaped danger by fleeing into the water and Tyrannosaurus was such a force of destruction that not even the armor of ankylosaurs could stop it. In some cases, the film looked like the paintings of 20th century paleo artist Zdeněk Burian come to life, and since Burian’s art filled many of my dinosaur books I had no reason to think that scientists had already eviscerated this older image of slow, stupid dinosaurs.
I can’t blame the creators of the original film for portraying the 20th century image of dinosaurs as plodding, dim-witted animals. That was the general view at the time the movie was made. But the film was still playing in the museum I visited in 1990. By this time the scientific “Dinosaur Renaissance” had already been in full swing for well over a decade, but the big-time dinosaur image shift hadn’t happened yet. The dinosaurs in the 1970 video fit in perfectly with the ones I saw in museum displays, books and in the classroom. I had little understanding of just how much had changed since the time the stop-motion film was made.
Even though we’re not due for another wholesale shift in our understanding of dinosaurs, I think that we’re still suffering from the same science communication problems. Science continues, but library books and museum displays continue to present outdated information. That’s just the way things go, yet this fact is especially frustrating during a time when discovery and discussion are accelerating. How many students are initially meeting outdated dinosaurs, rather than the dinosaurs we know now?