Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries

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Visitors to the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side know that a stop in the dinosaur hall is a must see. The museum has one of the largest collections in the world. Since 1869 it‘s been gathering and storing the bones and fossils of the creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago. Today, it opens “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries.” WNYC’s Richard Hake takes us on a tour on what is giving scientists a better understanding of how dinosaurs behaved and lived.

REPORTER: Children on a school field trip gaze up and then run about the bones of a barosaurus, the tallest freestanding dinosaur exhibited in the world. It’s a sight that’s been going on in this historic room for generations. But just down the hall, Mark Norell, the Chairman of the Division of Paleontology, is getting ready to unveil a new room.

NORELL: We’re creating a new look on dinosaurs. How they lived, how they died, how they moved, how they behaved by looking at the new discoveries, a lot of the new technology and how it’s being applied.

REPORTER: You enter a dim space where the interactive exhibits make the dinosaurs seem to come alive. You can also walk right up to them.

REPORTER: In the center of the room, scientists and artists have re-created an ancient forest in a 700 square foot diorama that encircles you. Without a glass partition you feel part of the 130 million year old ecosystem. Steve Quinn, the Senior Project Manager, points out 35 life-like creatures, some of which have never been displayed before. One is the fierce Delong Paradoxis. It looks like a t-rex, but much smaller.

QUINN: You can see it’s covered with hair-like feathers which is a new discovery. Obviously a carnivore…predator, a top predator.

REPORTER: Yet most of the dinosaur re-creations in this diorama are relatively small. The largest being six feet. While it looks somewhat like a forest of today, Quinn says a human probably wouldn’t want to take a walk through it.

QUINN: No, I don’t think so. No, I think you’d quickly become part of the food chain.

REPORTER: Speaking of the most famous dinosaur, the tyrannosaurus rex. Here it’s been made to walk by a Paleoartist.

HALL TRAIN: I’m basically an inventor with a bent for pre-historic animals.

REPORTER: Hall Train has figured out how to make a six foot mechanical skeleton eerily lumber in place.

TRAIN: There’s a sort of lurching acceleration, deceleration that’s happening with the entire animal which is something that happens. Walking is an act of falling and gathering yourself as you fall. It’s a state of dynamic imbalance.

REPORTER: The new exhibit focuses on what new discoveries and theories have been made on dinosaurs recently. Mike Novacheck is the Provost of Science at the Musuem and is the curator. He stands under a wall with the head of a huge tri-ceratops mounted like a trophy. He says their fierce looking weaponry may have not been used in a violent way at all.

NOVACHEK: Many of these dinosaurs probably used these weapons as signaling devices or these horns and shields as signaling devices to recognize their own species or mating behavior or other kinds of behaviors. So it gives the kind of example of how we interpret these wonderful and pretty dramatic looking fossils.

REPORTER: But the public only gets to see a small fraction of those fossils. The American Museum of Natural History’s collections of more than five million specimens fill 30 rooms on 12 floors. Doorways from the exhibition space lead to rooms that look just like high school science labs.

REPORTER: A Columbia University intern is busy using a device that looks and sounds (obviously) like a dentists’ drill to scrape away rock and volcanic ash from a fossil that’s believed to be more than 200 years old. At the next dusty counter is Alison Smith, a fossil prepareder. She’s poking grains of sand from a rock found in Chile.

SMITH: There’s a tooth already sticking out of the rock so there’s definetly something in here, probably the lower jaw.

REPORTER: As the rock fragments get vacuumed up…Smith says it’s work similar to artistry or surgery. It’ll take her a month, full time to completely reveal the fossil.

REPORTER: Down the hall and through a huge freight elevator is the Exhibition Department. Artists and Scientists re-create the creatures for display in the museum in a specially designed workshop built in 1932. Alan Walker is a Senior Production Manager who shows off a scale model of the new dioarama in the dinosaur exhibit.

WALKER: It was all worked out in three dimensions right here. One foot equals one inch and it’s remarkable how much exactly like the diorama it looks now.

REPORTER: Dioramas are what this Museum is famous for. It created the format back in the 1800’s. Tim Nissen, Associate Director of Exhibition and Design, says the museum has updated the concept of the historic diorama.

NISSEN: You get a sense that you’re looking through a frame into another world. For this you’ve got a surrounding experience with no glass so the issues of illusion are different.

REPORTER: Museum officials hope the new exhibit will continue the recent increase in interest in Paleontolgy. The Curator, Mike Novachek, says discoveries in the past twenty years make the field even more interesting.

NOVANCHEK: I just wished I had a hundred more years to be involved because it’s going to be a tremendous period of excitement. I’m glad to be a part of it now and I’m going to keep digging till the end of my days.

REPORTER: Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries runs through January at the American Museum of Natural History. Then it will pick up and move to other museums across the country. For WNYC, I’m Richard Hake.

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