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2013 Family Travel: Discover Dinosaurs in Utah

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What kids don’t love dinosaurs? There’s an allure to those long-extinct creatures, some the size of small buildings, and others, like the raptors made famous in Jurassic Park, ferret-like and deadly. Recently, we sent David Latt to explore the new Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City and to check out the football field-sized bone wall in Dinosaur National Park near Vernal.

Utah is known as one of the best places on earth to view the fossil record. My journey back in time began with a trip to the Natural History Museum on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Opened in 2011, the stone colored building is built into the hillside as though it were an ancient creature only half-excavated. The museum focuses on the history of Utah so the creatures and artifacts on display came from excavations in nearby areas.

Studies of the earth (geology) and long-dead animals and plants (paleontology) can be difficult to comprehend, even as an adult. In a kid-friendly way, the museum uses pictures and three-dimensional reliefs to show how rivers and mountains were created, what animals once roamed the valley outside and how massive earth events dramatically changed the landscape from a hot, tropical, wet climate to an inland sea and finally into today’s dusty, bone-dry desert.

Bones Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Part of the museum’s goal is to give visitors a sense of what life on earth looked like when dinosaurs weren’t fossils but flesh and blood.

At one point I asked Dr. Randall Irmis, a curator at the museum, “What’s that smell?”

He pointed in the direction of the life-sized replica of a triceratops being picked at by a small bird-like creature. There are many diorama in the museum. The one we were looking at recreated the look, smell and sound of a late Cretaceous marsh, 76 million years ago in southern Utah’s Kaiparowits ecosystem. Besides bringing to life the long-dead world of the dinosaurs, you’ll learn a lot about how scientists make sense of all those bits and pieces of rock and dirt.

Irmis pointed to the duckbill dinosaur bones scattered under the glass floor in a exhibit opposite the marsh. This is “what it is like when you find a dinosaur skeleton.”

The pile of bones looked like dried out scraps from a butcher shop floor.

Paleontologists are detectives. What at first sight looks like an odd-shaped rock, they’ll tell you is actually a knuckle bone and from that one bone they can draw a picture of the entire animal.

Like the TV forensic scientists on CSI, paleontologists use skeletal remains to understand how, when and why these creatures died. But there isn’t always agreement about the explanations. Illustrating how one fact can lead to different explanations, in a video exhibit, three scientists argue about possible meanings behind a discovery that amazed the scientific world. To one scientist that gathering of bones means.To other scientists that idea is too sentimental. After listening to their competing views, visitors are invited to vote for one.

There’s lots to see at the museum so allow plenty of time for a leisurely stroll where a few steps carry you millions of years as you leave the world of dinosaurs and enter exhibits devoted to the rise of mammals.

Armed with an overview of the world of the dinosaurs, now you are ready to go out into the field to see where the fossils came from, where dinosaurs lived and died.