December 14, 2011
New discoveries, historical tidbits and paleo-pop are all regular features here at Dinosaur Tracking, but there is far more dinosaur news out there than even this blog can cover. This week, especially, has seen a flurry of new research and dinosaurs in the headlines. I’ll be getting to some of the new papers during the remainder of this week and next, and here’s a rundown of recent dinosaur happenings.
Guard dinosaur: Need to leave your car unattended for a while? Why not employ a dinosaur to stand guard. That’s what an owner of a crashed car did in Clothiers Creek, Australia. Granted, the plastic Tyrannosaurus may not have been as frightening as an actual trained theropod, and the efficacy of toy dinosaurs as deterrents is unknown at this time, but it’s better than nothing.
Giants From Abroad: Last weekend, Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute opened the exhibit “Giant Mysterious Dinosaurs.” Among the featured guests, most being skeletal reconstructions of dinosaurs from Argentina and Mongolia, are the relatively small ceratopsian Psittacosaurus and casts of the immense sauropod Argentinosaurus. The exhibit also has a local hook: dinosaur aficionado and Philadelphia resident Don Lessem organized the traveling display.
Jersey Dinos: Pennsylvania isn’t the only East Coast town to be visited by dinosaurs. Earlier this month, New Jersey residents got a preview of Field Station: Dinosaurs, a temporary animatronic dinosaur park plunked down in the wetlands of Secaucus and due to open in May. (See the video above for footage from the press conference.) Early reports state that the park will include 31 robotic dinosaurs scattered across a path through the Jersey swamp. I hope some of New Jersey’s own dinosaurs make an appearance. Tyrannosaurus is an undisputed fan favorite, but I would love to see the garden state’s own tyrannosauroid, Dryptosaurus, on display along with the state dinosaur, Hadrosaurus.
Pleo, Take 2: Robotic dinosaurs aren’t just growling, jerking monsters of roadside prehistoric parks. In recent years toymakers have been trying to encapsulate dinosaur attitudes in home versions of the prehistoric creatures. Among the latest is Inu, a baby sauropod that looks like the next iteration of the previously released Pleo toy. With these little mechanical dinosaurs, at least you don’t have to worry about the complicated dietary needs of a real, fast-growing baby sauropod.
An Adventure How Many Years in the Making?: Jurassic Park IV will happen eventually. We have been hearing that for years now, and the series’ scientific adviser Jack Horner has even dropped a few hints about the plot. (Pssst… the genetically-modified dinosaurs may be altered even further to become true monsters). Now Steven Spielberg, the director and producer behind the series, has reaffirmed that the movie is on his to-do list, although who knows when the movie will actually make it to screens. Just remember what I said, Mr. Spielberg: We need feather-covered raptors this time. And please, please, avoid the family drama schtick of your other dinosaur project, Terra Nova.
Oh, to be a Dinosaur Hunter: Finally, the “Kids Post” section of the Washington Post has a profile of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s own paleontologist Matthew Carrano.
June 16, 2011
Animatronic dinosaur exhibits have made a comeback during the past few years. Zoos all over the country have hosted menageries of jerking, growling dinosaurs. The Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah is one of the latest to host a collection of robo-dinos, and when I heard about the temporary Zoorassic Park exhibit I thought I would check it out.
Even though I feel ambivalent about robotic dinosaur exhibits, kids obviously love them. Hordes of children screamed and jumped up and down at the sight of the Styracosaurus, Allosaurus, Parasaurolophus and, of course, Tyrannosaurus robots spread throughout the zoo, and quite a few obviously loved being sprayed by a spitting Dilophosaurus. The dinosaurs were a hit.
But the dinosaurs are only just one part of Zoorassic Park. Two other components add a significant amount of substance to the garden of dinosaurs: a small-scale museum exhibit featuring fossils from the nearby Utah Museum of Natural History and an indoor pathway that places modern creatures in the context of the prehistoric past. Real fossils and live animals were both used to make paleontology relevant to the visitors, though, admittedly, kids appeared to be far more enthusiastic about the snarling dinosaurs. This underscores the challenge of all these exhibits. Moving, roaring dinosaurs might help bring visitors into the park, but turning that attraction into a teachable moment is a difficult task.
View more dinosaurs at the Hogle Zoo in our gallery.
April 18, 2011
The way I look at dinosaurs now isn’t the same way I looked at them when I was five or 10. Like the above video from a Sydney school shows, kids still feel that mix of joy and fright when they get up-close-and-personal with dinosaurs. That kind of interaction can be used to educate—as museums such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Utah Museum of Natural History do with their dinosaur shows—and it can also be tapped for theme park scares.
Though the video shows an actor in a dinosaur puppet costume, it reminds me of the popular robotic dinosaur displays I saw when I was about the same age. I was simultaneously enthralled and terrified by them. Years before computer-animated dinosaurs were a regular staple of TV and movies, they were the closest thing to living dinosaurs I had ever seen. I still remember peeking out from behind a wall at the robotic Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in a temporary exhibit at the Morris Museum, fearing that they might snatch me up and eat me if I got too close.
I have mixed feelings about those animatronic dinosaurs. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his essay “Dinomania” in Dinosaur in a Haystack, the ranks of jerking, growling robots are welcomed into zoos and museums in the hope that visitors will then wander among more educational exhibits and learn something before leaving—but this is more of a hope than a reality. Presented in the right way, galleries of animatronic dinosaurs could be very educational, but often they are more akin to theme park attractions than anything else.
That’s the trouble with dinosaurs. Not only were they living animals that are objects of scientific study, but they are also malleable cultural icons that can terrify as much as enlighten. Mixing the two—using their monstrous appearance to educate—is a tricky act.
[Hat-tip to Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs for the video]
August 10, 2010
At about 40 feet long, Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the largest predatory animals that ever lived. But even the skeleton of a fully grown T. rex would be dwarfed by its animatronic likeness now standing outside the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. Measuring 60 feet long from nose to tail, the super-sized Tyrannosaurus is able to blink, move its tail and roar, and given its suburban setting it looks like it came out of the finale of The Lost World. The museum, in Brookings, South Dakota, will open in September.