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Dino Day: The Burke Museum to feature a hands-on dinosaur exhibition

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Looking through a specialized microscope, paleontologist Bruce Crowley works on chiseling stone away from a fossilized pelvis. Crowley is the only paid preporator in the museum, but started as a volunteer. “I love paleontology,” he said. “It’s way cool!”

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An Ichthyosaur fossil hangs from a wall inside the Burke Museum, and is one of its biggest pieces at 21 feet long. The giant marine reptiles that resembled fish and dolphins thrived during the Mesozoic era, and first appeared approximately 230 million years ago.

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Just inside the main entrance of the Burke Museum, a Daring Sword Ray fossil hangs from the wall. Xiphactinus audax appeared about 85 million years ago in what is now Kansas.

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Ron Eng, a geology specialist at the Burke Museum, holds a cast of a Tyrannosaurus arm. Though the T. rex was more than 40 feet long, its forearms were approximately the same size as a human’s.

This Saturday, students, children and professors alike will be able to revive (or discover) their childhood love of dinosaurs with the UW’s annual hands-on dinosaur exhibit.

As a part of Dino Day, March 1 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., exhibit directors are not allowing visitors to touch fossils, but dig for them. Once the fossils are uncovered, visitors can later crack or chisel the fossils open, much like a real paleontologist does.

More importantly, guests will be able to take their fossil home as a souvenir to remind them of their potential career in paleontology, an idea that tickles the paleontology community, who is always seeking aspiring young apprentices.

“The fact that guests can actually take the fossils home is something that makes the exhibit special,” said Ronald Eng, the Burke Museum’s geology collections manager.

The event is one of few that focuses entirely on dinosaurs.

“It not only celebrates the museum’s centennial anniversary, but also gives us a chance to bring in giant fossils like the 21-foot Ichthyosaur and show them off,” Eng said.

In addition to the 45-million-year-old Ichthyosaur, the Burke plans to put several dinosaur bones from special collections on display. It also plans to have an accurate mold of a T. rex’s head.

The museum has been fortunate to receive many generous donations from private donors and affiliates, including the Stonerose Interpretive Center, another key component that will be featured at Saturday’s exhibit.

“Dino Day is a focus for the paleontologist division here at the Burke,” said Bruce Crowley, a fossil preparator at the Burke. “Although the focus is dinosaurs, we want people to realize that’s not all we do. We look at various specimens from the Mesozoic period, as well as from before and after the reign of the dinosaurs.”

For the more curious dinosaur entrepreneur, the museum will also feature a number of experts, including fossil and geology specialists and Liz Nesbitt, a Burke curator and UW associate professor.

For children the exhibit will also feature a Dino-Drawing exhibit and a Dino Romp room, where kids can dress up as dinosaur parts.

“The Burke Museum’s strength is that we have the real scientist who are more than available to answer any questions and do demonstrations. In most museums, you would have to make an appointment,” said Maryann Barron, the Burke’s director of communications.

Barron said most of the fossils originate from Wyoming, as there hasn’t been evidence of dinosaurs once existing in Washington state territory. Nonetheless, the fossils that are found in the area are rumored to be remnants from large ancient organisms whose bones have been preserved and transported by glaciers in the upper Olympic peninsula.

“We’ve had a large amount of Woolly Mammoth fossils appearing in people’s backyards, but no dinosaurs or ancient sea creatures due to our specific geological climate and location,” Eng said.

In addition to education programs like Dino Days, the Burke funds a special volunteer program for aspiring young paleontologists. It allows students to work with experts in the field and provides an array of educational classes at various Washington schools.

“If you love to look at fossils and have the right temperament, paleontology is for you. The context of a fossil is as important as the fossil itself, because going back to the same picture multiple times will generate a greater picture of the organisms from that time,” Crowley said.

The museum’s main goal for this exhibit is to expose not only children, but also the public to the same world 65 million years ago that is remotely different from our own. It’s relevant to those even with an understanding of dinosaurs.

“I think it would be a great opportunity not only for kids, but also for the undergrads to find out more about the paleontology field,” Barren said.

UW students, staff and faculty members have free entrance with a Husky card. For more information regarding Dino Day or possible paleontology internships, visit the Burke Museum Web site at www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/visit/index.php.

[Reach reporter Lauren Akamine at features@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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