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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, July 14, 2006

A T. Rex Named Sue.

Sally just popped up to tell you that, yes, this is a post about dinosaurs. A whole exhibition on them, in fact. I went there in early June, mainly to listen to a talk by Jack Horner.

This time there were no restrictions on flash photography. Fire away! The exhibition is called a T. Rex named Sue. Truth be told, I am actually not a huge fan of T. Rex. My favorite dinosaurs are the Troodontids, the brainy ones with the big heads. But noooo... kids just love the hunky dinosaurs with big teeth and huge body size. Nerds never win, dammit. That suddenly reminds me of Brad Pitt.

I hate Brad Pitt.


First I'd like to apologise for these annoying white flecks. They are dust particles in the air caught by my flash. Cameras with small lenses like mine get them bad.

The first two dinosaurs that greeted me near the entrance were the Tarbosaurus and the Gallimimus. Tarbo isn't in any Hollywood movie I know of. Galli was that ostrich-like running machine in Jurassic Park. I put them here because, well, I think their poses are excellent. Like in a chase. Looks so energetic. I also want to point out their bone-colored, one-toned skeletons, indicating that these are casts. Original fossils are usually very dark-colored and have uneven coloration, because they are basically old rock.

So as I walked around, trying to make heads or tails out of the exhibits, I saw the head of a Ankylosaurus. Ha ha I crack me up. Anky is that big tank-like dinosaur with armor plates and a huge swinging tail. The first thing that caught my eye was its giant nostrils, seen here on the left. Looks comical. The next thing I noticed was - hey! I only see eyeball sockets in its head. Dinosaurs are supposed to have two additional openings in their heads, called fenestra. Because dinosaurs are diapsid reptiles. But Anky doesn't have any. Why? Why?

You don't look like you care. Fine.

Then I looked at Anky's tail. It has a club-like bone which it uses to twack its attackers on their shins. Now, that is one solid pair of balls.

Did I mention that I like Troodontids? There weren't any in this exhibition, but they did put up a model of Velociraptor, which is closely related to the Troodontids. Velociraptors are cool. Not only because Steven Spielberg turned them into oversized kid-hunting "raptors" in Jurassic Park. But also because a Velociraptor fossil locked in a deadly battle with a Protoceratops has been found in Mongolia. Truly spectacular.

When I look at this photo of Velociraptor, I notice that it looks really alive. I'll explain this later.

And now, the highlight of the exhibition - Sue. The most complete T. Rex ever unearthed; more than 90% complete! I'm not here to sell used cars. This photo is just here to show you how big she is, about two storeys tall. Did you notice how they made Sue stand on a footrest, as if she was posing in a fashion photo shoot? Just like the Stomp Starblog?

Why do I notice such things? I hate myself.

Remember when you were a kid, how you'd use a torchlight and shine it from below your face to look like a scary ghost? Well I took this closeup of Sue's face without flash to show you how they used lighting to achieve that very same effect. Quite intimidating.

I think the funniest parts of a T. Rex are its tiny, fiddly two-finger forelimbs. For an animal of such a huge size these are amusingly small. There is one whole exhibit explaining how powerful they really are, but nah, I'm not impressed. I also need to point out something else that looks rather odd. It's the wishbone, that thin v-shaped bone that connects the two shoulder blades. It feels so... out of place.

Sue is not the only T. Rex in the gallery. Stan, her old flame, stands just a short walk away. However, unlike Sue, Stan did not get any mood lighting, so he actually looks rather benign. Like a friendly elderly gentleman. This picture shows distortion in Stan's face, a common occurrence for old fossils that have been under tonnes of heavy rock for millions of years. It also shows quite clearly that Stan is incomplete. His wishbone is missing. And part of his jaw is missing. With missing teeth, just like an elderly gentleman.

Stan may not be much of a looker from the front, but he does have an impressive tail. I love the way it sweeps elegantly towards the ceiling of the hall.

In addition to dinosaurs, there were exhibits on other extinct or endangered animals. The model of the Dodo here was a much touted attraction to the show. It looks OK, I guess, the size of a large turkey, a well made model with lots of details. I was expecting a thinner bird, as I read somewhere that Dodos have been inaccurately depicted as very fat birds, but that's fine. What really disappointed me when I looked at this photo is how dead this model looks. Compare it with the Velociraptor above. See the difference?

It's the gleam in its eye. I think model makers should use glass-ier stuff to make eyes, so that these shine when photographed with flash. Gives the model some soul.

While I was hanging around the Dodo, an auntie appeared with her kids and exclaimed "DODO BIRD! DODO BIRD!" Aunties are funny. You don't hear them say "CHICKEN BIRD!" or "PENGUIN BIRD!" The word "Dodo" is enough. Even the kids know that. But let me tell you, years of saying "MICKEY MOUSE!" and "DONALD DUCK!" to their kids has resulted in this unintended habit.

As I mentioned earlier the main reason I came to this exhibition was to hear a public lecture by Professor Jack Horner. That's him on the left. He was the technical advisor for the Jurassic Park movies. In addition, he is a nice uncle. He likes to mingle with the kids in the audience.

I won't bore you with all the details of his talk, but it has three main parts.

First, he talked about how accurate the Jurassic Park movies were. For example, he didn't like it when Spielberg made his dinosaurs crap out a giant pile of poo. Even kids know that dinosaurs cannot crap higher than their own height.

Next he described how he assembled an army of graduate students and excavated a huge amount of rock to free a special T. Rex fossil. They called her B. Rex. B. Rex is special because there are still some blood cells inside her bones! Containing DNA! It is hard work isolating that DNA so they are still trying...

Did the audience gasp with excitement? Was there a commotion at this shocking find?

Actually no. Kids were just shouting and running around randomly while embarrassed parents chase them or push their crying babies-on-prams out of the lecture hall. Throughout the entire lecture.

What did you expect? This is a public talk.

Finally Prof. Horner talked a bit about using genetic engineering to turn chickens into dinosaur-shaped chickens. I love this part the best. Not just because I am into molecular evolutionary stuff. But really because I have always wanted to see Kentucky Fried Chicken set up a research institute.

Move over Pond's Institute. Say hello to KFC's Institute for Avian Genomics.

Kick ass.


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