The palaeontological exhibition focuses mainly on dinosaur skeletons found by Polish-Mongolian expeditions to the Gobi Desert led by Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska in the 1960s and 1970s. The largest exhibition hall of the Museum of Evolution is almost entirely occupied by a massive skeletal reconstruction of the giant plant-eating sauropod dinosaur Opisthocoelicaudia. Interestingly, the skull mounted on this skeletal reconstruction is actually that of a different sauropod dinosaur from the Gobi – Nemegtosaurus – and was found a few kilometers away from the skeleton of Opisthocoelicaudia. However, some palaeontologists argue that both the skeleton and the skull represent the same species, a view that is reflected in our reconstruction.
Apart from Opisthocoelicaudia, the largest of the Museum’s exhibition halls also contains other specimens collected from the Gobi, such as fossilised dinosaur eggs, the remains of armored (ankylosaurs) and early horned (ceratopsian) dinosaurs, and the tiny skulls of Cretaceous mammals, that lived in the shadow of the giant dinosaurs.
However, the most impressive exhibits in the Museum are the skulls and skeletons of giant predatory dinosaurs discovered in Cretaceous rocks of the Gobi, displayed in a dedicated exhibition hall. The focus is on the giant Tarbosaurus, an Asian relative of the famous T. rex, represented by two skeletal mounts. The first mount shows the animal with its backbone parallel to the ground, which reflects our current understanding of this dinosaurs’ anatomy. The second, historical mount shows Tarbosaurus in a kangaroo-like posture, consistent with earlier ideas on dinosaur locomotion. These contrasting mounts provide an excellent example of how much our understanding of dinosaurs has evolved throughout the last 50 years. The most intriguing fossil displayed in the Museum is undoubtedly Deinocheirus. Only the colossal front limbs of this dinosaur were found in the Gobi in 1965 and the identity of this animal remained a mystery until 2014, when more complete skeletons were found by an international team of scientists and demonstrated that Deinocheirus was a giant ostrich-like dinosaur.
For many years it was thought that Polish palaeontologists could only find fossils of giant, extinct reptiles by organising expensive expeditions to remote parts of the world. This notion was first challenged by dr Gerard Gierliński of the Polish Geological Institute, who found numerous dinosaur trackways in the Holy Cross Mountains (several tracks are on display in the predatory dinosaur hall of the Museum). This sparked an entire, news series of palaeontological discoveries in Poland.
Some of the most significant palaeontological findings in Poland were made in Krasiejów near Opole, where a team of young researchers led by professor Jerzy Dzik discovered a graveyard of Late Triassic reptiles and amphibians in 1993. Silesaurus, an early relative of dinosaurs, turned out to be the real ‘gemstone’ of the Krasiejów locality. Its skeletons, together with the remains of several other land and aquatic animals, as well as their life reconstructions, comprise the second main focus of the Museums’ exhibtion.
Other interesting Polish fossils, such as the earliest known frog skeleton found in Triassic rocks from the vicinity of Cracow, are also on display at the Museum. Other notable exhibits include the casts of pterosaurs and early birds from the famous Jurassic Solnhofen limestone in Germany, that are some of the best fossil examples supporting Darwin’s theory of evolution. A life reconstruction of the famous Australopithecus ‘Lucy’, created by the talented sculptor Marta Szubert under the supervision of Karol Sabath, a prominent Polish popularizer of evolutionary thought, is on display in the mammal evolution hall. A collection of hominid skull casts is also on display and demonstrates the most important evolutionary trends in human evolution.
Parts of the temporary exhibition titled ‘Who gave me legs? The conquest of land by vertebrates’ were also incorporated into the permanent exhibition. They comprise a series of panels explaining how vertebrates evolved from aquatic to land animals, but the most interesting exhibit is a diorama depicting a few swamp-dwelling individuals of Tiktaalik – a famous tetrapodomorph found in the Devonian rocks of Arctic Canada. The reconstructions are definitely worth having a closer look – after all, if it weren’t for these animals, the subsequent diversification of vertebrates on land, including humans, would have never happened.
An additional attraction of the predatory dinosaur hall is the opportunity to see original fossils of Smok wawelski and other Late Triassic animals from Lisowice, including the famous Lisowicia bojani. The reconstructed skull of this largest known dicynodont is also on display.
Currently, ongoing work on a new, permanent exhibition showcasing evolution in oceans is taking place in the Museum. This new exhibition replaced a previous exhibition on natural killers curated by the Institute and Museum of Zoology, Polish Academy of Sciences. Because of limited funds, the development of the new exhibition will take a few years to complete. However, guests can already view a rich collection of marine animal fossils from Poland, as well as life reconstructions of large, prehistoric marine predators – the armoured fish Dunkleosteus, an ichthyosaur and the small whale Pinocetus.