Now With Feathers

The Science Centre’s dinobots teach sexy new science facts

by Paul Dechene

photo by Darrol Hofmeister

scienceWhen Prairie Dog receives press releases for big upcoming events, it falls to editor-in-chief Stephen Whitworth to decide how best to mobilize his paper’s forces.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pre-Grey Cup press conference? “Everyone’s busy; send our regrets.”

John Gormley promoting his new book at the University of Regina? “No. Pass.”

Paul McCartney playing Mosaic Stadium? “Maybe we can spare a photographer.”

Animatronic dinosaurs at the Saskatchewan Science Centre?

“Stop everything! Send in a strike team!”

That’s the kind of sound management that makes this little paper such a compelling read. We give robotic dinosaurs the ink — and love — they deserve. And when Prairie Dog’s four-man, two-child crew showed up for the May 14 preview of the Dinosaurs Unearthed exhibit, we dwarfed the combined contingent sent by all those other media outlets.

We were, however, outnumbered by a class of grade three students from St. Mary’s School in Estevan whom the Science Centre had invited to take a sneak peak.

Dinosaurs Unearthed is a travelling exhibit from Richmond, BC that not only features animatronic creatures but also replica skeletons of Jurassic period dinosaurs alongside actual fossils such as an Oviraptor egg and a coprolite — “coprolite” being a fancy word for fossilized dino poop.

But their collection of roaring latex and metal dinosaurs are the real draw. And no offence to Regina’s other robot theropod, but animatronic technology has come a long way since Megamunch debuted at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in 1986. These creatures aren’t just life-sized, they’re very life-like. But as St. Mary’s student Rachel — who is nine — reassured me, there’s nothing to be afraid of because the dinosaurs at Dinosaurs Unearthed aren’t “real.”

My son Dash, however, who’s three, wasn’t so sure. He seemed pretty unnerved by a Velociraptor display and when I asked him if he liked it, he replied, “No. Bad. It uh… it go walk-walk and go HRKKKKKKKKCCKKK! And then go ’way.”

Rest assured that Dash got over his initial trepidation and by the third or fourth display was running around the exhibit solo, completely unfazed by even the most fangorious of carnivores.

And that’s how things typically go with the younger kids, says the Science Centre’s Ryan Holota, who’s taken a mobile Dilophosaurus robot out to the Farmers’ Market. Once they get comfortable with the fact that the dinos aren’t “really real,” their natural enthusiasm for the prehistoric creatures takes over.

And while the animatronic dinosaurs aren’t alive, the science that goes into imagining them is.

“The Dinosaurs Unearthed team does work with paleontologists to make sure that everything that they present is scientifically accurate to the most current understanding,” says Holota.

And that means some of the dinosaurs on display might surprise a few of the older visitors to the Science Centre who were raised on paintings of lumbering, drab lizards.

“The more research that we do into dinosaurs, the more dinosaurs that are discovered and the closer we look at them, we’re discovering things about dinosaurs that we didn’t know before,” says Holota. “And one of the latest thinkings is that a lot of dinosaurs may not have just been the green, scaly things that we think of from the movies, and that a lot of them had feathers, either [throughout] their lifespan or at least at some point in their development.”

Dinosaurs with feathers? Crazy. But that’s what you’ll see at Dinosaurs Unearthed. For instance, gnashing his teeth behind me as I was interviewing Holota was a junior Tyrannosaurus Rex with a spiky, feathery coat.

“He’d be like a teenager,” says Holota. “We all have those awkward teenage years and they think that these ‘proto-feathers’ would have been something that young T-Rexes would have had on them — probably to regulate body temperature until they grew enough to support it on their own.”

It’s all part of the current scientific consensus that tells us that dinosaurs are much more closely related to birds than we previously thought. Turns out, birds are actually a group of theropod dinosaurs that evolved in the Mesozoic.

Of course, the idea that birds are dinosaurs — and thus that many dinos had their primeval awesomeness augmented by plumage — wasn’t news to the kids of St. Mary’s. As nine-year-old Seriah told me with an eye roll, they already learned that in school.

Even Prairie Dog movie-listings scribe, Shane Hnetka — aged something greater than nine — was up to date on the latest paleontology findings.

“I believe I’ve seen that change in comic books already. A recent Incredible Hulk issue had a feathered Tyrannosaurus Rex in it,” Hnetka informs me.

It’s a sign of how dramatically science continues to expand our knowledge of the universe.

And yet there’s people out there who can’t even keep pace with what third graders, movie-listings writers and the Hulk all happily accept as fact. Right now, across the United States, there are parents and religious educators who are trying to get creationism included in science curriculums. And a group known as Answers In Genesis is trying to build a multimillion-dollar theme park in Kentucky that promotes the notion that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that humans co-existed with dinosaurs. Similarly, in Alberta there’s the Big Valley Creation Science Museum that’s dedicated to the same idea.

The science presented in Dinosaurs Unearthed doesn’t leave any room for such obsolete thinking.

“It’s interesting the way that we look at dinosaurs. We have this picture in our heads of a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing a Stegosaurus, but the science tells us that’s not at all accurate,” says Holota. “Stegosaurus was probably like 83 million years before T-Rex. So more time passed between Stegosaurs and T-Rex than between T-Rex and humanity.”

Kind of rules out a 6,000 year old Earth, eh? I guess it’s safe to say science has moved on and left the creationists behind.

Just like the Irish Rovers’ Noah’s Ark sailed off without the unicorn.

2014-05-29