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Houston museum unveils $85 million dinosaur hall

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HOUSTON (AP) -- Pups in her womb, a large eye visible behind the rib cage, one baby stuck in the birth canal: all fossilized evidence that this ancient marine beast, the Ichthyosaur, died in childbirth.

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Jurassic Mom's almost certainly painful death is perfectly preserved in a rare fossil skeleton, one of the many unique items that will go on display in the Houston Museum of Natural Science's $85 million dinosaur hall when it opens to the public June 2. The Associated Press got a first peek at the exhibit as the finishing touches were put in place.

Paleontologists and scientists at the museum and the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, S.D. have worked tirelessly for three years to collect, clean and preserve artifacts designed to give visitors a look at how life evolved beginning 25 billion years ago.

"You'll actually be able to touch a fossil that's 3.5 billion years old," Robert Bakker, the museum's curator of paleontology, says in a conspiratorial whisper. "A microbe, simpler than bacteria, which had in its DNA the kernel that would flower later on into dinosaurs, mammals, then us. That's the beginning of the safari."

His long white beard and locks bobbing with all-too-obvious excitement, Bakker raises his brows below his cowboy hat as he continues to describe the journey visitors will experience when they enter "The Prehistoric Safari," expected to be among the top six dinosaur exhibits in the United States.

Jack Horner, curator of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., who acted, along with Bakker, as an adviser on the Jurassic Park movie series, agreed there will be some unique and exclusive items on display in Houston, including Triceratops skin. But he said that to him, an object's value is determined by science and should always be peer-reviewed before being displayed.

"Anybody can have stuff," Horner said, adding that he is curious to see the scientific findings on the items displayed in Houston. "Opinions are cheap."

Bakker says the safari is designed to teach about evolution. Visitors, he explains, will experience the Cambrian explosion, when life went from "literally slime" into "beautiful, elegantly sculptured things, the trilobites, which are gorgeous."

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