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Houston museum unveils $85 million dinosaur hall

May 22, 2012

In a Tuesday May 15, 2012 photo construction workers finish the new Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The $85 million wing of the museum will have the only Triceratops skin found to date and a unique Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil with complete hands. The exhibit that opens June 2. -AP Photo

HOUSTON: Pups in her womb, a large eye visible behind the rib cage, one baby stuck in the birth canal, all fossilized in stone, all modern-day evidence that this ancient marine beast, the Ichthyosaur, died in childbirth.    

The almost certainly painful death is perfectly preserved in a rare fossil skeleton, one of the many unique items that will go on display in the Houston Museum of Natural Science's $85 million dinosaur hall when it opens to the public June 2.

Paleontologists and scientists at the museum and the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in South Dakota have worked for three years to collect, clean and preserve artifacts designed to give visitors a look at how life evolved beginning 3.5 billion years ago.

''You'll actually be able to touch a fossil that's 3.5 billion years old,'' Robert Bakker, the museum's curator of paleontology, says in a conspiratorial whisper. ''A microbe, simpler than bacteria, which had in its DNA the kernel that would flower later on into dinosaurs, mammals, then us. That's the beginning of the safari.''

''The Prehistoric Safari'' is expected to be among the top dinosaur exhibits in the United States.

Bakker says the safari is designed to teach about evolution. Visitors will experience the Cambrian explosion, when life went from ''literally slime'' into ''beautiful, elegantly sculptured things, the trilobites, which are gorgeous.''

These bizarre, insect-like creatures, which are sometimes horned or sporting antennae, roamed the Earth's seas in the Paleozoic era before the dinosaurs. At the Houston museum, visitors will be treated to one of the largest displays of trilobite fossils in the world.

''Kids can't curb their enthusiasm when they're in a hall of dinosaurs and mammoths and mammoth hunters and trilobites and giant fish that could chomp up a shark,'' said Bakker, who in the 1970s was one of the first to argue the massive prehistoric beasts were warm-blooded and further challenged scientific thinking in his 1986 book ''The Dinosaur Heresies.''

The exhibit offers unique objects, including the only Triceratops skin found to date, a specimen that showed they had been wrong in believing the horned vegetarians had smooth skin. In fact, they had bristles, Bakker said.

Then there is the museum's skeleton of a T. rex, one of only two with complete hands, two long fingers and one stub, which Bakker believes could be proof this massive, feared predator also had a soft side.

The fingers, too small and badly configured, wouldn't have helped in hunting, or even grabbing things, leaving Bakker and other paleontologists to believe they were for tickling, fondling and even falling in love.

The hall also will house the world's only complete fossil of a snake-type creature from 50 million years ago, said David Temple, the museum's associate curator of paleontology.

Original sculptures, paintings and murals will depict scenes scientists and paleontologists believe occurred based on the fossil evidence, Temple said. ''This is what life was like at the beginning of natural history,'' Temple said.