SALT LAKE CITY — This weekend, the Natural History Museum of Utah may feel a little like one of the Jurassic Park movies, but happily, without the bloodshed or drama.
It's time for the museum's second annual DinoFest, a kid-friendly event with plenty to interest the area's grown-up armchair paleontologists. Keynote speakers Stephanie Pierce from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and John Hutchinson from London’s Royal Veterinary College will speak on the year's theme, "Dinosaurs in Motion," and experienced paleontologists will present shorter "dinobite" talks throughout the event.
And most of all, the museum invites visitors to explore the fossils as never before.
“We will have staff and volunteers to talk with visitors and talk about the different specimens,” said Randy Irmis, curator of paleontology and chief curator at the museum. “But this will be more of an open house thing where people walk through.”
The public will have access to objects and places in the museum usually closed to them, like the lab where fossils are extracted from rock. Here, experienced volunteers drill and file away at million-year-old sediment with the use of specially made low-vibration tools.
It’s not unusual for a thousand hours to go into preparing an individual fossil, explained Tylor Birthisel, a fossil preparer and lab manager.
“One of the things that I like to say is that from initial discovery to when you see it named or publicized in the papers typically is a five- to 10-year process," he said. "… How long it takes for something to prepare is a function of how hard the bone is versus how hard the rock is”
The fossil and rock are housed in a white encasing similar to a cast, which comes from the dig site. After the shape of the bones has been exposed, it’s usually a process of replacing the rock around the bones, which acts as scaffolding, with another form of support.
“We'll do an initial layer,” Birthisel said, “where we put wet paper towel down on all the exposed rock and bone. So this acts as a separator that when we do strips of burlap that are dipped in plaster to consolidate and hold everything in place — it doesn't stick directly to the bone.”
This protective layer, which they term a field jacket, protects the fossil from any immediate damage and simulates the pressure from the rock that was previously around it. The lab also makes frequent use of special adhesives (essentially dissolvable glue) that add stability and support without damaging the fossils.
The centerpiece of this year’s DinoFest, according to Irmis, will be a new tyrannosaur excavated from the Kaiparowits Plateau in southern Utah last year. Known as the Teratophoneus curriei, this tyrannosaur is approximately 76 million years old and roughly 10 million years older than its more famous counterpart, the Tyrannosaurus rex.
This exact species has so far only been found in the Kaiparowits Plateau where Irmis and other paleontologists have found multiple new species over the 15 or so years they’ve set up camp.
This Teratophoneus was caught early in its erosion after part of its foot was found sticking out of the rock. Surprisingly to the paleontologists, they discovered that many of the bones were still in the position they would be in in life.
Birthisel is sure that at least 80 percent of the dinosaur’s skeleton is there, making it the most complete of its kind found in southwestern Utah. He hopes to find more pieces in the blocks that have yet to be processed.
Beyond the hum of the lab, the museum also will open its paleontology collection to the public during this year's DinoFest.
The collections floor is divided into two sections housing oversize items on shelves and smaller items that fit in drawers. Walking in the large space resembles a wholesale Costco, where over 30,000 specimens ranging from footprints to horns to shells are catalogued and housed.Comment on this story
During DinoFest, the museum will also set up tables with additional specimens for viewers to take in. Since much of what will be on view isn't usually out for people to see, Irmis encourages visitors to take advantage of the opportunity and come and check out these remarkable objects. In fact, said Irmis, the two-day event is a rare chance for dino-lovers and newbies alike to experience dinosaurs in a close-up way that most people never get.
"This is the second year we’ve done DinoFest, and it was a smash hit last year, so I think it’s only going to get bigger and bigger," he said.
If you go …
What: DinoFest 2018
Where: The Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way
When: Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 20 and 21, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
How much: Free with regular admission and free for museum members