Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Peabody Museum

Peabody Museum of Natural History, Connecticut

Few museums can match the Peabody. Built in 1923, this gothic mini-cathedral to the history of dinosaur science reflects the dinosaur-hunting frenzy of Yale University's most famous fossil expert, Othniel Charles Marsh. Marsh's wealthy uncle, George Peabody, financed the museum and facilitated his nephew's appointment as the country's first professor of palaeontology. It took Marsh most of his lifetime to acquire one of the nation's largest collections of dinosaur fossils.

There's much more here than dinosaurs, of course. You can touch the pineapple-like bark of a fossil cycad, part of a landmark collection of seed-bearing plants dominant through much of the dinosaurs- time on Earth. You can find skeletal mounts of ancient mammals and primates, plus exhibits devoted to Native American cultures beneath the vaulted ceiling of the first floor. Activities for kids occupy the second floor in the Discovery Room, while dioramas of North American wildlife, a hall devoted to rocks and minerals, and cultural remains from ancient Egypt fill the third floor.

The Great Hall of Dinosaurs may seem a bit fusty, perhaps, but the exhibits are impressive. Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus skeletons are especially daunting in the confines of the hall's central island. Displayed since 1931, the Apatosaurus was the first mounted skeleton of the huge dinosaur, known originally as Brontosaurus, or "Thunder Lizard." Though scientists have considered the name invalid for decades, it's too well known to ever disappear from the dinosaur lexicon. Originally, this Apatosaurus skeleton mistakenly wore the bulkier skull of Camarasaurus, but the Peabody has its skulls straight now.

Apatosaurus has some distinguished dinosaur company here: the sauropod giant Camara-saurus, skulls of three ceratopsians or horned dinosaurs, plus skeletons of Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus, and the sturdy duckbilled Edmontosaurus (also one of the earliest skeletons to be mounted in North America). Another notable display features the largest known turtle, Archelon, a 12-foot-long contemporary of the duckbills.

The Great Hall also features Yale's great 20th-century contributions to dinosaur science. While exploring the Montana badlands in 1964, Yale palaeontologists John Ostrom came across a striking, sickle-shaped toe claw from a dinosaur. From this and other finds, Ostrom named it Deinonychus, or "Terrible Claw." The beast provided evidence that led Ostrom (and his student at the time, Bob Bakker) to launch the modern view of theropod dinosaurs as active, agile, even warm-blooded animals that were ancestors to birds. A man-sized "raptor," or dromaeosaurid, Deinonychus appears here dynamically posed as a slashing leaper - the Freddy Krueger of the Cretaceous.

For aficionados of dinosaur art, the Peabody's main attraction isn't a fossil at all but Rudolph Zallinger's 1947 mural, The Age of Reptiles. This 110-foot-long panorama won a Pulitzer award and adorned the cover of Life and an elaborate spread inside the magazine. Zallinger's masterpiece spans 300 million years of Earth history, including the Age of Dinosaurs. The depictions are somewhat dated, of course, but a recent touch-up has restored the painting to its original vibrancy.

A schedule of changing exhibits highlights new discoveries and research, and an ongoing program of events for families and children offers learning all year long.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - American Museum of Natural History

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