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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Denver Museum Of Natural History

Updated on March 30, 2010

Denver Museum of Natural History, Colorado

A large foot poised above your head, about to stomp you flat, is the first thing you see when you enter the Denver Museum of Natural History. Your eye naturally follows the foot up to a bony leg, a boatlike ribcage, and then a gaping cavern rimmed with stiletto-like teeth. You are gazing into the gullet of a towering Tyrannosaurus rex.

At first glance, he seems frozen at the moment of attack. Then it becomes clear that this is really a theatrical moment. Standing on one leg almost on tiptoes, this 40-foot-long beast is nothing less than a T. rex Rockette caught in a chorus-line kick.

Dancing T. rex notwithstanding, no dinotainment complex awaits in the exhibits upstairs. You'll find no herky-jerky animatronic dinosaurs in the Denver Museum of Natural History's Prehistoric Journey. Neither will you find the all-bones-all-the-time approach of New York's American Museum of Natural History. Prehistoric Journey strikes a happy medium between these extremes.

For sure, there is a diorama with dueling, bear-sized Stygimoloch dinosaurs in all their simulated, fleshy glory. There are also plenty of authentic fossil dinosaur bones, including magnificent adult and juvenile Stegosaurus skeletons being attacked by an Allosaurus, and a Diplodocus, whose 50-foot whip tail - more than half the animal's length - curves around much of the gallery space.

The defining characteristic of Prehistoric Journey, however, is the compelling re-creation of ancient environments. Each one depicts a real place, reconstructed by museum curators from geological and paleontological evidence. A case beside each diorama contains a photograph of the site as it looks today with captions pointing out the relevant geology, as well as fossils from the site (or a similar one) that guided curators in picking the vegetation and animals for the diorama.

The first walk-through diorama deposits visitors in a late Cretaceous forest complete with a real babbling brook. Two bony-headed Stygimoloch males, their heads bristling with spiky horns, battle each other for the attention of a female that can be seen deep in the forest. Just as impressive as the dinosaurs is the forest itself, reproduced with breathtaking realism and scientific accuracy. Seven models of broadleaf trees form the canopy. A wrap-around mural and the sounds of buzzing insects and grunting animals complete the illusion. Linger long enough and you'll hear a loud cracking and crunching to the right. Look in that direction and you'll meet the orange-eyed gaze of a well-camouflaged T. rex. At the diorama's exit is a case displaying a fossil log from the Cretaceous, its grain so well preserved that it looks as if you could cut this six-foot log into sections and throw it into the fireplace.

The exhibit hall then opens up into a large space housing a host of complete skeletons, many consisting largely of real fossil bone. Among the most impressive are five dog-sized juvenile Othnelia dinosaurs running in a pack, all abreast. One looks back over its right shoulder at Allosaurus.

At the end of the dinosaur exhibit is another of the subtle but compelling artifacts that make a visit to the museum particularly rewarding. It doesn't look like much, but this four-inch-long piece of layered rock records evidence of a momentous event: the mass extinction 65 million years ago in which the dinosaurs perished. An actual segment of the famous Cretaceous - Tertiary, or K-T, boundary, the rock contains iridium and bits of shocked quartz from the impact of the massive asteroid or comet now strongly implicated in the dinosaurs' deaths.

A final diorama displays a lemurlike primate with a baby clinging to her back in the jungle canopy of Eocene Wyoming. If the tyrannosaur at the museum's entrance is caught in a dance of death, this primate of 50 million years ago is frozen in a symbolic leap from a tree limb into the future. Millions of years later, her descendants will evolve the ability (and sense of irony) to dig up a T. rex skeleton, cast it in high-tech materials, and pose it like a member of the Rockettes.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Utah Museum Of Natural History

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