January 2010 Issue
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History sheds new light on dinosaurs and their modern relatives.
Through January 31, the museum is presenting “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries,” a groundbreaking retrospective that explores not only what these primeval reptiles looked like, but also how they lived and why they became extinct.
Museumgoers will see a big-as-life skeleton cast of Tyrannosaurus rex, and have the opportunity to touch a real 150-million-year-old fossilized Apatosaurus bone. They’ll also learn some surprising truths about these magnificent animals — including the fact that they are still among us today in the form of the birds we find in our own back yards.
One of the big take-home messages is that dinosaurs are not extinct,” says Michael J. Ryan, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology. “Birds are dinosaurs by anybody’s definition.”
The exhibit presents authentic fossil finds, moving biomechanical models and glimpses of habitat. It’s a combination that encourages visitors to rethink what they know about dinosaurs — just as scientists have been doing over the past two decades.
The idea that today’s birds share a common ancestor with dinosaurs may seem strange at first, but the connections are clear, explains Ryan. Both build nests, lay eggs and care for their young. Many birds and dinosaurs share similar skeletons, bone structure, posture and footprints.
In one of the most fascinating links of all, discoveries in China’s Liaoning Province uncovered the fact that some dinosaurs had feathers. Standing in the exhibit’s 700-square-foot Liaoning Forest diorama, Ryan points out a life-size reproduction of a Microraptor — one of 35 species of dinosaurs, birds, insects, mammals and plants on display in this re-creation of a 130-million-year-old Mesozoic woodland. Microraptor is one of the smallest known dinosaurs — not much bigger than a chicken — and features partially developed wings, along with a feathery tail.
While it may not have had full flight capabilities, says Ryan, Microraptor could have used the wings to increase its running speed or beat them against the air in order to run up a tree and other vertical surfaces.
One of the most popular attractions in the “New Discoveries” exhibit is a 6-foot-long robotic T. rex — inspired in part by the technology of the “Jurassic Park” films — that walks in place.
Paleontologists digitized a T. rex skeleton, analyzed ancient footprints and studied the movements of its modern-day cousin, the ostrich, in order to make this replica the most accurate three-dimensional representation of how this fearsome predator moved.
Traditionally, it was thought T. rex could run at a clip of 45 miles per hour, comparable to a galloping horse. New research suggests its size — 12 feet tall, 40 feet long and weighing up to 15,500 pounds — would have kept its speed at about 10 miles per hour. The slower pace, however, is far from reassuring, given the size of the predator’s imposing teeth prominently bared in the exhibit.
Facing off against the T. rex is a full-size biomechanical model of an Apatosaurus made of steel and fiberglass. These hefty plant-eaters are recognizable for their long necks and tails. Weighing up to 30 tons, they resembled giant Jurassic cows — but with supersonic tails that cracked like whips.
Many scientists believe the Apatosaurus tail — as long as a school bus, but thin as a pencil tip — could thrash at speeds exceeding the speed of sound. The thunderous “crack” that resulted may have served as a warning to other animals.
These features all point, says Ryan, to how dynamic these creatures actually were. In fact, the connotation of the word “dinosaur” works against our understanding of them. In our culture, he adds, the word “dinosaur” means “failure.” When something is outmoded — whether it’s a rock band or a typewriter — we call it a dinosaur.
“What people know about dinosaurs, unfortunately, is what was presented back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” explains Ryan. That is: Dinosaurs were dumb, dinosaurs were slow, dinosaurs lived in swamps.
The success of the “Jurassic Park” films — about genetically recreated dinosaurs that thwart the best-laid plans of their human keepers — has helped extinguish inaccurate stereotypes of dinosaurs as evolutionary losers.
“They may not have been mathematical geniuses,” Ryan says, “but they were more than smart enough to adapt and interact with their environment.”
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History
1 Wade Oval Dr., Cleveland 44106
Hours: Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Wed. 10 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun. 12–5 p.m.
Admission: Adults $10, students and seniors $8, children ages 3–6 $7; admission on Wednesdays after 5 p.m. $6.
Special events include a Jan. 29 Explorer Series lecture by Scott Sampson, host of the PBS-TV children’s program, “Dinosaur Train.” Sampson will discuss “The Dinosaurs of West America: Life, Death and Evolution on an Island Continent.”
Call the museum or visit the Web site for more information.