Although the word “dinosaur” is derived from Ancient Greek words that together roughly mean “terrible lizard,” scientists through the years have learned that these extinct creatures were more similar to modern birds than to lizards. Last month, a team of scientists—including researchers from the University of Texas in Austin—revealed their findings for a newly discovered dinosaur fossil, which they’ve named the Caihong juji. This chicken-sized creature lived in China during the Jurassic Period. Its name translates from Mandarin to “rainbow with the big crest,” referring to the juji’s brilliant mane of iridescent rainbow neck feathers. Not that we needed an excuse to get excited about paleontology, but this newest addition to the dinosaur canon—as well as Austin Dinosaur Day on February 3—has inspired us to put together a roundup of places where you can appreciate some terribly terrific dinosaurs in Texas.
Glen Rose, the “Dinosaur Capital of Texas”
If you seek dinosaurs, look no further than Glen Rose, a small town once home to big creatures, 60 miles southwest of Fort Worth. Start at Dinosaur Valley State Park, home to some of the best-preserved dinosaur tracks in the world. It was here that the first Sauropod (colloquially, a “long neck dinosaur”) trackway was ever discovered. Why are these tracks so prominent? Glen Rose was at the coast of the shallow sea that covered Texas during the Cretaceous period. When the crustaceans that lived in the water broke down, their shells left behind calcium deposits. This created a limy mud perfect for preserving remains, so that today you can see the large round tracks of the famous Sauropod, Paluxysaurus jonesi (named the official dinosaur of Texas in 2009), and the three-toed prints of the Theropod Acrocanthosaurus (a bipedal carnivore like the T-Rex) as you navigate twenty miles of guided pathways and trails in and around the Paluxy River. Before leaving, make sure to take a photo with the park’s Plexiglas dinosaur statues, once displayed at the 1964 World Fair in New York.
After you’ve seen the real deal, indulge in some kitsch by heading over to Dinosaur World, which is like Jurassic Park without the anxiety. Dinosaur enthusiasts and children will be delighted by the park’s twenty-acre safari-style trail, where they can see, read about, and take photos with over 100 life-sized dinosaur statues. Make sure to pack a prehistoric picnic to enjoy at the dino-themed playground, and when you’re finished, head inside the air-conditioned museum to see the ancient beasts come to life as animatronics. With an excavation ticket, kids can participate in a fossil dig or run buckets of sand through a mining sluice and search for treasures to take home as souvenirs.
Dinos in the City
Behold the awesome figure of a towering backlit ancient skeleton in the great hall. We humans are so small, but how audacious to have dug up history from the clutches of the Earth and put it a pedestal. The state’s big cities offer a classic dinosaur experience, including the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas (2201 N. Field St.) and the Houston Museum of Natural Science (5555 Hermann Park Drive), which are world-renown for their collections. The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (1600 Gendy St.) features DinoLab and DinoDig, and just last spring, the Witte Museum in San Antonio (3801 Broadway St.) opened its own permanent dinosaur exhibit, the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery. All fourmuseums present visitors with the opportunity to see dinosaur bones and learn all about ancient life and the wacky world of paleontology through informative multimedia exhibits. What’s especially neat is that each of the museums makes a point to showcase Texas-specific dinosaurs, so visitors can learn about their city’s geological past, the ecosystems that once lived there, and the work being done to preserve this history today.
The Texas Memorial Museum (2400 Trinity St.), nestled in the eastern quadrant of UT Austin’s campus, is quite a bit smaller than its bigger city counterparts, but that doesn’t mean that the state capitol isn’t equally down with dinosaurs. Not only does the museum house a permanent collection of dinosaur fossils from Texas and greater North America, but on February 3, the museum has organized a stellar city-wide line up of dinosaur themed activities for Austin Dinosaur Day, including a fossil dig at the Austin Nature & Science Center (2389 Stratford Dr.) and a dinosaur parade at the Zilker Botanical Garden (2220 Barton Springs Road). If you want more in the Austin area, drive to the nearby Dinosaur Park in Cedar Creek, which features statues and activities along a nature trail.
Back in time at Big Bend
As you drive into Big Bend National Park, imagine the cliffs of the Chisos Mountains covered in brilliant corals. In the distance, a mosasaur cruises just below the surface of the shallow sea that once covered this vast Texan landscape, some 300 million years ago. Big Bend’s new Fossil Discovery Exhibit, eight miles north of Panther Junction off Highway 385, aims to teach visitors about the many different climates and creatures that have shaped Big Bend in its lengthy lifespan. The $1.4 million exhibit, made possible by donations from supporters of the Big Bend Conservancy, celebrated its one-year anniversary in January. For a place that has rock structures dating back to 500 million years ago, half a century seems rather inconsequential, but the new exhibit is the biggest addition that the park has made to its visitor services system in the past 50 years. At the pavilion, visitors can see fossils discovered in the park, including the magnificent flying reptile, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, who boasted an impressive 35-foot long wingspan, and read about different environments of the Big Bend through the ages. Kids can play on fossil-themed climbing structures. It’s near impossible to leave without a renewed sense of awe for the enormity of history, and a keen eye for fossil discovery sites in the park.
Don’t let your passion go extinct
Whether on the road or back at home, test your dinosaur knowledge and passion with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s 52-page Learn about Texas Dinosaurs coloring book, available for free download. Texas has about 21 discovered dinosaurs, and this book gives you classification, etymology, and illustrations of each of them. Long live the Texan dinosaurs!