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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - American Museum of Natural History

Updated on March 30, 2010

American Museum of Natural History, New York

The American Museum of Natural History, houses the very fossils that inspired Stephen Jay Gould to become a scientist. The dedication of his first book of essays reads, "For my father, who took me to see the Tyrannosaurus when I was five."

Over the past decade, the whole fourth floor of the museum, home to the matchless collection of fish, reptile, and mammal fossils as well as the dinosaurs, has been refurbished and reorganized. No longer a series of discrete and unconnected specimens - "Greatest Hits of Prehistory," as it were - the floor is now a self-guided tour through vertebrate evolution, a tour meant to teach us that these strange beasts are our own distant cousins, and that extinction is not just a dinosaur thing.

Or so the curators hope. In fact, absorbing those messages may be a stretch for the average visitor, who probably has less than the week it would take to work through, let alone master, these text-heavy exhibits. Fortunately, the fossils themselves, now as ever, stand on their own merits. The two vast dinosaur halls contain 100 or so specimens - no one seems quite sure exactly how many - and an astonishing 85 percent of them are real. (Most museums these days display casts.) The lineup includes not only the iconic skeletons of Tyrannosaurus rex and Apatosaurus but such treasures as a mummified Hadrosaurus, an Oviraptor egg with the fetal animal clearly visible, and a Coelophysis bauri with the bones of his last meal - another C. bauri - still in his stomach.

That's just the beginning. You'll see a growth series of a dozen Protoceratops skulls, each so pristine, so perfectly intermediate in size between its immediate casemates, that you suspect someone churns them out to order in the basement. You'll see a 22-foot trackway of dinosaur footprints from 107 million years ago. You'll see one of the museum's first dinosaur acquisitions, a single, mahogany-colored vertebra of Diplodocus longus, four feet across. You'll see the world's only intact Velociraptor skull. Any of these objects would be the crown jewel of a lesser museum.

The aesthetics of the renovation are impeccable. When Holden Caulfield (or his alter ego, author J.D. Salinger) and the five-year-old Stephen Jay Gould roamed these halls, the walls were painted black, and the ceilings were covered with acoustic tiles. "There was essentially no lighting," says palaeontologists Lowell Dingus, project manager for the renovation, and so "the dinosaurs looked like creatures from science fiction, not like anything that ever lived." Now the ceilings have been restored to their original heights, 25 feet in some halls. Daylight suffuses the rooms courtesy of new, or newly unblocked, windows. (Some folks complain that the dinosaurs looked bigger and scarier when the walls were black, but you can't please everybody.)

Universal acclaim has greeted the alterations to individual specimens, done to reflect the most current understanding of dinosaur anatomy and behavior. For instance, the beloved Brontosaurus finally got a new skull, 20 years after palaeontologists demonstrated that it had worn the wrong one since 1905. The Brontosaurus also got a new pose; the skeleton that used to look like a big dog ordered sternly off the couch, its tail drooping between its legs, has been remounted with its great tail aloft, since scientists realized that there were no tail marks in sauropod trackways. Makeover complete, the brontosaur was given its proper name, Apatosaurus.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - American Museum of Natural History, Part 2

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