New Dinosaur Museum Tracks the “Terrible Lizards” Through Time

The Moab Giants museum in eastern Utah makes a roaring debut

A fuzzy Tyrannosaurus roars across the Utah desert at Moab Giants. Brian Switek
Moab Giants envisions favorites like Utahraptor with feathers. Brian Switek
Ceratosaurus getting cuddly in the Jurassic portion of the sculpture walk. Brian Switek
Did Stegosaurus have bristles? Moab Giants gives the classic a new look. Brian Switek
Sellosaurus was a predecessor to long-necked giants like Apatosaurus. Brian Switek
Little dinosaurs like Coelophysis roamed this part of Utah over 200 million years ago. Brian Switek
Visitors can see tracks of Allosaurus like this one down the highway from Moab Giants. Brian Switek

Towering above the sagebrush, the Tyrannosaurus stands with its jaws agape, serrated teeth shining in the desert sunlight. If the dinosaur were alive, it’d be far too close for comfort. Fortunately for visitors, the dinosaur is just a sculpture – part of an entire Mesozoic menagerie created by the Moab Giants museum.

Scattered amongst the scrub along the side of Utah’s Highway 191, the dinosaurs are impossible to miss.  But, unlike other roadside monuments scattered throughout the southwest, these are not tourist trap lures. The life-size sculptures are scientifically-grounded representations of the animals that stomped the ground around eastern Utah between 235 and 66 million years ago. Paleontologists, such as Moab Giants scientific advisor Martin Lockley, know this from the tracks the dinosaurs left behind, and it’s these traces that form the core of the new museum.

Much of what paleontologists have come to know about dinosaurs has been drawn from bones. Skeletons, isolated elements and fragments have shown where dinosaurs lived, how they evolved, and how they grew. But osteological clues aren’t the only ones paleontologists have to work with. Dinosaurs also left behind trace fossils. Simply put, these are marks inadvertently left by dinosaurs in sediment or some other substrate. There are various types of traces – ranging from footprints to bite marks on bones and places where dinosaurs laid down to rest – but all of them were made by dinosaurs as they went about their lives. While bones are the remains of dead animals, Lockley says, “Tracks tell us about the dynamic behavior of living animals – walking, running, crouching, limping, traveling in herds”, and more.

Moab Giants is unique in putting the focus on these tracks through outdoor displays and interactive exhibits inside. After a lifetime of experience studying dinosaur tracks at the Museum of Western Colorado and University of Colorado, Denver, Lockley took the invitation of geologist Gerard Gierlinski to help create a museum based on a model that Gierlinski used in several Polish museums, but this time with a focus on tracks. While some parts of Moab Giants are still under construction, the museum had their soft launch in early September.

The choice to focus on tracks, rather than skeletons, partly came from the fossils found in the surrounding redrock desert. “Dinosaur tracks are so much more common than dinosaur bone sites throughout Utah and Colorado”, Lockley says, “and they give important, dynamic information about behavior and ecology.” Some of these sites are practically next door to the museum. “There are five dinosaur track locations on public land” within a 15-minute drive of the museum, Lockley says, including the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, which boasts the footprints of long-necked sauropods, giant carnivores, “raptors”, and more.

Of course, it’s only natural to look at such tracks and wonder what made them. That’s why Moab Giants boasts 135 full-sized dinosaur replicas. As visitors wander around the outside walk, starting in the Triassic and working up through the Jurassic into the Cretaceous, each set of dinosaur models is accompanied by a panel displaying a cast of a real dinosaur footprint found in the area and what that trace tells paleontologists about dinosaur life.

For the most part, the models are a hypothetical stand-in for the animals that left the footprints. It’s only in rare cases, such as when a dinosaur literally dies in its tracks, that a footprint or other trace can definitely be attributed to a specific dinosaur. Still, the juxtaposition of the lifelike models and the tracks beautifully underscore the importance of trace fossils to paleontology. Skeletons need to be pieced together and brought to life, but footprints are the signs of life – fleeting moments preserved in the depths of time.

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