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Dinosaur Hall Roars To Life In Los Angeles

Aug 7, 2011
Originally published on August 7, 2011 12:51 pm

At the new Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, visitors are greeted with the simulated sound of a dinosaur's roar. Some 300 dinosaur specimens are on display. It's also a hands-on show, with interactive games where kids can become paleontologists. The centerpiece of the revamped exhibit are three Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons, including the youngest known T. rex fossil in the world.

The three T. rexes are different sizes to demonstrate growth, says curator and paleontologist Luis Chiappe, who directs the museum's Dinosaur Institute. He says the baby is estimated to have died at 2 years old and is about 10 feet long. The juvenile, 14, is about 20 feet long, and the 17-year-old T. rex is about 30 feet long. The dinosaurs are arranged around the carcass of a duck-billed dinosaur, which Chiappe says is something T. rexes would eat.

"We use this display to talk about both growth on the one hand and behavior on the other," he says.

The exhibit has a modern sensibility. The hall is washed in natural light. Fully articulated dinosaur skeletons are mounted atop sleek, black platforms in poses that are both intimidating and breathtaking.

Most of the dinosaur skeletons on display are real, not casts; Chiappe collected some of them himself in the Utah desert.

He says instead of organizing the exhibit chronologically, he wanted to present the fossils in a way that highlights what's know about dinosaurs and what's left to learn.

"It's a series of case studies that illustrates the questions that both the public and the scientists ask about these animals: How did they behave? Or how did they grow? Or how did they walk? And it's really all about, how do we know what we know?" Chiappe says.

He hopes highlighting the unknown will inspire children who visit to become the ones who later find the answers. There are plenty of children for whom these near-mythical, prehistoric animals are a point of fascination, like 10-year-old Dante Lewis Jr. He says his favorite dinosaur is the T. rex and that he wants to be a paleontologist when he grows up.

The exhibit is also geared toward breaking down common misconceptions.

"I think one of the big misconceptions that people have about dinosaurs is that essentially every animal, or every large reptile that lived during the age of the dinosaurs, was a dinosaur, and that's not really the case," Chiappe says. "This gallery really illustrates a number, say the ancient marine animals, marine reptiles, that lived during the age of the dinosaur and were not dinosaurs."

He says another false idea about dinosaurs is that they all lived and died at the same time. The exhibit shows that dinosaurs actually became extinct at different times.

"For example, take two iconic dinosaurs: triceratops and stegosaurus. They lived 85 million years apart," Chiappe says. "We only live 65 million years apart from the triceratops. So in a time context, a triceratops is closer to us ... than a triceratops to a stegosaurus."

Humans may not have walked among the T. rex, as some movies indicate, but Chiappe says people have lived with dinosaurs — in a way.

"We live with 10,000 species of dinos, but they're not the dinos that lived during the age of the dinosaur millions of years ago — they're the birds," Chiappe says. "Throughout this exhibit we highlight very clearly that there's plenty of evidence indicating that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, that therefore dinos are not extinct, and that birds are living dinosaurs."

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

During our stay in Los Angeles this past week, we encountered a preservation effort of a different sort - some 300 dinosaur specimens on display at the new Dinosaur Hall at L.A. County's Natural History Museum. At the center of the exhibit, are three Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons, including the youngest known T. Rex fossil in the world. This is a hands-on display, with interactive games where children can play paleontologist and visitors are greeted with the simulated sound of a dinosaur's roar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING)

YDSTIE: Curator and paleontologist Luis Chiappe directs the museum's Dinosaur Institute.

LUIS CHIAPPE: There are three T. Rexes of different sizes and we are very pleased that we can show it and we can show the baby that was estimated to have died at the age of two and is about 10 feet long. With juveniles, that's about 20 feet long and died at the age of 14. And to sub it out(ph) or older teenage that died at the age of 17 and it's about 30 feet long.

YDSTIE: It's huge and ferocious.

CHIAPPE: They are. And the way they are arranged here, they're arranged around a carcass of a duckbill dinosaur, what we know was part of the meal of Tyrannosaurus Rex. And we use this display to talk about both growth on the one hand and behavior on the other hand.

YDSTIE: The exhibit has a modern sensibility. The hall is washed in natural light, immense dinosaur skeletons are mounted atop sleek black platforms with poses that are both intimidating and breathtaking. Most of the dinosaur skeletons on display here are real - they aren't just casts. And Chiappe collected some of them himself in the Utah desert. He says instead of organizing the exhibit chronologically, he decided to present the fossils in a way that highlights what we already know about dinosaurs and what's left to learn.

CHIAPPE: Questions that both the public and the scientists ask about these animals: how did they behave or how did they grow or how did they walk and it's really all about how do we know what we know.

YDSTIE: How much do we know?

CHIAPPE: We know quite a lot about them but there's also a lot that we do not know about them. It's something that we like to highlight whenever it's necessary because it's something that inspires. It's something that kids may come here and they may leave this exhibit thinking maybe I'll be the one that finds the clues that can provide an answer to this question that we don't have one today.

YDSTIE: And on our visit, we saw plenty of children, for whom these near-mythical prehistoric animals are endlessly fascinating. So, can you tell us your name?

DANTE LEWIS: Dante Lewis, Jr.

YDSTIE: JR.: Ten.

YDSTIE: JR.: The Tyrannosaurus Rex.

YDSTIE: JR.: That family of them over there.

YDSTIE: Right there, a family of T. Rexes. Pretty exciting.

CHIAPPE: A mother and her young.

YDSTIE: So, why are you so fascinated by them?

YDSTIE: Because when I grow up, I want to be a paleontologist.

YDSTIE: You do? Very cool, very cool. But our collective fascination with dinosaurs can often lead to misconceptions. Again, the exhibit's curator Luis Chiappe.

CHIAPPE: I think one of the big misconceptions that people have about dinosaurs is that essentially every animal, or every large reptile that lived during the age of the dinosaurs was a dinosaur, and that's not really the case. And this gallery really illustrates a number of, say, the ancient marine animals, marine reptiles, that lived during the age of the dinosaurs and were not dinosaurs. Or also, another misconception is the idea that all dinosaurs lived and died at the same time. And this exhibit also shows how dinosaurs became extinct at different times. For example, take two iconic dinosaurs: triceratops and stegosaurus. They lived 85 million years apart. We only live 65 million years apart from the triceratops. So, in a time context, triceratops is closer to us, or we're closer to triceratops, than a triceratops to a stegosaurus.

YDSTIE: One of the movie conceits, of course, is that dinosaurs and humans existed together. But that's not the case, of course.

CHIAPPE: Well, we live with 10,000 species of dinosaurs but they're not the dinosaurs that lived during the age of the dinosaur millions of years ago. They're the birds. And throughout this exhibit we highlight very clearly that there's plenty of evidence indicating that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, that therefore dinosaurs are not extinct, and that birds are living dinosaurs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINOSAUR ROARING)

YDSTIE: That's curator Luis Chiappe. You can see images of the dinosaurs on display at L.A.'s Natural History Museum by visiting our website, NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YDSTIE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.