A museum shows the new thinking about dinosaurs


NEW YORK - Pascal Fischer raced through the prehistoric forest without fear.

He dodged the watchful eyes of a feathered tyrannosaur. A furry creature stalking dinosaur hatchlings paid him no mind. With the buzz of giant insects in the air, he rounded a corner and spotted his goal.

"Daddy, look! Volcanoes!" the 3-year-old shouted, pointing to a large video screen.

Pascal and his father, Kurt, and thousands of other dinosaur fans of all ages have found much to be excited about at the American Museum of Natural History's new exhibition, Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries.

The displays bring together the latest research, from growing evidence supporting the connection between dinosaurs and modern birds to news that some mammals could bite back against the "terrible lizards."

Scientists here also show off their newest computer and robotics technologies, which provide insights into how these creatures lived and moved. New studies suggest that big long-necked plant eaters didn't hold their heads high and that the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex may have been a slowpoke after all.

"After visitors see this exhibition, they will never think of dinosaurs the same way again," said Ellen Futter, the museum president.

The exhibit, which took two years to build, opened last month in Manhattan and runs through Jan. 8. In March, it goes on a national tour starting with collaborating museums in Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and Raleigh, N.C.

At the exhibit's heart is a 700-square-foot walk-through diorama of China's Liaoning Forest as it was 130 million years ago.

Populated with hundreds of walking, swimming and flying creatures, it is the most detailed recreation of a prehistoric environment ever constructed, said Mark Norell, the exhibit curator and chairman of the museum's paleontology division.

"This forest environment has never been seen by human eyes, but the countless well-preserved fossils we have uncovered in Liaoning Province provide an extraordinary window into its prehistoric past," Norell said.

The discoveries from one of the world's richest fossil treasure troves have provided a decade of insights into the origins of birds, feathers, flight and mammals.

The forest's residents include a full-size model of Dilong paradoxus, a recently identified small cousin of T. rex notable for a thin coat of feather-like fibers.

Scientists think its kin, including the T. rex that roamed North America 66 million years ago, probably had warming coats of downy feathers when they were young.

Lurking in ferns and pine trees, a badger-sized mammal with a rat-like face known as Repenomamus giganticus looks to snack on baby dinosaurs.

Museum scientists recently studied the fossil of a related species found with the remains of a two-legged, parrot-beaked dinosaur near its stomach. It is the first direct evidence primitive mammals could be so large and ate dinosaurs.

Real fossils that inspired the models are shown nearby.

The new museum gallery sits between two vast halls packed with more traditional dinosaur skeletons.

The first stop is a fossil belonging to Bambiraptor, a foot-tall meat-eating dinosaur with many birdlike qualities and a brain that was likely nearly as large as a modern bird's. A 14-year-old boy unearthed the skeleton, one of North America's most complete fossils, on his family's Montana ranch.

The display points out that many paleontologists agree that "birds are living dinosaurs."

Turning a corner, a full-size skeleton cast of the ever popular T. rex looms over museum visitors in a striding pose. Computer screens at the skeleton's base allow visitors to experiment with rebuilding T. rex, changing its muscles, bones and posture to see how they affect its top speed.

The biomechanics of dinosaurs, using physics and engineering to understand their living movements, is a theme of the exhibit. A 6-foot-long robotic T. rex on display is described as the most accurate working model of a walking dinosaur.

Nearby, a 60-foot-long model of a long-necked Apatosaurus skeleton crafted in gleaming steel and fiberglass draws a crowd. It is based on the "DinoMorph" computer program used by scientists to investigate dinosaur movement. Visitors can play with the software, poking a dinosaur on a touch-sensitive screen to see it react.

Computer models of the neck bones suggest that the long-held idea that massive, plant-eating dinosaurs could lift their heads up like giraffes is probably wrong. Instead, some scientists say, they likely grazed closer to the ground.

It is not the only new opinion in dinosaur thinking. Scientists disagree about how fast they moved.

Dinosaurs were once seen as lumbering giants, but more recent research suggested they were warm-blooded and more nimble. Soon came the idea that a rampaging T. rex could run up to 45 miles per hour, which was vividly portrayed in the film Jurassic Park.

A scene from the movie where a T. rex chases a speeding jeep is displayed at the museum as part of a presentation explaining why the giant is slowing down again. Some biomechanics experts argue the dinosaur's anatomy and immense weight - up to 15,500 pounds - limited its top speed to only about 10 miles per hour.

Slow or not, the king of the dinosaurs has plenty of fans.

"T. rex is my favorite," said Alexander Nachmann, 3, who sported the beast on his shirt. "He likes to eat other dinosaurs."

If you go

The American Museum of Natural History is at Central Park West at 79th Street in New York City. It's open daily 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Admission to the exhibition is $19 for adults and $11 for kids, including museum admission. For more information, visit www.amnh.org.

For more regional trips, see Page 35.

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