Approximate number of fossils: 700
Exhibition budget: $110 million
Total exhibition size: 31,000 square feet
Opening date: June 8, 2019
In the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils, approximately 700 fossil specimens, many never before on display, tell the story of Earth’s deep past and tracks the history of life on this planet. The 31,000-square-foot exhibition, structured as a journey through time, reveals how this 3.7 billion-year history is connected to the present and shapes the future.
Most visitors will begin their journey through Deep Time entering from the museum’s rotunda. They are greeted by early human ancestors in the most recent period of Earth’s history and travel back through 10 geological time periods to the formation of the Earth. Throughout the hall, more than three dozen murals by Julius Csotonyi and Andrey Atuchin, sculptures by Alexandra Lefort, scale-model murals by Dwayne Harty and models by many artists help visitors imagine how Earth and its ecosystems have changed through deep time. Thirteen videos and eight touchscreen interactives feature experts from the museum and around the world, communicate key concepts and demonstrate the scientific process. Dozens of touchable objects, including fossils up to 159 million years old, let visitors engage with Earth’s past in a tactile way. At the end of the exhibition, a working fossil-preparation space staffed by volunteer experts and the hands-on Coralyn W. Whitney Fossil Basecamp provide opportunities to further explore concepts presented in the hall.
What Is Deep Time?
What is normally thought of as history is only a tiny fraction of Earth’s actual past. Earth’s history has played out over billions of years in what scientists call Deep Time.
Main Messages of the Exhibition
Fossils are clues from the past that reveal life’s 3.7 billion-year history on Earth. The Deep Time perspective gives context to the world today and helps predict how the human species and all life will fare in the future. Major themes throughout the hall include:
- All life is connected—past, present and future—to all other life and to the Earth itself.
- Evolution: Life is continually changing through time.
- Ecosystems Change: Ecosystems changed through time and continue to do so.
- Earth Processes: Geological processes and global cycles cause ecosystem and evolutionary changes.
- Extinction: Mass extinctions have periodically devastated life on Earth.
- Age of Humans and Global Change: Humans are now shaping the future and the fate of life on Earth.
Exhibition Sections, Displays and Key Fossils
Navigating Deep Time
A geologic timescale orients visitors to the organization of the fossil hall and illustrates the scale of deep time. In this section, visitors will learn of time touchstones featured throughout the exhibition, including the nine miniature dioramas showing a changing world through time as well as murals depicting scenes of life during the Paleogene, Cretaceous, Jurassic and Carboniferous time periods.
Visitors explore how fossil evidence provides clues to ancient climates and climate change, including a rapid global warming event 56 million years ago known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Visitors will learn how this event drastically impacted life around the globe and how it may help humans predict the effects of modern climate change today and in the future.
The exhibit also points out how modern climate change is different from the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum and other past warming events: today’s climate change is being driven by human activities at an alarming rate, much faster than occurred during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.
After learning about the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, visitors will explore Earth’s deeper climate history alongside two possible paths for the planet’s long-term climate future—global outcomes that will be decided based on choices people make as individuals and collectively. While Earth’s climate history shows that the world has been warmer than it is today, the rate at which humans are warming the planet threatens the welfare of all life on the planet—including humans.
- “Earth’s Ancient Fever” video explores parallels between the past and present and what ancient climate can tell people about the future.
Ectocion jaws from Wyoming, lived 55–56 million years ago. Casts of jaw bones from three species of Ectocion, a hoofed plant-eating mammal, from before, during, and after the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Like many animals, Ectocion evolved smaller bodies during the planetary heatwave.
Flowering plants from Wyoming, lived 56 million years ago. Damage on four fossil plants shows evidence of increased insect feeding during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.
The Warner Age of Humans Bridge and Gallery
10,000 years ago to today. An elevated platform allows visitors to survey the ways humans have become an unprecedented force of global change on the planet against the backdrop of the hall’s long sweep of deep time, from the towering swamp forests of 359 million years ago to the giant mammals of the last ice age. A four-screen theater space focuses on the ways people are collectively responding to today’s rapidly warming and changing planet. An interactive touchscreen display offers visitors an opportunity to consider how individuals are taking action to address the rapidly changing planet.
- This section of the exhibition was developed with input from the Anthropocene Advisory Council co-chaired by Scott Wing, the museum’s curator of fossil plants; Jane Lubchenco, professor at Oregon State University; and Thomas Lovejoy, professor in Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University. Members of the council include Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication; Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist and professor at Texas Tech University; Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice; Rachel Kyte, CEO and special representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Sustainable Energy for All; Michael Oppenheimer, director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and Environment and professor at Princeton University; Laura Petes, manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Communities Program; and Ann Reid, director of the National Center for Science Education.
- 30-foot-tall ancient tree sculptures by Alexandra Lefor
The Recent Ice Ages (Quaternary period)
2.6 million years ago to today. Two miniature models contrast the effects of two different climate conditions in North America. One depicts a fall landscape during a time of interglacial warmth, while the other showcases the same landscape during a period of global cooling. A model ice core and immersive media experience explores how ice holds clues about past atmospheres and climate—and Earth’s future.
- Wooly mammoth, American mastodon and giant moa (a wingless bird endemic to New Zealand) fossils demonstrate humans’ history of contributing to animal extinctions.
- Reproductions of two iconic murals by paleoartist Jay Matternes, depicting ice age landscapes. The original murals, which hung in the National Museum of Natural History’s historic fossil hall, are stored in the museum’s collections.
American mastodon, Mammut americanum, fossil from Indiana, lived 15,500–11,500 years ago. Mastodon went extinct at the end of the last glacial period due to climate change and human hunting.
Giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus, fossil from Ireland, lived 15,200–11,100 years ago. Often called the “Irish Elk,” M. giganteus ranged beyond Ireland and its closest living relative is the fallow deer, not the elk. This giant deer lived across northern Eurasia from Siberia to Ireland, and like other deer, shed its giant antlers every year. This is the museum’s oldest mounted fossil skeleton. It has been on display since 1872 and has a new pose for the current exhibition.
Mammals Take Center Stage (Paleogene/Neogene period)
66 million to 2.6 million years ago. Two important Paleogene and Neogene ecosystems, a lush rainforest and an open grassland, show how mammals evolved and diversified in landscapes left open by the extinction of dinosaurs.
- Rainforest scene (56–53 million years ago) based on the Willwood Formation in Wyoming
- Grassland scene (19 million years ago) based on the Harrison Formation in Nebraska
Palm tree, Sabalites sp. Palm slabs from Alaska, lived 57–50 million years ago. Palms and other warm-climate plants once grew in places too cold for them now.
Brontothere mammal, Megacerops coloradensis. Fossil from Nebraska, lived 38–34 million years ago. An ungulate with impressive horns made of bone. First mounted and displayed in 1920, this is the oldest unchanged skeletal mount in the exhibition.
Dinosaurs in a Flowering World (Cretaceous period)
145 million to 66 million years ago. A wall display representing the mass extinction that led to the demise of the dinosaurs—caused by an asteroid impact—stops visitors in their tracks. Beyond the wall, a landscape of cycads, conifers and early flowering plants is home to a diverse community of dinosaurs, while enormous fish and reptiles interact in the sea.
- Touchable 90–84 million-year-old sauropod fossil with ancient insect damage left behind by bone-eating insects
- “The Day the World Changed” video explores evidence for the asteroid impact and its effects
Tyrant dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus rex from Montana, lived 67–66 million years ago. The Nation’s T. rex, which was discovered on federal land in 1988, has been loaned to the Smithsonian for 50 years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The T. rex is posed preparing to decapitate a fallen Triceratops for its next meal.
Ornithopod dinosaur, Thescelosaurus neglectus. Fossil from Wyoming, lived 68–66 million years ago. Tendons and cartilage have been preserved in the fossil of this small plant-eating dinosaur offering a rare glimpse at the anatomy of this dinosaur beyond its skeleton.
Giant Dinosaurs Roam the World (Jurassic period)
201 million to 145 million years ago. In a warm world where giant dinosaurs walked from pole to pole, rich ecosystems flourished underfoot, including diverse early mammals, swimming and gliding reptiles, and insects. Long-necked dinosaurs Diplodocus and Camarasaurus reach out to eat trees high above visitors’ heads. Stegosaurus swings its spiky tail to protect itself from becoming Ceratosaurus’ next dinosaur meal.
- A model diorama scene based on the Marsh-Felch Quarry at Garden Park, Colorado
Theropod dinosaur, Allosaurus fragilis. Fossil from Colorado, lived 152 million years ago. Allosaurus was the top predator in the flat flood plains of North America. This specimen, discovered in 1883, is one of the most studied Allosaurus specimens in the world, and is posed protecting a nest of eggs.
Pterosaur, flying reptile, Rhamphorhynchus muensteri. Fossil from Germany, lived 153–151 million years ago. Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight. This nearly complete fossil includes impressions of the reptile’s wings.
From Mass Extinction to Amazing Variety (Triassic period)
252 million to 201 million years ago. Scenes from the Triassic show life on land and in the sea rebounding in a massive burst of evolution after massive volcanic activity 252 million years ago caused Earth’s largest extinction event, known by scientists as the “Great Dying.”
- Specimens, models and bronzes compare organisms and ecosystems before and after the mass extinction
Phytosaur, Smilosuchus gregorii. Fossil from Arizona, lived 213–209 million years ago. Phytosaurs are semiaquatic ambush predators that evolved similar features to crocodiles, although the two reptiles are not closely related.
Early dinosaur, Eoraptor lunensis. Skeleton cast of fossils from Argentina, lived 232–231 million years ago. This medium-sized omnivore was one of the earliest dinosaurs. It walked on two legs and had small, serrated teeth.
Familiar Food Webs Emerge (Permian period)
299 million to 252 million years ago. Large fossil specimens of ancient terrestrial animals including Edaphosaurus, Dimetrodon and Eryops evoke the emergence of the first modern ecosystems on land as Earth warmed, seed plants flourished and a huge variety of new species evolved.
- A model diorama scene based on fossil evidence from the Craddock Bone Bed in Texas, where former museum curator of fossil reptiles Nicholas Hotton did much collecting
- Three acid-etched blocks show how a diverse reef community was fossilized in amazing detail
Early synapsid, Ophiacodon uniformis, fossil from Texas, lived 286–284 million years ago. Synapsids are more closely related to mammals than to reptiles or dinosaurs. Sediments covered this individual’s lizard-like body soon after it died, preserving its death pose.
Freshwater spiny shark, Xenacanthus sp., from Texas, lived 294–290 million years ago. Posed with skull inside wireframe showing full body shape, pursuing the boomerang-headed amphibian Diplocaulus.
Strange Forests of an Ice Age (Carboniferous period)
359 million to 299 million years ago. A model coal mine reveals fossils of an ancient forest filled with strange trees, giant bugs and adventurous vertebrates.
- Cast replicas of giant tree fossils on coal mine roof and walls
- Life-sized models of a 6-foot-long giant millipede (Arthropleura), posed on a trackway of its footprints from 299–282 million years ago, and dragonfly-like insects mating in mid-air
Lycopsid tree, Lepidodendron sp., from Pennsylvania, lived 308 million years ago. Lycopsids grew up to 120 feet tall, dominating the Carboniferous landscape.
Whorl-toothed chimaera, Helicoprion davisii, from Idaho, lived 273–269 million years ago. CT scans of a Helicoprion fossil enabled researchers to determine what this ancient shark, whose teeth spiraled within its lower jaw, looked like.
Life Evolves in the Ocean (Ediacaran-Devonian periods)
635 million to 359 million years ago. Four vignettes illustrate the evolution of complex life and diverse ecosystems in ancient seas, beginning with the emergence of the first animals and ending with the rise of fishes.
- Trilobites, sponges, mollusks, starfish, fishes and other fossils representing characteristic life forms in the ancient ocean
Ediacaran organisms from Canada, lived 565 million years ago. A cast of a specimen that formed when fine volcanic ash blanketed miles of ocean floor, burying thousands of organisms.
Trilobite, Olenellus thompsoni, from Vermont, lived 541–485 million years ago. One of more than 20,000 species of trilobites, early arthropods that lived on the seafloor until 252 million years ago.
Life Moves Ashore (Ordovician–Devonian periods)
2.6 billion to 359 million years ago. Three vignettes illustrate the successive colonization of land by microbes, plants, arthropods and vertebrates.
Eurypterid arthropods, Eurypterus lacustris, from New York, lived 427–393 million years ago. Scorpion-like marine predators whose long tails end in spike-like appendages.
Early tetrapod, Acanthostega gunnari, from Denmark, lived 393–359 million years ago. These amphibians were among the earliest four-legged vertebrates.
The Long Beginning (Hadean–Proterozoic periods)
4.5 billion to 635 million years ago. The journey through deep time ends with the formation of the Earth and the very beginnings of life.
- A media piece shows how life’s essential building blocks came together
Stromatolite, Conophyton sp., from Mexico, lived 1 billion–720 million years ago. Stromatolites are mounds of layered rock that formed when cyanobacteria trapped sediments in intertidal zones.
Coralyn W. Whitney Fossil Basecamp
An interactive area where visitors explore the exhibition’s key concepts and themes.
- Hands-on activities facilitated by museum staff
- Opportunities to talk with staff about their work at the museum
- Touchable objects teach about evolution, fossilization and fossil dating
Bone bed with early rhinoceros and chalicothere, Menoceras arikarense and Moropus elatus, from Nebraska, lived 25–21 million years ago.
Tooth of early tyrannosaur, Timurlengia euotica, from Uzbekistan, lived 92–90 million years ago. The 2016 discovery of this dinosaur, a nimble, horse-sized hunter with bladelike teeth, filled in a 20 million-year gap in the evolutionary history of tyrannosaurs.
The FossiLab is a functional preparation space staffed by museum preparators and volunteers. Visitors see how the museum collects, prepares and stores fossils for present and future scientific study and public exhibition.
Stegosaur, plated dinosaur, Stegosaurus stenops, from Colorado, lived 152 million years ago. A fully articulated skeleton displayed as it was found originally in the ground.
Tyrant dinosaur coprolite, Tyrannosaurus rex. Fossilized feces from Canada, from 66 million years ago, is located in a display case about fossil feces just outside the exhibition.
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