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Dinosaurs come to life in new Academy exhibit

October 11, 2013

Animatronic T. rex

Roaring, thrashing, life-size dinosaurs and the awe-inspiring stories of prehistoric earth are unfolding at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University as Dinosaurs Unearthed makes its East Coast debut.

State-of-the-art and based on the latest scientific evidence — down to the protofeathers on the juvenileTyrannosaurus rex — the exhibit features 13 full-size animatronic dinosaurs in dynamic naturalistic settings. They swat their long tails, swing their bulging necks and stretch their jaws wide to reveal rows of daggerlike teeth. Full-size Jurassic Period skeletons, a comprehensive collection of real fossils and fossil casts, hands-on activities, and compelling stories about dinosaur behavior and appearance combine for an engaging experience for visitors of all ages.

“People are going to come to this exhibit as kids and never forget it for the rest of their lives. This will make a huge impression on them,” said Academy Exhibits Director Jennifer Sontchi. “Nothing sparks a child’s interest in nature or science or museums like dinosaurs. And there is plenty to interest adults as well.”

Dinosaurs Unearthed opened Oct. 12, and it runs through March 30, 2014. Drexel Dragon Card holders can enter the exhibit for a discounted admission of $3, in addition to their free general admission to the Academy. Academy members can also enter for $3. For all others, admission to Dinosaurs Unearthed is $5, in addition to museum admission.

The Dinosaur Experience

Dinosaurs Unearthed comes to Philly from the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas, where it was hugely popular. Academy Exhibits Director Jennifer Sontchi said in a Q&A for ansp.org that five 50-foot trucks had to carry about 20,000 pounds’ worth of dinosaurs from Texas to Philadelphia. (Read the Q&A for more about how the exhibit came together.)

Each of the hand-carved animatronic dinosaurs in the exhibit is powered by customized mechanical technology and a dynamic jointing system that allows the dinosaurs to move smoothly and realistically for up to eight separate gestures.

“Unlike looking at a mounted dinosaur skeleton, which is thrilling in its own way, life-size animatronic versions of real dinosaurs will help visitors understand that these were living, breathing animals,” said Academy paleontologist Dr. Ted Daeschler, also an associate professor in Drexel University’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science. “They weren’t monsters or mythical creatures, but vital parts of their ecosystems, just like any other animal, though sometimes on a bigger scale.”

One compelling scene set in a desert in Mongolia depicts one of the few known occurrences of predation among dinosaurs. It shows Velociraptor and Protoceratops in the moments before they become locked in battle. Another scene, called Predator Trap, shows a juvenile Stegosaurus and a group of juvenile Allosaurus hopelessly stuck in a mud pit.

Some other features:

  • A Velociraptor and juvenile T. rex covered in protofeathers (precursors of bird feathers) and a Microraptor displaying its long flight feathers offer a visual representation of how common understanding about the appearance of some dinosaurs has shifted.
  • In the Make Me Move activity, visitors can take part by using a computer and console to control the movements of an interactive dinosaur.
  • Two full-size skeleton casts of Gasosaurus and Huayangosaurus, mid-Jurassic dinosaurs discovered in China in the 1980s, bear a remarkable resemblance to well-known Late Jurassic North American dinosaurs.
  • Real fossils include an Oviraptor egg, Spinosaurus and mosasaur teeth, and the ever-popular coprolite (dino poop).
  • There are more than a dozen fossil casts of a skull, claw, spine and various other impressive body parts.
  • Compelling, hands-on activities include a dig site for young paleontologists and games that explore dinosaur movement and anatomy.

Other parts of the exhibit are located elsewhere in the museum and are open to all Academy visitors:

  • An animatronic Ruyangosaurus, an 11-foot-tall juvenile sauropod described from China in 2009, will fill the Art of Science Gallery, along with touchable fossil casts.
  • Currently in Dinosaur Hall is an animatronic juvenile Yangchuanosaurus, a predator from China that was similar in size and appearance to its North American contemporary, Allosaurus.
  • A 40-foot-long animatronic T. rex will stand guard outside the museum’s front door through March 30.

This exhibit was created by Dinosaurs Unearthed, a private company that creates indoor and outdoor exhibits around the world. The exhibit’s media partner is 6abc. Sponsors are Diversified Search and VWR Charitable Foundation.