Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Black Hills Institute

Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, South Dakota

An early inkling of the Black Hills Institute emerges from a grainy photograph of Peter Larson, age eight, and his brother Neal, age five, at their home in rural South Dakota. Next to them is a tabletop full of fossils and a post bearing a hand-lettered sign that says "museum." Peter acquired a passion for fossils at an early age and began picking up scraps of bone and teeth of extinct camel- and rhinoceros-like creatures eroding from South Dakota hillsides. Years later, he and Neal partnered with fellow fossil collector Robert Farrar in a commercial enterprise called the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, based in a former auditorium in Hill City, South Dakota. The institute has gathered an impressive collection of dinosaur fossils that will someday serve as the cornerstone of a full-fledged museum.

The trio is well known for excavating Sue, the remarkably complete Tyrannosaurus rex discovered in South Dakota in 1990. It was to be the centerpiece of their proposed museum. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with help from the National Guard, seized the dinosaur, and after a long court battle, Sue was sold at auction to the Field Museum of Natural History. The disappointed institute founders didn't give up: They have since unearthed another T. rex, named Stan, that now stands in the institute's free exhibit hall and will someday preside over the museum.

Indeed, gazing around the current exhibit hall, it's hard to imagine a place with more spectacular dinosaurs in such a small space. Beside Stan is a horned Triceratops skull, a Camarasaurus skull, a cast skeleton of Albertosaurus, dinosaur eggs from China, a replica of a T. rex skull from the American Museum of Natural History, and a cast skeleton of a meat-eating dinosaur known as Acrocanthosaurus. Posing in a corner is an ostrich-like dinosaur, thought to be a close relative of T. rex, which stands nearby.

While dinosaurs certainly catch a visitor's eyes first, they are actually outnumbered by top-notch exhibits lining the walls in a kind of glassed-in menagerie of life on Earth. The cases brim with glittering ammonites, fossilized beds of crinoids that swayed in the current of long-gone seas, and the ancient mammals - some similar to today's rhinos and camels - that roamed the savanna-like landscape of what is now the Midwest some 35 million years ago. Keep in mind that many specimens are for sale, so repeat visitors can expect continually changing exhibits. The unconventional background of the institute's founders has not given short shrift to science: Displays here are as scientifically accurate and up-to-date as those of any modern museum. In fact, major museums throughout the world have acquired specimens and exhibits from the institute.

In the institute's vast treasure chest of a shop, it's easy to get the feeling that you're actually in the private research collection of a well-endowed museum as you pull open broad wooden drawers full of prehistoric riches. Ammonites. Trilobites. Dinosaur bones. Primeval shark teeth. Chunks of mammal jaws. Carefully pick them up and cradle them in your hand. Whether or not you decide to take one home (prices begin at a dollar and go way up from there), you have intimate contact with the past that most museums could never offer.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Museum Of The Rockies

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