Paleontologists have been lifting fossil bones out of Texas’s rock beds since the late 19th century. Now, after years of exporting these bones to some of the world’s best museums, the state is getting two huge new paleontology halls of its own, both of which offer a visual feast spanning millions of years.
“There are tens of thousands of Texas fossils in fine old museums around the world,” said Dr. Robert T. Bakker, curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new 30,000-square-foot fossil hall. While the state has many smaller, notable fossil museums, Bakker said “it’s about time” Texas has two such impressive spaces to showcase its findings.
In 2006, the museum hired Bakker, a well-known paleontologist and one of Steven Spielberg’s advisers on “Jurassic Park,” to curate the hall in the museum’s new $85 million Duncan Family Wing. The new exhibit space dwarfs the museum’s former 6,200-square-foot fossil hall, and will be home to some 750 fossils and 60 large mounts—a mix of skeletons and precise casts. When it opens to the public on June 2, it will be one of the largest halls of its kind in the country.
A 14,000 square-foot hall in the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas’s Victory Park, which is slated to open in early 2013, is the second new large space in Texas focusing on paleontology. It will be home to an Alamosaurus, one of the largest dinosaurs ever found in North America. Anthony Fiorillo, the Perot’s curator of earth sciences, was part of the team that uncovered 23 feet of vertebrae from the long-necked sauropod in 2001. “My dinosaur helped define the architecture of this room,” Dr. Fiorillo said. (Thom Mayne, the Pritzker Prize winning architect, designed the hall to accommodate the 80-foot dinosaur.)
The two halls reflect the shift in understanding how these prehistoric animals moved. “Dinosaurs are now conceived as being much more active and behaviorally complex animals than they used to be,” said Matt Lamanna, a paleontologist with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. While dinosaur skeletons in older museums tend to be mounted in stiff postures and arranged in straight lines— dubbed “dinosaurs waiting for an elevator” by Joel A. Bartsch, president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science—in newer exhibits, there is a trend toward showing the extinct reptiles in more dynamic, fluid poses.
Bakker envisions his new hall as a “prehistoric safari” showing predator and prey locked in realistic-looking tussles. To choose these pairings, Bakker and his team drew on fossil evidence — including the animal’s teeth, bite marks, footprints, and coprolites, a.k.a. fossil poo. Bakker said they wanted to “bring these animals back to life doing stuff that let them evolve, change, be a success, and, finally, go extinct.”
The Houston hall covers 3.5 billion years of life on earth, from the Paleozoic Era to the Pleistocene Epoch, the time of early humans. Most of the new fossils were discovered by the museum’s paleontologists or by scientists at the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota. One specimen that has never been exhibited is Willi the Dimetrodon—a Permian-era mammalian ancestor that resembles a giant lizard with a spiny fin—which was found by the museum’s team on a dig in Baylor County.
The hall’s dramatic Cretaceous display, with its triangle of Tyrannosaurus Rexes, is particularly impressive. Wyrex, a 10-foot T. Rex with the most complete set of hands ever discovered, spars with a Denversaurus, a squatty plant eater. Across the room, a slightly bigger T. Rex, Stan, clashes with Lane, the only triceratops ever found with fossilized skin. And then there is the gawky teenage T. Rex, Bucky, which lurches toward the nest of two giant pterosaurs.
The hall also boasts animated monitors, colorful murals, and touchable fossil casts, creating an immersive environment. “Exhibit as textbook does not work,” Bartsch explained.
In the Perot Museum’s T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall, Fiorillo has the opportunity to showcase many of the specimens he unearthed himself. “I know the backstory of these specimens from firsthand experience as opposed to going through the archives,” Fiorillo said. These include his team’s finds from Alaska’s North Slope, including Pachyrhinosaurusperotorum, a new species of plant eater, as well as a juvenile duck-billed dinosaur.
This is also the first time a complete Alamosaurus skeleton has ever been displayed to the public. The vertebrae Fiorillo’s team excavated from a slope in Big Bend National Park can weigh up to a half-ton, so it will be displayed on the floor beside the skeleton. The Alamosaurus skeleton is an epoxy replica created by a 3-D printer: the bones of three different animals were scanned with lasers and scaled up to create a creature of one size.
The Rose Hall of Birds overlooks the dinosaur hall, a nod to the widely accepted theory that dinosaurs are birds. To drive home that connection, the stairs leading to the bird hall feature dinosaur footprints that morph into bird prints. Museumgoers can marvel at the dinosaurs from above, stand eye to eye with a giant pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlusnorthropi, suspended from the ceiling, and see a lifelike wood carving of a Flexomornishowei, the oldest fossil bird found in North America.
The curators of these new spaces want the halls to tell a story about life through time and, in Fiorillo’s words,”reconnect the visitor with the idea that these animals are more than architecturally cool skeletons.”