Come with me to the American Museum of Natural History on New York City's Central Park West. We walk up the broad stairs, dominated by the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth president of the United States and a great benefactor of the museum. We enter the great Roosevelt Rotunda, where we are awed by one of the most dramatic dinosaur exhibits in the world —the mounted skeletons of a mother Barosaurus protecting her young one from an attacking carnivorous Allosaurus. The great sau-ropod rears up on her hind legs, her head 50 feet off the ground, towering high over the marauding Allosaurus, who appears to be trying to get at the baby. Although these dinosaurs are only bones, it is not difficult to flesh them out in our minds and see this tableau as a representation of what might have taken place when the world was about 150 million years younger than it is now, in the period known as the late Jurassic. (There is some controversy about whether Barosaurus could actually rear up on its hind legs — somebody suggested that it would have needed eight auxiliary hearts to pump the blood up that high —but a certain degree of "paleontological license" was exercised to make the dramatic fossil fill the spacious hall.)
We'll go up the stairs to the fourth floor and pass through the new Saurischian Dinosaur 1 bill on our way to the Hall ol Vertebrate Origins. It's tempting to linger here, looking at the amazing Tyrannosaurus rex or the duckbilled hadrosaurs, larger than we remember them in the old halls (they're now standing on raised platforms), but we're on our way to something that I promise will amaze you. Now we're in the Hall of Early Mammals, where we can see the mammoths, the mastodons, and the lovely murals by Charles R. Knight. We pass through an orientation center that has a surprisingly realistic, fully realized little Barosaurus stationed here, a "photo op" if ever there was one. (The "little" Barosaurus is 32 feet long; the full-grown mother downstairs measures 90 feet from nose to tail tip.) But keep going around the corner, and here we are. Look up. The first thing you see hanging from the ceiling is Dunkleosteus, a weird-looking, 20-foot-long armored fish with jaws that resemble overgrown staple removers. Wasn't there a gigantic shark jaw around here somewhere? Oh yes, there it is, but when did it shrink? (It was rebuilt when the curators realized that it had been made half again as big as it actually was, because the original fabricators made all the palm-sized teeth the same size instead of making the ones at the corners much smaller.) To the left is the entrance to the library (probably the best natural history library in the country, if not in the world), but at the moment, we're going to continue to look up, as if bird-watching. And there, soaring high over the exhibit cases, is probably the single most astonishing fossil in a museum filled with astonishing fossils. It has a long neck and a tiny head; a broad rib cage with a second set of auxiliary ribs around the belly; a short tail (much shorter than its neck); and four broad fins, each with broadly flattened wrist bones and five long "fingers." What is the Loch Ness monster doing in the Museum of Natural History?
Better read the label to find out. It's kind of hard to find it, because the skeleton is way up in the air, but here it is:
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