With dinosaurs, smaller is better


Thanks to Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton, whose "Jurassic Park" roared through movie theaters last year, everyone who digs dinosaurs knows all about velociraptors.

Those wily, pack-hunting creatures could out-terrorize giant Tyrannosaurus rex. Yet they stood only a little taller than a human, right?

Uh, well, maybe not.

A reborn dinosaur animatronics show at the Maryland Science Center suggests Hollywood took some liberties in introducing viewers to the heretofore little-known species.

Visitors to "The Dinosaur Game Strikes Again!" opening tomorrow, will see a life-size model of the "Jurassic Park" critter -- yet it stands barely a third the height of the film version.

On loan from the National Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia, the dinosaur representation looks like a bigger, vicious cousin of the Road Runner from the Warner Bros. cartoons. It's depicted running with its back nearly horizontal and long tail extended behind.

"We hope people won't be disappointed. They were still the fiercest of the dinosaurs," says Charlene Cross, senior exhibit specialist, as she runs a finger across a row of wicked teeth on the 2 1/2 -foot-high model.

Whatever its size, you wouldn't want it chasing you.

"Both Spielberg and Crichton took large liberties. It's the same family, but velociraptor was smaller," says Shannon Boirol, the exhibit specialist who helped research new textual material the science center has added to the traveling dino display.

She suggests the animal depicted by "Jurassic Park" was actually based on fossil remains of another creature, deionychus, also somewhat smaller than depicted in the film.

Subsequently, during filming, she says, a fossil skeleton was discovered in Utah of a 'raptor "that was about the right size" as in the movie. But the filmmakers kept the misleading name of velociraptor.

"Movies, television and books often pretend that dinosaurs were bigger or different than they really were. But the more we learn about dinosaurs, the more we can tell the difference between what was real and what is make believe," says a graphic displayed adjacent to the velociraptor. It notes that the science center's model is based upon fossils found in Mongolia in 1971.

And that is the point of the dinosaur exhibit. Targeted to kids 3 to 8 years old -- the age group perpetually in love with the fearsome beasts of the ancient past -- it aims to blend the fantasy of the popular movie with scientific fact (or at least with current theory, because fact is hard to come by 400 million years later).

Ms. Cross says she hopes the popularity of "Jurassic Park" will bring both old and new visitors to see the dinosaur show, whose principal characters are making their sixth appearance at the science center.

Owned by a consortium of six museums, the big moving dinosaurs were last here from November 1992 through January 1993, in the first version of "The Dinosaur Game." In previous visits, the creatures were featured in other settings.

They include stegosaurus, triceratops, pachycephalosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex, dimetrodon, apatosaurus and a nest of apatosaurus babies, newly hatched from eggs.

Ms. Cross explains that a system of steel armatures and computer-driven motors forces compressed air through certain parts of the prehistoric critters, giving them some life.

On pachycephalosaurus, for example, the eyes roll, the huge feet stride and the arms move, as a sound system provides roars and growls.

The synthetic skin is tinted to suggest what color they might have been, although, Ms. Cross notes, "the color is really open to interpretation. They could have been purple with blue spots, I guess."

Young visitors turn a "dino spinner" to move themselves along a Candyland-style game path, learning at each position certain facts about the nearest dinosaur.

"Your long neck allows you to eat leaves from tall trees," reads the square in front of apatosaurus, for example.

Some new attractions supplementing the game this year include:

* New background paintings by Baltimore mural artist Connell Byrne.

* A reading corner called Prehistoric Pages, with books on dinosaurs, a CD-ROM computer station and benches whose backs are cut in the shape of dinosaur bodies.

* A chance to be a paleontologist, as visitors assemble from four parts a soft-sculpture representation of a giant femur of the apatosaurus. When done, it's longer than the average visitor is tall.

* A demonstration of the digestive processes of some dinosaurs. Like some birds, they swallowed big stones, called gastroliths, to aid food breakdown. Visitors can squeeze a stomach-like bag to help the process along.

* A display of pieces of prehistoric amber containing fossil material. Remember? In "Jurassic Park," the film's dinosaurs were cloned from genetic material extracted from mosquitoes trapped in the ancient tree sap.

"The Great Dinosaur Game Strikes Again!"

Where: Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St.

When: Tomorrow through May 8; Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: $8.50 adults; $6.50 children 4-17, senior citizens and military

Call: (410) 685-5225; TDD, (410) 962-0223

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