The kids were playing in three areas--the excavation site, fossil-rubbing station, and dinosaur book-and-toy table--when the adults disappeared around the corner into Texas Dinosaurs: Life and Death in the Big Bend. They had seen the strobe-light lightning bolts and heard the recorded sounds of a thunderstorm rolling from where they played and had chosen to lurk there until someone else was brave enough to enter the darkened gallery that was just steps away. After the grown-ups entered, they waited a few more minutes, ya know, just to be safe. When eventually they rounded the corner and stepped into the room designed to look like prehistoric Big Bend, they found themselves face-to-knee with a Tyrannosaurus rex. Some screamed; some ran. Others began circling the diorama where the giant T. rex's skeleton stood perched over a pile of Alamosaurus bones in wonder.

This T. rex is the real thing. It doesn't talk. It doesn't scoop up gentle plant eaters in its massive jaws. It just stands there in front of an illustration of how it might look were it alive, not just bones and support pieces positioned in a gallery in Fair Park. However, surrounded by darkness, re-created landscape, and the storm effects, its size makes it more formidable than any Disney film or history book could. From squared-off muzzle to skinny tail, it's several car lengths long, standing more than one story tall. Lights on the rocks below cast its imposing shadow on the ceiling. The bones at its feet are real, too. So is the crested Torosaurus skull that lies nearby, peeking out from rocks and foliage on the mural wall on one of T. rex's sides. The skull of the Deinosuchus (a giant crocodile that ate small dinosaurs), however, is a cast made in 1940. The Dallas Museum of Natural History owns all four dinosaurs. The T. Rex is its new acquisition and will become a permanent attraction once the museum's expansion is completed.

Besides Life and Death in the Big Bend, the museum's new exhibit of Texas dinosaurs includes the play area, a lab where visitors can watch paleontologists work on fossils, an installation about dinosaurs portrayed in popular culture, and Roaming North Texas, where the museum's Tenontosaurus and an un-named, rooster-sized dinosaur found at Proctor Lake stand side by side, backed by a mural of how they might have looked walking where Dallasites now line packed highways and live in lofts too small to house the Tenontosaurus. Tracks made by several dinosaurs are on display, including a few taken from the Paluxy River in Glen Rose, where several trails have been found, as it was once the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors can touch a fossilized Diplodocus bone before entering the room where T. rex holds court.

Texas Dinosaurs is a work in progress. Life and Death in the Big Bend and its counterparts are just the first piece in a trilogy of exhibits about the prehistoric creatures that once lived in the Lone Star state. Over the next two years, more dinosaurs will be added, highlighting other areas of dinosaur activity such as the metroplex and the Panhandle, where a stretch of 200 million years old rock is exposed.

The Big Bend has been especially lucrative for dino discoveries because rocks from 65 to 70 million years ago are exposed. A team from the museum recently found a sauropod bone bed containing three dinosaurs, likely Alamosauruses. Once the trio of exhibit is complete, the museum plans to have the most comprehensive group of Texas dinosaurs on display anywhere. Though the fossils are owned by the Dallas Museum of Natural History, the Texas Dinosaurs suite may become a touring exhibition once its Dallas run is complete. Then the mighty T. rex can menace children across the country, not just the ones who catch it in a darkened gallery in Dallas.

Shannon Sutlief

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Shannon Sutlief