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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Part 2

Updated on March 30, 2010

The first dinosaur dug out of the quarry was the headless Apatosaurus. Named Apatosaurus louisae for Carnegie's wife, Louise, it made headlines because at 76.5 feet long and 35 tons, it was the longest, most complete specimen of its kind - with or without a head.

Now occupying the middle of the right-hand column, it looks like a buffed-out version of Dippy. Look at its brown, lizard-like head, the wimpy skull discovered near the neck in 1909. When Carnegie director Holland proposed that this small, reptilian skull with fragile, pencil-like teeth belonged on the massive body, other palaeontologists scoffed. The prevailing view, put forth by leading dinosaur expert Othniel Charles Marsh and later popularized in movies like King Kong, was that brontosaurs like this had huge, boxy heads with large, crushing teeth used in aggressive attacks. Holland lacked the nerve to mount the small skull, so Apatosaurus remained sans skull for 17 years. After Holland's death, the skeleton received a cast of a boxy head with powerful jaws (remarkably similar to that on its distant relative, the splendid Camarasaurus).

Forty years later, sauropod expert John McIntosh, of Wesleyan University, visited the Carnegie and reviewed Holland's records of the discovery. He learned of the lizard-like skull and realized that in the ensuing years it had been wrongly attributed to another species. With Carnegie palaeontologists David S. Berman, McIntosh retrieved the head, and on October 20, 1979, skull and body were ceremoniously reunited. Similar transplants soon took place on Apatosaurus mounts in other museums, a century after Marsh had first placed the wrong head on his prize brontosaur at the Peabody Museum.

Palaeontologists have also changed their minds about Apatosaurus being a nasty biter. Judging from the weak jaws of it and Diplodocus, these two sauropods more likely defended themselves with their power-packed whip tails. But the sturdy jaws of Camarasaurus appear much more able to have inflicted a memorable bite. Speaking of Camarasaurus, the Carnegie displays a spectacular specimen of it - in fact, the most complete sauropod skeleton ever found - a juvenile mounted on the right-hand wall just as it was found at the Dinosaur National Monument quarry.

As daunting as they are, these vegetarian gargantuas look tame beside the ultimate predator, the Tyrannosaurus rex that dominates the far end of the hall. Standing 20 feet tall, this skeleton, found by Barnum Brown in 1902, is the type specimen of the species (used for the initial scientific description of its kind).

To the right of T. rex is Corythosaurus, a duckbilled plant eater with tiny teeth. To the left is the skull of Triceratops, with its familiar bony frill and horns. Protoceratops, a smaller, Asian ancestor of Triceratops, rounds out the display.

While most of these specimens date to early Carnegie expeditions, curators continue to prepare fossils from more recent digs and sometimes do it on public view in a corner lab. The primitive dinosaur Coelophysis, for example, will soon join the display. An innovative addition is the first truly independent robot docent in any museum, a collaboration with robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University. During a recent visit, a mob of four-year-olds surrounded the robot, but its video spiel about the life and death of dinosaurs also appeals to adults.

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

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