Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Academy of Natural Sciences

Academy of Natural Sciences, Pennsylvania

The first thing you see when you walk into the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia is a 42-foot Giganotosaurus leaping over the reception desk as if ready to bound outdoors. It's an impressive mount, the first cast from a fossil skeleton of "the largest carnivore that ever walked the earth," discovered in Argentina in 1995. Take a hard right and you'll be in the museum's Dinosaur Hall, face to face with Tyrannosaurus rex (just a smidgen smaller than Giganotosaurus). These two massive predators would have never met in life - they lived about 30 million years apart and on different continents - but here in the City of Brotherly Love, they seem to compete for being the biggest, baddest dinosaur on the block.

With a newly renovated hall, the academy is also competing to reclaim its reputation as a preeminent dinosaur site. It offers just what you-d expect to see in a museum of natural history: murals and text panels and a decent, if not overwhelming, collection of full-size skeletons. Besides the big, bad predators, these include a cast of the horned dinosaur Chasmosaurus, the large duckbilled Corythosaurus, and the small theropod Stenonychosaurus (aka Trosdon). Also part of the collection is a cast of a rare small-horned dinosaur, Avaceratops lammersi, that looks like a baby Triceratops. This hog-sized dinosaur, known from a single specimen, is regarded by palaeontologists Peter Dodson as a new species rather than a juvenile ceratopsian of a known species.

Among the skeletons are life-sized models of dinosaurs caught in active poses. An Albertosaurus morphs from bones to muscles to bumpy skin to show how artists and scientists reconstruct what these extinct animals looked like. Just beyond it is a small herd of Tenontosaurus protecting the young ones from a vicious-looking Deinonychus (the sickle-clawed model for the velociraptor of Jurassic Park).

Most of the mounts and models are lighted from below for dramatic effect, but the low lights impede reading the label text, which gives the common and scientific name (with a push-button recording to help with pronunciation), a bit of the animal's natural history, a story about the fossil's discovery, and touchable elements - a tooth, a claw, or other piece of a fossil cast, together with a Braille label and a small raised outline of the skeleton. By comparing the full-sized fossil piece with the skeleton outline, sight-impaired visitors can grasp the scale of each dinosaur.

The glitziest exhibit gives a nod to Hollywood's influence on dinosaur popularity. Inside the Time Machine, a mini-television studio, complete with blue-screen technology, you come face to face (at least on video) with accurate animations of the denizens of Jurassic Park. Kids ham it up as they cower from a snarling Tyrannosaurus, run from a thundering herd of ceratopsians, or duck as pterosaurs come swooping down. The surprisingly lifelike creatures seem to enter the studio, creating a theatrical performance for parents or others waiting their turn. It's a really great show that you and the kids absolutely shouldn't miss!

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Academy of Natural Sciences, Part 2

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