Meet the stars of Smithsonian's new Fossil Hall
Meet the stars of Smithsonian's new Fossil Hall The meat-eating predator Ceratosaurus tried to take down Stegosaurus, but the plant-eater got away and gained the upper hand. (Lucia RM Martino/Fred Cochard/James Di Loreto/Smithsonian Institution/NMNH)
Meet the stars of Smithsonian's new Fossil Hall
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The Smithsonian has a new Hall of Fossils. It features hundreds of species. The fossil specimens cover a lot of ground. They span 3.7 billion years of our planet's history. They represent a variety of organisms. Among them are some of the most fearsome creatures to ever walk the Earth. Dinosaurs dominated the ancient Mesozoic Era. These creatures strike updated poses for the new display. All are up to date. Curators used current scientific research. They are the stars of the new hall.

Tyrannosaurus rex

The dino: T. rex lived 68 to 66 million years ago. It has grown into a fearsome icon. It was one of the largest carnivores to ever walk the Earth. It towered over other dinosaurs. It was more than 15 feet tall. It was 40 feet long. It had huge teeth. Its teeth were serrated. They were shaped like bananas. They were also the size of bananas. T. rex could tear through flesh. It could crush bone. It ate hundreds of pounds of food. It ate it in a single bite. Its name translates to "tyrant lizard king." It dominated its food chain. It devoured plant-eating prey. It also ate smaller carnivores.

The fossil: The T. rex is the star in the fossil hall. It is dramatically posed. It towers over a triceratops. It's dubbed "The Nation's T. Rex." The fossil is just beginning its stay in the capital. It is part of a 50-year loan. It is from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Kathy Wankel is a recreational fossil hunter. She found the specimen. She found it in Montana. That was in 1988. She found it on a family vacation. A team from the nearby Museum of the Rockies completed the excavation. They found the T. rex was well intact. It had about 50 percent of its bones in place.

Research: The T. rex fossil is one of the best-studied specimens in the hall. It still has some secrets, says Matt Carrano. He is the museum's dinosaur curator. Scientists still don't know if T. rex was a brutal killer or a scavenger. It could be a combination of the two. Carrano says curators intentionally left some room for interpretation in the display. There's another mystery. How T. rex used its tiny arms. They were short. They couldn't hold on to prey. It appears the arms were still functional. They had all the necessary muscles. They offered mobility. They offered strength. Carrano says paleontologists are stumped. They are unsure how they were used. 


The dino: Triceratops lived 68 to 66 million years ago. It was roughly the same size as an elephant. It had intimidating horns. It was massive. It was a (mostly) peaceful herbivore. It ate shrubs. It ate palms. It may have used its horns and bony neck frill to protect itself. Triceratops had a huge head. It was about one-third the length of its whole body. It had a beak-like mouth. It had up to 800 teeth.

The fossil: The Triceratops is a "computer-assisted digital version." It was made from the museum's old display specimen, Carrano says. The original skeleton was a composite. It borrowed bones. They came from ten different animals. The specimen was charming. But it was oddly proportioned. It spent nearly a century on the museum floor. It was in less-than-ideal display conditions. The fossil was in rough shape. Curators chose to replace the crowd favorite with a cast. That was in 1998. They created it by scanning the original fossil. Researchers manipulated the digital version. It's now a more accurate skeleton. The cast version is nicknamed Hatcher. That's after the scientist John Bell Hatcher. He collected the original skeletons. That was in the late 19th century. It's the one being attacked by the T. rex in the hall. The original fossil is held safely in the museum's collections. It is used for research.

Research: Paleontologists are pretty sure the Triceratops served as prey for T. rex. A number of studied Triceratops fossils have puncture marks. They come from T.rex's distinctive teeth, Carrano says. Less certain is how Triceratops interacted among its own kind. Most Triceratops fossils unearthed by paleontologists lay alone. They are far from any others. That idea changed in 2009. Research suggested the dinosaurs might have been more social than previously thought. That's after scientists discovered a "bonebed." It had three juvenile Triceratops skeletons. They were clustered together.


The dino: Diplodocus hallorum lived 157-150 million years ago. It was a towering sauropod. It ate plants. Diplodocus used its neck like a fishing rod. It stuck its head straight out. It mowed down plants. It used its peg-like teeth. Its teeth may have regrown. This may have happened as often as once a month. It was one of the longest dinosaurs. Its body could stretch to about 100 feet. Most of that length came from its neck. And it came from its tail. Some scientists believe Diplodocus could crack the tip of its tail. It was like a whip. It did this to communicate. Or it did it to scare off predators.

The fossil: This specimen is about 60 percent complete, Carrano says. The body is mainly intact. Its back end is also intact. The museum first put Diplodocus on display in 1931. That came after years of prep work. They had to mount the enormous specimen. Now, the skeleton towers over the Deep Time hall. This time in a livelier pose. Diplodocus now appears to be in lumbering motion. Its tail is lifted slightly off the ground. Its neck cranes over visitors. It is in the hall's central walkway.

Research: Researchers are working to uncover the cause of an unusual pathology. It is in this specimen, Carrano says. The Diplodocus appears to have suffered some sort of injury. Or it had an infection. It is in its tail. The dinosaur's bones are essentially fused together. One whole section is rigid. Bone is covering up joints. Some tendons appear to have ossified.

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