Fernbank puts dinosaur science on display in a big way

The immense size of dinosaurs may not have saved them from extinction but as far as kids and museum visitors go, bigger is definitely better.

With that in mind, Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History plans to go big with its latest exhibition, “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs,” opening Sept. 17 and running through Jan. 2. The show will give visitors a glimpse at the science behind some of the largest animals ever to roam the earth.

“They’re like nothing that’s alive today,” says renowned paleontologist and the exhibition’s chief curator Dr. Mark Norell. “It really does spark the imagination when you walk into a museum and see them.” The show originated at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where Norell is chairman of paleontology.

Norell says he and his team wanted to do something different with the exhibition by exposing visitors to the latest science behind the study of dinosaurs in exciting and visually striking ways. “It’s really a biology exhibit,” he says. “We teach a lot about everything from development of the embryo to behavior to biomechanics to feeding. It’s a good vehicle to transmit a lot of important scientific content.”

The exhibition builds on a growing body of research that examines dinosaurs as living animals, primarily through comparisons with animals both huge and tiny, living and extinct. The temporary show also expands on subjects that have long been an integral part of Fernbank’s permanent collection, such as the Argentinosaurus and Giganotosaurus skeletons in the “Giants of the Mesozoic” exhibit in the museum’s atrium.

One of the new show’s most striking features will be a life-size, fleshed out model of a young adult female Mamenchisaurus, which — with its 11 foot height and 30-foot neck — is about the size of a tractor-trailer. Textured skin on one side of the model will give visitors a sense of the animal’s appearance, while the other side will appear to be dissected, with key organs, including the heart and lungs, isolated and modeled at life size. A video projected on the animal’s midsection will enable visitors to see how the Mamenchisaurus’ respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems contributed to its enormous size.

Norell says a lot of unseen work goes into making such models. “This particular model was based on the newest evidence, everything from the way it holds its tail to the angle of its neck,” he says. “Building one is a long process. These dinosaurs are so big and so special there’s nothing really like them alive today. We don’t really have a living example to draw from when we build a reconstruction.”

As with the Mamenchisaurus model, other displays will shed light on the latest research into how heart rate, respiration, metabolism and reproduction were linked to the dinosaur’s size. A 5 1/2 foot cube of foliage will show visitors just how much plant matter a Mamenchisaurus ate in a single day. (To survive, a Mamenchisaurus needed 100,000 calories a day, which it got from a leafy diet of approximately 1,000 pounds of horsetail, ginkgo, conifers, and ferns. An hour’s worth of food will be encased in a smaller display).

Elsewhere, visitors can get an in-depth look at part of a Diplodocus braincase, which provided scientists with important clues about the brain structure of the extinct species. Also included in the show are specimens from the American Museum of Natural History’s renowned fossil collection, including sauropod vertebrae, skin impressions, a gigantic femur and a variety of other ancient specimens.

Fernbank will celebrate the exhibition’s opening on Sept. 17 with a family-friendly event featuring hands-on activities, games and crafts. Throughout the exhibition’s run, Fernbank’s IMAX theater will screen showings of the film “Dinosaurs Alive,” which explores the science of paleontology and includes dramatic computer-generated recreations of living dinosaurs.

Although the exhibition is designed to give insight into how these giant dinosaurs grew so big and functioned, the question of why they got so big will likely remain an intriguing mystery for a long time. It’s an enigma that has confounded casual observers and paleontologists alike since the science’s beginnings in the 19th century. “When it comes down to it, we really don’t know,” says Norell.

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