Good Bones: Inside the SECU DinoLab at NCMNS

This high-tech research lab within the museum is open to the public. It will showcase ongoing paleontological study of the Dueling Dinosaurs.
by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by Joshua Steadman

Dr. Lindsay Zanno, head of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The DinoLab will show real scientists at work studying fossils.

In the southern part of Montana during the Cretaceous period, a tyrannosaur and a Triceratops died in close proximity and were rapidly buried. Over 67 million years, their bones fossilized in the rocky, unforgiving landscape known as Hell Creek Formation. And then, in 2006, their skeletons were discovered, still encased in the sediment that covered them.

The discovery offered an unprecedented chance to research the intricacies of how these two dinosaurs died, what they looked like and even what they ate for their last meals. Because there are fragments of the tyrannosaur’s teeth embedded in the Triceratops, the two are now known as the Dueling Dinosaurs — but enigma surrounds their life and death. It’s a paleontological discovery worth building a whole lab around, which is what the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has done.

The new SECU DinoLab, which opened late last month, is a high-tech research lab within the museum that is open to the public. It’s unlike any in the world. “I conceived the Dueling Dinosaurs project to take the public on a live scientific journey, to illuminate how science works, to show who scientists are and what we look like, and to increase trust in the scientific process,” says Dr. Lindsay Zanno, head of paleontology at the NCMNS. “At its core is a mystery, a moment lost to time and one of the most fascinating fossils discovered in North America.”

Typically, such fossils as the tyrannosaur and Triceratops would be excavated and studied behind the scenes in a research lab, with the bones or models reassembled and set up for display. But the Dueling Dinosaurs will be kept embedded in the sandstone in which they were discovered, allowing visitors to witness active research and even ask questions of the paleontologists at work, like Did the tyrannosaur have feathers? Is there evidence of soft tissue, even coloration? Were the two really interacting when they died? One dinosaur had a broken finger and a broken tail — how? “Science has an accessibility problem, and mistrust in science is rising. We have to bring science out of the back corners and basements,” Zanno says. “We need to throw back the curtain, get in front of the public, and let our community see who we are and what we do.”

The interactive Design Your Own Dinosaur feature allows guests to follow the logic that paleontologists and paleo-artists use to recreate a dinosaur’s appearance. The Fossil Block Theater shares details about Dueling Dinosaurs and why they’re so important.

Javan Sutton, the museum’s director of exhibits and digital media, helped design the Dueling Dinosaurs exhibit with the goal of fostering imagination. “With a working paleontology lab at the exhibit’s center, visitors will get to take part in the actual science in a way that has never been done before,” he says.

The museum worked with HH Architecture, a local firm, on what is the first physical addition to the building in more than a decade. Situated between the globe and The Daily Planet Cafe, the exhibit includes immersive areas before and after the lab, featuring sights, sounds, smells and tactile elements.

An assembled and posed skeleton of a Therizinosaurus flashes enormous claws, an interactive computer game encourages visitors to design their own dinosaurs, and dinosaur vocalizations and other cretaceous animal sounds echo. Ambient sounds like thunderstorms represent the mass or flash flooding event that likely buried the Dueling Dinosaurs.

Scents mimic what the Cretaceous environment would have smelled like, based on research that reveals wet forested areas with lots of conifers like pine trees. Several touchable dinosaur models and fossils add to the tactile elements. Reinforced flooring now accommodates the 30,000-pound block of sandstone and dinosaur fossils and is designed to hold even more. “The door is open for the future,” Sutton says.

The fossils will be studied using CT scans and imaging to look inside the blocks of sandstone. The stone contains clues like skin impressions from the Triceratops, as well as octagon-shaped formations on the frill around its neck, all providing insight into how the skin looked and felt. “There’s nowhere else you can walk inside a working paleontology lab any day, every day, get up close to fossils and talk to the scientific team,” Zanno says.

Dr. Jennifer Anné and Eric Lund remove the matrix surrounding the neck of the tyrannosaur. 

Live video feeds and regular research updates will keep the public in the loop as they follow the scientists’ discoveries. Visitors can book free, timed-entry tickets to the exhibit, which is in English and Spanish. With over a million visitors a year, the NCMNS is a popular destination for tourists and field trips alike, often the site of many of North Carolina schoolchildren’s first encounter with real fossils.

For Zanno and her team, it is essential that people can see the relevance and cutting-edge nature of paleontology. “Paleontology is not a science that comes to people’s minds when they think of modern challenges, and that needs to change,” says Zanno, noting that the tyrannosaur and Triceratops at the NCMNS represent some of the last dinosaurs alive before the end-Cretaceous extinction. “The fossil record provides the context we need to understand how life has responded to climate change in the past, for example, and what we can anticipate in our future.”

Zanno points to evidence of skin on the fossil. 
The SECU DinoLab has a large crane to lift the heaviest fossil (12,000 pounds!) and place it in a custom-built rotating device so it can be turned during preparation.

Sixty-seven million years ago, the barren landscape of Montana was actually as flat and humid as the North Carolina coastal plains. Fitting, then, that the dinosaurs would find their new home here. Opening the DinoLab to visitors benefits both museum-goers and the scientists eager to show their work. “Discovery is deeply rooted in what it means to be human,” says Zanno. “Our fascination with these incredible animals transcends the boundaries that divide us.”  

Here, guests can see what happens once fosssils are removed from the field. Candice “Nikki” Simon repairs broken dinosaur eggs. Above left, NC State doctoral candidate William Freimuth polishes a dinosaur leg bone so it can be mounted to a slide and examined under a microscope.

The Nothronychus (meaning “slothful claw”) was a therizinosaur that lived in the Late Cretaceous Period.

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.