Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Royal Tyrrell & California Academy

You can also see the people who prepare and study the fossils. A large, aquarium-like window lets you peer at preparators chipping bone out of rock or making casts. And if you're tired of merely looking, you can try your hand at being a palaeontologists for a day.

For a reasonable fee, the museum will bus you about 20 minutes away into the badlands, where a team of field workers is excavating a bone bed of horned dinosaurs. Museum palaeontologists point out bones eroding out of the earth, hand you a tiny pick and a bucket, and show you how to uncover the specimen about a half-inch at a time. And that's what you'll do for the next six hours. You'll get lunch, water, and a lot of encouragement (and insect bites and a sunburn if you're not careful), and you'll undoubtedly gain a better understanding of what palaeontologists actually do. You don't get to keep your finds, however. All fossils belong to the people of Alberta, which means the provincial government, which means the museum.

If you would rather pass on the hands-on experience, you can simply watch others dig. You get to ask questions and tour the excavation site. The digs are open only in summer. Be sure to call ahead; it's an extremely popular program.

California Academy of Sciences, California

Life Through Time, the evolution exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, is short on large, dramatic dinosaur mounts but long on context, with a few surprises: the addition of live animals that have been around since before the dinosaurs. The decade-old exhibit takes a familiar, chronological approach to natural history, with a video introduction to the development of life from single-celled creatures to dinosaurs and beyond.

A bank of computers near the entrance houses Lifemap, an interactive program developed at the academy, which follows the evolutionary relationships between groups of plants and animals. It's worth spending some time here to learn which characteristics unite, say, sauropod and theropod dinosaurs.

Life began in the seas, and the next room contains some remnants from that distant past. Tanks with live horseshoe crabs, starfish, lungfish, and a preserved coelacanth show some of the life-forms that have endured for 600 million years.

Kids may want to race through life's transition to land to see the dinosaurs, but they should slow down to see the live Chinese giant salamander and chuckwalla lizard, or watch an animated video about how and why life moved from water to land. Near a diorama of a Carboniferous forest is the first fossil cast, a 10-foot-long synapsid Dimetrodon. The label sets the record straight that this sail-finned creature was "definitely not a dinosaur."

Dinosaurs fill the next room. The largest mount shows an Allosaurus chasing, and ready to chomp, a Camptosaurus. Predator and prey perch at the end of a trackway cast with two sets of fossilized footprints, evidence that helped scientists reconstruct the primal scene. It's absolutely almost overwhelmingly chilling and thoroughly realistic.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - California Academy & LA County

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