Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Part 2
Huge armored fish the size of small dogs stare at you through exhibit windows. Then you find out about the sharks of the Silurian Period, about 440 million years ago, which were some of the earliest predators on Earth, a hint of the ground-shaking monsters that drew you here in the first place.
The first to come into view are examples of Coelophysis, a small forerunner of the better-known tyrannosaurs and one of the first predatory dinosaurs, found in a mass grave in New Mexico. Then there are pterosaurs - flying reptiles, not dinosaurs, but intimidating nonetheless - gliding above your head in a diorama illustrating the fringes of an ancient sea that during the time of the dinosaurs repeatedly submerged interior North America. Behind you hunches the skeleton of a horn-tailed stegosaur from China, where these armored dinosaurs with fins riding up their backs may have evolved before venturing out into the rest of the world.
Once you wander into the main hall, however, the specimens do not seem to march in any particular order - one of the museum's strengths and one of its weaknesses. On the one hand, it allows your infatuation to lead you from one Jurassic crocodile to Hypsilophodon, a small plant-eating dinosaur that lived in herds like the pronghorn you might see along the highways outside Thermopolis, to the toothy smile of an allosaur. On the other hand, you go back and forth between dinosaurs that did not live at the same times or even sequentially. You wander among them as though they were guests at a cocktail party. One that you half expect Fred and Barney to show up at, with their pet Dino. At the far end of the hall, a glass-enclosed laboratory is busy preparing other bones for display.
Before or after a museum visit, the Dinosaur Center's van will haul you uphill to the digs and deposit you at their doorstep. During the Jurassic, the region was probably part of a river plain where rafts of dinosaur bones piled up in curves or side channels. They did not all go to waste: Footprints of meat-eating allosaurs and broken allosaur teeth amid chewed-up and trampled bones suggest that one or more allosaurs once made a meal out of a bunch of dead Jurassic vegetarians right where you stand. Another bone bed has produced some of the very few juvenile sauropods known. Yet another site may be an allosaur lair, where juvenile allosaurs waited for parents to return with the disarticulated remains of such prey as Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Stegosaurus.
For a fee, visitors can dig alongside experienced researchers. Many visitors have made remarkable finds, and there should be plenty more to come. One of the complications of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center's embarrassment of riches is that whenever crews rev up their earth-movers to clear the ground above known bone deposits, they keep running into new and unexpected heaps of fossils. Then it's time to stop, see what's there, and, as likely as not, get distracted by yet another big discovery.