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Recapture a Childhood Thrill at Houston’s Jurassic Safari
When you were a kid, what’s the one thing that rocked your world most when you took a trip to the museum? I’d wager that most would say dinosaurs — remember the thrill of seeing the sharp teeth, skeletons, or models of fearsome carnivores such as the tyrannosaurus rex, velociraptor and dimetrodon?
Now the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which is a Houston CityPASS attraction, has taken dinosaur viewing to a whole new level with its new 36,000-square foot, $85 million Morian Hall of Paleontology, which opened last June. This vast treasury of bones and bites goes way beyond a couple of dinosaur replicas or skeletons stationed in the middle of the room. The Hall of Paleontology showcases 60 mounts (including 30 dinosaurs), and 450 fossils and fossil replicas into a space the length of a football field. It’s a breathtaking look at the 3.5-billion-year story of life on Earth.
“The Paleontology hall is a new approach to natural science,” explained associate curator David Temple, a 22-year veteran of the museum. “What’s different is that the layout is closer to an art museum, where visitors can walk right up to the exhibits and almost touch them.
“The other difference is that, we display our animals in action. Instead of just showing a mammoth, we portray a plummeting mammoth in mid-air falling from a cliff – of course visitors see it from a vantage point of the mammoth falling on them.”
“Plus, we have the jaws of a 70-foot megalodon shark eating a swimming elephant,” Temple said. “We know it happened once, because we found elephant bones in the shark’s skeleton.”
A shark eating an elephant — THAT’s new. And if that weren’t enough, the hall also has three tyrannosauruses, with the finest-preserved, most complete hands and feet specimen ever found. There even are patches of its original skin.
The collection also includes a mummified Triceratops with preserved skin, and an Ichthyosaur that died in childbirth, with her offspring stuck in the birth canal.
In addition to its large collection of dinosaur displays, the hall has vast fossil collections stretching back to the very beginnings of life on Earth.
“Through the museum, we’re telling the story of evolution, starting with the oldest fossils: from stromatolites (a slimy, mold-like algae, which is the earliest form of life), to our many well-preserved marine trilobites, which are extinct marine arthropods,” Temple explained. The museum has the largest displays of trilobite fossils in the world. These fascinating, insect-like creatures existed in the Earth’s seas in the Paleozoic era before the dinosaurs.
But the development that has Temple and the museum’s staff most excited are two displays due to be unveiled next spring. One is of Willy, a complete dimetrodon, who was the dominant predator of the Permian Period. He would have been 11 feet long with a four-foot vertical fin running the length of his body. Willy is the first example of this species found with the head attached.
Dimetrodon bones are common in the Craddock Quarry, located in north central Texas, but articulated fossil skeletons, like Willy, are extremely rare. Most of the dimetrodon fossils on display in museums have come from this area.
"We have a picture of a dimetrodon on display, but not an actual one,” Temple said. “Texas has some of the best Permian outcrops in the world, but we didn’t have a dimetrodon. We went back, checked out the quarry and we found a lot of bones there. We kept digging and discovered Willy.”
Willy will be the star of the Permian section of the paleontology hall starting next summer.
“Dimetrodons are shown in just about any kids books of dinosaurs, but he’s really not one, more of an ‘honorary dinosaur,’ because he was around in the age right before dinosaurs existed,” Temple said.
The other great find that will be unveiled in 2013 is the “Big Block,” a mighty layer of rock with hundreds of amphibian skeletons frozen in time.
The block was found on a cattle ranch in Texas, where the owner was building a cattle tank. Bulldozers hit this layer of rock and made the discovery of a mass of amphibians. “You can see them all across the surface of this a thick layer,” said Temple. “Bones cover the entire 5-by-10-foot surface.”
We do find a lot of amphibians in Texas,” Temple said. “It was seasonally dry, but when it was wet, amphibians thrived. When it became dry, they buried themselves in the mud. In some areas, rains didn’t come back in time and we’re finding these animals curled in their burrows.
According to Temple, the Permian ended with the worst mass extinction known, when about 70 percent of the life on land and 90 percent of the ocean’s species died. It was a direct precursor to the rise of dinosaurs, and Texas is an area rich with prehistoric life.
“In Texas, we like to think of ourselves as being the center of the world,” Temple said, “but back in that age, when the Earth’s land masses were together, Texas really was.”
About the Houston Museum of Natural Science
The Houston Museum of Natural Science is one of the nation’s most heavily attended museums. It has diverse and extraordinary offerings, four floors of exhibit halls, more than 450 dinosaur fossils and casts, more than 750 beautifully crystallized mineral specimens, the world’s finest cut gems, and the largest snail shell ever discovered.
- Summer (Jun 2-Aug 26): Mon & Wed-Sun, 9am-6pm; Tue, 9am-8pm
- Non-Summer (Aug 27-Jun 1): Mon & Wed-Sun, 9am-5pm; Tue, 9am-8pm
- Hours subject to change for Holidays, special exhibitions and other events.
Location: 5555 Hermann Park Drive
Phone: (713) 639-4629