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March 2008

In Our Own Backyard

Dino-Mite Exhibit at Explorers Hall

By Michele Bush Kimball, Ph.D.

We were on the hunt: herbivore, 110 million years old, somewhere in the middle of the city.

And there it was – the Nigersaurus exhibit at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall. We had heard the hype about this crazy-looking new kind of dinosaur, and my paleontologists-in-the-making, Joey, 5, and Gracie, 3, were not disappointed.
At 30 feet long, it wasn’t the largest dinosaur we’ve seen, but it was definitely one of the strangest. It has a squared-off mouth that looks distinctly like the front end of a vacuum cleaner, and apparently it worked like one.

“Oh, it’s so cute!” exclaimed Gracie when she set eyes on it. She went on to explain that it was her new best friend because she was going to become a “teeny, tiny dinosaur,” too.

Joey agreed that this was the kind of dinosaur with whom to make friends, but for a completely different reason. Using the logic only a 5-year-old could muster, he thought the dinosaur was large, so it had to be docile.

“He’s a friendly one because if dinosaurs are that huge, they are very nice,” he said.
Nigersaurus’s unique visage interested Joey and Gracie so much that they stuck around to hear as many facts as possible about it. They were surprised that it had so many teeth, with up to 9 replacements stored behind each tooth. They are also big fans of Diplodocus, so they were happy to know that Nigersaurus was related to it. As a parent, it was wonderful to visit a new dinosaur exhibit and to see the kids excited to learn more.

Joey and Gracie, like most kids, could not take their eyes off the strange shape of the head. Susan Norton, director of the museum, said that they have had a fantastic response from kids, and most of them comment on Nigersaurus’s rectangular head. Norton said that she thinks most kids are used to more aggressive dinosaurs, so they are intrigued to see one that looks almost cuddly.

Nigersaurus itself was a great find, Norton said of the dinosaur, whose bones were first discovered 50 years ago in Niger, a country in the Sahara region of Africa. After excavating and piecing together a skeleton, Paul Sereno, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, named the dinosaur in 1999, the first species of its kind.

Sereno also nicknamed the dinosaur the fern mower because that’s what it did – head down, tail up, it mowed through vegetation with its 500 to 600 teeth. 110 million years ago, the Nigersaurus wasn’t unusual; in fact, it was one of the most common herbivores in the region. But today, the fossil is a major find. “No one had ever seen an animal with that shaped head,” Norton said. “It’s the strangest thing in the world.”
Norton said that kids seem to like this dinosaur’s differences – the fact that it kept its head down, rather than high in the air as they usually see other dinosaurs depicted. “They love it, and as we all know, kids love dinosaurs of all kinds.”

Extreme Dinosaur – Nigersaurus: Africa’s Long-Necked Fern Mower, a central exhibit in the west building, is one of several exhibits at Explorers Hall and allows kids to view a life-size replica skeleton of Nigersaurus and touch a piece of fossilized wood. Hallways in the vicinity also have photographic exhibits, such as one that explores 14 countries from Mexico to Argentina. Just outside in the courtyard between the two buildings, there are often other photography exhibits.

Michele Bush Kimball is a freelance writer based in Springfield and a stay-at-home mom.

Frog Fun

In the east building, the central exhibit is Frogs! A Chorus of Colors, which gives kids the chance to see the vibrant colors of live poison dart frogs or to search for highly camouflaged Vietnamese mossy frogs. In previous venues, the frog exhibit has been enormously popular with the small set, said Norton. “I have never seen children so excited to be in an exhibition in my entire life. They were literally bouncing off the walls.”

Norton said she had heard about the exhibit four or five years ago, and on a trip to New York City, stopped in to see it. She called her office right away and said it needed to be scheduled for Explorers Hall. The exhibit has been in such demand that it is just now making its way to Washington, D.C. “When you walk in and you see these poison dart frogs that are cobalt blue and neon yellow and fire-engine red, we have just never seen anything like that,” Norton said.

Don’t fear the poison in the frogs’ name, she said. The frogs become poisonous when they consume a particular kind of ant. They won’t be getting that ant here, so they will not be poisonous.

In addition to the wildly colorful frogs, the exhibit also showcases the remarkable camouflaging abilities of some species. Kids enjoy searching for the live frogs as they hide in plain sight.

Interactive stations show frog anatomy and how to build a frog chorus. The exhibit also compares jumping distances, as well as frogs’ abilities to run and glide.
In all, the exhibit has almost 150 frogs in their vivariums, or enclosed environments for us laymen, with materials explaining each one.

“It’s got science. It’s got the wow factor. It’s got the fun factor,” Norton said. “I think there will be a little something for everybody.”

If you go:

Where: The National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall is at 17th and M streets, NW, Washington, D.C.

Hours of operation: It is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. But hurry! The Extreme Dinosaur – Nigersaurus: Africa’s Long-Necked Fern Mower exhibit runs until March 18, 2008.

Admission: Free.

Getting there: There is a public parking garage within the block. If you prefer mass transit, the Farragut North Metro station on the Red Line is about 1 ½ blocks away. The Farragut West Metro station on the Orange and Blue lines is about three blocks away.

Food: There is a coffee and snack bar on premises.

Amenities: The gift shop is small, but it has a great selection of souvenirs and National Geographic Society products.

Website: www.nationalgeographic.com/museum

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