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To brighten its future, Bob Campbell Geology Museum turns to a dinosaur from the past

August 11 , 2016

by Jim Melvin

A titanic dinosaur that roamed North Dakota about 68 million years ago has a new home – in South Carolina.

The fossil remains of a triceratops, one of the last great dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, are on display at the Bob Campbell Geology Museum on the campus of Clemson University. Triceratops, which was a herbivore, grew to about 25 feet in length and weighed as much as 20,000 pounds. The size of its head ranked among the largest of all land animals, making up one-third the length of its body.

“There has never even been a toenail of a triceratops anywhere in Clemson, but now we have three plaster field jackets weighing about a thousand pounds that are full of this iconic dinosaur’s remains. It’s a big deal,” said Adam Smith, a seasoned paleontologist with international experience who became the curator of the museum last September.

“We have already painstakingly prepared one of the fossils, revealing what we believe to be the bony frill around the back of the dinosaur’s head, and this is on display right now for visitors to enjoy. But we have several months to go before we can prepare the rest of the bones. We have to proceed very slowly in order to not damage the specimens.”

The triceratops’ frill was first unveiled to the public July 23 when several hundred dinosaur lovers attended the grand opening of the museum’s new fossil preparation lab. The main portion of the lab is housed behind a pair of doors with large glass windows, enabling guests to watch Smith and geology students, such as Arthur Brown, a senior at Clemson, carefully remove plaster and rock to reveal the fossil. Large fossils are routinely encased in plaster casts so that they can be transported over rough terrain and long distances without damaging the precious, ancient and fragile skeletons.

“Paleontology sparks the imagination of children of all ages, and now it has become one of the main focuses here at the museum,” Smith said. “Dinosaurs help bring visitors through the door and get people excited about the educational lessons our exhibits provide, as well as our outreach programs. We’re on pace this year to attract more than 20,000 visitors, which is nearly twice what we had last year.”

The Bob Campbell Geology Museum recently formed a working collaborative agreement with the North Dakota Geological Survey, which conducts extensive research to determine the types of climates and environments in which ancient animals lived. The state of North Dakota is rich with fossils from many geological time periods, including the Cretaceous (about 145 million to 65.5 million years ago) and Paleocene Epoch (65.5 million to 56 million years ago).

“In North Dakota, we can find the classic late Cretaceous dinosaurs like triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex,” said Smith, who plans to conduct more field work there over the next several summers. “But there are also lots of fossils from the Paleocene, the time period after the dramatic event that caused the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. These relatively younger fossils tell us a lot about how the ecosystem managed to recover from what is believed to be a climate-altering disaster caused by an asteroid that plunged to Earth. So there’s a good temporal spread of different types of specimens to study and collect.”

In addition to the triceratops’ bones, the museum has also obtained fossil remains of a 32-million-year-old rhinoceros and a 62-million-year-old crocodile. Plans are in the works to hang life-sized versions of a Pterosaur — both skeletonized and fleshed-out — from the gallery’s ceiling. Other future projects will include reconstructions of 350-million-year-old scale trees that will extend from floor to ceiling, as well as a 12-foot-tall, eight-foot-wide megalodon shark jaw that will frame the new entranceway.

“Megalodons were ancestors of great white sharks that grew 60 feet long. Some of these prehistoric sharks swam off the coast of South Carolina before they became extinct about two and a half million years ago,” Smith said. “Our fascination with animals and plants from the past is timeless. So these new additions will hopefully excite the minds of young and old alike and make people want to learn more about the natural history of South Carolina.”

The nearest full-scale natural history museums to Clemson are in Columbia and Raleigh, making the Bob Campbell Geology Museum a unique resource in the Upstate. The museum is located on the grounds of the South Carolina Botanical Garden and is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week. It houses more than 10,000 minerals, rocks and fossils from South Carolina and around the globe. Admission is free.

“We want to modernize, refine and expand the exhibits that we do have. We also want to add more interactive features, such as iPad stations and smart phone-friendly exhibits that automatically access online educational content so that our visitors can enjoy a more interactive experience,” Smith said. “We want to reorganize what we have so that it’s more informative for visitors, students and scientists. We offer more than just pretty rocks in cases. So we’re very busy — me and my student employees and the board of directors — just trying to rearrange and reorganize things so that we can maximize the educational opportunities that are available at this museum.”

Patrick McMillan, director of both the Botanical Garden and the geology museum, said that the “uptick in visitation” proves that the museum is being discovered by South Carolinians and others around the Southeast.

“The museum is one-of-a-kind in our region and provides our citizens with the opportunity to interact and learn about the building blocks of the planet as well as our planet’s distant past,” said McMillan, the Emmy-award winning host of the popular ETV nature program “Expeditions with Patrick McMillan.” “The South Carolina Botanical Garden is very lucky to have such a resource on its campus. And because we are free, we depend on visitors’ generosity in terms of donations, our Friends of the Museum program and the revenue generated in the gift shop to keep our doors open. We hope you will come enjoy the museum soon.”



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