Meet the stars of Smithsonian's new Fossil Hall
When the Smithsonian's Hall of Fossils-Deep Time exhibition opened last June, hundreds of species sprung to simulated life. The fossil specimens cover a lot of paleontological ground, spanning 3.7 billion years of our planet's history and representing a wide variety of organisms. Among them are some of the fearsome creatures to ever walk the Earth: the dinosaurs who dominated the ancient Mesozoic Era. These creatures strike updated poses for the new display-all up to date with current scientific research. The stars of the new hall are ready for their closeup.
The dino: There's a reason T. rex, which lived 68 to 66 million years ago, has grown into a fearsome cultural icon, stomping across movie screens and into the world's imagination. The predator was one of the largest carnivores to ever walk the Earth, towering over other dinosaurs at more than 15 feet tall and 40 feet long. With its huge serrated teeth, shaped and sized like bananas, T. rex could tear through flesh and crush bone, eating up to hundreds of pounds of food in a single bite. The carnivore earned its name, which translates to "tyrant lizard king," dominating its food chain by devouring plant-eating prey and even smaller carnivores.
The fossil: The T. rex reigns supreme as the bold centerpiece in the new fossil hall. The creature is dramatically posed either about to deliver a death blow to its prey, the Triceratops, or taking a scrumptious bite of an already dead one. Dubbed "The Nation's T. Rex," the fossil is just beginning its stay in the capital as part of a 50-year loan from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Recreational fossil hunter Kathy Wankel discovered the specimen in Montana in 1988 while digging around on a family vacation. When a team from the nearby Museum of the Rockies completed the excavation, they found the T. rex was well intact, with about 50 percent of its bones in place.
Research and questions: Though the T. rex fossil is one of the best-studied specimens in the hall, it still has some secrets to reveal, says Matt Carrano, the museum's dinosaur curator. Scientists still aren't sure whether T. rex was a brutal killer or more of a scavenger, or some combination of the two. In the display, Carrano says curators intentionally left some room for interpretation as to whether the predator is killing a live Triceratops or chowing down on a carcass. And, of course, there's the mystery of how T. rex used its tiny arms, which were too short to hold onto prey. It appears the arms were still functional, with all necessary muscles in place to offer mobility and some strength, but paleontologists, says Carrano, are stumped when it comes to their potential use.
The dino: Despite its massive size-roughly the same as an elephant's-and intimidating horns, Triceratops, which lived 68 to 66 million years ago, was a (mostly) peaceful herbivore that munched on shrubs and palms. The dinosaur may have used its horns and bony neck frill to protect itself from predators. Triceratops had a huge head, about one-third the length of its whole body, and its beak-like mouth was filled to the brim with up to 800 teeth.
The fossil: The Triceratops is actually a "computer-assisted digital version" of the museum's former display specimen, Carrano says. The original skeleton was a composite that borrowed bones from ten different animals, which resulted in a charming but oddly proportioned mashup. After spending nearly a century on the museum floor in less-than-ideal display conditions, the fossil was in rough shape. So, in 1998, curators opted to replace the crowd favorite with a cast, created by scanning the original fossil and manipulating a digital version into a more accurate skeleton. The cast version, nicknamed Hatcher after the scientist, John Bell Hatcher, who collected the original skeletons in the late 19th century, is the one being attacked by the T. rex in the new hall. The original fossil is now held safely in the museum's collections for research.
Research/questions: Paleontologists are pretty confident the Triceratops served as prey for T. rex. A number of studied Triceratops fossils are peppered with puncture marks from the lizard king's distinctive teeth, Carrano says. Less certain is how Triceratops interacted among its own kind. Most Triceratops fossils unearthed by paleontologists lay in isolation, far from any others. In 2009, however, new research suggested the dinosaurs may have been more social than previously thought, after scientists discovered a "bonebed" with three juvenile Triceratops skeletons clustered together.
The dino: Diplodocus hallorum was a towering, plant-eating sauropod that live 157 to 150 million years ago. Diplodocus used its neck like a fishing rod, sticking its head straight out to mow down plants with its set of peg-like teeth (which may have regrown as often as once a month). It was one of the longest dinosaurs, with a body that could stretch to about 100 feet; most of that length came from its neck and tail. Some scientists believe Diplodocus could even crack the tip of its tail like a whip to communicate or scare off predators.
The fossil: This specimen is about 60 percent complete, Carrano says, with the body and back end mainly intact. The museum first put Diplodocus on display in 1931, after years of prep work 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, with its tail lifted slightly off the ground and its neck craning over visitors in the hall's central walkway.
Research/questions: Researchers are working to uncover the cause of an unusual pathology in this specimen, Carrano says. The Diplodocus appears to have suffered some sort of injury or infection: In one big stretch of the tail, the dinosaur's bones essentially fused together and turned the whole section rigid, with bone covering up joints and some tendons appearing to ossify.