Can You Dig This? The Children's Museum of Indianapolis Is a Paleontology Leader

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis may be the most surprising major player in the paleontology world.

Children’s Museum of Indianapolis Paleontology
Lindsey Powell measures a fossilized bone from a sauropod. Photo: ROBERT ANNIS

The barren, sun-baked landscape looks like the set of a sci-fi film, miles and miles away from. anything resembling civilization. We drove to this secret location, outside of Cody, Wyoming, on a road built on the remnants of ancient terrain.

The scenery didn't always look this way. Millennia ago, it was a green oasis bordering a massive body of water where dinosaurs would satisfy their thirst after chomping on abundant plant life. Today, this 640-acre, multi-level site in the badlands, referred to as the Jurassic Mile, is an exciting mix of dinosaur fossils, footprints and plants.

At this dig, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis—yes, you read that right—leads an international collaboration that includes the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands and The University of Manchester in the U.K. A crew of 16 scientists, volunteers and students from the United States and Europe work in small groups along the terraced cliff, crouching in the dirt, carefully chipping away at sandstone and brushing debris off the skeletons.

"Imagine a jigsaw puzzle, but you're searching for millions of pieces [in the ground]," says paleontology student Lindsey Powell while measuring a 6-foot-long piece of a sauropod's tailbone. "Once you put that puzzle together you've got to fit it into an even larger puzzle."

In the four years since they began work at this site, researchers have discovered more than 1,000 dinosaur and plant fossil specimens—including an 80-foot-long brachiosaur and a 90-foot-long diplodocid. They're also discovering what these beasts ate, how they may have interacted with one another and even how some of them died. Fossilized logs among shattered bones suggest the sauropod might have been killed by a flood or carried downstream after death. It's like an episode of CSI: Jurassic Park.

Children’s Museum of Indianapolis Paleontology

Researchers uncover fossils at a dig site in Wyoming, headed up by the The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. The site contributes specimens to the museum's exhibits.

Over the decades, The Children's Museum has become a major player in the paleontology world. It ran a Cretaceous Period dig site in South Dakota for many years, where researchers discovered and named the Dracorex hogwartsia (the first of its genus and species, named for a dragon-like dinosaur that would have fit right into a Harry Potter novel). They also found a rare mummified dinosaur nicknamed Leonardo and a Gorgosaurus with a brain tumor.

The Jurassic Mile has been so successful, The Children's Museum is temporarily closing its Dinosphere exhibit to update it with several specimens from the site. They'll double the size of the on-site paleontology lab, where families can watch scientists working from an open window.

The excitement in kids' eyes as they interact with the exhibit is why the museum invested so heavily in dinosaurs. These are the moments when many children first become fascinated by science.

"As a kid, we made frequent visits to The Children's Museum," says paleontologist Meghan Newman. "I remember so clearly going into the museum's mock dig site searching for bones, hoping to find something new. More than 20 years later, I'm back at The Children's Museum and cleaning a scapula that I found at a real dig site."

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