Perot Mu­seum in Dal­las opens Pa­leo Lab

Ripon Bulletin - - On The Road -

DAL­LAS (AP) — Be­neath the open jaws of a crouch­ing di­nosaur, Briana Smith pressed her small ro­tat­ing saw into a plas­ter cast.

In­side the cast lay pieces of a crea­ture that had roamed Alaska about 70 mil­lion years ago.

The Dal­las Morn­ing News re­ports Smith’s col­league Tony Fio­r­illo, a pa­le­on­tol­o­gist and chief cu­ra­tor of the Perot Mu­seum of Na­ture and Science, found the fos­sils on one of his many ex­pe­di­tions to the Arc­tic. He had swad­dled them in a co­coon of pa­per, burlap and plas­ter to pro­tect them on the 4,000-mile he­li­copter, plane and trac­tor-trailer jour­ney to Dal­las. Now, Smith was be­gin­ning the long process of fig­ur­ing out ex­actly what Fio­r­illo had brought back.

Nor­mally Smith, an as­sis­tant fos­sil prepara­tor at the Perot Mu­seum, works far from pub­lic view in a base­ment lab in Fair Park. Start­ing this week, she and her col­leagues will be on dis­play along­side many of the di­nosaur bones they helped ex­tract and as­sem­ble. The mu­seum’s new Pa­leo Lab, which opened Tues­day, lets view­ers watch through a large win­dow as staff and vol­un­teers hunch over spec­i­mens from as nearby as Rock­wall County and as far away as Amer­ica’s north­ern fron­tier.

“What we’re re­ally try­ing to do is con­nect the ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing from the field, to the lab, to this,” Fio­r­illo said ear­lier this week, ges­tur­ing at the di­nosaurs sur­round­ing him on the mu­seum’s fourth floor, which holds two species, Pachyrhi­nosaurus per­o­to­rum and Nanuqsaurus hoglundi, that he and his col­leagues dis­cov­ered.

A new skele­tal re­con­struc­tion of Nanuqsaurus, a rel­a­tive of T. Rex, perches on the roof of the Pa­leo Lab.

The goal is for visi­tors to gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the sci­en­tific process, Fio­r­illo said. “We as sci­en­tists are not filled with a lot of ‘ahha!’ mo­ments. There’s a lot of — I don’t want to say ‘te­dium,’ but I just did. It’s a very la­bo­ri­ous process to get to the point where we rec­og­nize we have some­thing new.”

Fio­r­illo dis­cov­ered Pachyrhi­nosaurus and Nanuqsaurus in Alaska in 2006. But it took Ron Tykoski, direc­tor of the mu­seum’s pa­le­on­tol­ogy lab, and his staff more than four years to clean, re­con­struct and iden­tify them.

Now visi­tors will be able to watch this process as it un­folds. Af­ter Smith opened the plas­ter cast, which she thought might con­tain a limb from an­other Pachyrhi­nosaurus, she used a brush and air blower to scat­ter dust and loose dirt from the fos­sil. Next, she picked up a squeeze bot­tle and dabbed glue into cracks in the bone to hold it to­gether.

Her next step would be to use an “air scribe,” a tool that looks and sounds like a den­tist’s drill but works more like a mini jack­ham­mer, to chip away at the rock and re­veal more bone, bit by bit.

This month­s­long process led to the re­con­struc­tion of a Pachyrhi­nosaurus skull, on dis­play just across from the Pa­leo Lab.

Pachyrhi­nosaurus was a horned di­nosaur that weighed about as much as a rhi­noc­eros. Dur­ing the ex­ca­va­tion, Fio­r­illo and his team ob­served tooth­marks on the bones and won­dered what may have eaten the 23-foot crea­ture. Back in the fos­sil lab, Fio­r­illo and Tykoski re­al­ized they also had the re­mains of Nanuqsaurus — its name means “po­lar bear lizard” — which Fio­r­illo had found in the same hole in the ground as Pachyrhi­nosaurus.

He hopes more dis­cov­er­ies like these will be made — this time, in full view of the gen­eral pub­lic.

Tykoski, Smith and their col­leagues will con­tinue to work in the larger pa­leo lab in Fair Park as well. The Fair Park spot was the Perot Mu­seum’s pre­vi­ous home and holds its col­lec­tion of thou­sands of di­nosaur bones and teeth. Staff and vol­un­teers will cy­cle through both spa­ces and keep the mu­seum’s Pa­leo Lab open and staffed dur­ing reg­u­lar mu­seum hours.

Some of the Pa­leo Lab’s work will end up on dis­play at the mu­seum, but most will be cat­a­logued and placed in its grow­ing col­lec­tion of 54,380 fos­sils, where they’ll add to sci­en­tists’ un­der­stand­ing of the dis­tant past.

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