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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Academy of Natural Sciences, Part 2

Updated on March 30, 2010

If the Time Machine is a bow to the present, tucked into a back corner of the hall is a tribute to the academy's past: the first dinosaur skeleton ever discovered in North America. The 35 bones that make up the reconstruction of Hadrosaurus foulkii were dug up in 1858 by academy member William Parker Foulke. A decade later, the academy became the first museum anywhere to display this skeleton and the first to mount a dinosaur in a bipedal position. The Hadrosaurus mount resembled an oversized kangaroo, balancing on its tail, but the reassembled cast (the real bones are too delicate to display) has the body balanced over the hips, tail parallel to the ground.

Just beyond the history exhibit is a functioning palaeontology lab, where staff and volunteers prepare fossils for research and display. The friendly researchers invite questions and will stroll over with a bone to give visitors a behind-the-scenes peek at their work.

A Mesozoic mural spans 180 million years from the Triassic to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. As for what killed them off, the museum presents two theories: the quick-and-dirty comet or asteroid impact, and gradually changing environmental conditions. Examine the evidence presented and make up your own mind (although the impact theory seems favored here).

While the first floor is somewhat standard fare for museums of natural history, the second floor is something completely different - an interactive mecca of dinosaur exhibits and activities. This section follows a journey through the scientific process of palaeontology, from field collection and preparation to debates over how the extinct creatures moved, lived, and reproduced.

The journey starts with the Big Dig, a fossil-filled pit depicting New Mexican badlands. Casts of skeletons lie partially buried under simulated rock (a dense, dust-free mixture of sand, wax, and petroleum jelly) that fossil hunters who are outfitted with goggles, brushes, and chisels work to scrape away. On weekdays (except in summer) the dig may be swarming with goggled students, often so engaged in the process that they have to be dragged away to make room for the next group. During the school year, a part of the dig is usually left open for drop-in visitors.

A section on comparative anatomy shows the similarities and differences between the skeletons of humans, dinosaurs, and other vertebrates. Some touchable dinosaur skulls nearby contain the answers to questions posed about fossil anatomy. Even if you already know the answer, it's still fun to stick your head inside the gaping jaws of a T. rex or look through the eye sockets of a Triceratops. And it makes a great photo opportunity.

Another fun exhibit invites you to walk like a dinosaur. Step onto a treadmill and start walking (warning: it takes some effort to get it going) and a full-scale mechanical Dromaeosaurus made of nuts and bolts walks along with you. The exhibit demonstrates that dinosaur anatomy and locomotion were not so different from our own: Humans and bipedal dinosaurs have joints in the same places, similar muscle groups, and comparable mobility. A set of tracks on the ground nearby lets you compare your gait with that of a dinosaur with erect posture or crawl on all fours with limbs sprawled like a crocodile.

Take a break by sitting inside the mold of a giant sauropod footprint, which offers surprisingly good lumbar support for the weary museum-goer. Then examine clutches of real dinosaur eggs from China, or ponder the current debate about whether dome-headed Pachycephalosaurus used its skull as a battering ram or just for sexual decoration. For the aesthetically inclined, another room displays a changing exhibition of original paintings and sketches by world-class dinosaur artists, showing how they flesh out all of those bones.

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

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