Finding dinosaurs at the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum

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“Oh, look, a Stegosaurus!” The Asian-American boy is excitedly jumping left and right in the local bus when we pass yet another dinosaur on our way from Katsuyama station to the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum. His little sister appears only marginally less knowledgeable. “We will see more of those,” the parents assure them.

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The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum lies in a rather remote area about 30 km away from the Japanese provincial capital of Fukui – itself not exactly a major destination on Japan’s tourist trail. From there you have to travel on a local train to the small-town of Katsuyama and then take a shuttle bus towards the mountain range. Here, in the Kitadani Valley, scientists have found a number of new dinosaur species since 2007. And more of them are still being identified.

The bus stops at a large metallic dome on a mountain slope. The museum is partly built into underground. First stop is the deepest basement floor and a corridor full of fossils and petrifications. An almost intact huge petrified Camarasaurus bonebedmarks the entrance to the huge Hall of Dinosaurs.

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Coming up the stairs, a large tyrannosaurus is roaring at the visitors. Huge screens display a scene of different dinosaurs hunting each other in a prehistoric landscape. Beyond that, dozens of life-sized dinosaur skeletons dot the 35 m high central hall. Most of them are reconstructions, but several do include substantial amounts of original bones, and one reassembled skeleton of a 15 m long Camarasaurus is almost complete.

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The running and gazing dinosaur skeletons are quite impressive. While most adults seem overwhelmed by the multitude of dinosaurs, the two American kids from the bus are not the only ones pointing out the different species as if walking through an oversized picture book. In the back, there are more recreated and animated “life-like” dinosaurs, moving in a walkable diorama.

Japanese dinosaurs

The next exhibit deals with the local research. Five new Japanese species have been found so far in the nearby Kitadani Stratum: Fukuivenator paradoxus apparently had feathers, but could not fly, and was quite small; while others such as Fukuititan nipponensis were up to 10 m long.

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Some other rooms of the museum are dealing with the aftermath of the dinosaurs: Even with the dinosaurs extinct, the animal world was nothing like we know it now, and the museum has assembled a huge display of strange creatures, in petrifications, skeletons and reconstructions: from prehistoric elks and mammoths to dinosaur-like whales and hugely oversized rats and lizards.

Before reaching the museum shop – well-equipped and surely a heaven for kids – visitors can peak into a laboratory where white-robed staff are cleaning pieces of petrified bones with special tools. After all, more fossils are being found all the time, and scientists are working here on their preparation and classification.

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Digging for dinosaurs

In front of the museum, a small bus is leaving for the excavation site in the valley of Kitadani. Twice a day, Museum visitors can go on a tour to see the digging site. A few kilometres into a winding valley – signposted with the local dinosaur species – we stop at a small building.

In the field house, a couple of displays show dinosaur footprints and more finds from Fukui, and a short film describes the digging and the main Japanese finds. We then walk down to a look-out point and peer over to the Kitadani stratum with some large arrows indicating the places where Fukuivenator and Koshisaurus were found. Some building machines stand next to the site, ready to rake off further layers of earth and stone.

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Next to the field house, large and small rocks from the site have been piled under an open roof. A scientist gives a brief explanation of what to look for and how you go about finding fossils. We are handed a mallet and chisel each and all tourists swarm out to look for suitable rocks – dark rocks, they say, are softer and easier to split, and more likely to contain carbonised material, i.e. previously organic substances. A rock containing a fossil will split along that line. If the find is relatively large and possibly important, you have to leave it there for the scientists to explore (if it is really important, the actual finder will be notified and named). But smaller pieces, such as petrified mussels or ferns, are not of particular interest to the scientists, and the tourists can keep one find each. In our group, one possibly relevant bone was found, but most people went home with some small fossil.

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2017 has been a dinosaur-intensive year for us. Only a few weeks after visiting the Fukui Dinosaur Museum, we had the opportunity to climb on a number of dinosaurs: When we saw the sign to the “dinosaur park” while travelling on Sakurajima in Southern Japan and we had an hour to spare before the bus left, we couldn’t refrain. It turned out to be an overgrown playground …

Tristan in Berlin

Earlier this year, however, we had already visited a famous dinosaur skeleton, not reconstructed, but the almost complete fossil of “Tristan”, 12 m long and containing about 170 original fossilised bones. Tristan Otto, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, was discovered in 2012 in Montana. The skeleton was named after the sons of the current owners who have lent it to the Berlin Natural History Museum (Museum für Naturkunde) for research. Tristan is the current big attraction, but there’s a hall of other dinosaurs, and of course more fossils, stuffed animals, minerals, and geological displays.

How to travel to the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum

From Fukui (between Kyoto and Kanazawa), Echizen Tetsudô local trains take about one hour to Katsuyama, usually with a connecting bus to the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur museum (another 15 minutes). Train (blue) and bus (beige) schedules in Japanese on the museum’s homepage: www.dinosaur.pref.fukui.jp/guide/access.html

Combination tickets sold at Fukui station are slightly cheaper than the regular price for all transport and the museum.

Tours to the Kitadani digging site

Reservation is required at www.dinosaur.pref.fukui.jp/en/FieldStation.html. The tours last about 2 hours and are conducted only in Japanese. Our tour guide happened to be Chinese and would have been able to give some basic information in English.

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