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Photo: American Alliance of Museums.
A young visitor is captivated by Dakota, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s full-suit Triceratops puppet.

When Suzanne was a few months old, John was learning about dinosaurs, and we got into a kind of chanting routine reeling off all the fancy names we knew. Baby Suzanne seemed to think they were hilarious. If she was fussy, dinosaur names would distract her and make her laugh.

Dinosaurs and their names have always enchanted small children. To up the enchantment, a museum in Los Angeles has begun experimenting with bringing dinosaurs to life. Sort of.

Ilana Gustafson writes at the American Alliance of Museums blog, “The anticipation of an imminent transformative journey is palpable in the diorama hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC), where a Dinosaur Encounter is about to begin.

“During the show, the audience cheers as a young guest, decked out in a bedazzled dinosaur shirt, is called onstage to feed the juvenile Triceratops known as Dakota. … The audience falls into a quiet anticipation as Dakota’s feet shuffle impatiently, her beak opening and closing, indicating that she’s hungry. The child onstage gets closer to the dinosaur, leaf in hand, and reaches their arm out nervously toward her beak. Slowly Dakota approaches. …

“Dakota opens her mouth and suddenly clamps it closed with the leaf in its clutches and excitedly wiggles her tail. The audience cheers as the child onstage, grinning from ear to ear, watches a dinosaur playfully eat a leaf right at their feet. The host of the show thanks the young visitor. …

“The full-suit Triceratops puppet, created by the fabulous puppeteers at Erth, is made of aluminum and plastic boning, foam, and lycra painted with acrylic, and contains an internal speaker and other mechanisms. Inside is a puppeteer … holding the sixty-five pounds of the weight of the puppet on their back, using largely their shoulders and core strength to maneuver it. Many technical elements need to come together to bring the dinosaur to life, but when they all unify in a performance, the audience forgets to focus on the mechanisms at work. …

“This act of relating to the characters on stage is another thing that make theater so powerful. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers discovered that watching theater can lead to increased empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of others. … I would make the argument that this empathy toward the dinosaur increases intellectual curiosity about these creatures, paleontology, and other related studies. …

“The father of a dedicated fan shared with us in an email the love his son had developed for our puppet, and in turn for the Natural History Museum.

‘Lev didn’t just watch T-Rex and Triceratops. Lev became T-Rex and Triceratops. After each show, Lev would show us his improvisational reproduction of the show we had just watched. He insisted upon silence while he delivered his performance, mirroring and perfectly mimicking the T-Rex right down to lifting his legs, bending over with retracted arms, and delivering his ferocious ‘roar’ while bobbing his head back and forth seeking his prey.’ …

“The designs of the full-suit Triceratops and T. rex puppets were informed by the museum’s paleontologists, including Dr. Luis Chiappe, Senior VP of Research and Collections, who advised the fabricators on how best to merge entertainment with science. The physical characteristics of our juvenile Triceratops and T. rex puppets were based on our paleontological collections and research. The museum’s scientists were keen to have some of the current research on dinosaurs reflected in these creatures. After a performance with our T. rex puppet, known as Hunter, we often get the question from a visitor (young and adult alike), ‘What’s that fluffy stuff all over his body?’ This opens up a conversation about proto-feathers, and how scientists have been able to make the connection between theropod dinosaurs and modern-day birds. …

“The experts at NHMLAC see the value these puppets have in garnering interest and support for their research. Dr. Nathan Smith, Curator at NHMLAC’s Dinosaur Institute, says … ‘The puppets are a truly unique way where we can envision these species as living animals, but also allow visitors to interact with them.’ “

More at the American Alliance of Museums blog, here. If you missed the giant puppet at the San Diego Zoo, you can read about it here. And here‘s a post from last fall on the one that strode across Europe.

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Photo: Dinghua Yang/AFP/Getty Images
This pregnant Dinocephalosaurus, a long-necked marine reptile, didn’t lay eggs but instead gave birth to live young 245m years ago.

After uncovering new evidence, surprised scientists are revising a long-held understanding of the pre-dinosaur Dinocephalosaurus.

According to a Reuters story at the Guardian, “An extraordinary fossil unearthed in southwestern China shows a pregnant long-necked marine reptile that lived millions of years before the dinosaurs with its developing embryo, indicating the creature gave birth to live babies rather than laying eggs.

“Scientists said [in February that] the fossil of the unusual fish-eating reptile called Dinocephalosaurus, which lived about 245m years ago during the Triassic Period, changes the understanding of the evolution of vertebrate reproductive systems.

“Mammals and some reptiles including certain snakes and lizards are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young.

“Dinocephalosaurus is the first member of a broad vertebrate group called archosauromorphs that includes birds, crocodilians, dinosaurs and extinct flying reptiles known as pterosaurs known to give birth this way, paleontologist Jun Liu of China’s Hefei University of Technology said. …

“ ‘I think you’d be amazed to see it, with its tiny head and long snaky neck,’ said University of Bristol paleontologist Mike Benton, who also participated in the research published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Its body plan was similar to plesiosaurs, long-necked marine reptiles akin to Scotland’s mythical Loch Ness Monster that thrived later during the dinosaur age, though they were not closely related.

“Not laying eggs provided advantages to Dinocephalosaurus, the researchers said. It indicated the creature was fully marine, not having to leave the ocean to lay eggs on land like sea turtles, exposing the eggs or hatchlings to land predators.” More here.

I admire scientists for continuously revisiting accepted wisdom when they find new data. The only complaint I have about the story concerns the Loch Ness Monster, an old friend of mine. Should one really call it mythical? Perhaps the data just haven’t floated to the surface yet.

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