Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Dragon King, Dracorex hogwartsia

One of the centerpiece exhibits at the Children's Museum is Dracorex hogwartsia, the small and somewhat controversial pachycephalosaur. Discovered in 2003 by a group of fossil hunters who then donated the skull to the Children's Museum, it was formally described by Dr. Robert Bakker in 2006. Dracorex made a big splash, famously receiving its own cover story in National Geographic.

Dracorex skull

Also, it's named for a fantasy novel series of some note.

Having been preserved in the Hell Creek Formation, Dracorex in life was a denizen of the latest Cretaceous, and contemporary with Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. In his description of the fossil, Bakker's stance, as you might expect, is that Dracorex represents a unique genus. A paper published last year by Jack Horner made the case that it's more likely a young Pachycephalosaurus, as is the somewhat larger Stygimoloch. Unfortunately, all we have to go on is the skull and a few vertebrae, and finding more of Dracorex's body would help clear this up (a key point, and one that makes me lean a bit towards Bakker's view is that Horner did not examine the original fossil. More on this here).

When it comes to the Children's Museum, questions about its true identity are beside the point, Dracorex has been used to great effect to teach a larger lesson. It's the foundation of the Dragons Unearthed exhibit, which takes the striking skull of Dracorex and uses it to tell the story of paleontology. Children are asked not to stand in wide-eyed awe in front of a skeleton, but to look at this skull and other fossils and think about how paleontologists interpret them to come to a reasonable image of the animals as they lived.

Dragons Unearthed
One of the learning stations in the Dragons Unearthed exhibit.

Pictured below, interpreter Mookie Harris ably mans the Art Cart, one of my favorite aspects of Dragons Unearthed.
Mookie

Using the skull of a tapir, Mookie asks children to help put flesh to the bone. He lets them use their own imaginations to figure out what the animal would have looked like. This part is really fun to watch, as Mookie has great chemistry with kids and really lets them call the shots, no matter how strange. Goggle-eyes on top of the head? No problem. Mookie draws them on, then suggests that such an adaptation may mean that the bizarre creature spent a lot of time hiding in the water. These features may pop out of the child's mind for fun, but Mookie does his best to give them an evolutionary reasoning.

Mookie

After their attempt, Mookie reveals the true owner of the skull and shows the features that can be used to diagnose it as belonging to an herbivorous mammal. Then, he brings out a cast of Dracorex's skull, showing that the process the child just went through is just what people have been doing for thousands of years. It's a great hands-on demonstration of how mythological beasts like dragons may have been dreamed of - and that even though we know better now, they were reasonable enough for people of pre-scientific ages. It's all about critically examining the fossils to come to the best conclusions possible about its owner. Mookie told me that he's really heartened by the level of knowledge displayed by his young visitors, especially the increasing numbers of girls who have a real investment in dinosaurs. He thinks that it has a lot to do with documentaries in the style of Walking With Dinosaurs, which portray dinosaurs as animals rather than monsters.

Dracorex hogwartsia
Dracorex hogwartsia reconstruction, using the post-cranial skeleton of Pachycephalosaurus.

Dr. Bakker himself is a consultant to the museum, and Josh told me that when he pays one of his occasional visits, he really immerses himself. Anyone who has seen him on TV specials knows of his enthusiasm, and it's easy to picture him pitching in at the fossil prep lab, holding court for a group of kids and parents to teach how the work is done. No matter how the scientific consensus on Dracorex shakes out, there's no doubt that its fossilized noggin is one of the coolest dinosaur bones ever found. Its discovery and presentation to the public has been a good thing for education, and the Children's Museum has made the most of it with an attraction that promotes critical thinking over spectacle.

5 comments:

  1. What an amazing find! Is the Children's Museum in Indianapolis the owner of the skull? They'd make bank if they cast copies and sold replicas!

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  2. You can get casts of it, but I'm not sure if it's available from the museum itself. I didn't see it in their shop.

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  3. Another great post David! On a side note, in my recent blog post, I highly recommended my fans visit your site. Check it out!

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  4. Great post on one of my favorite dinos. Indianapolis appears to have a fantastic exhibit. And it's relieving to see I'm not the only one that's not so eager to lump Dracorex, Stygimoloch and Pachycephalosaurus into one species.

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  5. That Art Cart is a great educational activity!

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