For 160 million years, terrible lizards tromped all over the West. You can still catch them in action at sites from California to Montana.
The peach-and-tan sandstone bluffs of eastern Utah look like a movie set. A place for an Old West shoot-out, maybe, or a scene from some alien desert planet. But it’s what’s inside the rocks at Dinosaur National Monument (nps.gov/dino) that makes the place special: bones, and lots of them.
The dinosaur quarry here—a bone mine, really—has over the decades churned out a mother lode of skulls and vertebrae. Visitors to the newly renovated Quarry Exhibit Hall can see about 1,500 fossils in their natural environment, a floodplain now tipped up to become a three-dimensional mural of the Jurassic life.
“People are awestruck when they see the wall,” says Dan Johnson, chief of interpretation at the monument. “Those aren’t just leg bones. Those are leg bones that are as large as a person.”
Long-necked behemoths, razor-toothed predators, armored grazers—dinos once stomped all around the fertile river valleys and savannas of the Really, Really Old West. Their world has long since turned to rock, but the animals themselves never really left. From Montana to California, dinosaurs are enjoying a revival of sorts at museums and dig sites. Whether you’re a hard-core enthusiast or just an admirer of biology pushed to extremes, there’s never been a better time to experience the creatures for yourself.
The wall of bones in the national monument’s quarry is a great place to start. Plates from the back of a Stegosaurus rest near the pelvic bone of a carnivorous Allosaurus. And articulated vertebrae still trail from the skull of a long-necked Camarasaurus. Sauropods—plant eaters that weighed as much as 60 tons—dominate the scene, much as they did over 100 million years ago. Visitors are encouraged to touch a couple of sauropod femurs at the bottom of the wall. The bones feel like cool, smooth rocks somehow supercharged with meaning. They once carried a lot of weight—and they still do.
Visitors can see even more bones in a gully just downhill from the parking lot. Walking along the trail, you can quickly test your inner paleontologist. Some people have a knack for spotting suspicious shards. Others—intelligent and well-meaning though they may be—amble forward oblivious to jutting femurs and vertebrae.
Discoveries come easily at the newly opened Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City (nhmu.utah.edu). Randall Irmis, curator of paleontology, is a rocks-and-bones guy, but he also has a flair for drama. He takes particular pride in a skeletal pack of carnivorous allosaurs preparing to finish off a skeletal sauropod, its long neck twisted in panic. A winding walkway takes visitors past a 33-foot-long, 90 percent intact skeleton of a duck-billed Gryposaurus; a 35-foot-long cast of a croc-like Deinosuchus, a reminder that dinos weren’t the only ones at the top of Utah’s Cretaceous food chain; and a display of 12 replica skulls from the ceratopsian family tree, including the recently found Utah resident Kosmoceratops, a show-off that was blessed with 15 horns and, one suspects, a self-confident stride.
The entire collection rewards close attention. A cast of a tiny Archaeopteryx—an early bird that had dino-like claws and teeth—dangles from a wire near the sauropod. A scent station offers a hint of rotting dinosaur flesh at the push of a button. The scene includes a troodon, a sleek predator with sickle-shaped claws and long, gray feathers that shine with orange highlights.
Those feathers aren’t a flight of a paleontologist’s imagination; they’re based on fossilized imprints of related species found in China. The shade isn’t a wild guess, either. The feathers in one Chinese fossil showed microscopic hints of what the scientists described as chestnut to reddish-brown tones. “If you had told me five years ago that we would actually know the color of a dinosaur,” Irmis says, “I would have said ‘No way.’”
Many new displays bring the creatures to life, none more so than the reenvisioned Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (nhm.org). In a piece of performance art worthy of Hollywood, actors in uncannily realistic costumes portray a life-size juvenile T. rex and a Triceratops multiple times a week. In the new hall—twice the size of the old one—even the skeletons are in action mode. One display shows a stegosaur flailing at an allosaur with the business end of its spiked tail.
This isn’t a Hollywood story. Some allosaur bones actually carry spike wounds from battles long ago. The exhibit also includes a trio of T. rex skeletons: a 2-year-old baby, a 13-year-old juvenile, and a massive adult—a grouping that makes these animals seem all the more vivid. T. rex had an actual life, growth spurts and all.
The Museum of the Rockies (museumoftherockies.org) in Bozeman, Mont., features an amazing collection of Triceratops skulls, Maiasaura eggs, and other wonders—but Tyrannosaurus rex is still the reptile in chief. This summer, the museum will unveil a new T. rex exhibit featuring bones from 13 individuals. Lots of tyrannosaurs made a home in Montana—enough to pose a bit of a mystery. How did so many huge predators find sufficient food? Jack Horner, the museum’s curator of paleontology and a world-renowned dino expert, has an answer. In 2011, he and a colleague suggested that the bounty of T. rex fossils in one region of eastern Montana shows the animals must have been highly opportunistic (and successful) eaters, not just single-minded predators. “They were more like hyenas than lions,” he says.
The world’s largest T. rex skull is visiting Asia for a few years, but visitors can still see the skull of an even more amazing T. rex specimen, informally known as Catherine. Catherine was definitely female. In fact, calcium-rich tissue in her bones—a telltale variety also found in the bones of female birds—shows that she was about to lay eggs when she died. A look inside her 68-million-year-old femur revealed a much bigger surprise: largely preserved blood vessels, complete with microscopic blood cells.
Horner says that the blood vessel discovery didn’t add wholly new info about dinos—no one doubted that they were red-blooded animals—but it completely blew up the long-held assumption that soft tissues of dinosaurs couldn’t survive through the eons.
Dinosaurs aren’t figments of mythology. And they aren’t unknowable creatures of the too-distant past. They were breathing, bleeding, flesh-and-bone animals that have somehow carried their stories to the modern world. You just have to know where to look.
To read about other places to see dinos, check out our story: Eight Top Dinosaur Destinations.
Photography by Lynn Donaldson (Triceratops); courtesy of Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/Karen Knauer (T. rex family); courtesy NHMU/Stuart Ruckman (Gryposaurus)
This article was first published in May 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.