I’m in Houston this week and I took Saturday afternoon off to visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I didn’t see nearly all of it, but of course, it goes without saying that they think big in Texas. I started with the Wortham IMAX Theater. I’m a sucker for IMAX films that feature Mesozoic reptiles, so I couldn’t resist Sea Rex: Journey to a Prehistoric World, with the journey conducted by the shade of Georges Cuvier, no less. It was in 3D and that was even more fun, with the plesiosaurs seeming to stick their long necks out of the screen so far that people actually ducked. I followed it up by checking out the Mesozoic sea life in their Life through Time exhibit. They have mount of a mososaur (Plioplatecarpus) attacking a Cretaceous sea turtle (Toxochelys), in front of a mososaur painting by William Stout. It’s a really good display, although there wasn’t enough light for me to get a decent picture of it with my cell phone. I took a picture of a fossilized ichthyosaur too, which isn’t as dramatic but was better lit.
This is all very nice, I thought, but, as paleontology halls go, not so very special. What is there about this place that makes it unique? The answer, as it turned out, was towering over me. A complete Diplodocus is mounted in the center of the hall, its long tail curling into a spiral near the second floor, its neck reaching up even farther. I remember reading as a second-grader that Diplodocus was the longest of the dinosaurs at 70 feet (21.3 m), although that was a few years ago and a longer one might have been found since. Part of this one was clearly a cast, but there seemed to be some original bones too. I watched a film loop on the discovery of the Diplodocus and then wondered if this thing could be what I thought it was. At that point I met Rich, a museum guide who’s just as enthusiastic about fossils as I am and was happy to tell me a few things about it. Rich confirmed that this mount is not a Diplodocus – it is the Diplodocus. It’s the holotype, the definitive type specimen found by O. C. Marsh in 1878. OK, now I’m impressed.
I was also surprised, because I had thought that Marsh sent all of his fossils back east and indeed this one had been. It was in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh until 1962, when the Houston Youth League bought the fossil and brought it to Houston. “Dipsy” is now the star of the Houston museum’s dinosaur show. And it’s going to get bigger.
Rich brought me up to the roof parking lot to get a view of the addition that’s under construction. It’s to be named the Dan L. Duncan Family Wing and will include a huge new dinosaur hall, into which Dipsy and co. will be moving. Rich told me that they expect it to open in the summer of 2012. It sounds like an exciting time for them and I hope I can get back here in a year or so to see how the new program is going.