Thursday, November 11, 2010

Behind the Scenes at the Dinosphere

Touring the Dinosphere with an eye towards how it's structured for educational impact was a treat, but I have to admit that my favorite part of my tour with Josh Estes was getting to see the Children's Museum's collections and prep lab. I have loads of respect for well-designed mounts and interpretive materials, but they can't quite match the thrill of being surrounded by shelves and drawers full of fossils. I read blogs, books, and magazine articles by paleontologists who write about wandering among collections, but I'd never been able to do so myself.

The Children's Museum actively digs in South Dakota, and runs a program for families and teachers allowing them to learn more about geology and paleontology through field work. Curator Dallas Evans explained that while it's a modestly sized collection, it's more than what anyone expects to find in a children's museum, and they've benefitted from the advice and support of Bakker, Sereno, and the folks at the Black Hills Institute.

Dallas Evans
Dallas Evans with a peccary skull.

Seriously, if I was a teacher, that's what I'd be doing over the summer. Below are an assortment of Edmontosaurus bones excavated by kindergarten teacher Susan Julian. Josh said that the Museum's digs have turned up so many specimens of this modest duckbill that some of the regulars are experiencing pronounced "Edmontosaur fatigue."

Edmontosaur bones

I also got to see a nice Triceratops skull which is in the process of being freed from its brutally tough ironstone matrix, accessible to visitors for demonstrations on how prep is done. Paleontology Preparator Mark Sims was kind enough to chip away a bit more rock with his pneumatic tool, which is basically a tiny jackhammer. I asked Mark and Josh if they fielded many questions from worried Triceratops fans during the summer's "Tricerafail" debacle. Their answer gave me hope and reminded me that the internet has a way of magnifying hysterias more than they deserve: there was a week or so of frequent questions, but they faded quickly.

Mark Sims with Triceratops skull in progress
Mark Sims demonstrates fossil prep. Yup, that's a googly-eye.

Another bone on display and available for visitors to examine up close is a huge T. rex femur found by the intrepid Bucky Derflinger, who also found an assortment of 19th century paleontology tools at the location. Mark told me that they suspect that the tools belonged to none other than Edward Drinker Cope, and the femur belonged to his Manospondylus gigas (for more on this little quirk of T. rex's history, check out Mike Taylor's FAQ.

Children's Museum 009

Children's Museum 011
Drawers and drawers of fossils. The blur on the left is curator Dallas Evans.

Whenever I'm around fellow natural history enthusiasts, which isn't a daily occurence for me, I realize how un-jaded I really am. For example, when Dallas confirmed my rough mosasaurian diagnosis of the Platecarpus skull cast below. It gave me a bit of a kick, I admit. Small victories like those keep the engines stoked. I may be a lousy comparative anatomist, regularly stumped by "name that fossil" games on blogs, but I've picked up a few things along the way. Anyone can do it, provided they're willing to observe patiently.

Platecarpus
Platecarpus skull cast by Triebold Paleontology.

Seeing the assortment of life-size skeletal casts that make up the museum's traveling dinosaur troupe was also a cool moment. They may not be the fossils themselves, but when the lights came up in this section of the warehouse and I saw the mix of duckbill, theropod, and ceratopsian skeletons huddled together, it was impossible not to grin.

Children's Museum warehouse
This blog's patron saurian, Chasmosaurus, among the museum's troupe of traveling skeleton casts.

I tried my darnedest to take good notes the entire time, but where I failed, I've been fortunate to have Josh to pitch in and ID fossils for me. He's true blue, people. But you'll see that for yourself when I post my interview with him, the next episode in this epic series.

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