16 December, 2014
Many millions of years ago, the last dinosaurs lived in what is now the American West. Now, scientists studying dinosaur fossils have documented what happened to the ancient creatures. An exhibit showing some of the results has opened at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The dinosaurs delight seven-year-old Ella Smith. She says, "They are very old and cool and very big."
Ella and her mother Paige have found themselves in a room that re-creates the world just before an asteroid struck. Many scientists believe that asteroid destroyed the dinosaurs and nearly everything else.
Kara Blond directs exhibitions at the Museum of Natural History. She says Ella and her mother have only seen a preview of what will be shown five years from now in the new National Fossil Hall.
"The New Fossil Hall will tell the grand sweep of life on Earth over time. This is one little 2,000,000-year part of that. But it gives us a real window into how people understand science and how they interpret the stories."
She says a few ancient creatures and their ways of living will be the basis of that exhibit.
"We use a couple of our major specimens as the anchors for the story. And we deconstruct the world that they lived in by looking at the mechanics of how they lived, how they ate, who they lived with, what plants they fed on."
These dinosaurs existed in what is now the arid – very dry – American West. But in their time the area had a seaway. The deltas extending from that seaway turned out to be a perfect place for the animals to die. Over time, some of their remains became fossils. That is why the area is now rich in fossils.
Kay Behrensmeyer set up the exhibition. She says the uncovered remains also document the birds, small mammals and reptiles that survived after the dinosaurs died off.
"Turtles survived. There are many aquatic ones. If they were hiding out in the water, they had more of a chance to do that to get through. And earthworms, we actually have arrows from earthworms that are an inch or two above the impact layer."
That layer can be seen in a piece of rock in the exhibition area. It shows when the asteroid hit, causing the animals to die.
Museum fossil hunters continue to send back what they dig up in the field. Some make it to the Fossil Lab, which is behind glass windows in the exhibit. Visitors can watch scientists as they study and prepare the remains.
This is where volunteer Bill King sorts through ancient bones of an ancient crocodile – a land and water animal.
"It's just really interesting. It is like a crime scene investigation, only there wasn't any crime. It's just nature and millions of years ago. And we get to do it all, hands on, at no charge."
The flowering of the planet after the dinosaurs shows that the Earth is resilient and can regenerate – be fertile again – over time. But Kay Behrensmeyer says human beings are now producing fast changes in the environment. She says that with that knowledge, people need to guard that environment so future regeneration can continue.
Four-year-old Nathanial Paul is learning that lesson now.
Mike Paul: "Why do you love the dinosaurs so much?"
Nathanial Paul: ‘Cause I want to learn more about them."
Mike Paul: "Because you want to learn more about them."
That should please the exhibit's organizers. They hope visitors leave the museum with greater understanding of creatures that depended on the environment – just like us humans.
I'm Bob Doughty.
This report was based on a story from VOA's Rosanne Skirble. Jeri Watson wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in this Story
fossils – n. hardened remains of a plant or animal which lived in ancient times and that you can see in rock
exhibit – n. an object or collection of objects put out in a public space for people to look at; a show or demonstration
delight – v. to make someone very happy
asteroid – n. any one of thousands of small planets that circle around the sun
preview – n. a special showing or performance that enables some people to see a movie or play before it is shown to the public.
specimen – n. something collected as an example of a particular kind of thing
resilient – adj. able to become strong, healthy and successful again after something bad happens
regenerate – v. to grow again after being lost or damaged
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