Smithsonian Museum Wows With Fossils Going Back Billions of Years

It was a bad day 70 million years ago for a triceratops dinosaur, whose remains are displayed beneath a fossilized Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton — posed as if it were still alive and ready for dinner.  

Huge dinosaurs and other ancient creatures like an elephant-sized ground sloth are part of a remarkable new fossils exhibition that opened June 8 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Instead of the typical static poses usually seen in museums, the new exhibition has positioned the animals so they look more real and animated — like a Dire Wolf that appears to be chasing prey.

“Did you know that all birds descended from dinosaurs?” said Matthew Carrano, the Curator of Dinosaurs.

”We now know dinosaurs were fast growing, and very lively animals,” Carrano said. “Many of the dinosaurs you see here didn’t necessarily live together.  Each species lasted a million years ago or so and then another species would appear.  So many different dinosaur ecosystems in the world, just like there’s many different ecosystems in the world today.”

Located in the large, newly restored fossil hall, the exhibition called Deep Time is all about ancient life on earth, and how its climate, ecosystems and geology evolved over 3.7 billion years.  It contains over 700 fossils, including plants, insects, reptiles, and mollusks going back billions of years.  

A fossilized palm tree unearthed in the Arctic shows that area used to be tropical. A tiny ancestor of today’s horses lived 52 million years ago. There’s even some fossilized dinosaur feces.

While wandering through the variety of ecosystems, modern interactive exhibits allow visitors to learn more about the earth’s past, and a glass-walled lab where they can see fossils being prepared for scientific study.

But among these remains is an underlying message about the future and the importance of protecting the Earth.

“We explain and let you explore for yourself what the meaning is in something that might have happened 55 million years ago to tell us a lot about the impact we are having now, because it’s not just a past story it’s also our story right now,” explained Sioban Starrs, the exhibition project manager.  

The objects on display illustrate how much the Earth has changed, affected by shifts in the climate. Scientists say 66 million years ago, the impact of a huge asteroid transformed the environment so much the dinosaurs and most other forms of life couldn’t survive. But today the exhibition points out, humans are the culprit that are causing devastating environmental problems.

“It’s a scientific fact and there’s evidence showing that we are having an impact on this planet that’s unprecedented,” Starrs said. “It’s unprecedented in the scale, and in the rate, and it’s unprecedented that it’s one singular species causing all of these changes.”

“There’s lots of specific things you can do to ameliorate the impacts of climate change,” said Kirk Johnson, the head of the museum. “Decrease climate change and help preserve species and habitats. There’s a lot of things that are happening in the world today that don’t have to be happening.”

Starrs hopes the 5 million people visiting the exhibition each year will think about what they can do to help.

“I would really like to see people getting connected to this story of the impact that we’re having on the planet, and to really wake up and start making smart choices,” she said. “Start looking at the things that people are doing around the world to direct our planet toward a hopeful, positive future.”

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