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Crouching silently inside the entrance to Morrill Hall's fourth floor, Barbourofelis fricki waits to pounce.

The thin-sabered cat once prowled the prehistoric prairies of Nebraska, wielding a frightening set of chompers against shovel-tusked elephants, barrel-bodied rhinoceroses, giant camels and slender llamas that formerly populated the plains.

Barbourofelis fricki went extinct 7 million years ago during the Miocene epoch, which in the long history of the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History feels like the last time visitors could access exhibits on the top floor.

For the last half century, UNL anthropology, and earth and atmospheric science students have used the fourth floor for classroom and lab space. Faculty have occupied offices there, and 13 million specimens kept by the museum have been held in storage.

On Feb. 16, in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of UNL's charter week, Morrill Hall, at 14th and Vine streets, will reopen the space as a new permanent exhibit telling the story of Nebraska's natural past, from the species that roamed the plains to how humans interact with the land today.

Susan Weller, the museum's director since 2015, said the $11.4 million "Cherish Nebraska" project is designed to tell Nebraskans one overarching thing about their home: “It is an amazing state."

Before moving to Nebraska to take over leadership of the museum from the retiring Priscilla Grew, Weller said she was unaware of the unique biology and geological diversity of the state, both in how it changed through time and as it exists today.

“It really is a place where east meets west and the south comes to meet the northern plains,” Weller said. “The richness of life is supported by the richness of the geology here. Everywhere you look there are incredible examples of why you should cherish Nebraska.”

And the new exhibits are a subtle call to action, too, Weller said. Understanding the history and importance of the state's ecosystems will inspire more people to protect it into the future, she said.

The exhibit was designed by Gallagher & Associates of Washington, D.C. It was fabricated by Pacific Studio of Seattle, which also created exhibits for the Witte Museum of San Antonio, the Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis and the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle.

Morrill Hall's new exhibit will feature seven free-flowing galleries that show the state's history from prehistoric past to present.

There are exhibits about the tall-grass prairie, with a centerpiece showing the above- and below-ground structure of the wild plants. Visitors can also learn how the Ogallala Aquifer formed, see the Barbourofelis fricki as well as a life-size Bison latifrons, a giant bison with wide-stretching horns that used to graze in the state.

Visitors will come face-to-face with the ancient mammals when they step onto the floor.

Young children can walk through a model cottonwood trunk and explore a mock-up of a rattlesnake den while listening to the native sounds of Nebraska — the "bobwhite" of a quail and the steady chirp of crickets.

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In the east wing of the exhibit, visitors will come to modern day, said Mandy Haase-Thomas, the museum's communications director, getting to witness science performed in real time by UNL students and researchers in a visible lab, study museum specimens of their own in an interactive environment and watch honeybees housed in a real-life hive.

A digital touch screen, similar to one on display during a 2017 temporary exhibit about parasites in Morrill Hall, will once again teach about the creepy, crawly organisms all around us.

The east wing also stresses Nebraskans' connection to water, how farmers tap into the aquifer and how it serves as a foundation to the state's economy.

Weller said in addition to the museum's benefactors, more than 50 experts gave time and talent to create the new exhibit, charting Nebraska's "landscape through time" in a 21st century museum experience worthy of Morrill Hall's status as a Smithsonian Museum affiliate.

"It brings the Smithsonian to the prairie," she said. "There will be videos and interactive displays and what we're calling a 'Science Exploration Zone' where people will really be able to channel their inner scientist.

"We hope to help people look at nature differently."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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