Stay cool in the rainforest: summer events unfold at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Summer is here and the kids are out of school, so what better time to escape the heat and join us here at HMNS for some cool and educational arthropod experiences! The Cockrell Butterfly Center will be welcoming back a popular summertime program and introducing a couple of new ones which will be sure to excite the bug lover in everyone! Every week this summer, we will be giving you a chance to get up close and personal with some of our famous residents on three different days. Here’s a little about what we’ll be up to…

Small Talk: Tuesdays at 1 p.m.

Small creatures, big information! Every Tuesday, in the Children’s Area on the main level of the CBC, we will be introducing you to a different resident of the Brown Hall of Entomology. Our entomologists will bring out our biggest and most exotic creatures as well as some familiar (or not-too-familiar) Houston natives. Giant katydids, Atlas moths, and odd arachnids are just some of the creatures you will meet. Each talk will fill your head with all kinds of cool information and facts about our feature creatures. Afterward, we will answer any questions you may have. Up-close viewing and sometimes touching will be permitted, and definitely feel free to bring the camera!

Wing It!: Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.

At the CBC, you can watch brand-new butterflies emerging from their chrysalises, pumping blood into their newly formed wings, and preparing for their first flight. After this, enter the rainforest filled with lush tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies fluttering through their naturalistic habitat. But, how do they get there? Every Wednesday morning, join our entomologists outside of the Chrysalis Corner in the Brown Hall of Entomology. We will talk about a typical butterfly release and answer questions. Then, you can walk into the rainforest and watch as brand new butterflies take their first flight in their new home. Touching of the delicate butterflies will not be permitted, but please feel free to take as many pictures as you want.

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Friday Feeding Frenzy: 9:30, 10, 10:30, and 11:30 a.m.

The main event! Get ready to see huge, ferocious, carnivorous insects and other animals feast on their prey in front of your very own eyes! This Friday and every Friday throughout the summer, the Cockrell Butterfly Center will be feeding a live animal for your viewing pleasure. We have several arthropods and even some reptiles that we will showcase. Here is a little about the line-up…

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Green Tree Pythons (Morelia viridis): Our green tree pythons, Kaa and Nagini, will be ready to dine on mice! These snakes are native to Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea. Pythons are non-venomous snakes that subdue their prey by constricting. Their food consists mostly of small mammals and the occasional reptile. They lay in wait, curled around a tree branch, and when potential prey approaches, they strike from an “S” position, using their tails to anchor themselves to the branch. Once their prey is snagged, it’s lights out!

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Giant Asian Mantis (Hierodula membranacea): This praying mantis, one of the largest species, comes from Southeast Asia. Mantises are ambush predators and have several features that ensure their success in catching prey. Their amazing camouflage allows them to resemble either living or dead parts of plants, flowers, tree bark, stones, or sticks. Not only does this help conceal them from predators, it also keeps potential prey oblivious to their presence. An insect that wanders too close is snatched by raptorial front legs (legs specialized for grabbing) and held still by several tough spines. The mantis uses chewing mandibles to eat its victim alive. Mantises have excellent vision at close range and can see as far as 20 meters. Their eyes are large and located on the sides of their head, allowing the insect to see all around itself. They can keep their eyes on potential prey by inconspicuously moving their heads up to 180 degrees. Nothing can escape their field of vision. Most mantises feed on smaller insects, but some giant species can take down small reptiles, amphibians, and even rodents!

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Giant Centipede (Scolopendra heros): Centipedes are predatory, long-bodied arthropods with many pairs of legs – one pair per body segment. Centipedes are venomous and can be dangerous, so they are not to be confused with the congenial millipede, which poses no threat to humans and has four legs per body segment. This centipede, AKA the giant red-headed centipede, can run very quickly to pursue and catch its prey, which it immobilizes with repeated bites from two venomous fangs. Once dead, the prey is devoured. Giant centipedes of this and similar species are found in Mexico and the southwestern United States. The coloration, known as aposematic or warning coloration, serves as a message to other animals: “Touch me, and you’ll get more than you bargained for!” A bite from one of these can cause intense pain that lasts for hours or days and can cause a severe reaction in someone who is allergic. These hunters take down smaller arthropods, small reptiles and amphibians, small rodents, and have even been known to hunt tarantulas!

Wolf Spider (Hogna carolinensis): This is the largest species of wolf spider found in the United States! Most wolf spiders are large and can sometimes be confused with tarantulas. The name wolf spider refers to their hunting behavior. Instead of building a web, they wait to ambush their prey and at other times, they chase it for a short distance. Wolf spiders inject venom into their prey to immobilize it. They then use digestive enzymes to liquefy the insides and then slurp it up through a tube that leads to the stomach. Wolf spiders have no interest in biting people, but will if provoked. The severity of their bite has been compared to that of a bee sting.

Goliath Birdeater Tarantula (Theraphosa blondi): This is the big mama of all tarantulas and regarded as the largest spider in the world. They can reach a weight of 5.3 ounces (more than a quarter pounder) and have a leg-span of 12 inches (about the size of a dinner plate). The name birdeater is a misnomer as they do not eat birds, although they could. They are native to marshy swamplands in South America, and like other large spiders, they feed on mostly insects. However, because of their size, they often go for small reptiles, amphibians, and rodents. If threatened, these tarantulas can produce an eerie hissing noise by rubbing together setae on their legs. If that doesn’t creep you out enough to stay away, watch out for the urticating hairs they kick off their abdomens into the air. If these hairs come into contact with your skin, you get really itchy, and you don’t even want to know what happens if they get in your eyes! Birdie is our resident birdeater and she’s a thrill to watch as she shoves as many crickets into her mouth as possible!

So if creepy crawlies are your thing, visit the CBC this summer, and witness the goings-on of our staff and our tiny, fascinating residents.

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Memorial Day Floods: a natural phenomenon

Flooding changed the face of Houston Monday and Tuesday, turning the peaceful bayou into a raging torrent swelling beyond its banks, spilling over major highways and washing into communities where it did its worst damage. Busy roads turned into lakes of steaming vehicles as hundreds were lost in the floodwaters, and some 1,400 structures were critically damaged.  In the wake of the storms across the Southwest that killed at least 17 people, Gov. Greg Abbot declared 24 Texas counties disaster areas, tacking them on to the 13 counties already under declarations due to weather. To make matters worse, scientists are beginning to attribute the current rainy weather to El Niño, predicting a wet summer that could see more continuous rainfall.

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Floodwaters rise in Houston Memorial Day. The water claimed an estimated 1,200 homes. Flickr Creative Commons.

When it comes to disasters, floods are serious business. In the U.S. each year, floods account for about $6 billion in damages, and floodwaters claim about 140 lives. Around the world, coastal flooding causes about $3 trillion in damages. It may seem like you can just power through rising water in your vehicle, with the confidence that if you’re in trouble, you can just swim to safety, but the safest route to take is to turn around, don’t drown. Get to higher ground.

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Stranded motorists abandoned their cars to the floodwaters Memorial Day. Flickr Creative Commons.

Flash flooding occurs with heavy or continuous rainfall over an extended period of time, sometimes in areas nowhere near the location of the heaviest precipitation. Water runs downhill, filling riverbeds and waterways to capacity, and when the water doesn’t stop, it spills over the banks and into the flat areas beyond, called the flood plain. Meteorologists measure flood risk in years. The risk of flooding in the 100-year flood plain is about one percent every year; that makes flood risk in a 50-year flood plain two percent, and in a 500-year flood plain, one-half percent.

Global climate change might account for more common and stronger floods in Texas and worldwide, according to National Geographic, and information from the NOAA supports this claim. Floods in Texas do appear to have worsened in recent years. In 1998, a “perfect storm” involving two hurricanes and a stationary cold front led to a disastrous flood in Central Texas, swelling the banks of the Guadalupe River into the San Antonio metro area. More than 30 inches of rain fell in a small area south of San Marcos in 36 hours in what was classified as a rare, 500-year flood event.

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Floodwaters rise near Allen Parkway Memorial Day. Flickr Creative Commons.

Four years later, yet another 500-year flood occurred in the same area, doing even greater damage over a larger part of the state. A low pressure system that formed over the northern Gulf of Mexico moved inland and stayed put, dumping record-breaking rainfall over San Antonio and several other counties in the hill country. Two massive, rare Texas floods in four years seems to spell doom for our state and the state of the planet as a whole. However, natural cycles suggest otherwise.

The extreme wet season in Texas and Oklahoma signals an El Niño year, scientists say. Few people may care about the weather phenomenon or understand it completely; they only know the cycle of drought and flooding in the south, of heavy snows and mild winters in the north. Scientists themselves don’t fully understand the causes and effects of El Niño, but they do know that oceanic and atmospheric phenomena are directly linked in the system, NOAA Meteorologist Tom DiLibertero told Al Jazeera.

El Niño occurs in cycles between two and seven years, officially named the ENSO, or El Niño Southern Oscillation in the scientific community. Cold water upwellings normally keep surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean cool, but when that system fluctuates, the massive body of water warms in the sun. In turn, winds carry more moisture into the air which oceanic winds push over the Americas. Poised in the middle of the continent, this weather dumps heavy precipitation. In years following particularly strong El Niño patterns, the opposite occurs. When cool water returns to the surface of the Pacific, moisture stays closer to Indonesia, creating dry La Niña conditions for the continental U.S. Scientists agree this may be a natural pattern, but the degree to which climate change and warmer global ocean temperatures might worsen its effects is still uncertain.

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The new Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology offers solutions to how we can be better stewards of our coastline.

Add to this that Houston was built on a wetland, an area known for flooding as a natural process, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster every few years. Floods can occur in other places from spring snowmelt, log jams, and broken levees, but for our area, the biggest threat is steady rainfall. After heavy rains from frontal systems and hurricanes alike, the rivers that feed the bayous swell and overflow into lowland areas we’ve built our city over.

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In the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, guests can learn about the unique ecosystems of the Upper, Middle and Lower Texas Coast and how flooding affects them as a natural process.

In truth, flooding anywhere is natural and has been happening for millions of years, and humans have capitalized on the benefits of these raging waters around the world. It’s what we do as a species. “Famously fertile floodplains like the Mississippi Valley in the American Midwest, the Nile River valley in Egypt, and the Tigris-Euphrates in the Middle East have supported agriculture for millennia because annual flooding has left millions of tons of nutrient-rich silt deposits behind,” states National Geographic.

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Placard information in the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology spells out the damages Hurricane Ike caused to Houston and statewide in 2008.

The Weather Channel compared the Memorial Day flooding to other historical floods, including those caused by hurricanes Ike (2008) and Allison (2001). “According to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, there were 86 days with reports of flooding or flash flooding in Harris County from 1996 through 2014,” their report states. “This equates to an average of 4-5 days of flooding each year over that time period.”

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At the Do the Weather with Chita Johnson exhibit, a student learns how flood warnings are broadcast over television.

During the Memorial Day event, the water in some Harris County bayous exceeded totals measured during both hurricanes, The Weather Channel found. Buffalo Bayou at Shepherd Drive crested at 33.73 feet Memorial Day, 32.4 feet during Hurricane Ike, and 40.2 feet during Allison. Brays Bayou at Beltway 8 reached 65.9 feet this year and crested at 58.7 feet during Ike. And Greens Bayou at Shepherd Drive peaked at 34.02 feet Memorial Day, 36.2 feet during Ike, and at 44.04 during Allison. But these hurricanes are only two of the numerous flood events that have soaked Houston in the past 40 years alone.

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At the Do the Weather with Chita Johnson exhibit, a student reads a mock-up of what a meteorologist might say during a flood event.

From The Weather Channel: April 2009; 2,100 homes flooded, freeways impassible. June 2006; 11 inches of rain, 3,000 homes flooded. Late summer 1998; Tropical Storm Frances and two other events flood a total of 2,700 homes. October 1994; 22,000 homes flooded, $900 million in damages, 17 killed. (Now that’s one awful flood.) June and July 1989; two separate events flood a total of 2,500 homes. September 1983; a nine-inch deluge floods 1,000 homes along Brays Bayou. July 1979; Tropical Storm Claudette dumps a record 43 inches in 24 hours, flooding 15,000 homes and damaging 17,000 vehicles.

The devastation that flooding has caused for the residents of Houston over the years is heartbreaking, but as disturbing as these number are, it’s no surprise that Houston gets its rain, and that floods happen. They nourish the ecosystem of the Upper Texas Coast and the Galveston Bay area, and it could be hundreds of years before they stop, if not thousands. For Houston, since its founding, flooding has come with the territory.

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In the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, young students learn about coastal management using touch-screen technology.

Our species moved here to carve out a life and began retro-fitting the land to suit our needs, just like we’ve always done. In 1836, Houston was established on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, where trees, good soil, and slow-moving water helped rapidly establish a community. As the city continued to grow, it became a vital hub for energy and transportation, and a vital port to Texas and the southern U.S.

Agriculture establishes civilization; infrastructure moves it forward. Doesn’t mean it’s bad. Beavers do it when they change the course of a river with their dams; ants do, too, when they manipulate the soil or a tree to build networks of tunnels; birds do it to create nests and rookeries; coral and oysters build their own habitat and create hundreds of thousands of square miles of reefs around the world.

That’s why conservation and awareness of the natural cycles of our environment, wherever we choose to live, is imperative to our survival. As we encroach upon wetlands for our cities, we must understand that floods will continue to happen. Wetlands act as “natural flood buffers,” states National Geographic. If we live in the buffer, we’re bound to get soaked.

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Learn more about the coastal environment at the newly-opened Hamman Hall of Coastal Ecology, and see how weather forecasters spread the word about flood events on live TV when you Do the Weather with Chita Johnson, both at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. If you or your family was affected by the flood, visit the Texas Organization Project for resources that can help you recover.

 

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 5/25-5/31

Edit: Due to inclement weather and flooding throughout Houston, “Sustainable Seas” and “How to Clone a Mammoth” lectures were both canceled this week.

HMNS will reschedule “Sustainable Seas” for another date in the future, to be determined. Keep on the lookout for this and other lectures and events here and on the BEYONDbones blog.

Contact the HMNS box office at (713) 639-4629 for refunds.

 

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!  

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Lecture – Sustainable Seas: The Vision, The Reality By Sylvia Earle
Tuesday, May 26
7:00 p.m.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, revered marine biologist and conservationist, will give a state of the seas address. The event will include a viewing of the new giant-screen film Secret Ocean 3D that features a narration by Dr. Earle and amazing imagery captured by director Jean-Michel Cousteau and his team.

Lecture – How To Clone A Mammoth: The Science Of De-Extinction By Beth Shapiro
Wednesday, May 27
6:30 p.m.
Could extinct species, like mammoths, be brought back to life? The science says yes! Dr. Beth Shapiro, evolutionary biologist and pioneer in “ancient DNA” research, will present the astonishing and controversial process of de-extinction, which could redefine conservation’s future. From deciding which species should be restored, to sequencing their genomes, to anticipating how revived populations might be overseen in the wild, Shapiro vividly explores the extraordinary cutting-edge science that is being used today to resurrect the past – along with its practical benefits and ethical challenges. A book signing of Shapiro’s new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction will follow the lecture.

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T. rex vs. Prey: Imagining battles between ancient gladiators

When I was super young, say around five or so, I remember playing in the bath tub with my plastic toys. Some were super heroes like He-Man or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, others were monster trucks and die-cast matchbox cars by Mattel, but most were dinosaurs.

This might be TMI, this story about the kid in the bath tub with bubbles on his head, ramming plastic characters into one another and dreaming up their backstories, the bellows of challenge they traded, and the choreography of their battles, but I know there are other adult children out there with similar memories.

During this epoch in the evolution of me, I distinctly recall pitting Tyrannosaurus rex against Stegosaurus, which, as I’ve discovered in later life, was completely wrong, as was most of what I thought around five years old, but you know, who can blame a five-year-old for muddling up the fossil record?

T. rex is one of the most famous dinosaurs in history, easily identified by its massive, heavy skull, long steak-knife teeth, powerful back legs and tail, and ridiculous vestigial arms, but due to her status as dinosaur royalty, the length of her reign and her identity is as often confused by adults as it is by naive five-year-olds. The T. rex lived for two million years in the Late Cretaceous, never in the Jurassic, as her appearance in Jurassic Park might suggest, but we can forgive this fiction for its oversight. (After all, InGen, the engineering firm responsible for cloning extinct dinosaurs in the movie, infamously mismatched animals from different eras within the same park.) And she wasn’t the only two-legged carnivore.

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In a dramatic representation, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus duke it out in the Jurassic. Morian Hall.

In the time of Stegosaurus, between 155 and 150 million years ago (the real Jurassic), the apex predator was the Allosaurus. Smaller than the T. rex, but with more capable arms with three fingers ending in talons, this baddie no doubt picked battles with Stegosaurus, putting its life on the line for a meal. With its polygonal plates down its back, viciously spiked tail, flexible spine and toes that allowed it to rear up, Stegosaurus could give Allosaurus a true walloping.

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Allosaurus remains feature prominent eyebrow ridges and three-fingered hands with sharp claws.

Forget about jaws and claws. One solid hit from the bone spikes could deeply puncture the neck or torso of any shady Allosaurus looking for a bite, and its plates would protect its spine from being severed by teeth until it could land a blow. It isn’t difficult to imagine eyes gouged and jugulars perforated, many Allosauruses bleeding out after botched predatory encounters with Stegosaurus. There were certainly easier things for Allosaurus to eat, but few battles with other species could match the gladiatorial epicness of this match-up, at least not in this era.

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Even as an herbivore, Stegosaurus would have made a formidable opponent against Allosaurus in the Jurassic, using a spiked tail and bone plates along its spine as defenses.

Fast forward 90 million years to the Late Cretaceous, the reign of the “tyrant lizard.” Tyrannosaurs roamed North America and Asia, preying on a variety of other famous megafauna like Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, and duck-billed hadrosaurs including Edmontosaurus, Brachylophosaurus, and Parasaurolophus. There’s no way T. rex even knew Stegosaurus was a thing. More time passed between these two than between dinosaurs and Homo sapiens.

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As the largest predator of the Late Cretaceous, the T. rex is one of the fossil record’s most iconic species.

Nor was the T. rex the only one of her kind; she was just the largest, hence the name, “king of tyrants.” Among her smaller contemporaries, Tarbosaurus, Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, and Gorgosaurus, she was the Queen B, big and bad, in spite of the competition. She had excellent vision, a sense of smell that could detect prey from miles away, and decent hearing, though high-pitched sounds would have been lost to her. Food wouldn’t have been difficult for the T. rex to find, but that food really, really didn’t want to be eaten.

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T. rex couldn’t have fought Stegosaurus, but it preyed upon Triceratops, another iconic species that lived in the same time period.

There’s no more famous match-up than Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. With two long horns and a bony frill like a samurai helmet to guard its neck, as long as the trike met the T. rex head-on, there was no contest. But if Triceratops charged and missed the mark, the tyrant’s big jaws could take out its backbone in a single bite, neutralizing the threat of horns. Recent discoveries of casts of Triceratops‘s hide reveals nodules that might have housed quills, making even a bite to its back a dangerous one if T. rex ever got around the impenetrable helmet. You can imagine this battle yourself in the Morian Hall of Paleontology, where Lane the Triceratops takes a defensive position under an aggressor T. rex.

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T. rex preyed upon Denversaurus and its famous cousin, Ankylosaurus, but both would have made a difficult meal, protected by bony armor.

Against Ankylosaurus and its cousin Denversaurus, also on display in Morian Hall, tyrannosaurs likely had a more difficult time. Both Ankylosaurus and Denversaurus developed the adaptation of a wide, low body and armored plating, making access to its soft underbelly impossible for tyrannosaurs unless kicked onto its back, but Ankylosaurus had another advantage. The tip of its tail bore a mace-like club that, like Stegosaurus’s spiked tail, could maim the jaws of predators that didn’t pay enough heed. One swing from this heavy weapon could break open a T. rex‘s face, cripple its legs, or shatter its ribs, and with arms too small to defend itself, dodging seems the only tactic at her disposal against this tank of a creature. An encounter with an Ankylosaurus could mean either a meal or certain death, depending on the T. rex‘s experience hunting.

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Armor plating on the back of Denversaurus would have protected against a bite from the T. rex and other tyrannosaurs of the Late Cretaceous, but if flipped over, its soft underbelly would be exposed.

A more easy meal for any tyrannosaur would have been Edmontosaurus and other duck-billed dinosaurs. These hadrosaurs had few defenses. No armor plating, no spikes, no claws, no wings, no sharp teeth. But it’s possible they had a different advantage, though it’s tough to deduce through fossils alone. Hollow chambers in the skulls of many hadrosaurs suggest these creatures, like geese and other water fowl, had the power of sound at their disposal. A deafening bellow might have stopped a tyrannosaur in its tracks or sent it running in the other direction. T. rex isn’t known for its sensitive hearing, but as we all know, if the sound is loud enough, it can be excruciating. And T. rex had no fingers to put into her ears, nor could she reach them.

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Edmontosaurus, a duckbilled hadrosaur and cousin of Parasaurolophus, appears to have lacked natural defenses. However, the hollows in its skull suggest it could have protected itself with deafening bellows like giant geese.

Understanding these species as they once were, interacting with one another, is more than bath tub child’s play for paleontologists; it’s a career and a discipline. It’s in the Greek roots of the word “paleontology,” the study of being and beings in the ancient world. The study of what life on Earth might have looked like eons ago. The work of these scientists is more like philosophy than fiction, but building careful theories via the fossil record and considering every angle does require a measure of imagination.

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An artist’s representation depicts Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex in an age-old feud set in the lush swamps of the Late Cretaceous, an imagined scene deduced from evidence in the fossil record. Morian Hall.

I suppose, apart from the spikes and teeth and horns and claws and body armor and all the other things that make these terrible lizards seem like something out of science fiction, or monsters invented by a puppeteer, it’s the daydreaming paleontology requires that holds my attention. To understand their world, you must build it in your mind.

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