Forty years after Dipsy’s unveiling, original welder John Barber is back to watch her disassembly

There’s no sweeter story than that of a boy and his … dinosaur?

In February of 1973, 24-year-old John Barber was just out of art school in Virginia, having barely missed the draft and with no idea what to do with himself. He was visiting an aunt and uncle in Houston when he paid a visit to the Houston Museum of Natural Science — and happened upon a scene that would change his life.

“There was a large wooden platform raked at an angle, and a lot of large bones laid out in some kind of order. I walked around it a couple of times and realized that they were apparently going to assemble a big dinosaur,” Barber says. “I thought, holy cow!”

Having earned a fine arts degree in sculpture — and worked his way through school as a welder — Barber asked to speak to then-curator Dwayne Hicks to see if he might make himself useful. They reviewed his skills and 20 minutes later, Barber, now 64, left with a job.

Barber estimates he was making about $525 a month in those days. “I arrived in Houston with a small valise, a box of Magic Markers and a cardboard tube of drawing paper.”

Forty years later, Barber is back at HMNS supervising Dipsy’s de-installation. He paused to chat with us about his own history with Houston’s best-loved dinosaur and how it feels to see her come down.

Twenty years after their first meeting, John Barber is back to bid farewell to Dipsy
Barber poses with Dipsy during her de-installation

When Barber first began work on Dipsy’s armature, 18 months of bone preparation had already been completed. For non-sculptors, an “armature” refers to the steel support that, in this case, took the place of cartilage and muscles that would have supported Dipsy’s skeleton in life. The objective, Barber says, was to make the support as unobtrusive as possible so the public would view the maximum amount of dinosaur bone and minimum steel support. His mentor, Dr. Wann Langston, used to joke, “If you do your work right, no one will ever see it.”

By 1975, Dipsy was revealed to the general public.

via Pinterest

“We worked on that mount for almost two years,” Barber says. “Some people got upset that it took so long, but Dr. Langston was old school. His main interest in the mount was the feet. The reason our Diplodocus is mounted moving up a slope has to do with how the feet and legs were able to support that 30-ton mass going up a grade.”

via Pinterest

In life, Dipsy would have weighed the equivalent of two tractor trailers stacked on top of one another. Even her skeleton is heavy enough that it required 250-pound, 8-inch I-beams for support, laid across two pieces of railroad track that are concealed in her base.

Barber remained in the Museum exhibit business — and in Houston — for the next 25 years, only more recently deciding to devote his full attention back to (more traditional) sculpture. His sheet metal sculptures of Gulf Coast wildlife are shown at galleries throughout the region and online at johnbarber.com.

“As we approach the task of disassembling the Diplodocus some 40 years since I started working on it, I find myself contemplating the issue of time — how 40 years is the working life of a man, but for a fossil specimen is but a moment. I feel that I have an obligation to that specimen; it changed the course of my life in a profound manner, and brought me into a line of work that I found artistically fulfilling and intellectually satisfying. How much more can a man ask for in life?”

Have your own special memory of Dipsy? Post it here in the comments or share it with us on Facebook!

Help us help you: Name our new paleontological pal and win a guided tour of the new Hall of Paleontology!

By now you all should be acquainted with our new mascot:

T-Rex Trying to fit in!

He’ll be hanging out with us for the indefinite future, and it occurred to us that it might be polite to give him a name.

Well, that hasn’t gone smoothly, as you might imagine. In fact, the entire process reminds me of the infamous family shutout of ’92, when my sister was incubating and my two name suggestions — Maleficent for a girl, Pooch Patrol for a boy, naturally — were vetoed without so much as a vote.

Although in hindsight I think “Annie” does have a nicer ring, I’m dedicated to making this naming exercise a touch more fair. And that’s where you guys come in!

Here are the contest details: Leave a comment either here or on HMNS’ Facebook page with your suggestion of a name for our new spokes-dino. The top five submissions (read: our most favorite) will be selected by our online team, and then put to a vote on Facebook. The winner will get a guided tour for four of the new Hall of Paleontology — with more than 3 billion years and hundreds of species to cover, don’t you think you want a docent?

The power of social media is yours to harness, so use it!

The name nomination contest ends Friday at 5 p.m., so get your thinking caps on and come up with something our tireless T. rex can be proud of — just don’t ask him for a high five.

Wyrex’s fancy footwork and tender hands: Get to know this tyrannosaur’s softer side

As we all know, Tyrannosaurus rex is the world’s No. 1 favorite dinosaur, so we at the Houston Museum of Natural Science are as pleased as punch over our specimen Wyrex, a truly splendid fossil that will help fill out the Cretaceous zone of the new Hall of Paleontology.

Wyrex will join our casts of Stan, an adult rex, and Bucky, a teenage Tyrannosaurus, in the new hall next week.

Bakker Wyrex Blog
Here’s our Wyrex sniffing at the trail of our duck-billed dinosaurs

Our Wyrex gets its name for Montana rancher Don Wyrick, who spotted bones eroding out of river sediments that were deposited about 66 million years ago during the Lancian Age — the last slice of dinosaur history before the great die-off.

Of course, T. rexes are famous for their bone-crushing bite and the old question of whether they were cowardly scavengers or fearless predators. But equally fascinating is the century-old puzzle of tyrannosaur digits. (Fingers, not phone numbers).

And that’s precisely why our Wyrex is a scientific groundbreaker. He has the best-preserved hands and feet of any T. rex ever uncovered, and he has something to say about three tyrannosaurian problems:

Theory No. 1: Some scientists say: T. rex was a waddling stumblebum, so slow that you could easily escape it at an amble.

Let’s look at the hard (fossilized) data.  Our database includes all the maxi-fauna today —  land creatures who grow to a ton or more. We find that slow walkers, like elephants, have short shins and very short ankles compared to their thigh length.  A charging African elephant, for example, hits 22 miles per hour. Faster large animals, such as rhinos (who get almost as heavy as elephants) are equipped with more length in shin and ankle. An angry white rhino easily surpasses 30 miles per hour.

Wyrex, in contrast, seems elegantly leggy — his shin and ankle are way, way longer compared to his thigh than the ratios we see in an elephant. Wyrex confirms what a dozen other T. rex skeletons have already told us: These giant dinos were built for speed. (Whether they were built for comfort, I’d guess no one was brave enough to find out.)

Bakker Wyrex Blog
A rhino, a fast big critter, next to a T. rex. Notice how long the shin and ankle are in the rex.

Here’s another way to test the slow-rex theory. Fast animals today — small, medium and large — have compact ankles. The long ankle bones, called “metapodials,” are tightly bound to each other so they make one strong unit. Slow walkers like elephants have loosely constructed metapodials that let the entire ankle spread out.  Check out our Wyrex’s ankle. Tight or loose?

TIGHT! There are three long ankle bones, and the inner and outer bones hug the middle bone so tightly that the whole ankle works as one bony unit. That is not an elephant-style spreading foot.

Our three rexes, Stan, Bucky and Wyrex, tell us most emphatically that their species were not slowpokes.

Theory No. 2:  Some scientists say that T. rex fingers were powerful meat hooks.

Wyrex’s hand is worth pondering. In the new hall you’ll be able to stand very close to the bones, so you can compare your arm and fingers to his. At first glance, the rex mitt does seem as strong as a grizzly bear’s. But wait … in nature, what matters is how strong your hand is compared to the rest of your body. Wyrex was 10 times as heavy as the average grizzly bear. That means the Wyrex arm is 10 times weaker relative to his body weight than the bear’s.

When we diagram a grizzly bear with the the proportions of Wyrex, the poor bear seems to have a ridiculously wussy arm:

Bakker Wyrex Blog
Check out the measly arms on this Grizzly bear proportioned like our Wyrex.

Now analyze the Wyrex claws. Are they as big and hooked as hand claws from earlier meat-eating dinos? Nope. Our Acro (Acrocanthosaurus) is a bit smaller in body weight than Wyrex but has much heavier, sharper and more hooked claws.  T. rex evolved from an ancestor shaped like Acrocanthosaurus, who evolved from something like the Jurassic megalosaurs. If claw strength really was important, why did evolution make the rex claws weaker?

Then there’s the famous two-fingered salute. Most dino carnivores had three strong fingers — thumb, index finger and middle finger. Allosaurs from the Jurassic are built that way, and so are the acrocanthosaurs from the Early Cretaceous. So are all the raptors. One example? Our cast of Deinonychus, the raptor who inspired Jurassic Park.

Wyrex has a near-perfect hand. But how many fingers does he have? Two — thumb and index. And the finger bones are far skinnier than what you see in an allosaur or an acro. All T. rexes and their close cousins, the gorgosaurs, were weakly two-fingered.

Bakker Wyrex Blog
A rex arm next to a Jurassic meat-eating megalosaur.

How and why did evolution clip off that third finger? Wyrex shows us. Stare at the outer side of the hand. You’ll see an ultra-thin bone crowded against the index finger. That’s a remnant of the third digit. It was retained because some major muscles attach to the base of the third finger, muscles that are needed to rotate the whole hand sideways.  Other rex specimens probably also had that remnant of the third finger, but lost the bone after death when scavengers nibbled away the muscles.

third finger
The thin remnant of Wyrex’s third finger

The muscle-attachment on the finger remnant tells us that some sideways movement was still important in Wyrex, but it was a delicate movement — not the brute action of a meat-hook.

Theory No. 3: In 1905 one famous scientist theorized that rex fingers were for gentle…tickling!?

It sounds weird at first. However, that scientist was none other than Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, the New York paleontologist who found the first T. rex and gave the species its name. Osborn had great insights into extinct animals. He had museum-smarts AND zoo-smarts.  He was on the board of the Bronx Zoo, and he observed live animals. He knew that a giant predator needed more than powerful jaws for killing prey and long limbs for chasing it; predators needed a way to attract desirable mates so they could make healthy, desirable offspring.

The problem: If you are a 10,000-pound rex who can bite another dinosaur in half in one chomp, how do you express tender, romantic feelings?

The answer: Tickling. Many animals today use a small finger or toe to stroke their loved ones. Critters with fur or feathers spend much time grooming their friends and mates with delicate strokes of claw-tips. Grooming renews the bond between male and female, between parent and youngster, and between pack-mates in a hunting group.

It is a fun fantasy. Think of it: a young mated couple of rexes relaxing after a meal of duck-bill meat, stroking each other’s necks and muzzles, then petting their newly hatched chicks.

The fantasy becomes more believable if rexes had fur or feathers. Feathers have been found with many small and medium-sized meat-eating dinos, but up until 2012 no one had excavated a big tyrannosaur with feathery pelage.

But in the spring of that year, our Chinese colleagues announced an Early Cretaceous tyrannosaur fossilized with big sections of skin.  In the skin were tightly packed feathers — thin, kiwi-like feathers — up to a foot and a half long. The Chinese species was very similar to what the direct ancestor of later tyrannosaurs must have looked like.  The conclusion, then, is that Wyrex, too, probably had feathers.

So recent discoveries back up what Professor Osborn said over a century ago: T. rexes had a softer side — literally!

An aside — Osborn was not only a superb research scientist, but also a brilliant designer of public exhibits. He was the first to mix skeletons with beautiful murals and sculptures of the extinct beasts in their natural habitat. And he envisioned a fossil exhibition as a series of safaris back into deep time.

In other words, Osborn would have loved our new HMNS Hall of Paleontology — and you will, too.

Black Hills Institute

Today’s post is by Sami Mesarwi, a member of the Museum’s marketing staff who recently traveled to South Dakota to visit the Black Hills Institute. 

If the company you work for had to send you on a business trip anywhere you wanted to go, where would it be?  Paris?  London?  Shanghai?  How about Hill City, South Dakota?  Probably wouldn’t be a first choice for too many out there… And while I would have said the same before my trip to the Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research (and I probably still wouldn’t be able to pass on Paris), this paleontological-Mecca should definitely be in the running for you dino-die-hards out there.

Black Hills Institute Outside Facade
The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research

I’ve always loved dinosaurs. 

In fact, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is still one of my all-time favorite books (I may have grown up thinking that Crichton’s logic used in the novel to try and resurrect dinosaurs using the DNA found in preserved mosquitoes, as well as amphibians to fill in the holes, was flawless, but I’ve come a long way since then).  So, going on this trip seemed like it was going to be quite enjoyable from the start.  Our mission was simple enough: to go up and get some photos of the fossils that will eventually be on display in the museum’s upcoming new paleontology hall, opening summer 2012.

A coworker and I took the trip up to South Dakota in April, a time when Houston weather had consistently already warmed up to 90+ degrees outside.  However, surprising to all of us on the trip, we were greeted by snow in South Dakota!  Even though it was April, it was a Winter Wonderland—the color of the snow that covered the ground literally blended in with the sky’s horizon. Needless to say, it was pretty cold.  But I was able to get some pretty nice still shots out of it.

Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland!

Day one of our trip to South Dakota was a whirlwind of sights and sounds from within the Black Hills Institute. 

Everyone met up inside the Institute with the famed Peter Larson, the Yoda (though not quite as old) of casting fossils and of T. rex.  He gave us a brief history of his background and of the Institute while in the main lobby area, a who’s who of dinosaurs from several different eras.  In addition to the infamous SUE the T. rex, there were examples of Triceratops, Struthiomimus, Acrocanthosaurus, what seemed like an infinite amount of ammonites, and so much more, all filling an area about the size of an average backyard in the suburbs.  It was amazing—I’ve never seen so many dinosaurs in a compact area before.

Pete Larson
Pete Larson in the zone.
Dino Showroom
The Black Hills Institute Showroom

Onwards we continued to the prepping areas (a separate building from the museum itself), showcasing a few dinosaurs in the development and mounting stages. Pete told us about several of the specimens we’d be getting here at HMNS, before all of the paleontologists on hand broke into a discussion about the immaculate condition some of the fossils were in (I can’t give away too much about what in particular we’re getting—you’ll just have to wait and see!).  Before this trip, I thought I could hold my ground pretty decently well in matters of dino-speak.  But boy was I wrong.  Being surrounded by so many accomplished and literally world-renowned paleontologists (including Pete Larson, Dr. Robert Bakker, and so many others) was really very exciting.  But also quite humbling.

Pete then took us to the casting/molding area, where several Black Hills employees were diligently working to create some very impressive casts of fossils that they had.  They poured the liquid silicone rubber into the two mold halves, and, with some of the smaller ones, fastened them together with—interestingly enough—Legos! Turns out those colorful, little building blocks aren’t just fun to play with, but are also way more practical than you would think…

Pete Larson Bob Bakker
Pete Larson and Dr. Bob Bakker examining a recent find.

Our second (and final) day of the trip allowed for us to talk up close with Pete himself. 

Pete told us all about the Black Hills Institute itself and how it came to be—in 1974, as an earth science supply house, providing teaching specimens for colleges and universities, before branching out into doing museum exhibits.  In fact, as Pete points out, the products coming out of the Black Hills Institute can be found on every continent in the world (though he was mindful to exclude Antarctica from the list—hardly as impressive now, if you ask me).  After he answered our countless questions, Pete allowed for us to roam around the Black Hills Institute at our leisure, getting some shots of whatever it is that we wanted.  We took still shots of some of the specimens that will be making an appearance in the new paleontology hall, as well as some of the stars of the show.

After that, we grabbed a quick lunch at the corner bistro before heading back home to Houston.  Though we did make a quick stop on the way back… As we were only about 15 miles away from Mount Rushmore, we went ahead and visited the famed monument on our way to the airport. Quite breathtaking, I must say!  To me, the tranquility of the park where the monument is located, coupled with the remarkable stature of the presidents whose faces are forever immortalized in the mountain’s façade, were equally as impressive to me as the mountain goat we saw.

Mt. Rushmore
Mount Rushmore.

All in all, the trip to Hill City, South Dakota was so much cooler (both, literally and figuratively) than I originally anticipated.  While the city itself isn’t exactly the largest out there (population: 948), or the most exotic of your travel destinations, it should absolutely be a front-runner for all of you dino-enthusiasts out there.