Meet the stars of Smithsonian's new Fossil Hall
Assign to Google Classroom
The Smithsonian's Hall of Fossils-Deep Time exhibition opened last June. Hundreds of species sprung to life. The fossil specimens cover a lot of ground. They span 3.7 billion years of our planet's history. They represent a wide 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 with current scientific research. They are the stars of the new hall.
The dino: T. rex lived 68 to 66 million years ago. There's a reason it has grown into a fearsome cultural icon. T. rex has stomped across movie screens and into the world's imagination. The predator was one of the largest carnivores to ever walk the Earth. It towered over other dinosaurs. It was more than 15 feet tall and 40 feet long. It had huge serrated teeth. Its teeth were shaped and sized like bananas. T. rex could tear through flesh and crush bone. It ate up to hundreds of pounds of food in a single bite. The carnivore's name translates to "tyrant lizard king." It dominated its food chain. It devoured 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. It towers over a triceratops. It's 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. That was in 1988. She found it while digging around 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. But it still has some secrets to reveal, says Matt Carrano. He is the museum's dinosaur curator. Scientists still don't know if T. rex was a brutal killer or more of a scavenger. Or some combination of the two. Carrano says curators intentionally left some room for interpretation in the display. There's also the mystery of how T. rex used its tiny arms. They were too short to hold onto prey. It appears the arms were still functional. They had all the necessary muscles in place. They offered mobility and some strength. Carrano says paleontologists are stumped when it comes to their potential use.
The dino: Triceratops lived 68 to 66 million years ago. It was roughly the same size as an elephant. It had intimidating horns. But despite its massive size, it was a (mostly) peaceful herbivore. It 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. It was about one-third the length of its whole body. It had a beak-like mouth. It 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. It borrowed bones from ten different animals. This resulted in a charming but oddly proportioned mashup. It spent nearly a century on the museum floor. It was in less-than-ideal display conditions. The fossil was in rough shape. Curators opted to replace the crowd favorite with a cast in 1998. It was created by scanning the original fossil. Researchers manipulated the digital version into 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 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: Paleontologists are pretty confident the Triceratops served as prey for T. rex. A number of studied Triceratops fossils are peppered with puncture marks. They come 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 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 clustered together.
The dino: Diplodocus hallorum lived 157-150 million years ago. It was a towering, plant-eating sauropod. Diplodocus used its neck like a fishing rod. It stuck its head straight out. It mowed down plants with its set of peg-like teeth. Its teeth may have regrown 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 tail. Some scientists believe Diplodocus could crack the tip of its tail like a whip. It did this to communicate or scare off predators.
The fossil: This specimen is about 60 percent complete, Carrano says. The body and back end are mainly intact. The museum first put Diplodocus on display in 1931. That came 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. Its tail is lifted slightly off the ground. Its neck cranes over visitors in the hall's central walkway.
Research: 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. It is in its tail. The dinosaur's bones are essentially fused together. One whole section is rigid. Bone is covering up joints and some tendons appear to have ossified.