Colorado is what you can consider a rich state for fossils. Marine reptiles, prehistoric mammals, ice age megafauna, Jurassic dinosaurs and Cretaceous dinosaurs can all be found on both sides of the Rockies. On the west side are the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction and the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center in Canyon City. On the other are the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park and the subject of today’s article, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The museum was founded by Edwin Carter for his collection of Colorado Wildlife in the year 1900. Soon, wildlife specimens from all over the world, minerals, fossils, and Egyptian and American artifacts flowed in and the museum grew. I know nothing about the previous fossil exhibits, so I will just review the current exhibit, Prehistoric Journey.
Prehistoric Journey was the brainchild of the paleontologists Kirk Johnson and Ken Carpenter, hired in 1990. Their team created a comprehensive, very visual exhibit showing the prehistory of the Earth, using Colorado as the focus. The exhibit opened in 1995, and I was fortunate enough to see it the following year.
Prehistoric Journey starts with a theater, showing a video presentation of the early history of the earth. The exhibit begins in the Hadean Eon, as demonstrated by a dramatic watercolor painting by Greg Michaels. Michaels’ paintings will continue through the exhibit, giving drama and breadth to the specimens. The origin of life is covered by pieces of ancient stone, a panaroma showing the sequence of organic molecules to proteins to microorganisms, and a piece of equipment used for the Miler-Urey experiment. Said experiment synthesized amino acids by exposing chemicals to conditions simulating early Earth.
The museum shows different animal fauna over time in a series of dioramas. The first is the Edicara fauna, from 600 million years and made of some of the earliest multicellular animals on the planet. The Cambrian lacks a diorama but is represented by abundant trilobite and brachiopod fossils and a dramatic Michaels painting. A colorful diorama displays a reef fauna found in Racine, Wisconsin dating to the Ordovician. Following it are fossils of the coral, cephalopods, crinoids, and eurypterids, followed by early fish. A Michaels painting shows the evolution of fish displaying various fossil fish. The centerpiece of any fish exhibit is the skull of Dunkleosteus, and the Denver Museum’s skull is supported by a mural of one chasing the traditional prey of Cladoselache. It’s as if it was the only prey animal for Dunkleosteus, but since it’s a recognizable shark, and originally featured in Charles Knight and Zdenek Burian, the Dunkelosteus-Cladoselache chase will remain a paleoart motif.
A trip upstairs continues the exhibit as the Devonian goes on. Land animals are represented by more murals of the Devonian shallows and proto-forests, including a Michaels painting and a small diorama of the first amphibians. The iconic Carboniferous forest makes its appearance as a diorama, along with life-sized trees and Meganeura backed by a atmospheric mural. It’s dark, but periodically a light will go on to illuminate the scene. The centerpiece of this Palaeozoic series of rooms is a dynamic pair of mounts depicting a Dimetrodon attacking an Eryops from Permian Texas. The dynamic, red skeletons overshadow the other Permian and Carboniferous displays. Even the bizarre amphibian Diplocaulus and sea scorpion Megarachne just aren’t as dramatic or visually interesting as this Permian battle. On the far side of this elevated hall, you can see the Mesozoic hall with its gigantic Diplodocus, and the mounted Pteranodon and Protostega flying towards you.
Going back downstairs will take you to the Mesozoic. The exhibit skips forward to the end of the Cretaceous with a diorama. The diorama is set in North Dakota at the end of the Cretaceous, where two Stygimoloch males duel by a forest river. By the river (where the visitors walk), a Triceratops skull lies in half-decomposition while a disturbed marsupial, Didelphodon hisses at them. In the background through the leaves, a Tyrannosaurus stalks Edmontosaurs.
The Triassic is represented from a combination mural and skeletal mounts of the Chinle fauna. In the mural, the phytosaur Redondasaurus bursts from the water to scatter a pack of Coelophysis dinosaurs. The dispute is over a nearly-skeletal corpse of the aetosaur Desmatosuchus. The skeletons show one Coelophysis running off with a pierce of Desmatosuchus tail while a juvenile follows trying to grab the morsel.
The Jurassic takes up most of the room in a tableau of mounts seemingly in interaction with each other. On one side, an Allosaurus attacks a Stegosaur. On the other side of the stegosaur is the probable target-a pair of Stegosaur infants. A herd of Othnielosaurus next to them flee the battle. On the other side of the room, a Diplodocus looks on in alarm, taking up most of the room, and a Gargoyelosaurus lurks at its feet.
The corner shows a display invoking a time-travelling big game hunter: On one wall are hadrosaur, allosaur, and ceratopsian forelimbs. In the center are the skulls of Tyrannosaurus, Edmontosaurus, Pachycelphalosaurus and Giraffititan. On the other wall are the tail weapons of Ankylosaurus and Stegosaurus.
The Cretaceous is represented by Triceratops skull and full-sized Edmontosaur mount. Said mount has crushed vertebrae at the base of the tail that may be from a Tyrannosaur attack. All the mounts are comprehensive-the Stegosaur has its neck armor, the Edmontosaurus its tail-stiffening bony rods, and both herbivores come complete with sclerotic rings (eye bones found in birds, fish and lizards in order to strengthen large, non-spherical eyeballs). The late Cretaceous Niobrara sea makes up the tail end of the Mesozoic hall-Protostega and Pteranodon fly overhead, and Xiphactinus and Platecarpus (both iconic and ubiquitous Niobrara species) lie on the wall, and ammonites, baculites, crabs and crinoids lie below. The Xiphactinus skeleton is preserved with its last fish meal still inside.
Cenozoic halls begin with a small diorama depicting a family of the lemurlike adapid primate Notharctus leaping through the Palaeogene jungle. This is the fauna of the Lost Cabin site from Wyoming, about 50 million years ago. The painting behind the diorama depicts crocodiles and the big hippolike herbivore Coryphodon on a river, A Protorohippus approaches the river, with the creodont predator Prototomus stalking it. A Notharctus skeleton is mounted nearby, next to the skulls of the other animals shown in the diorama. Fish, frogs, and other well-preserved freshwater species from Wyoming’s Fossil Lake (I’ve talked about that site with the Field Museum review) lead to a sequence of mounts and skulls of early Eocene American fauna: Gastornis, Eobasileus, Dinictis, Sphenocoeulus ,and Stylemys.
The late Eocene is better-represented by its skeletal mounts of the White Deer River fauna. The rhino Trigonias, the entelodont Archaeotherium, the horse Mesohippus, the camel Poebrotherium, and a family of giant brontotheres Megacerops watch as a pair of Hyaenodon creodonts take down and kill the oreodont Merycoidodon. The spectacle keeps coming with another walkthrough diorama depicting the Agate Springs fauna-the giant entelodont Daeodon charges a group of Stenomylus, antelope-like camels. In the distance, the rhinoceros Menoceras, the horse Parahippus, and the oreodont Merycochoerus roam the plains. The strange herbivores slingshot-horned Synthetoceras and claw-footed Moropus watch the scene from the brush.
Skeletons of the aforementioned animals (skulls in the case of the Synthetoceras and Daeodon) follow up the diorama. Mammal evolution is dramatized on the following wall-skulls and mounts show the horse family tree, while a Michaels painting depicts whale evolution from early mammalian predators to modern dolphins. The late Miocene is represented by a full mount of a Gomphotherium, distantly related to mastodons, mammoths, and elephants, a skull of the aforementioned Synthetoceras, and the dachshund-hippo rhino Teleoceras. So, human evolution is placed in the context of mammal evolution in general. A niche leads to one last diorama showing Australopithecus afarensis in the Pliocene night. Next to her is the skull display on hominidae and a cast skeleton of Lucy, paralleling the horse display.
Apparently, before the 1995 restoration, the museum had a diorama of a Smilodon attacking a Glossotherium and a mount and mural showing the aforementioned sloth confronting both the sabertooth cat and dire wolves. Unfortunately, the museum has seemed to have run out of space for the Pleistocene. The exhibit ends with a Colombian mammoth skull and windows to the fossil preparation lab. The lab itself is fascinating. On the wall is a nearly complete Stegosaurus and the reconstruction of Cope’s lost fossil, the man-sized vertebra Amphicoelias .
These aren’t the only fossil mounts in the museum, however. Ken Carpenter’s specialties, other than armored dinosaurs, are Tyrannosaurus and Plesiosaurs. So, they take up the hall with mounts of each. Confronting the visitors as they enter the lobby is a cast skeleton of Tyrannosaurus. Instead of a static pose favored by most museums, the Tyrannosaurus is shown in an action pose. It kicks upwards as it rears to its full height, turning its roaring head down to look at the visitors. Until recently it was accompanied by a John Gurchemural of a Daspletosaurus in a similar pose locked in combat with a Styracosaurus.
Above the gift store and leading towards the main exhibit on the second floor are two elasmosaurs, Thalassomedon. They are mounted in an underwater hunt, swimming upwards and snapping their jaws to catch a fish high in the air. These three mounts make for great introductions in the main hall, huge and dynamic. Sadly, the main exhibit doesn’t try to integrate them into the narrative, even as the Elamosaurs would have swam alongside Xiphactinus and Tyrannosaurus hunted Edmontosaurus.
A coda: recently, two sculptures have been placed outside in the parking lot. The sculptures can be viewed from above on the main lot or from the side from the underground lot. These were made by Gary Staab, depicting two Jurassic dinosaurs from Colorado. The giant sauropod Camarosaurus rears up to ward off a prowling Ceratosaurus, another action-packed scene that tempts the visitors (especially the dinophiles) with what to expect.
All in all, the Denver museum is an experience. While not quite as big as the Field Museum’s halls, let alone the American Museum, they are presented the best. Sculptures and lifelike mounts and murals make the fossil animals fit in with all the other taxidermy and sculpture, and make the animals seem less like static aliens and more like real animals. While there are plenty of exceptions, the presentation, especially the use of grouping contemporary species and depicting their interactions (a Michaels painting shows Moropus fighting Daeodon, perhaps a rejected concept for a fossil mount or diorama) makes Prehistoric Journey something really special. In a way, I think it’s better than the American Museum-instead of quantity of specimens, the Denver museum uses this lifelike approach to more vividly portray prehistoric life and uses the more straightforward chronological approach to teach the evolution of life rather than taxonomy. It’s definitely to be recommended. If you live between Chicago Austin and Utah, the Denver Museum is really the best dinosaur museum near you.
Here’s the Museum’s website on the exhibit! http://www.dmns.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/prehistoric-journey/