A visit to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center is a wonderful way to spend a day in central Wyoming. Over the years, many, many dinosaurs have been found in Wyoming, going back to the famous “bone wars” of Cope and Marsh…and yet the state had only a modest number of fossils at a few university museums to show for it–most of the grand specimens collected in Wyoming were shipped to museums in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and elsewhere around the world. Today, however, research museums in the American west are laying claim to many of the new and important fossil discoveries in their states, and the best place to see dinosaurs in Wyoming is the relatively new Wyoming Dinosaur Center.
website: Wyoming Dinosaur Center
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center is young for a natural history museum, they are celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2020. It has come a long way in 25 years, though, and now their active paleontology program is producing new research and fossil discoveries, the museum is growing every year, and it has started to receive quite a bit of attention and acclaim.
From the outside, the Wyoming Dinosaur Center main building looks a little like any typical industrial warehouse. On the inside, however, it is anything but typical. One of the largest dinosaur mounts in the world calls this home, and visitors can expect to see 30 or more full-skeletal mounts of dinosaurs from around the world.
A large gift shop greets visitors upon entrance to the building, we found a lot of fun dinosaur souvenirs there at very reasonable prices. When you get your tickets upon arrival be sure to sign up for their shuttle bus tour of one of the dig sites nearby. It is absolutely worth it and you don’t want to miss out–we have been to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center a couple of times and the tour of the dig site is a memorable feature that very few dinosaur museums can offer.
The shuttle tour is absolutely a highlight at the WDC. Visitors are transported up a nearby ridge via a mildly steep, circular path. Close to the top the bus stops and everyone gets out to see the “S.I.” site, which stands for “something interesting.” That is probably a little too modest, for the site is much more than interesting. A modest protective building covers one of the only dinosaur dig sites in the world to have yielded bones from a prey dinosaur (Camarasaurus), teeth shed from a predator dinosaur (Allosaurus), and visible footprints that appear to be from both predator and prey, all in the same location. The area certainly seems to have been an Allosaurus feeding site; shed teeth and cut bones provide strong evidence. Allosaurus (or some similar theropod) footprints are easily visible in the rock, which was evidently quite muddy before fossilization. It is impossible to say with certainty that all these bones and footprints come from the same historical incident, but it is a strong possibility.
The tour guide was very informative and did a good job explaining why the site is important to paleontologists. He also asked questions that got everyone on the tour thinking about what might have happened here 150 million years ago, and it was interesting to speculate about the various possibilities. Seeing so many dinosaur bones still embedded in the rock was fun for visitors of all ages. Many of the bones are relatively easy to identify, and the guide was very helpful giving plenty of details about the fossils at the site.
After the hour-long tour, we returned to the main building and went to visit the displays. The first hallway has some unusual trilobites and ancient crinoids, as well as armored fish called placoderms and many other Paleozoic creatures. Among the placoderms, the WDC has a fairly rare fossil Dunkleosteus on display. In this section of the museum I particularly enjoyed the delicate imprint of an ancient dragonfly…dragonflies are a favorite among my family so it was wonderful to see one so very familiar-looking that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.
The hallway and main exhibit area includes numerous examples of sea reptiles and pterosaurs, many of them hang from the ceiling above the floor exhibits. Sea reptiles include the mosasaur Tylosaurus as well as the relatively unknown plesiosaur Zarafasaura. Among the pterosaurs at the WDC are Rhamphorhyncus, Santanadactylus, and Anhanguera. The cast of the Rhamphorhyncus is particularly interesting; it is situated on a relatively low shelf and we enjoyed seeing a pterosaur fossil at eye-level for a change.
When visitors get around the corner of the hallway, they enter the main exhibit area and that is where they are treated to many large dinosaur mounts, including one of the largest dinosaurs ever put on display. “Jimbo” the Supersaurus is well over 100 feet long from head to tail, a monstrously large display. Without a wide-angle lens, I could not get a photo of the entire creature from anywhere in the building. Not only was “Jimbo” long, the giant sauropod was very tall as well, easily fifteen feet at the shoulder, but probably closer to twenty, or more. “Jimbo” is very impressive in person, easily among the best sauropod dinosaur mounts on display anywhere.
Another strong highlight at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center is what is known as the “Thermopolis Specimen,” a fossil of the ancient bird Archaeopteryx. One of the most famous prehistoric animals of all-time, Archaeopteryx came to the world’s attention in 1861 when it was described as the “first bird.” It’s discovery came shortly after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and many immediately associated the fossil with Darwin’s theory of evolution. The fossil helps confirm the link between birds and dinosaurs: there are many features of Archaeopteryx that are shared with raptor-like dinosaurs called dromaeosaurs. Teeth, feathers, a long bony tail, and three-fingered claws including an extendable sharp killing claw on the second toe make Archaeopteryx almost indistinguishable from some dinosaurs, yet it possesses some features that clearly link the animal to modern birds such as a wishbone, wings with feathers and a relatively large brain. The Archaeopteryx at the WDC is not the holotype for the species, but it is considered the best preserved fossil of the dozen or so that have been discovered. This is the only fossil Archaeopteryx in North America, so if you want to see this rare and important prehistoric creature, you need to make a trip to Thermopolis.
There are a lot of dinosaur skeletons to see in the big hall, including mounts of favorites like Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. Locally-found dinosaurs Camarasaurus and Allosaurus are also on display in the museum–the Camarasaurus is a relatively new addition. One feature of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center that I really appreciate is that they also have a lot of dinosaur mounts of creatures that are less familiar in American museums such as the ceratopsian Albertosaurus and the therizinosaur Nothronychus. One of the best dinosaur displays in the WDC features Monolophosaurus and Bellusaurus, two dinosaurs which were discovered in the same Jurassic formation in China. I have not seen either dinosaur permanently displayed in any other museum on this continent.
One dynamic display features two famous rival dinosaurs from Mongolia, the Velociraptor and Protoceratops. In the scene, the Protoceratops is being threatened by a pair of Velociraptors, one on each side. The Chinese stegosaur Tuojiangosaurus across the walkway is too busy grazing to pay much attention.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
If you aren’t very interested in dinosaurs and other prehistoric life, you are probably not going to have a great time at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. The shuttle tour offers some panoramic views of the surrounding hills, and on a clear day it is very beautiful. But this place is all about dinosaurs, so you might want to bring a book to enjoy while the dinosaur fans in your family feast their eyes on all the great displays.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
The WDC is a great museum, but I’m not sure if there is an organizing principle behind the layout for the dinosaurs in the main hall. In several scenes dinosaur rivals are pitted against each other, but in other areas dinosaurs are displayed near others from very different areas, or time periods. It seems a little like the dinosaurs are organized so that as many as possible fit into the large but still limited space. This is a very minor criticism of course, most visitors probably would not notice or care.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
My family has enjoyed our trips to the WDC immensely, it is one of our favorite museums to visit. One thing that really stood out was the friendliness of the employees/volunteers. All three times we have visited, one or more of the employees who were working in the fossil lab came out to talk with my children, answer questions, and generally engage them about dinosaurs. They loved that! The shuttle tour to the dig site was memorable and very enjoyable for the kids, my youngest son enjoyed the bumpy bus ride almost as much as he did seeing the dinosaur bones and footprints. The museum is packed but doesn’t feel cramped, and there is a lot of room for kids to explore the exhibit hall. Despite some over-the-top rambunctiousness on the part of my youngest son, museum employees couldn’t have been more gracious. The WDC offers numerous programs for children, and in 2020 our teenage son took spent a week in their Dinosaur Academy for high school students. During the camp he learned a lot about Wyoming geology, took several field trips, had a chance to spend time working at a few different dig sites, and clean dinosaur fossils in the lab. He enjoyed it quite a lot and we would recommend their camps to anyone interested in hands-on learning about dinosaurs.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
If it is your first visit to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, you will definitely want to sign up for the shuttle ride and tour of the dig site. That typically will take about an hour, then you will want to spend at least another hour at the museum. We have gone three times to the museum and typically spend about three hours each time.
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center is one of the top ten dinosaur museums in North America, particularly considering the museum is the only one that displays numerous dinosaurs in the museum and also takes guests to a nearby dig site where they can see dinosaur bones and tracks all in one place. Thermopolis is not particularly on the beaten path, but I strongly recommend a trip there!
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Dinosaur/Prehistoric Fossil Displays:
Number of Dinosaurs on Display: (8.5 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (8.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (8.5 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (7.5 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (8 out of 10)