CODY, Wyo. — Colossal dinosaur skeletons are a prime attraction at major museums in big cities like Chicago, Berlin, New York and Washington, D.C. But none of those institutions can match what Wyoming offers for a hands-on, citizen science thunder lizard experience in the heart of dinosaur country.
“Paleontology is not accessible to the general public, and it’s paleontology’s fault,” said Andrew Rossi, an interpretive guide at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis. Big museums keep their fossils behind railings and glass as part of a deliberate effort to protect valuable, one-of-a-kind specimens. But visitors crave a personal experience getting their hands dirty on a real dig, Rossi said.
Speaking during a Lunchtime Expedition lecture one recent Thursday at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Rossi pushed for a more immersive experience for dinosaur enthusiasts. He said the Wyoming Dinosaur Center is pioneering an approach that allows visitors to tour dig sites, work a full day unearthing actual fossils or spend time in a lab cleaning and preparing previously excavated fossils.
In 2018, the Center saw almost 3,000 visitors take a dig site tour at a location about 10 minutes away. Nearly 900 people signed up for the Dig for a Day program and more than 600 visitors worked in the Center’s fossil preparation lab in 2017.
That represents a level of immersive participation that “most museums would kill for,” said Rossi, an animated and passionate speaker who brought the most of his geology and theater backgrounds to his presentation, one of four he had scheduled in person or online for the day.
The Center first gained international attention in 2006 when it announced plans to acquire a rare archaeopteryx fossil. Considered the finest of only a dozen such specimens in the world, the Thermopolis archaeopteryx is about the size of a magpie. The feathered dinosaur lived about 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period, and is a key species in showing the link between dinosaurs and birds, their evolutionary descendants.
But now the Center’s close proximity to an active dig site is the key to its immersive approach, which is winning praise among travel critics and dinosaur enthusiasts, Rossi said.
Visitors have the chance work among 500 acres of excavations where more than 15,000 dinosaur bones have been discovered, an area he called “one of the riches fossil locales in the world.”
The vast majority of the bones at the site come from four species of dinosaurs well-known to researchers since the 1870s: diplodocus, allosaurus, apatosaurus and camarasaurus.
But for such a rich fossil site, Rossi said, it is lacking in diversity of other species, including creatures from the same late-jurassic era, such as ancient fish, lizards, turtles and crocodiles.
Researchers are stumped why no other fossils have turned up at the site, Rossi said. So in a clever bit of marketing, the Center is billing that mystery as part of the location’s appeal, rather than a drawback.
Using the phrase “we don’t know” in such a context is an open and honest approach to enticing interest, he said.
“I call it the beauty of the mundane,” Rossi said. “You find what seems boring and you make it spectacular.”
Finding the right buzzwords can also help — something Rossi realized in pondering how best to market a site where visitors can see preserved footprints and tooth and claw marks where many ferocious, carnivorous allosauruses gathered to feed.
A tour to an “allosaurus feeding site,” is interesting to many, Rossi said. But no one would pass on a chance to visit a “Jurassic McDonald’s.”