SALT LAKE CITY — Parents with children in tow had a chance to marvel at the fossilized remains of what must have been a mighty, carnivorous dinosaur that stalked the earth 75 million years ago.

In another area of the Natural History Museum of Utah, crowds gaped at hairy tarantulas and learned of how a nasty fungi creates “zombie” ants and shoots spores out of their little brains at the moment of death.

The two-day “Behind the Scenes” event at the museum wrapped up Sunday, drawing crowds of people who got a chance to explore many the facility’s 1.6 million items in its collection and talk to scientists and volunteers about the work that goes on there.

Beyond pottery shards and prehistoric potatoes, the public could chat with paleontologists like Benjamin Breeden, who explained the slow work of pulling back the rock from what scientists suspect is the complete skeleton of a tyrannosaurid.

This fall, it took five trips via helicopter to hoist the massive animal’s remains from its burial ground at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where it was discovered in 2015.

Breeden said it will take about 18 months to two years before the fossilized remains are completely exposed for further study.

Another recent addition to the museum is a genetics lab that features a MiniON, or portable DNA sequencing device.

Lab workers have buried themselves in genome sequencing and research related to fungi such as mushrooms and cordyceps, a rather terrifying parasitic fungi that infects ants and other insects.

Lab manager Mimi Brown said the “zombie ant” fungus penetrates the ant’s body, controls its behavior and feeds on non-vital parts of the ant. When the fungus is ready to produce, it devours the ant’s brain and shoots spores out of its head.

Horror stories aside, Brown said the study of genetics and mushrooms is important. Mushrooms are a food source, are used in medicine and industrial enzymes. Although there are 5 million species of fungi, only a fraction have been documented.

There are 6,000 species in Utah.

The museum gets about a quarter of a million visitors a year and includes active research programs with more than 30 scientists and organizes 10 field expeditions on an annual basis.

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Source:: Deseret News – Utah News

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Public learns about dinosaur bones, tarantulas and ‘zombie’ ants

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