The government minivan pulled up to the entrance of George Washington University, where hospital staff were waiting with two stretchers headed for a 9 a.m. appointment in radiology.

The “patient” was a 68-million-year-old skull of an edmontosaurus — one type of a duck-billed dinosaur — that belongs to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The 150-pound skull and jaw were getting a CT scan for an upcoming museum exhibition.

The fossil was transported in two parts, the tall and sloping skull in one specially crafted protective case and its lower jaw in another. The first and largest piece presented the biggest challenge for CT supervisor Bruce Payne and radiologist James Earls. They scanned the skull upright first but couldn’t get the top edge in the frame because it was nestled in its protective case. The medical team wanted to take it out of the case — something Steve Jabo, the museum’s fossil preparator, wanted to avoid — so they decided to send it through the machine upside down, resting in the case’s top.

Several in the room gasped as the skull was flipped to reveal the roof of the mouth and rows of spiky teeth arranged in the upper jaw. There were so many teeth, but they were set back a foot from the front of the jaw. How did this creature eat?

Matthew Carrano, the museum’s curator of dinosaurs, explained that the dinosaur would have had a birdlike beak at the front of the skull. “It had a toothy edge, like clippers, to get the food, and then the chewing is going on in the back,” he said. The dinosaur ate plants and grasses.

What and how these giant creatures ate is the subject of an interactive digital display that will be part of the museum’s reimagined Fossil Hall. The digital images collected on Monday create the foundation for this display.


Siobhan Starrs, left, Adam Behlke, Steve Jabo, right, employees of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum transport a dinosaur skull fossil to the hospital of the George Washington University. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Currently closed for a five-year, $129 million renovation, the popular Fossil Hall is expected to open next summer with new exhibitions and displays.

During the hour-long appointment, a stream of medical professionals in white coats and scrubs stopped by to check out the fossil and snap photos of it during the scan. Payne and Earls took their time positioning the object and did several kinds of scans on it. “We’re not worried about the radiation dose,” Earls said.

This particular edmontosaurus skull was collected in 1931 by Levi Sternberg, a member of a famous fossil-collecting family, according to Carrano, who said it probably entered the museum’s collection soon after. It was found near what is now Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, he said.

The specimen is from a midsized adult edmontosaurus, an animal that would have been some 40 feet long and weighed more than four tons. Another edmontosaurus is being mounted for display in the new hall. This skull and jaw were perfect for the digital display because they were easily accessible from storage and in good condition.

The scanned skull will be featured in the digital display intended to explain how the dinosaur ate. The hospital delivered the standard medical imaging files to the museum, which will use them to create a 3-D version. The digital exhibit will showcase three dinosaur skulls and show how their bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons worked together. The display will allow the upper and lower jaws to separate to give visitors views inside the mouth. In addition to exploring the skulls, the interactive exhibit will allow visitors to try to “feed” each dinosaur.


The CT scan images of the dinosaur skull fossil are seen on a computer screen at George Washington University Hospital. (Astrid Riecken)

The hospital’s images were made to create the exhibition’s interactive display, but they could spur future scientific research.

“We can see the internal structure, all of the nasal openings, the vein density, how everything is formed in there,” Jabo explained.