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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Museum Of The Rockies

Updated on March 30, 2010

Museum of the Rockies, Montana

"One place through all time." That's the motto of Montana's Museum of the Rockies. But make no mistake about it, the time most dear to its curator of palaeontology, famed dinosaur hunter John R. "Jack" Horner, is the Mesozoic Era. Specifically, the late Mesozoic, about 80 million years ago, when you might have seen a 30-foot-long duckbilled dinosaur gathering mouthfuls of berries to take back to its young in a colonial nesting ground, or felt the earth tremble as a herd of 10,000 three-ton duckbills tromped over the savanna.

Across a wide sweep of central and eastern Montana, quirks of geology, wind, and water have exposed Mesozoic sediments chock-full of dinosaur fossils. Since 1978, when Horner and colleagues discovered what had been a nest of baby dinosaurs and then the first clutches of dinosaur eggs ever found in North America, his teams have collected and catalogued more than 25,000 dinosaur specimens, including three Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons. This museum, on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, houses one of the largest dinosaur collections in the country, including six previously undiscovered species.

It's not bones, however, that make the museum's Berger Dinosaur Hall unique. Indeed, you won't notice many bones at first. When Horner and his crews crawl over caliche and mudstone in the blistering heat, they search for ideas, not just skeletal trophies. In Horner's imagination, the Mesozoic remains a vital, vivid era when a remarkably successful lineage of animals was pioneering many of the life strategies still used by vertebrates: living in large social groups, flocking together to nest, and taking care of their babies. From his fossil finds, Horner envisioned dinosaur lives in a way no one had before. And it's this vision that strikes you in the two-story hall.

Looming above you on a raised platform is a life-size, rosy-brown duckbill, her vaguely camel-like face lowered to a nest full of big-eyed babies as she delivers a mouthful of leaves and berries. This is the dinosaur that Horner christened Maiasaura peeblesorum, "good mother lizard," after finding at least three colonial nesting grounds. Some of the nests contained unhatched grapefruit'sized eggs, others 14-inch hatchlings, still others three-foot babies. These were fast-growing, nest-bound babies with worn teeth that helped convince Horner that a parent had to be supplying them with solid food.

The scene looks deceptively simple, but it took years of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data to envision it. And that's the process into which Horner hopes to draw you. You're invited to look through a microscope at thin cross sections of bone from baby and adult birds, crocodiles, and maiasaurs to judge for yourself his evidence that these dinosaurs grew as rapidly as warm-blooded birds. Take a hand lens from the rack and scrutinize bits of plant matter in a chunk of fossilized dino dung. Run your hands over bronze casts of eggs, a baby Maiasaura skull, or dinosaur skin imprints left in the mud of a Cretaceous floodplain. On a relief globe of the Mesozoic Earth, trace the Colorado Sea that once pushed inland from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, confining Montana creatures of that era between a shifting shoreline to the east and the newly emerged Rockies to the west.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Museum Of The Rockies & Royal Tyrell

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