A bite out of time: Dinosaurs roar back to life at Upcountry History Museum

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"Dinosaurs Land of Fire and Ice" features a variety of dinosaurs, including the Tyrannosaurus rex, one of the largest bipedal carnivores to roam North America. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Scientists say it was one of the largest explosions in the history of Earth.

Long before the existence of humans, at the end of the Cretaceous Period, an asteroid struck what is now Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, releasing a billion times more energy than the nuclear bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Sonic booms shook the land. Massive tsunamis flooded every coast. Acid rain engulfed the landscape. Firestorms scorched the globe. And debris rained from the sky, leaving much of the planet in darkness.

Within mere geologic moments, the impact killed off about 75 percent of all plants and animals, including the dinosaurs that once roamed the primeval forests and coastline of present-day South Carolina.

Now, about 66 million years later, the Upcountry History Museum in downtown Greenville is bringing the prehistoric giants back to life with its newest exhibit: “Dinosaurs: Land of Fire and Ice.”

Created by the Minnesota Children’s Museum, the traveling exhibit aims to transport visitors back to the Cretaceous Period, allowing them to explore dinosaur habitats and the creatures who populated them.

“Dinosaurs: Land of Fire and Ice” features a variety of dinosaurs, including the Edmontosaurus, a duck-billed herbivore that roamed western North America at the end of the Cretaceous Period between 66 and 68 million years ago. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Designed for young children ages 3 to 10, the bilingual exhibit (Spanish and English) features two distinct dinosaur environments (warm and cold) and numerous science activities, according to Elizabeth Gunter, director of education and programs at the Upcountry History Museum.

As visitors walk through the 2,000-square-foot exhibit space, they will also come face-to-face with a number of sculpted, touchable dinosaur models, featuring the most recent scientific findings about colors, textures, and structural form, according to Gunter.

“This exhibition not only features dinosaurs and their environments, but explores the process of scientific discovery, a process that is often used by historians and archeologists who are studying past human culture,” Gunter said. “We hope that this exhibition will help our visitors see one connection between science and history.”

Gunter said the “Land of Fire” section is based on the warm-weather habitats dinosaurs occupied in present-day Montana in the Late Cretaceous. 

This section is home to realistic models of the Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, one of the largest bipedal carnivores to roam North America. It also features a smoldering volcano and swampy bog, which is designed to replicate the spongy surface of a prehistoric forest.

Children can also become part of the surrounding environment by putting on a costume and venturing around the exhibit as one of three animals: a dragonfly, a bee, or a baby Troodon, a small, two-legged dinosaur that dates back to about 75 million years ago. 

The exhibit’s “Land of Fire” section features realistic models of the Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, one of the largest bipedal carnivores to roam North America. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Gunter said the exhibit utilizes new research about the climates in which dinosaurs were able to survive. The “Land of Ice” section, for instance, is based on the polar forests and various other habitats that dinosaurs occupied in the northern fringes of prehistoric Alaska. 

One dinosaur species that visitors can expect to see in this section is the Edmontosaurus, a duck-billed herbivore that roamed western North America at the end of the Cretaceous Period between 66 and 68 million years ago. 

Children are encouraged to touch the sculpted model and climb through and around its legs to compare their relative size to the prehistoric giant, according to Gunter. Visitors can also take a photo with the Edmontosaurus and email a digital postcard to friends and family by activating a nearby kiosk. 

“The whole exhibit is designed to be an immersive experience that is hands-on, educational, and most importantly, fun,” she said. 

As visitors journey through the “Land of Ice,” they can also expect to stumble across a sculpted model of an adult Troodon guarding its nest of eggs. The model, which stands 4 feet high and 6 feet long, is situated beside a second nest featuring plush eggs that visitors can handle. 

Gunter said the exhibit also features a number of hands-on games and other activities, including a “food chain puzzle” and “eye spy cards,” which highlight a variety of animals and plants from the Cretaceous Period.

Children can create stories about dinosaurs at a series of play tables featuring three-dimensional landscapes from the Cretaceous period and then view maps of North America to see how these have changed over 30 million years. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Rounding out the exhibit is the Field Research Station, where visitors can become amateur paleontologists by digging through a pit of rubber mulch to uncover the fossils of dinosaurs, including the T. rex, Edmontosaurus, Velociraptor, Megaraptor, and Iguanodon.

Children can also create narratives about dinosaurs at a series of play tables, which feature 3D landscapes, small dinosaur models, and view maps of North America that show how much the continent has changed since the beginning of the Cretaceous Period.

“Those children who are already interested in dinosaurs will be able to enter a world designed to help them engage with the dinosaurs they love, exploring the environments those dinosaurs lived in, and learning new facts about their favorite dinosaurs,” Gunter said. “For those who are not as familiar with dinosaurs, this exhibition is a great introduction to the dinosaurs who lived in North America.”

While much of the exhibit focuses on nonnative dinosaurs, Gunter said the Upcountry History Museum is consulting with Adam Smith, curator of the Bob Campbell Geology Museum at Clemson University, to highlight via social media some of the prehistoric creatures that once roamed South Carolina.

The museum, for instance, plans to post “fun facts” in the coming weeks about some of the state’s most important fossil discoveries, Gunter said. In addition, Smith will host a presentation at the museum at 9 a.m. on Jan. 11 about his current research on the connection between birds and dinosaurs, as well as the general field of paleontology.

For more information, visit www.upcountryhistory.org.  

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What: “Dinosaurs: Land of Fire & Ice”
When: Sept. 22, 2018-Jan. 27, 2019
Where: Upcountry History Museum, 540 Buncombe St.
Price: $9 adults, $7 children, $8 seniors
Information: 864-467-3100

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The dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures of South Carolina

Hadrosauridae: Small, duck-billed dinosaurs that lived in the Cretaceous Period about 65 million years ago. Hadrosauridae were the first recorded dinosaur fossils found in South Carolina in 1987. 

Saber-toothed cat: Large, predatory cats with long saber teeth that lived as recently as the Pleistocene era (known as the Ice Age), or about 11,700 years ago.

Dromaeosauridae: A family of feathered theropods that included Velociraptor. These small to medium-sized dinosaurs possessed a large “killing claw” on their toe bones that may have been used to capture prey. They lived as recently as the Cretaceous Period.

Megalodon: A giant species of shark that lived as recently as the Pliocene era more than 2 million years ago. The largest megalodon tooth measures around 7 inches in length, which is almost three times longer than those of great white sharks

Giant sloth: A group of large ground sloths that lived in North America as recently as the Holocene era, or about 10,000 years ago.

Sources: South Carolina State Museum, Roper Mountain Science Center

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3 of the best places in South Carolina to view fossils

South Carolina State Museum
301 Gervais St., Columbia

The South Carolina State Museum has opened an exhibit of 30 fossils mostly discovered in South Carolina in each year since 1988, when the museum first opened. The exhibit, which includes a 450,000-year-old saber-toothed skull found in Dorchester County in 2003, will be on display until February 2019. The cost of general admission tickets for the museum are: adults (13-61), $8.95; seniors (62 and older), $7.95; children (3-12), $6.95; infants (2 and younger), free.

Bob Campbell Geology Museum
140 Discovery Lane, Clemson

The Bob Campbell Geology Museum is known for its collection of more than 10,000 minerals and rocks, but in recent years, the museum has brought in fossils from across the United States. While some fossil displays in the museum are actually casts, there are several that were dug up by a small team from Clemson University. Fossil species at the museum include parts of a Triceratops, a cave bear skull, a cast of a saber-toothed tiger (Smilodon), and a cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull. Admission to the Bob Campbell Geology Museum is free.

Roper Mountain Science Center
402 Roper Mountain Road, Greenville

Along with a planetarium, aquariums, farm animals, and a range of scientific activities, Roper Mountain Science Center is gearing up for a dinosaur trail outfitted with replicas of large, prehistoric creatures. The trail will have 14 to 16 lifelike dinosaur replicas, from the Triceratops to a giant Tyrannosaurus rex, with a playground in the middle. The center also has several fossils available for viewing, including a giant Megalodon mouth and the fossilized dung of a giant sloth. While there are some dinosaurs already set up on the trail, the project won’t be complete until 2020. The dinosaur trail is currently open to the public. Admission is free. Visitors to Roper Mountain Science Center are not permitted to enter school buildings.

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