How to Cram the World’s Biggest Dinosaur Into a Museum
“I don’t think people are going to be prepared for how big this thing is,” says Mark Norell.
Norell is the chair of the paleontology division at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and he’s not being hyperbolic. He’s talking about the museum’s newest permanent exhibit, a 122-feet-long skeletal cast of a newly discovered species of Titanosaurus that paleontologists are saying was the biggest dinosaur that ever walked the earth. As recently as ten years ago, Norell says, scientists didn’t even know a land animal could be this big. So, no. People probably won’t be prepared.
The paleontologists who unearthed the bones in the Argentina desert can tell from the surrounding rocks that the herbivore lived between 95- and 100-million years ago—but, as far as scientific thrills go, “the size is the big thing,” Norell says. When the new dinosaur—which was discovered so recently it doesn’t even have an official name yet—is installed in January, it will be even more massive than the museum’s other gigantic icons, like the blue whale (94 feet long), the Tyrannosaurus Rex (39 feet long), and the Great Canoe (63 feet long).
Scientists never find every single bone from a given dinosaur. In this case, Norell says they recovered about 40 percent of the animal’s bones, cherry picked from the partial skeletons of seven different dinosaurs. The litmus test for gaging the size of the animal is the thigh bone. By comparing it to bones found in other titanosaurs, Norell and the paleontologists came to the conclusion that the animal was a colossal 130-feet long, and weighed in at seven tons. To even fit in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Orientation Center, a spacious hall on the museum’s fourth floor, Norell will have to remove a model of a juvenile Barosaurus that’s been there since 1996. But even with the hall to itself, the dinosaur doesn’t exactly fit: Its back will nearly graze the gallery’s 19-foot-high ceilings, and its head and neck will protrude through the entryway doors into the adjoining elevator banks.
This task—inserting a replica of the biggest creature to ever walk the planet—is made easier by modern manufacturing methods. Because the museum only has around 40 percent of the dinosaur’s bones, they have to make the remaining 60 percent from scratch. Fortunately, dinosaurs are symmetrical; if a bone on one side of the body is missing its complement, paleontologists can replicate its mirror image and use it to fill in the gap. In the old days, curators would create casts and fill them with plaster or fiberglass. Today, they can take surface scans and then digitally flip the bone around, once it’s a file on a computer. The pieces get 3-D printed with a foam milling machine, and then coated in resin or fiberglass, “like a surfboard,” Norell says. The result is a much lighter set of bones, which allows for a more agile rigging method. “This one will appear like it’s floating.”
Norell says assembling the new dinosaur on-site will take a week, and compares the bones to pre-fabricated furniture parts that will snap together. Specifics on the surrounding exhibit are scant, but the museum will be running a series of special programs showcasing developments in paleontology over the past several years. That said, Norell makes it very clear that the main event will undoubtedly be the new dino-stallation. “I’ve seen the real bones in Argentina, I’ve seen the models we’ve built, and I’ve walked through it on my computer screen,” he says. “It’s going to be a whole other experience when you see it.”
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