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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Utah Museum Of Natural History

Updated on March 30, 2010

Utah Museum of Natural History, Utah

It's hard to avoid the state fossil, Allosaurus, at the Utah Museum of Natural History. Behind the ticket counter, a near-life-sized model extends its claws and flashes green eyes. Toss two bits into the gaping jaws and he talks: "My name is Al. What's yours?"

Not too intimidating, perhaps, but upstairs in the Earth Science Hall, a pair of allosaurs torment a poor, plant-eating Camptosaurus lured from its nest of eggs and hatchlings. The larger predator cocks its head toward the prey. The smaller allosaur has sunk its teeth into the shoulder of the camptosaur, which recoils with a grimace of pain frozen across its skeletal mouth. Behind them, a Stegosaurus brandishes its mace-like spiked tail.

Despite the action and emotion in this display, the antagonists still strike the tail-dragging posture that was in vogue when the mounts were made a quarter-century ago. Instead, so current theory goes, their heads and tails should be balanced over the legs like a seesaw. And the Stegosaurus should have a second row of plates running along its back.

Quibbles aside, the skeletons from Utah's famous Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry are still impressive. Except for the Stegosaurus, entirely a replica, the mounts contain a mix of actual fossils and casts of the real thing. Now the museum prefers not putting actual bones in its dinosaur mounts, reserving the real thing for small satellite cases around the hall. For instance, the original skull from the smaller Allosaurus specimen is here, as well as a unique display of an Allosaurus braincase cast removed from one of the Cleveland-Lloyd skulls.

At the preparation lab on the ground floor, you can sit on a bench shaped like a sauropod humerus and watch the preparators at work, or ask questions through an intercom. All the bones you'll see there are real, maybe Allosaurus fossils tinted red by iron oxide, or some of the bizarre and delicate specimens - including sauropods no one seems to recognize - coming out of the museum's Long Walk Quarry.

The soft Long Walk bones come welded to a rugged rock matrix, a challenging combination, so expect to find preparators putting in many hours on these specimens. One plaster field jacket on display reveals another curious aspect of the early Cretaceous site, the large number of apparent gastroliths scattered among sauropod remains. Long Walk Quarry may ultimately confirm that such smooth red, gray, and brown stones ground up food in the gizzards of the herbivorous giants.

Back upstairs, a flexible fence among the old-fashioned dioramas corrals Dinosaur Builders, a "living exhibit" that features a changing array of casts made from dinosaurs found worldwide. You may catch workers assembling all the bits and pieces for a mount of a complete skeleton, such as Saurophaganax, an allosaurid recently discovered in Oklahoma.

Follow the geology displays around to the far corner and see some wonderful original vertebrate fossils from the Green River Formation, including a gar with sparkling scales whose relatives still swim in the Mississippi, and a freshwater stingray found today only in tropical South America. An adjacent case contains exquisite casts of a few of the 600 species preserved at Solnhofen, a limestone quarry near Munich, Germany, best known for preserving all known specimens of the ancient bird Archaeopteryx. It's displayed here, along with two species of the flying reptiles Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhynchus, plus the tiny dinosaur Compsognathus lingipes.

Take a moment to swing through the Biology Hall and view a five-foot-tall "trunk" of a Tempskya tree fern. Herbivorous dinosaurs roaming this part of Utah 130 million years ago, when it was flat swampland, probably munched on similar plants.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Black Hills Institute

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