I still remember the moment I fell in love with dinosaurs. When I was a kid, my Great-Aunt Helen took me to the Peabody Museum at Yale University to visit the Great Hall of Dinosaurs.
The centerpiece was a close-to-complete skeleton of what was then called a Brontosaurus. A generation later, it was discovered the skull belonged to a different dinosaur and the correction resulted in christening a “new” one, the Apatosaurus. The error was immortalized in Rudloph Zalinger’s mural, The Age of Reptiles, which runs the length of the hall.
There was an Archelon, the largest known species of turtle, with one missing flipper (perhaps the result of a shark attack?); a cast of a T. rex skull in the Berlin museum; a pretty complete Stegosaurus skeleton; and a Triceratops with one side covered in re-created skin to make the creature more lifelike.
A lot of kids (and former kids) would point to Jurassic Park as the moment they became enraptured with dinosaurs. When that movie came out, the idea that dinosaurs traveled in herds, or that birds are their modern descendants, was relatively new.
What we know about dinosaurs has continued to evolve since then, as evidenced by the Dinosaurs Unearthed exhibit at the Duluth Children’s Museum.
The main attraction of this engaging experience is a quartet of animatronic dinosaurs: a larger than life-size Protoceratops, a Deinonychus, a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, and the head of a full-grown species that jumps out from a rock formation.
The head and jaws at one end, and the tail at the other, move while the sound system emits primal roars. The volume is nothing compared to the T. rex attack in Jurassic Park, but it’s enough that small kids cover their ears or bury their faces in the necks of their parents, although, from what I observed, the kids recover enough to enjoy the exhibits.
In addition to the animatronic creatures, a 1,500-square-foot prehistoric experience showcases real and replica fossils found in the United States and China, most of which come from the Jurassic Period.
The most important fossil in the exhibit turns out be a relatively small Sinosauropteryx (the “Chinese Dragon Bird”), discovered in 1996. This was the first dinosaur to be found with evidence of feathers and the first where paleontologists discovered color.
In 2007, a Velociraptor was found with quill knobs. The accompanying description tells us you cannot have quill knobs without feathers. This explains why the animatronic Deinonychus and juvenile T. rex not only have little feather-like protrusions, but they also appear to be covered with fur instead of scales (the T. rex shed its fur as it grew up).
Amazing how much dinosaurs from millions of years ago have changed in the last decade.
You will get a sense of what is involved in digging up fossils outside the entrance, where the skull of an Allosaurus that was freed from the rock in which it was found is next to one of a Yangchuanosaurus, the inside of which is still solid rock. Several complete skeletons of small creatures like Protopsephurus and Longipteryx, too fragile to be removed, remain intact within the rock in which they were found.
There is most of a Gasosaurus skeleton (no skull has ever been found intact, so they had to provide one), and an assortment of skulls, horns, teeth, claws, eggs, ferns, and even coprolite (fossilized feces).
Not everything fits in the downstairs of the museum, so upstairs you will find the large forelimb of a Mamenchisaurus and the massive scapula of a Supersaurus—the largest bone most of us have ever seen.
There are interactive elements for children and parents. Before you walk into the exhibit, kids can pick up a snazzy blue clipboard with a choice of age-appropriate sheets to fill out as they learn.
There is a large excavation pit where kids can uncover “fossils.” Goggles and brushes are provided to unearth bones covered in little tan and brown circles. Upstairs, there is a similar station where kids can unearth tracks and learn the difference between lizard-hipped and bird-hipped dinosaurs.
The “Design a dinosaur” station allows kids to change the colors of a dinosaur. Upstairs there are Triceratops and other dinosaurs to color, or kids can draw their own to be posted on a wall or window.
Dinosaurs Unearthed is an excellent balance of fun and education for dinosaur lovers of all ages.
Dinosaurs Unearthed runs through September 1 at the Duluth Children’s Museum, 115 S. 29th Avenue W., 218-733-7543. Admission is $12.50, $5 for members.