“You didn’t sleep a wink last night, did you?” I asked my managing editor as we climbed the steps at the museum.
“How could I, on Dinosaur Eve?” she answered.
The truth is that we’ve both been chatting about the Academy of Natural Sciences’ life-sized animatronic “Dinosaurs Unearthed” exhibit in all caps for weeks. The traveling exhibit is making its East Coast debut in Philadelphia on October 12th, and the Academy gave the Philly press a sneak peek this week.
Creationists and Darwin deniers, as charmed as you are by the idea of triceratops aboard Noah’s Ark, this is not the exhibit for you. According to the latest paleontology discoveries, a lot of our dead dino pals actually had feathers, not the bare, pebbly reptile skin we originally assumed they had. “Jurassic Park” had it all wrong: science now tells us that Velociraptor had feathered arms and maybe even a full-body coat of down. With a fearsome animatronic Velociraptor specimen that looks like a cross between a grizzly bear, a crocodile, an ostrich and a turkey, “Dinosaurs Unearthed” drives home the point that has become the prevailing wisdom since Dr. Alan Grant touched down on Isla Nublar: dinosaurs never really died out. They evolved into birds.
As the journalists descended on the exhibit, I asked dinosaur illustrator and Academy Dinosaur Hall manager Jason Poole what he’d say to the surprising number of people who believe (either because of their faith or because of too many fantastical dino movies) that dinosaurs and people co-existed.
“The data’s in the strata,” he said of fossil finds.
So it wasn’t Noah’s Flood that made the Grand Canyon?
“That was a bad day,” he conceded.
If you go to Dinosaurs Unearthed (which costs $5 over the museum’s typical admission price, though you can view a 40-foot animatronic T-Rex outside and a few others inside for free), you’ll see lots of interactive digital and tactile displays on cutting-edge dino science, some fossils and fossil replicas, a sandbox full of bones to excavate, and 13 beautiful rubbery-smelling animatronic dinosaurs, whose seams have been visibly stitched and painted together.
There’s Triceratops and Protoceratops, Allosaurus and T-Rex and a breathing baby Stegosaurus. There’s even the carnivorous Yangchuanosaurus (the exhibit features many little-known species discovered in modern-day China), whose movements visitors can control with buttons. As the clawed forearms move, you can decide for yourself if the dinosaur is trying to give a massage or about to break into the Macarena. And then it shakes its head at you sorrowfully for thinking such silly thoughts.
In the lobby, a juvenile sauropod known as a Ruyangosaurus (who probably weighed about 110,000 pounds in adulthood) smashes some deftly placed fake ferns. The plaque explains that in parts of China, people have been using powders and potions made of ground-up dinosaur fossils for centuries to cure medical ills, because they believed the big bones belonged to dragons. But in 2006, killjoy paleontologists traveled to Beijing to announce once and for all that the giant bones were from dinosaurs, not dragons.
That’s right. Just seven years ago, paleontologists crushed our last hope of ever discovering dragons.
Clearly, some dinosaurs are named for where they were found. Some are named for their appearance or suspected habits (“triceratops” is Greek for “three-horned face”, “velociraptor” means “fast robber”). But in some cases, scientists really seem to have fallen down on the job. Take the fearsome Allosaurus, for example, meaning “other lizard.”
Other lizard? Really, paleontologists? That the best you could come up with?
And then, of course, there’s the Gasosaurus, represented by a skeleton in this exhibit.
Yeah, “gas lizard.” In a real missed opportunity, Dinosaurs Unearthed fails to speculate on the theory (advanced in 2012) that dinosaurs warmed the global climate with their own farts.
Oh, grow up. Gasosaurus has nothing to do with flatulence: it’s just a wholly uninspired moniker for a creature whose only known remains were discovered by gas-mining workers in the 1980’s.
So if we discover a new species of dinosaur out behind the KFC or the JC Penney, what will we call it?
You can ponder this and much more in the exhibit, where a moving T-Rex scared me just a little bit and will probably make your toddlers cry. In fact, Poole said that on the first day the outside T-Rex was installed, an unsuspecting dog having his morning walk on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway “flipped out” and had to be carried past the dinosaur by his owner.
“Dinosaurs Unearthed” is at the Academy of Natural Sciences through March 30th, with a series of special dino-themed events coming this winter, including “Reptile Sketching” (“no experience is necessary”), a dinosaur sleepover, and a “Mega-Bad Movie Night” featuring “Jurassic Park III.” The latter will include Academy scientists’ blow-by-blow comments on the movie’s faulty science; I can’t decide if this will be an un-miss-able event, or super, super annoying.