Make mine Mesozoic--dinosaurs roam anew at the Natural History Museum

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Curled over a microscope in a windowless room at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History, the entomologist pronounced the specimen "elegant."

The bystander had to take his word. He was describing a mymarid wasp, the smallest insect in the world, smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.

That was 12 years ago, and at the opposite end of the animal-size spectrum from what's happening today at the work-in-progress Natural History Museum. In the middle of its seven-year institutional upgrade, this weekend the museum opens the new Dinosaur Hall. This preview participant pronounces it "elegant."

Too often, an elegant museum is a remote museum, a lofty presence that's more lecture than entertainment. Not this creature of the Cretaceous, not this member of the Mesozoic. dino-puppet.jpgWhen a juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet the size of a Cadillac Escalade roams the rotunda grunting and rolling its creepy glass eyes, you know this Dino Hall is about the show as well as the tell. That T. Rex Jr. sprouts a black and orange shag rug circa 1977 tells you that this Dino Hall is OK with fanciful extrapolation, but draws the line at deluded trifle. The Dinosaur Hall might take what Luis Chiappe, lead curator and director of the museum's Dinosaur Institute, calls "artistic license," but we're not the Flintstones. The Dinosaur Hall is about science, and if science isn't always certain, if science takes liberties, it does so based on real, not manufactured, intelligent design.

That means re-learning stuff you thought you knew, like the confusing term "age of the dinosaur"--other animals shared quarters with dinosaurs, which walked the Earth, but didn't swim it, although some did fly over it. But not the Pterodactyl, which was a flying reptile; all dinosaurs were reptiles, but not all reptiles were dinosaurs.

Remember the Brontosaurus? Long ago scientists busted it for the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature's version of copyright infringement--a previously named creature, the Apatosaurus, was really the source of a misnamed Bronto-bone, so now only the hopelessly uncool refer to anything Jurassic as a Brontosaurus.

We know that T. Rex could gain 1,500 pounds a year and that it was covered with a Cretaceous version of feathers that looked more like bristles (see: "shag rug" above); we know that Mamenchisaurus occupied the opposite size extreme of the mymarid wasp at nearly 70 feet long, but depicting its 30-foot-long neck in brown and tan stripes is artistic license, Chiappe explained, based on what we know about the colors of living reptiles.

We know from its nasal and ear anatomy that the crested duckbill made and heard noise of low frequency, but does the grunting utterance of the T. Rex puppet truly represent that typical teen, or is it artistic fancy? Would we be surprised to learn that T. Rex was known at the local watering hole as Squeaky?

Do you even care? If not, you'll still be engaged by how the hall, with its new floor-to-ceiling windows, shines a literal as well as figurative light on its gob-smackingly huge collection of fossil specimens (300-plus), 20 articulated skeletons and the world's only display of three Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons in various stages of growth--tall, grande and venti.

Many of the fossils from North America were discovered in Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Colorado. But there are some impressive specimens from California. Only one, however, is a dinosaur--a footprint of a bi-pedal meat-eater, name unknown, found in the Mojave Desert east of Baker--you know, where today you find the world's tallest thermometer? "It's the oldest evidence of dinosaurs in the state," Chiappe said, "and the only site with footprints."

The other California standout is Morenosaurus, a marine reptile that used to swim in the sea that covered the state and which is responsible for the paucity of dinosaur fossils here. Morenosaurus was discovered in Fresno County and now lives suspended from the gallery ceiling in all its 25-foot-long glory.

In the same gallery you'll find Fruitadens haagarorum, the smallest dinosaur ever discovered in North America, and the only such specimens found in museum captivity.

Skeletons of any size, of any critter, are ghoulishly spooky. Isn't that part of their appeal, whether you're dressing the kids as a Halloween Stegosaurus, or watching "Night at the Museum"? Against a dueling T. Rex-Triceratops backdrop at the Dinosaur Hall preview, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas said, "I will not be caught in this building tonight. I am not afraid to publicly acknowledge my mortality."

Wuss.

Dinosaurs gave us reptiles, birds and, so far, a delicious mystery about their disappearance. We are not afraid to speculate, to be wrong, to revise, to boast. We are in the Dinosaur Hall. We are among friends. They are elegant.

Photos: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles


More by Ellen Alperstein:
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The uneven playing field of workers' compensation
Horsing around in Del Mar
Two Jews walk into a Catskills hotel...
Continuing education at the county fair
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