Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Scelidosaurus now on display at the Dinosaur Discovery Track Site Museum in Saint George, Utah

Today the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm in Saint George, Utah, will unveil its newest exhibit - the first Scelidosaurus to ever be displayed in the Western Hemisphere! The museum will hold a unveiling of the specimen today, Wednesday, February 9, at 5 pm. Admission is free and refreshments will be served (all right, free food!). I caught up with Dr. Jerry Harris (director of paleontology at Dixie State College) yesterday to ask him some questions regarding this new display.

[RKHF]: What was the toughest part of the instillation and design of the new exhibit?

[JH]: Well, putting this exhibit together has been relatively easy for some pleasantly fortuitous reasons. Making signage was pretty simple because we're fortunate enough to have a really terrific poster plotter in the Science Department at Dixie State College; the biggest problem along those lines was bouncing drafts between people and collating comments from multiple people. That's the kind of thing that would be easier if everyone was consistently in the same place, which just wasn't feasible for various reasons. But as we get experience doing that kind of thing, it's getting easier!

The specimen itself was the biggest issue. For various political reasons, I won't get into some details, but getting the pieces of the replica assembled and put together in a way that can be exhibited safely and attractively without a lot of money or technical equipment and expertise (like welding) has been a bit of a challenge. As I write this, I have not seen the final product that was still being constructed yesterday [see picture below for final product]! And we'll have a second challenge along those lines when we move it to it's permanent home within the museum in late May/early June -- presently, it will be on a temporary, special exhibit devoted specifically to the animal in our designated temporary exhibit space, where it can have more associated signage and material than it will in its permanent space. Part of the challenge, both with the specimen and signage, was making it capable of being used in two different configurations of different sizes!

The new exhibit of Scelidosaurus at the Dinosaur Discovery Track Site Museum in Saint George. Photo © Jerry Harris. 

One last challenge we had was trying to find enough physical material to display along with the replica. Spouting on endlessly about the animal in text is easy, but an exhibit full of signs but few objects isn't attractive. Finding relevant, physical objects to display with it was more difficult. We managed to get our hands on some other (invertebrate) fossils from the same locality that also produced Scelidosaurus (one is an ammonite from the same horizon; others are from slightly higher horizons), as well as a few models (toys, really) of Scelidosaurus that will be used in a display about how perceptions of the animal have changed over time, most recently because of this virtually complete specimen of which we now have a replica. I also have some other replicas of thyreophoran dinosaurs that I use in teaching here at the college, and those will be used in a display about later relatives of Scelidosaurus: one on stegosaurs, including a Stegosaurus skull, plate, and tail spike, and one on ankylosaurs, including skulls of Pawpawsaurus and Saichania (er, Minotaurosaurus) and a Saichania tail club. Lastly, we have some displays on why Scelidosaurus is relevant to our site, even though the animal itself hasn't been found here -- in this display, we'll have some of our Anomoepus tracks, which were made by early ornithischians, possible something like Scutellosaurus, which is about the only thyreophoran more primitive than Scelidosaurus (depending on how much traction you give to the hypothesis that Lesothosaurus is a basal thyreophoran and where Emausaurus fits).

[RKHF]: How will Scelidosaurus work into your current exhibit setup?

[JH]: In late May/Early June, when we move the replica to it's permanent home, it will be up at the top (for visitors, about the last area visited) of our exhibit space, which is an appropriate area to talk about what isn't preserved at our site but could easily have been represented in one form or another based on paleobiogeography and biostratigraphy. In other words, the visitors go through our museum and see how incredibly detailed is the "snapshot" of earliest Jurassic terrestrial life that is preserved here, but it's good to also impress that "detailed" doesn't mean "complete"! While we certainly hope to fill in some of the missing pieces with discoveries from our area, it's great to be able to bring in material from elsewhere, too, that complements our existing material in order to better educate our visitors. In this case, the donation makes it possible for them to see something that they'd have a very difficult time seeing otherwise -- the only other places that one could see this specimen are the Bristol Museum (where the original specimen is on temporary display) or the Charmouth Heritage Center in England and the natural history museum in Belfast, Ireland (both with twin replicas to ours). This is the only time Scelidosaurus has ever been displayed in the Western Hemisphere, or anywhere in the world outside the British Isles!

[RKHF]: How does Scelidosaurus fit in with the whole radiation of Ornithischians?

[JH]: That's a good question! Richard Butler has been working on this issue -- not specifically, but on early ornithischian radiations as a whole. In his last analysis, it fell out more or less where it always has, as a pretty basal thyreophoran, neither a stegosaur nor an ankylosaur, but a bit more derived than Scutellosaurus (despite being about the same age). It may even be more derived than the much younger Emausaurus from northern Germany, but that specimen really needs redescription, especially in light of everything that's been learned about Scelidosaurus and both ankylosaur and stegosaur evolution and diversity since it was first described! Scelidosaurus is still, I believe, the earliest quadrupedal ornithischian known, indicating that ornithischians were beginning to bulk up even in the earliest Jurassic, possibly as a function of competition with herbivorous saurischians (sauropodomorphs) that had been big since the Late Triassic, and possibly also as a function of reduced competition as a result of the extinction of many of the other big herbivores of the Late Triassic (dicynodonts, aetosaurs, rhynchosaurs, etc.)

I'll also say that there are some workers out there that suspect that Scelidosaurus may be much closer to ankylosaurs than stegosaurs -- if that's correct, that pushes the eurypodan (stegosaurs + ankylosaurs) split much farther back in time than has been generally perceived. That would mean that there are a lot more early thyreophorans, and eurypodans, out there that have yet to be discovered -- that's exciting not only because thyreophorans are just plain awesome but also because they're rather understudied as a group, particularly this far down the cladogram! And I say this having been primarily a saurischian worker for most of my career!

[RKHF]: Can you give us any sneak peak on future exhibit plans for the museum?

[JH]: Well, come May, when the Dabney Scelidosaurus replica migrates to its permanent spot in the museum, our temporary exhibit space will be filled with another exhibit that we will make ourselves that we think will be unique in the annals of natural history exhibitions. We're calling it "Prehistorigami," and it will feature origami models of various prehistoric animals (lots of, but not exclusively, dinosaurs). The purpose will be to educate visitors about both origami as a very unusual art form with strong roots in science as well as about a variety of prehistoric animals. That exhibit will be up through the summer. In September, we'll install another exhibit (in time for SVP visitors!), though the subject of that is currently under discussion, so I can't provide more detail yet...!

I'd like to say one more thing, although you didn't ask a question specifically on this subject: the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm is deeply honored by the donation by Virginius "Jinks" and Barbara Anne Dabney, and they fully deserve all the credit for making this exhibit happen! The donation story itself is a nice exemplar of serendipity. I've been researching the possibilities of our museum obtaining replicas for a long time, something for which we could do targeted fund-raising. Given the fossils we have, replicas of, say, Dilophosaurus and Megapnosaurus would be ideal and beautifully complement our most abundant fossils, but they simply don't exist. Megapnosaurus (particularly "M." kayentakatae) hasn't ever really been molded, and what few Dilophosaurus replicas exist out there were made from molds that have long-since disintegrated. The fossils of both taxa really are too fragile to mold and de-mold safely, so it will be a long time before we can get those. So I've been looking for other things. I've known about this particular specimen of Scelidosaurus for a while, and even saw the original in Bristol during the SVP meeting there. But poking around on-line I saw a replica of it on display at the Charmouth Heritage Center. So I contacted them and asked them where they got it; they pointed me to the owner of the specimen, Mr. David Sole, and were kind enough to give me his contact information. So I contacted him; he's an incredibly nice and generous guy! He said he still had one replica available and told us what it would cost. That just happened to be the day on which our last temporary exhibit, "Dino-right, Dino-wrong," opened. So I took the information to the opening to chat about with other members of our Board, who were very excited about it. The exhibit was opened with a ribbon-cutting by the Dixie Sunshiners, and Jinks was one of them. Wandering through the exhibit after the opening ceremony, he overheard some of our Board members talking about how to proceed with the fund-raising to buy it, and mentioned that he'd like to get in on it. When pressed, he basically said he'd like to buy the whole kit 'n' kaboodle for the museum. I was literally stunned into silence by this news (anyone that knows me even a little will be surprised to hear that!)...and moved by the generosity. And as an aside, it's the easiest freakin' fund-raising I've ever done, and I say this as the kid that, when he had to sell band candy back in junior high, wasn't ever able to sell anything except the ones I ate myself!

So while I know that the dinosaur community will be heavily focused on the replica itself, I want to make sure that everyone knows that the real story here isn't the replica, but Jinks Dabney and the donation of the specimen -- all the credit goes to him and Barbara Anne!

Thanks to Jerry for taking the time to answer my questions and for alerting me to their new exhibit! I am looking forward to see it and their origami exhibit! Below is an article on the donation that was recently published in the Salt Lake Tribune. All museums should be so lucky to have such great patrons as the Dabney's! If you have not had a chance to see the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm in Saint George yet I highly recommended it. It is a very nice museum and I have to give kudos to Andrew Milner also for all of the hard work he has done there, along with his volunteers and staff [here is a link to a post I wrote about the museum in 2009]. The museum is worth the visit, so be sure to stop the next time you are in Utah! 

Dinosaur replica donated to St. George museum
By Mark Havnes
The Salt Lake Tribune
Published: February 4, 2011 09:42PM
Updated: February 5, 2011 12:35AM

A St. George lawyer says his nine grandchildren, who love dinosaurs, compelled him to pay for a replica of a 195-million-year-old scelidosaurus to go on permanent display at the Discovery Track Site Museum in this southwestern Utah city.

St. George resident Virginius Dabney looks at the replica skeleton of a Scelidosaurus dinosaur he purchased from a museum in England. It will go on display at the Discovery Track Site Museum in St. George. Image by Mark Havnes | The Salt Lake Tribune 

“We were in the right place at the right time to get this little sucker,” said Virginius Dabney, who contributed most of the $7,000 it cost to bring the replicated skeleton of the plant-munching beast to St. George. “Now the grandchildren can see grandpa’s dinosaur.”

The public will get an opportunity to see the skeleton Wednesday.

The model of the scelidosaurus (skel-eye-doh-SAWR-us) is based on one on display in the Charmouth Heritage Center in southern England near where the species was first discovered in 1859.

Jerry Harris, director of paleontology at Dixie State College in St. George, said that the replica will be the first one of the species on display in the Western Hemisphere.

He said the scelidosaurus roamed southwestern England during the early Jurassic period. The armor-plated dinosaur was 11 feet long and about 4 feet high, weighed three-quarters of a ton, and ate vegetation it ground with child-sized teeth.

“The replica is based on the most complete fossil [of scelidosaurus] ever found,” said Harris.

The St. George museum is built on the site of a prehistoric shoreline where dinosaurs roamed during the early Jurassic period. In 2000, a St. George doctor discovered dinosaur tracks when he turned over a slab of earth. Those tracks are on display at the Discovery museum.

Harris said that, in addition to tracks, only a few bone scraps have been found at the St. George site. But that doesn’t rule out skeletons.

“We just haven’t found them yet,” he said.

Rusty Salmon, director of the St. George museum, said the scelidosaurus replica will be the first skeleton to be displayed at the museum and she hopes there will be others in the future.

“Kids love to see dinosaurs on display, so the more the better,” she said.

Dabney said he has always had a soft spot for dinosaurs. “This is like buying a piece of history.”

His wife, Barbara Dabney, said she was a little surprised when she heard of her husband’s investment in prehistory.

“I was a little shocked at first, but once that wore off, I’m very supportive,” she said.

Original text © ReBecca K. Hunt-Foster, Photo of exhibit © Jerry Harris unless otherwise stated. Article © Salt Lake Tribune