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Dinosaurs Roar Again, Now Including a Focus on Climate Change

The newly renovated fossil hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History features spectacular fossils and includes a theme of human impact on life on Earth.

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You can almost hear the roars, or whatever sounds they made, of dinosaurs and the shrieks of delighted children when the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History reopens its nearly 2,900 square meter dinosaur and fossil hall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, 8 June.

After a 7-year renovation, the charismatic megafaunae of yore have been dusted off and are on magnificent and, in some cases, terrifying display. The centerpiece apex predator Tyrannosaurus rex, for instance, is depicted eating a Triceratops.

Those dinosaurs, along with about 700 other intriguing plant and animal fossil specimens, are again telling their fascinating story in one of the most visited museums in the world.

It turns out that the dinosaurs that roamed Earth millions of years ago have a message for us now, too.
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“The planet has written its history in rocks and bones, so what you think is all this dusty stuff is really a key to understanding how the planet works. And we are in very desperate need of understanding how the planet works now,” Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the natural history museum, told Eos in advance of the exhibit reopening.

Journeying back through 3.7 billion years of life on Earth and forward into the future, the exhibit “is really a story about the planet,” Johnson said.

Among the major exhibit themes outlined by the museum are evolution, extinction, and the connection of all life to other life and to Earth; ecosystem changes; Earth processes and global cycles; and the age of humans and global change, including “how humans are shaping the future and the fate of life on Earth.”

The exhibition “will inspire a new generation of dinosaur lovers and scientists. It will also prompt individuals to think about their own impact on the planet,” the exhibition website expounds. “Unlike past extinction and warming events, human activities are driving Earth’s rapidly changing climate today. The exhibition will give visitors tools to interpret the past, present, and future and see how the choices they make today will live far beyond them, in deep time.”

Because the exhibit “does not end in the past,” Johnson said it is dramatically different from any other fossil exhibit in the world. Humans “have a huge and growing population, we’re having a tremendous impact on biodiversity, we are impacting the content of the atmosphere, the chemistry of the oceans,” he said. “The history of life on Earth must include the human impact, and we must confront that. So the exhibit forces you to think about the future.”

A Gift “with No Strings Attached”

The renovation of the exhibition, which formally is known as the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time, received $70 million in federal appropriations and $40 million in private funds, including $35 million from Koch. Koch is a libertarian billionaire activist who helped fund a network opposing regulations on carbon emissions, according to the DeSmog blog.

Johnson, however, told Eos that donations to the museum “come with no strings attached” and that there had been no discussions with Koch about any kind of limitations to the exhibit.

“There is a firm line between donors and the content of exhibits,” Johnson said. “Come look at the exhibit. The exhibit is a very climate strong exhibit. This exhibit was built on years of work by scientists who have put their life’s work into understanding the planet and developing a powerful exhibit about the history of the nature of life on Earth through time, and it is completely independent of the donor.”

Johnson did, however, say that receiving the gift itself was “tremendous because it allowed us to build the exhibit in the first place.”

Transforming the Hall of Extinct Monsters

Photo of a fossil display of dinosaurs fighting
In its time, the Ceratosaurus (on its back, above) was a carnivorous lizard-like dinosaur that posed a threat to herbivores like the Stegosaurus. Now the two creatures are at odds with each other once more, as their skeletons are posed fighting one another in the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Credit: Lucia Martino, Smithsonian Institution

The renovation transformed the cavernous space “that was once at least anecdotally called the ‘hall of extinct monsters,’” said Siobhan Starrs, the museum’s exhibition project manager, during a behind-the-scenes tour of the exhibit last week. That “outdated strange mishmash of science design and experience” has turned into “a gorgeous, modern, one-of-a-kind destination, a place for learning about Earth’s distant past and how it influences our future,” she said.

The exhibit, which showcases the origin and evolution of plants and animals, includes a fossil lab where visitors can watch experts prepare fossils, an interactive gallery to examine evidence and explore the scientific process, and an Age of Humans gallery that addresses ways in which humans are causing rapid and unprecedented changes to Earth.

The exhibit certainly includes lots of dinosaurs, such as a dramatic reimagining of a fight between a carnivorous Ceratosaurus and the herbivore Stegosaurus.

Dinosaurs are not the only startling fossils in the exhibit hall. A fossil palm leaf found in Alaska, for instance, attests to how warm that region once was.

Trace fossil of a palm
Sixty million years ago, the climate was warmer than it is today—from the equator to the poles. Dense, wet forests covered North America all the way to Alaska. How is it known that the climate was warmer? Many types of warm-climate plants, including palms, grew in places too cold for them now. This fossil palm leaf (Sabalites sp.), discovered in Petersburg Borough, Alaska, will be on display in the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Credit: Lucia Martino, Smithsonian Institution

Ecosystems have a very rich fossil record, and that understanding also is included in the exhibit, Anna “Kay” Behrensmeyer, the museum’s curator of fossil vertebrates, told Eos. Like many of the scientists who are involved with the exhibit, Behrensmeyer recalls her fascination with dinosaurs as a child. She said that she found her first marine fossil along Pigeon Creek in Illinois when she was 5 years old. That was the start of her interest in paleoecology, the study of ancient organisms and their environments.

The fossil hall tells “a marvelous story,” Behrensmeyer said. “It’s just totally awesome, but we also want people to leave feeling they have seen something that also gives them a perspective on where the planet may be heading and how fragile it is.”

Dinosaurs “Draw People into Science”

Other museum experts on the tour also emphasized the human connection to the exhibit.

“The idea that understanding the past helps us understand our future is built into nearly every corner of this exhibit. It’s in our treatment of mass extinctions, in exhibits on the formation of fossil fuels, and in panels on past global climate changes,” said Scott Wing, the museum curator of fossil plants.

Wing said that in putting together the exhibit, scientists have also highlighted the interconnected processes by which life and physical and chemical processes have changed Earth over billions of years. “Helping people understand these processes is now critical because they are the very same ones by which we’re changing the Earth at warp speed. Only by looking at those processes with the long view of a paleontologist or geologist can we appreciate that the consequences of our actions are going to ripple far into the future.”

Matthew Carrano, the museum’s curator of Dinosauria, told Eos that dinosaurs “draw people into science,” whether they are children or adults.

Woolly mammoth fossil
Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius), perhaps the best-known mammals of the ice ages, went extinct because of a combination of shifting climate, changing food sources, and a new predator: humans. This mammoth skeleton will be on display alongside more than 700 specimens when the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time opens at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Dinosaurs “are a really important fixture in museums. They used to be essentially trophies. Now they are starting points,” Carrano said, adding that there is hopefully something for everybody at the exhibit. “Whether you just want to see dinosaurs, we hopefully deliver for that level. If you want to really think about how climate has changed through time and how animals and plants have evolved in response, we can do that for you. If you want to think about the human future, there’s a lot of different ways in.”

Museum director Johnson, who found his first fossil, a fossil clam, when he was about 5 years old, agreed that dinosaurs are a way to draw people into science and into the museum. “You come for the dinosaurs. You stay for everything else,” he said.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Dinosaurs roar again, now including a focus on climate change, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO125759. Published on 04 June 2019.
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