Last Spring Steve Brusatte visited the new mount of Paul Sereno's Suchomimus in the Chicago Children's Museum. Here Steve recalls his visions of seeing one of the 20th century's most amazing dinosaurs. 

In 1997 fossil hunter David Varrichio was quietly walking across the Nigerian desert. As part of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno's dinosaur hunting team Varrichio was walking in hopes of discovering dinosaur fossils that may, he hoped, give insights into the paleoenvironment of ancient Africa. What he found next was beyond insightful-it was amazing!

While on his walk over the sandy desert dunes Varrichio happened to gaze down and lay his eyes upon a large dinosaurian thumb claw. The amazing size and shape of the claw led Varrichio to call over Sereno and the rest of the team. Quickly they began to dig and after a few days of excavating the team had located an entire skeleton of an odd looking carnivorous dinosaur.

Unlike the popular carnivorous T. rex this dinosaur had a long, crocodile like skull with a chin guard called a rosetta, which held the creature's end teeth in place. This creature had a two foot tall sail on its back. Not only that, but it had powerful grasping limbs with fearsome thumb claws. This creature was unlike any ever seen before, although similar to the fish eating Baryonyx discovered in England nearly two decades before. Because of Baryonyx's skull shape and powerful limbs English paleontologists reasoned it was a fish eater. Sereno came to the same conclusion with his dinosaur.

In November of 1998 Sereno, Varrichio, and his team named the amazing creature Suchomimus in a highly popular paper appearing in the journal Science. The following day Suchomimus made the frontpage of the Chicago Tribune, was the subject of a major science story in the San Francisco Chronicle, and was highlighted in an Associated Press article appearing in thousands of newspapers countrywide. Although Sereno was noted for the discovery of two of the oldest dinosaurs, Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus, and a carnivore that may have been bigger than T. rex, Carchardontosaurus, Suchomimus was proving to be his most popular, and perhaps successful, discovery.

Because of its fish eating ability University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas Holtz reasoned that Suchomimus may hold the key into understanding dinosaur diversity. In a modern ecosystem, he says, there is usually one dominant predator. There are lions on the African plains, wolves in the American north, and cougars in may mountain systems. But, in prehistoric Africa, as many as three or four large predators, including one massive crocodile, shared Suchomimus' ecosystem. As Holtz wrote in a Science commentary appearing next to Sereno's description paper, Suchomimus' ability to exploit the fish eating niche may have led to a more diverse ecosystem, one that was able to hold 3-4 large predators.

Just days after the initial description of Suchomimus Paul Sereno appeared on nearly every Chicago public television station, showing off casts of the bones to adoring dinosaur fans. But, his point was not to show, but to announce that he was going to display Suchomimus at the Chicago Children's Museum. Instead of displaying the creature in a world renowned natural history museum, such as the American Museum in New York, or the close Field Museum in Chicago, Sereno chose to display the ever scientifically important creature in the Children's Museum. "I want to introduce dinosaurs to the children," he told the news anchors. So, just weeks after his find was introduced, Suchomimus was mounted in the Chicago Children's Museum.

This August Steve Brusatte of Dino Land had a chance to visit this museum, which is located in the Chicago tourist district of Navy Pier, right along the shores of Lake Michigan. When walking into Navy Pier the Children's Museum is almost immediately to your left, sharing an entrance with the ever popular McDonalds. You enter the museum through its gift shop, and pay when you reach the second story. From the second story you pass a large pirate ship like climbing device for children, and head up another flight of stairs. When you reach the top of these stairs a small sign says "Special Exhibit ->" You then follow the sign and walk to the right, until you notice a large sign that says "Amoco Presents Dinosaur Discovery!" Almost immediately you see the massive mounted Suchomimus skeleton in all of its glory.

Approaching the skeleton you notice several signs explaining what many of the most noticeable body parts were used for. One sign explained the function of Varrichio's claw, and included two claw casts that the children can reach out and touch. Approaching the skull you see a sign explaining the fish eating ability of Suchomimus. Behind the creature is a large model of two skulls-those of T. rex and Suchomimus. The display compares the shape and function of the two very distinct skulls. Behind the skulls is Michael Skrepnick's wonderful Suchomimus mural, measuring about 20 by 10 feet. It is a perfect place to pose for a picture.

Walking to the right of the skeleton and the mural you notice a beautiful Suchomimus model. Looking closer you read that it was sculpted by the famed sculptor Stephen Czerkas. Continuing to the right of this statue are three large displays-and hordes of kids! One display lets kids reconstruct the limb of Suchomimus by using about 10 different bone fragments. Another lets them reconstruct a Suchomimus claw using Crayola model putty. Another lets them draw Suchomimus. Immediately left of these exhibits is a small room, gloomy at first look, but amazing when you walk in. Along the back wall is a large pit, about 35 by 10 feet, filled with tire shreads, where you can actually "dig" out a model of Suchomimus. The dinosaur was placed in the pit in the exact position in which it was found and covered with the tires. Now, it is arguably the most popular spot in the museum.

Along another wall of the room is a television, constantly running, which explains just how Suchomimus was excavated. Along the other wall is a large jeep, one similar to the one Sereno used, which is loaded with mock expedition supplies. Near it is a mock tent, like the one Sereno and crew used on the expedition.

The Suchomimus exhibit is probably the most popular attraction in the entire Navy Pier. And, rightfully so. I only hope that the children visiting it realize just how important the fossil is to science. I hope they see beyond its captivating looks and realize what it took to bring it there.

If you think Suchomimus is the last big dinosaur to hit the Chicago scene, you are wrong. Sereno is currently working on two giant sauropods and hopes to unveil them by the millennium. So, it looks like there are more dinosaurs in the future of the Children's Museum.

Front Skeleton | Upper Body | Skull Front | Skull Side | Skull Comparison | Claws | Spines | Rosette | Back Skeleton | Side Skeleton

See Steve Brusatte's web site Dino Land.

2000 PrehistoricPlanet.com. All rights reserved. 2000 Steve Brusatte. All images and text copy property of Steve Brusatte and may not be reprinted in any form without prior written consent. 


Suchomimus tenerensis

 

Chicago Children's Museum   

Project Exploration

University of Chicago

National Geographic 

Luis Rey's Suchomimus Illustration 

CM Studio Suchomimus Scale Model Sculpture

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