David and
                                                             Peggy follow 
                                                             the process of 
                                                             methods for
                                                             assembling a


Assembling a Dinosaur


The rocks where fossils are found can be soft and crumbly or very hard. Often both the rocks and the fossilized bones contain minerals that help protect the bones from weathering. Exposed bone, however, is sometimes very fragile. To prevent the bones from breaking, paleontologists, the scientists who study dinosaurs, use certain procedures to protect a fossil during its excavation and shipment to the laboratory.

Once a specimen has been carefully exposed and examined for minerals, it is prepared for removal. First, the fossil is brushed with a type of glue or plastic and then covered with strips of wet paper and burlap dipped in Plaster of Paris for protection and support. The most critical part of this preparation is when the fossil has to be carefully turned over and the underside is also covered and protected. After the plaster sets, the fossil is numbered and examined to determine what structural part of the animal has been recovered.

Back in the laboratory, each bone is cleaned and strengthened. Knowledge of today's animals' skeletons can help the scientists investigate the dinosaur's remains. By comparing features of bones, a paleontologist may be able to identify the fossil and its function. Bones along the back, from the skull or in the jaw are very distinctive and often used to identify the fossil's remains.

Most or all of the skeleton can then be pieced together if enough bones have been found. Paleontologists may have to estimate the size and shape of missing bones to complete a full skeleton. Once all the pieces are identified, a model of the animal is built to assist the scientist in rebuilding the entire skeleton. Then a large metal framework is welded together to support the fossilized bones. The bones are then free mounted to the framework. If a simpler mount is desired, scientists will fasten the fossils to a slab and use a bas-relief mounting. Bas-relief mountings display the fossil as it was buried. Either method preserves the dinosaur's structure for further observation and research.

Things to Talk About

  1. What kinds of rock preserve fossils the best?
  2. What do we learn about the dinosaurs when we assemble their skeletons?
  3. What other tests might a paleontologist want to perform on fossil remains?

Paleontologist--A scientist who analyzes fossils to decipher the history of life on earth.

Dinosaur--An extinct animal from a group, mostly terrestrial, of carnivorous or herbivorous reptiles. They appeared about 230 million years ago, and flourished 40 times longer than the time elapsed since our own ancestors emerged.

Mesozoic Era--The age of dinosaurs. Broken down into three periods: the Triassic Period (248-213 million years ago) marked the dawning of the age of dinosaurs; the Jurassic Period (213-144 million years ago) formed the middle of the age of dinosaurs; and the Cretaceous Period (144-65 million years ago), marked the last and longest part of the Age of Dinosaurs.


Activity Page

Build your Own Dinosaur!

You can create the same kind of models scientists use in their study of fossils!

Main Activity

Using similar techniques of mounting that paleontologists use, you will create a scale model of your favorite dinosaur. Make sure you know as much as you can about the dinosaur you choose to assemble.


1. After gathering information and pictures, select your favorite dinosaur.

2. Begin building a framework for your dinosaur model out of the wood, hammer, and nails.

3. Now cover your framework with mesh to begin creating the dinosaur's structure.

4. Dip newspaper in the plaster of Paris and begin wrapping it around your framework. If you want to add details like feathers, scales or other features, try carving them into the structure while the plaster is drying.

5. Once the plaster is completely dried, paint your dinosaur to make it look as realistic as possible.

6. Start a "dinosaur zoo" for the class's models.


1. How does your model compare to the actual height, size and weight of a real dinosaur? Calculate ratios of your comparisons.

2. How did your procedure for assembling a dinosaur compare to the work of a paleontologist? What things did you do that was your own idea?

3. What kind of environment did your dinosaur live in? What did it eat? Find out who its enemies were. You may want to build a diorama of its environment as a place to put your model.

Create a dinosaur's world. Investigate how their structure, function and behavior were adapted to their environment. Make a chart that highlights their name, type, style of locomotion, choice of food, habitat and methods of protection. Does fossil evidence show what dinosaurs needed to survive? What are the theories about what may have happened to the dinosaurs?

You can build a real animal skeleton. Save the bones from a chicken dinner. Carefully boil and bleach the bones and analyze which parts belong together. Using a framework, begin rebuilding the chicken by gluing its bones together. You may want to look at drawings of chickens and their skeletons to help you.

Learn more about paleontologists and their discoveries. One of the first major fossil finds was discovered by Mary Ann Mantell in 1822. Discover how this find revolutionized the study of fossils.

Write a dinosaur riddle and see if your classmates can solve it. Here's just one example: I was the biggest dinosaur that ever lived. I was over 240 meters long and weighed as much as 50,000 kilograms. I had a long tail, long neck and nostrils on the top of my head. I also had very small eyes and legs like tree trunks to support my body. I spent most of my time eating plants. What am I? (The answer to this riddle is Brachiosaurus)

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Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.

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