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Something big is happening at Perot Museum

04/04/2014 2:46 PM

04/04/2014 2:47 PM

For every young paleontologist — or those who are still young at heart — the world is a wide-open place, full of possibilities and chances to dig into it. That’s exactly what the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas aims to encourage with its newest interactive exhibit, “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs.”

The visiting exhibit, organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York and on display at the Perot Museum through Sept. 1, takes visitors into the world of sauropods — long-tailed, long-necked dinosaurs that could grow to longer than 150 feet (roughly the length of four city buses).

Beyond showing fossils and still models, the exhibit uses interactive features to help explain how they lived: lungs and heart light up, for example, to show how they breathed and circulated blood; in a dig pit, budding paleontologists can unearth and examine replica sauropod femurs, ribs, skulls and more.

“These things are almost creatures of our imaginations,” said Ron Tykoski, fossil preparator at the Perot Museum. “What this exhibit does is it puts flesh on the bones. This reminds us that these creatures were not monsters; they were real, living, breathing animals.”

Exploring the exhibit

The exhibit begins with a walk-through path lined with animal facts that will get visitors thinking about the relationship between size and body functions. Think of an ant lifting 100 times its body weight and an elephant needing to feed for 18 hours per day.

As the narrow hallway opens into the large exhibit floor, eyes immediately go to the gigantic centerpiece — Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis (pronounced Mah-MEN-chi-SAWR-us ho-CHOO-an-EN-sis), a 60-foot-long, 11-foot-tall sauropod whose neck makes up half of that length.

The open room surrounding this giant contains stations where visitors can learn about the life and life-sustaining processes of a sauropod, including respiration, circulation, bones, diet, skin and eggs. Each station includes easy-to-read fact cards and hands-on activities.

A hand-operated pump allows visitors to simulate the creatures’ blood circulation; a scale measures how much a dinosaur with people’s bone size would weigh; and button lights highlight the differences in various animals’ eggshells.

Throughout the room there are also real fossilized bones from mamenchisaurus and other sauropods, but the impressive part isn’t the skeletons — it’s the thought that scientists have drawn on what is known about animals alive today to understand how such unusual creatures could roam the planet (and think, eat, breathe and move) 140 million years ago. Exhibit organizers say sauropods were one of the most successful groups of dinosaurs that existed.

“They have all sorts of issues that animals alive today face, like finding enough food and avoiding becoming food for another animal,” Tykoski said.

It is exactly that practical aspect that he hopes visitors take away from the experience.

“Hopefully some of the kids will walk out of here really being inspired to think about things — if not paleontology then engineering, mathematics, science, veterinary medicine — who knows,” he said. “Hopefully, we inspire some minds today.”

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