In its past life, the skeleton of the allosaurus had been mounted in a running pose, its front legs raised, jaw open wide — the very picture of a prehistoric predator.
And before that — 150 million years ago — when it was a living, breathing creature struggling to raise its offspring and avoid predators and eke out a living amid the lush Jurassic landscape? Well, that’s a story that hasn’t really been told.
But when the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) reopens its fossil hall next summer, it is the version of Allosaurus fragilis that visitors will finally get to meet.
“We wanted to show a different side of the animal’s story,” said Siobhan Starrs, project manager for the new exhibition.
“We really want visitors to think about the life cycle of this organism and how it would have been in many ways quite similar to organisms in the world today,” Starrs said. “We want you to feel connected to these stories ripped from the deep past.”
It’s a dramatic rebranding from the late 19th century, when this allosaurus was uncovered. It was the first near-complete skeleton of its species, with a massive skull, short, clawed arms, long leg bones indicating powerful hind limbs, and a tail nearly as long as its body.
Othniel Charles Marsh, who collected the fossil, was one of the chief belligerents in the U.S.’s early “Bone Wars.” Paleontologists went to battle with one another (and sometimes bribed, stole and sabotaged) in pursuit of ever bigger and more fearsome dinosaur species. The discoveries were given impressive names like “thunder lizard” (brontosaurus), and they were displayed in an exhibit at the NMNH known as “the Hall of Extinct Monsters.” Mounts were often cobbled together with only a casual regard for scientific accuracy — Hatcher, the Smithsonian’s beloved triceratops, was a “Frankenstein” of fossils from completely different species.
Little was known then about the complex lives of these animals, and not many scientists seemed to care. One popular theory depicted dinosaurs as “degenerate” — a “dead end” of evolution (nevermind that they ruled the Earth for nearly 200 million years, about a thousand times longer than Homo sapiens has been around). Traditional mounts and vintage illustrations often depicted them as lumbering creatures whose awkward bodies seem to defy all laws of biology and physics.
“They were really almost like trophy specimens,” said Matthew Carrano, the NMNH’s curator of dinosaurs. The “monstrous” fossils might thrill museum visitors, he said, but they didn’t hold much appeal for researchers.
This view was reflected in the way specimens were displayed, in armatures that often degraded the fragile fossils and made it difficult to access them for scientific study.
“They had taken just a steel tube and rammed it through the center of the fossils,” said Stuart Campbell, a project manager at Research Casting International who led the “skeleton crew” responsible for remounting the NMNH’s dinosaurs.
“I don’t know if they realized how special the fossils actually were,” Campbell said. “It was just the beginning of the age of knowledge about this.”
But then came the “dinosaur renaissance.” Several tantalizing discoveries in the 1960s and ‘70s convinced scientists there was more to learn from these long-dead creatures.
Research on growth rates suggested that most dinosaurs were fast-growing, active and warm blooded, like modern mammals. Analyses of dinosaurs’ distinctive bones demonstrated that they were direct ancestors of modern birds. Excavations of fossil footprints revealed that some species lived in herds, hunted in tandem, cared for their young. And the discovery of a gigantic crater off the coast of Mexico and a layer of buried extraterrestrial material around the world helped scientists realize that a catastrophic meteor impact — not biological degeneracy — likely led to the non-avian dinosaurs’ extinction.
The previous incarnation of the NMNH fossil hall, which opened around 1980 with the running allosaurus prominently displayed, partly reflected that evolving view. But dinosaur science was moving so fast, the exhibit was outdated only five years after it was built, Carrano said.
Since the dinosaur was installed, researchers have discovered nests full of the crushed fragments of empty allosaurus egg shells, some of which will be modeled alongside the allosaurus in the new exhibit. They have uncovered prints from other theropod dinosaurs suggesting that the animals sat on the ground and monitored their nests, likely to protect them from predators.
The closure of the old exhibit in 2014 allowed Smithsonian scientists to get their first good look at the dinosaur in decades, revealing details about the injury to its shoulder blade and other incidents in its life history. Carrano and his colleagues are still sifting through that data, which they hope may give them insight into the animal’s age when it died and whether it was male or female.
After spending so much time with the skeleton, getting to know its bumps and bruises, imagining where it obtained them, “you do kind of connect with [it] as an individual,” Carrano said. “I don’t think of it as an allosaurus, right? I think of it as our allosaurus.”
On a recent morning, he and Starrs stand by as Campbell and his “skeleton crew” carefully install the allosaurus in its new display.
The backdrop is painted with stout cycads and arching ferns, to give visitors a sense of the dinosaur’s home environment. Posed beside a gigantic diplodocus and beneath towering ancient trees, the allosaurus doesn’t look so imposing. You might almost forget that it could easily fit a whole human head in its gaping carnivore’s mouth.
The new mount is “cutting edge,” said Starrs — reflecting both the latest dinosaur science and state of the art practices for presenting skeletons. Rather than hold the mount together using rods plastered directly onto the fossils, Campbell’s team has built an armature that grips the bones in place, as though they were diamonds in a necklace setting.
“You have to cradle each one,” Campbell explains “It avoids any stress.”
The new display also allows researchers at the museum to remove individual bones for research without dismantling the whole fossil — so staff won’t have to wait several decades to learn something new about their allosaurus.
Tales From the Vault: Science museums are home to vast research collections, most of which the public never gets to see — until now. Speaking of Science goes behind the scenes at our favorite museums to introduce readers to the fascinating objects and people we find there. Read past installments here.