Tail end of summer

As Labor Day approaches, along with the departure of our traveling summer dino exhibit, I must thank my fellow volunteer Emily for showing me how to make the most of a scheduled hour at the exhibit trail’s endpoint, Dino Village. We’ve had two such hours together in the past month, both on rainy days. Both times we took shelter in the interpretive booth, where Emily displayed her prowess with coprolite artifacts (more about those in a moment) and took this picture (she declined to be photographed herself).

Besides the coprolite fossils, which I’m so bravely gripping here, the booth held a delicate glazed ostrich egg about the same size as a dinosaur egg. As kids approached the booth, I devised my second-favorite interpretive question: “Is this a huge egg or a tiny egg?” Coming from a dinosaur, of course, it’s tiny; a proportionately sized egg would have a shell too thick for the dino-baby to shatter from within. My favorite question, though, applied to the coprolites: “What do you think these are?” Emily taught me not to answer this until the children had already touched the fossils. She also showed me the immensely charming companion book stashed in the booth.

The disclosure “It’s poop!” leads to giggles, recoiling or blank stares, depending on the toucher. “Jurassic Poop” further explains that before droppings can spend thousands of years hardening into rock, they first must drop in a cool, dry environment that fosters fossilization. Emily, a new summer “green-shirt” volunteer who plans to go through more intensive training and become a permanent “blue-shirt,” understood the full benefit of the ask-touch-tell sequence: Sure, you can walk around with a coprolite in your hand and ask, “Would you like to touch this poop?” I’d seen volunteers doing that before, and it works just fine: A certain type of kid-guest will always leap at the chance. But forcing a guest to think harder and work for the answer gives the brain a better workout, lures in the potentially squeamish and often gets a more dramatic response.

Despite my mild-at-best interest in dinosaurs, I also have a new favorite to go along with my other two: this guy, Parasaurolophus, who’s hanging out here in Dino Village. Emily and I wondered where he’ll go when this exhibit packs up and moves on in a week, since this statue isn’t part of the traveling animatronic herd: I’ll say something here when I know. My favorite thing about Para, obviously, is his head-crest, whose multiple uses included mating calls. But child-visitors to the booth all told Emily, when she asked, that their favorite was T-rex. One little boy explained his preference: “He’s even bigger than my dad!”

Our butterfly garden is the other summertime exhibit that’s technically winding down, but nobody has informed its winged inhabitants: When I stopped by last week, they were fluttering everywhere, in greater numbers than I’d ever seen. Their favorite plant seemed to be the Joe-Pye weed, a late-blooming perennial I’ve heard of but never knowingly seen. (Thanks to ever-helpful zoo staffer Cale for letting me know.) It can grow up to 9 feet tall, but there’s a “Little Joe” dwarf variety that stops at 4 feet, and I’m pretty sure that’s what was growing here. It’s a cold-tolerant herb, also known as snakeroot and Queen of the Meadow, and a magnet for monarchs as well as the zebra longwings seen above. I plan to add it to my own garden soon, before the local butterflies (and dinosaurs) move on.

Terrible lizards

To be honest, I haven’t been all that excited about the prospect of a traveling dinosaur exhibit coming to spend the summer at “my” zoo. There’s certainly nothing wrong with animatronic dinos, but they seem like kids’ stuff. In my zoo life, I just prefer natural living things. The exhibit opened the Saturday before Memorial Day, and since I was away on vacation that whole first week, I was late to the party anyway.

But the volunteer schedule had out there for an hour Thursday, and I must admit a couple of things caught my imagination in the land of dinosaurs, or “terrible lizards.”

First, the entrance and the placement of the dinos. On a day that started cool and semi-sunny, then turned gradually humid and glaringly bright, I appreciated having a dinosaur’s mouth spray water in my direction as soon as I approached the archway. All the dinos were tucked into thick greenery, which heightened the sense of authenticity. And while I glanced atĀ  T-rex and the long-necked brachiosaurus with a “yeah, those guys” eye, I found myself gawking in front of a couple of creatures I’d never seen or heard of.

Here’s Pachycephalosaurus, the weirdest-looking one of the bunch and the one that gets talked about in the volunteer lunchroom. His name translates logically to “thick-headed lizard” — that helmet goes 10 inches deep. “Pachy” was 26 feet long and weighed about two tons, but zoo lit also tells us that his head-plates were “porous and fragile” and his teeth were such delicate little things that he probably had to nibble on leaves, seeds, fruit and bugs. He likely defended himself with his powerful tail. And based on fossil findings, he likely did that about 70 million years ago in the region we now know as Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming.

This guy, Quetzalcoatlus, wasn’t technically a dinosaur but rather a “flying reptile” that coexisted with the terrible lizards and weighed about 400 pounds. I think he’s my favorite, with that giant pelican beak. He’s named after Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent god in Aztec lore. A toothless carnivore, he swallowed his dinners whole and was probably the largest creature ever to fly, with a wingspan of 32 feet. His fossils have been found in Texas. When I imagine him soaring overhead, I feel some of that Cretaceous-era childhood fascination after all.