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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - National Museum of Natural History

Updated on March 30, 2010

National Museum of Natural History, District of Columbia

To find the most powerful characters in Washington, D.C., head to the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - and then keep walking. Continue a few blocks southeast to the large Beaux Arts building with a central dome. There, in the National Museum of Natural History, you'll complete your quest in Dinosaur Hall, dedicated to the creatures who ruled the planet for 160 million years during the Mesozoic period. No other incumbent in Washington can match that record.

Dinosaur experts hold the Smithsonian Institution in high regard, especially for its late Jurassic species. It's a very important collection and one of the top three in the world. That would befit the Smithsonian itself as it has always been known as America’s Attic and is arguably the single most important and relevant museum in the United States of America, and some may even argue in the world.

The fossil exhibits trace their ancestry back to 1846, when Congress gave the Smithsonian Institution authority over something called the National Cabinet of Curiosities. The name was a holdover from the days when aristocrats owned elaborate wooden cabinets, in which they stored odd objects ranging from old bones to religious artifacts. The Smithsonian's fossil collection grew dramatically in the early 1900s, when the institution took possession of specimens collected by the famed dinosaur hunter Othniel Charles Marsh, partly as a result of his collecting wars with Edward Drinker Cope (p. 28).

Marsh's legacy still shines in Dinosaur Hall. As visitors work their way toward the back, they happen on one of the prizes collected by Marsh's men in Ca-on City, Colorado, in 1883. An ebony-colored, 21-foot-long skeleton of Allosaurus fragilis stares down with a wide-open mouthful of daggerlike teeth. Something of a celebrity, this specimen posed for the cover of humorist Gary Larson's The Prehistory of the Far Side.

Marsh's Allosaurus is considered the most complete currently on display anywhere in the world. More than just a collection of connected bones, the specimen provides powerful insight into the life of this Jurassic predator. Take a close look and compare the two shoulder blades. The left side has an unusual chunk of bone not seen on the right - a sign that the left shoulder broke and healed at some point in the dinosaur's life. The belly ribs were also all broken and healed (although these are not on display).

Beside the Allosaurus is the familiar fossil form of Stegosaurus. A papier-maché restoration of Stegosaurus stands across the aisle from the fossil. A less conspicuous model of a tiny, shrewlike mammal peers out from beneath the car-sized dinosaur, and a glass case to the left displays an assortment of minuscule jawbones from Jurassic mammals, some no bigger than a dime. Fans of Stegosaurus should walk around the center island to view a nearly complete skeleton, positioned on its side as it was found in the field. This is one of the crown jewels of the Smithsonian's dinosaur collection. Until recently, it was the most complete Stegosaurus known. Shown partly encased in rock, the specimen, nicknamed "the roadkill," gives some idea of how much work it takes to extricate a large dinosaur from the ground.

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

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