Dinosaurs roam for TTU students working at new local museum

“There are dinosaur bones in Cookeville, and I getting to work with them!”

Tennessee Tech University zoology student Kyla Anderson summed up her amazement with the opportunity she and TTU students have begun at the soon-to-open Highlands Prehistoric Museum. More than a half-dozen TTU undergraduate students say they never envisioned working with real dinosaur bones in their own backyard.

But they and dozens of other university students, including TTU art and drama majors, will be big reasons the museum can offer a glimpse of prehistoric life and the processes it takes to find, prepare and showcase dinosaur bones.

“They’re right, in this part of the country, you just don’t get that chance,” said Jerry Jacene, a retired military man who’s made dinosaurs his passion for the past 20 years. “But we want this museum to be an extended campus for TTU students of all majors to bring their talents and enthusiasm.”

Located at the former Wilson building near the depot, the museum will offer dinosaur fans in the midstate and beyond a chance to see actual fossils and behind-the-scenes looks at how the bones are handled.

But for TTU students, the opportunities are just unfolding. Geology, wildlife and zoology majors are learning to prepare fossils, mold, cast and construction dioramas. These students work daily on an 11 by 8 feet slab from Montana’s Two Medicine Formation that holds numerous bones. The slab, affectionately called “BOB,” for bunch of bones, is encased in a field jacket, a plaster casting made in the field to hold soil and remains for transportation.

TTU geology professor Larry Knox supports and applauds this rare opportunity for students.

“Our students are excavating the surface of the rock slab and revealing dinosaur bone and teeth,” he explained. “The slab has about three large carnivorous dinosaurs and several duckbill dinosaurs.”

As students have worked with the slab, they’ve seen a story unfold of six duckbill dinosaurs that dropped in their tracks. The slab also contains evidence of several other dinosaurs that experienced the same fate. Based on more than 200 shed teeth, predigested bones and stomach contents, Jacene says these students have seen evidence of cannibalism that others have never seen.

Junior geology major Jesse Hill says he is stunned at his good fortune.

“As a kid, I thought scientists had dinosaurs all figured out,” said Hill. “I’m amazed at how much there still is to discover.”

Justin Holeman, a junior wildlife major, may have the biggest story to tell from the experience. His patience paid off when he found a tooth in the hip of a bone. Big deal?

“Yes, the tooth is the first evidence that this particular dinosaur was cannibalistic,” said Jacene. “Had Justin picked it up and said, “What’s this?", the evidence of the find would have been destroyed. "It’s a rarity to find young people with this much patience,” said Jacene.

Jacene says his TTU connection started about 20 years ago when he wandered into Knox’s office seeking his help identifying a local fossil he’d found.

“All of this,” Jacene said, pointing around the museum and laughing, “is his fault. Larry allowed me to audit some of his classes and helped me develop a passion for this work.”

About 15 TTU art students will soon begin filling museum walls with murals. Jacene is offering the walls as canvases to the class each semester. TTU drama students will also be invited each semester to perform skits for children at the dino theater area within the museum.

Jacene says he anticipates opening the museum in early April.
Apply Now