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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Royal Tyrrell Museum

Updated on March 30, 2010

It's not just a name to appeal to the skateboard-and-baggy-jeans set. These meat-eating dinosaurs were extreme in the size and strength of their jaws and teeth, which gape over your head and cast menacing shadows on the wall, thanks to some clever lighting. There's a skeleton of a Sinoraptor poised to strike with vicious-looking claws; a giant Daspletosaurus with nasty bite marks in various stages of healing on its bones; and an Allosaurus looming out of the darkness with glinting teeth. And this is only the beginning. You haven't gotten to the main dinosaur gallery yet.

First you get to walk through the Burgess Shale, an underwater world from over half a billion years ago where tiny animals started to develop teeth, tentacles, hard bodies, and jaws. Re-creations of these creatures are blown up 12 times bigger than life-size and appear to swim beneath your feet as you step across a plate-glass floor, revealing much about the nature of early life.

A multimedia exhibit farther on explores the origins of early reptiles and features a complicated evolutionary tree and a sample of the bones that scientists use to determine which creature sits on which branch. Inter-pretive text is brief and to the point and aims to give the big picture rather than mire you in murky details. For further elaboration, however, the museum employs strolling performers, one of whom might stop and extol the virtues of a particular lineage. "I got the crocodile blues," sings one woman in wrap-around shades and a beret. "All my glory days are through./ Me and the dino boys used to rule the land./ But now they're dead and gone./ And my only rival left is you."

A few steps farther and the main dinosaur hall opens before you like a landscape filled with giant, long-necked sauropods, imposing tyrannosaurs, truck-like Triceratops, and their relatives. Some are skeletons; others are full-scale models. You could easily spend hours wandering the gallery, comparing the forms and lifestyles of different beasts, getting up close with no glass museum cases in the way.

But don't focus exclusively on the giants. The museum has a lot of small but fascinating surprises. Look closely at a pterosaur shinbone, for instance, and you can see a Velociraptor tooth embedded in it; the dinosaur was apparently scavenging a few scraps of meat from the pterosaur's carcass. Up on the wall, a slab of rock shows a big fossil fish, Xiphactinus, with a smaller fish caught in its gullet, a last meal not fully digested. And if you've ever wondered what the Cretaceous version of gingerroot looked like, you can find it here.

After the dinosaurs, and a short video on what might have happened to them, comes a gallery devoted to prehistoric mammals. According to museum director Bruce Naylor, North America once had a diversity of mammals that "made Africa today look pretty pathetic."

The gallery reflects the great diversity of prehistoric mammals, though some visitors may find it difficult to take their eyes off the giant mastodon skeleton that dominates the hall.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Royal Tyrrell & California Academy

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