Paleontology rules Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries

A diorama of what the Liaoning Forest might have looked like during the time of dinosaurs. Photo by Roderick Mickens/American Museum of Natural History

Amazing discoveries are constantly being made in the paleontological field, but China's Liaoning Forest is yielding some information that's truly astounding, changing the way we think about dinosaurs. Remember the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park? Well, if they remade that film today, they would be feathered instead of scaled. No, they couldn't fly, but paleontologists now believe that dinosaurs were the first feathered animals based on fossils found at the Liaoning site that are so well-preserved they show distinct feathers.

What else did that film get wrong? Well, paleontologists have been studying biomechanics as they apply to everyone's favorite predator, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and they now think T. Rex probably couldn't move much faster than a human runner -- and forget about chasing cars.

All of these discoveries and more are addressed in Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries, a new exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2001 Colorado Boulevard. The exhibit is on loan from the American Museum of Natural History, but the DMNS has added some local flavor and its own technology to Dinosaurs.

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As for Dinosaurs Alive!, an IMAX film that's screening in conjunction with the exhibit, it focuses primarily on paleontology: how palentologists find sites in which to dig, what happens at a dig and what they do with the fossils after a dig. There are some CGI-created dinosaurs battling, protecting their eggs and interacting with other dinosaurs, all based on what different paleontologists have learned at different digs. The film focuses on two sites, the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia and Ghost Ranch in the Southwestern United States, and follows the history and discoveries made at those sites.

The exhibit contains the requisite fossilized dinosaur skeletons, but there are also fossils you can touch and arrange for a hands-on aspect. There's a biomechanical station that explains how scientists have learned about dinosaur movement, a display that shows where different dinosaur fossils have been found across Colorado, a station where you can make your own fossils, another where you can participate in a paleontological dig, and a life-sized diorama of what the Liaoning Forest might have looked like millions of years ago (including several small, shrewlike mammals -- and one rather large mammal -- that scientists think might have coexisted with dinosaurs).

If you're at the museum, it's definitely worth stopping by Dinosaurs to see the most up-to-date discoveries that paleontologists have been making. Combine it with the film, especially for kids who are thinking about becoming scientists one day or adults who are interested in scientific methodology and process. The dinosaur extravaganza is open through January 4, 2009, and special lectures are planned on October 10 (a dinosaur skull lecture by Jack Horner) and 29 (a lecture with Mark Norell about the link between dinosaurs and birds). Visit www.dmns.org or call 303-322-7009 for details. -- Amber Taufen

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