On the last day of our vacation, my wife and I had a few hours to kill before we had to get to the airport, so we started poring over a map of Salt Lake City to see if there was anything fun to do. A little icon in the upper right corner of the map caught our attention: there was a natural history museum not far from the airport, the Utah Museum of Natural History.
As we pulled up to the museum, which was tucked away in the University of Utah campus, I was not quite sure what to expect. Was it going to be a musty, dust-filled exhibit hall like the museum back at Rutgers? Were there any dinosaurs inside?
I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was the museum large and well-kept, but there were plenty of dinosaurs to see. Most of them were collected in the paleontology hall on the second floor. The centerpiece of the exhibit featured Late Jurassic dinosaur celebrities like Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, and Stegosaurus, but what really impressed me were the new discoveries on display.
It can be difficult for a museum to keep up with paleontology. New discoveries and revisions of old ideas occur so frequently that even exhibits constructed 10 years ago have parts that are out-of-date. Given the Herculean effort it takes to put up mounted skeletons and create displays, it is no wonder that many museums let things slide until an overhaul of its dinosaur exhibits becomes unavoidable, but the Utah Museum of Natural History is different.
In addition to plaques outlining recent research conducted by UTNM scientists, the Cretaceous section of the dinosaur hall contains some unusual displays. One features a dinosaur called Falcarius, a herbivorous relative of the "raptor" dinosaurs that was described in 2005 and may have been covered in a kind of feathery fuzz! To its right lies the skull of an as-yet-undescribed horned dinosaur informally known as the " Last Chance ceratopsian." This dinosaur had a big Jimmy Durante nose, two horns over its eyebrows, and a long frill topped with two curved horns. This skull, and others like it, might tell us a lot about the evolution of horned dinosaurs in North America, and I look forward to seeing it described in print!
There are even more dinosaurs downstairs. In addition to a rock wall flecked with casts of dinosaur bones, visitors can check out the paleontology prep lab. Here visitors can watch volunteers and professional scientists clean and piece together dinosaur fossils they have collected. Here science-in-action is what is on exhibit. No one was there that day, but I could plainly see the skulls of several horned dinosaurs lying in plaster cradles on the lab benches.
The dinosaurs will have to move to new digs in the not-too-distant future, though. Construction recently started on a new Utah Museum of Natural History which is set to open in 2011.