Stop number 1 for our family on the Montana Dinosaur Trail is the Museum of the Rockies (MOR).
The museum is in Bozeman, Montana. It boasts of having the largest collection of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops fossils in the world.
On a winter trip to Big Sky, when our kids were 3 and 4, one parent made a side trip to Bozeman with the children and checked out MOR. Bozeman is an hour drive away from Big Sky. The children were tired on the drive back to Big Sky but once awake, they were gushing about the dinosaurs. “The T rex’s teeth are huge! They’re like big bananas!”
Fast forward two years, the dinosaur fascination has not subsided. Back to MOR for more.
What grabs your attention on arrival at the Museum of the Rockies is the huge T rex at the right side of the entrance. He stands regal as he greets MOR visitors. He is 15 feet tall, 38 feet long and weighs 10,000 pounds.
His name is Big Mike, dedicated to the memory of Dr. Michael P Malone, the 10th president of the Montana State University. The Museum of the Rockies is a research facility, a college-level division of the Montana State University. The displays in the museum are very impressive, linked to actual scientific research but presented in a way that is mentally digestible by non-paleontologists.
Big Mike is a bronze cast of MOR 555, the T rex fossil also known as Wankel Rex after its discoverer, rancher Kathy Wankel. She discovered the dinosaur while hiking with family in Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir on Labor Day weekend 1988. The dinosaur bones were excavated by the paleontology crew of the Museum of the Rockies and used to be displayed in MOR.
The original dinosaur bones are now in the Smithsonian as “The Nation’s T rex” on a 50 year loan by the US Army Corps of Engineers. After going to Washington DC, the Wankel Rex went north of the border, to the Research Casting International in Ontario, Canada, where Big Mike was casted.
In MOR, the Wankel Rex was displayed in its death pose. When the Fossil Hall of the National Museum of Natural History re-opens on June 8, 2019, the public will see the dinosaur “resurrected”, posed to take a bite of poor Hatcher, the Triceratops.
Fossils are fragile and more often than not, little children are told “Don’t touch!”
In MOR, it’s not only a visual experience, it’s also tactile. Little visitors not only see but get to touch some fossils. During our visit, the children got to see how Triceratops can grow to become big dinosaurs. They appreciated this more when the docent let them hold and carry a Triceratops horn. It was heavy.
Big and Small Dinosaurs
Why are little children fascinated with dinosaurs? Retired MOR Department of Paleontology Curator, Jack Horner’s answer: “They are big. They are different. They are gone.” He qualified the latter, because if you’re in the know, dinosaurs are not really gone gone. The non-avian dinosaurs are extinct, but the dinosaurs live on in the present day as birds, avian dinosaurs. In the Siebel Dinosaur Complex of the Museum of the Rockies, there’s a part that explains the scientific evidence why birds are dinosaurs.
One anatomic similarity between birds and those big ancient dinosaurs is that they have a wishbone, the furcula. The little hummingbird has it. The humongous T rex has it. If you visit MOR, look up the chest of 12 feet tall, 40 feet long Montana’s Rex (above photo) for the U-shaped bone between its two shoulder blades.
It was quite a site to see the the growth series of the T rex and Triceratops skulls – as the docent put it for the kids: the kindergarten then the elementary school then the teenager then the grown up dinosaurs. It was a neat way of explaining Ontogeny, the developmental history of an individual organism, to 5 and 6 year old children.
MOR also features Montana’s state fossil, the Maiasaura. There are exhibits of baby dinosaurs and dinosaur eggs that were found in Central Montana.
Outside of the Bowman Dinosaur Viewing Laboratory where a volunteer or a student is preparing the dinosaur bones for study, there’s a play area for kids. There are small dinosaur models, stuffed animals, books and puzzles. As my son put together a kiddie dinosaur puzzle, I look over at the fragments of bones that would be for some passionate paleontologists the pieces of a real dinosaur puzzle. What curiosity and dedication must go into searching, excavating, cleaning, putting together and studying these relics of ancient life.
My young daughter was enthralled not only with the dinosaurs but the presentation on the rock records. Paleontology after all goes hand in hand with Geology.
If you visit here on a Yellowstone vacation, you’d have a deeper appreciation for Grand Prismatic Spring and Mammoth Hot Springs after learning about chemosynthesis. It will make you think about deep time and our planet’s fragile ecosystems. The exhibits may be of long-gone animals but it makes you ponder about life.
MOR makes science fascinating and fun.
More Than Dinosaurs
Although we came here for the dinosaurs, there are a lot of other things to see in the museum.
It has a hands-on exhibit for little kids (age 8 and younger) about Yellowstone, an extensive guitar exhibit, a living history farm and a planetarium.
If you’re in Bozeman and curious about dinosaurs or have kids who are, this museum is a gem. It’s also a great reason to make a side trip to Bozeman if you’re on vacation in Big Sky or Yellowstone.
MOR is a member of the Association of Science-Technology Centers. If your family likes science centers and museums, we invite you to check out the ASTC Travel Passport Program. We have found very good value with our family membership in our local Washington museum because of the reciprocity with other science centers and museums.
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