Just a few weeks before Jurassic Park changed the world, another dinosaur film roared into cinemas. Carnosaur told the story of a scientist who wanted to destroy humanity using dinosaurs. Although two sequels were made and the movie was a success at the box office, Rogert Ebert said it was the worst movie of 1993.
Although the film is overshadowed by Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Carnosaur still has a cult following of dinophiles who cannot get enough of the miniatures and puppets used to bring the dinosaurs to life onscreen.
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We often associate dinosaur fossils with old bones and teeth. But every now and then an exceptionally preserved specimen takes our breath away by its exquisite detail. Often referred to as “dinosaur mummies” because their skin impressions have been preserved, these fossils give us an even more dramatic window into the Mesozoic.
One of the most famous dinosaur mummies is on display in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. This Edmontosaurus was baked in the sun where its soft tissues decayed but its skin became shrink-wrapped around its bones. This desiccated carcass was covered quickly by sediment, perhaps after being washed off a sandbar and into a stream. Once buried, the fossilization process began, leaving detailed impressions of the dinosaur’s scaly skin. In nearby display cases, visitors can glimpse sections of other hadrosaur skin impressions as well.
Another specimen, rumored to be even more spectacular, was purchased by the British Museum. On its way across the Atlantic, the ship carrying the treasure was caught up in the hostilities of the first World War, and sunk. The mummy may still be there, in its protective jacket, somewhere at the bottom of the ocean.
More recently, a Brachylophosaurus nicknamed Leonardo stunned scientists with its completeness:
There is also Dakota, another Edmontosaurus mummy that is exceptionally preserved. Many of these mummies are hadrosaurs, but the recent armored nodosaur discovery in Canada was nothing short of astounding. Looking like a Hollywood dragon, this beautifully detailed specimen features spikes, armor plating, and skin from the animal–allowing us to look at its face and, without much imagination, see the animal as it was in life. The nodosaur mummy is now on display at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada.
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On this day in dinosaurs, Disney brought CGI dinosaurs into its family of films. In Dinosaur, viewers meet Aladar the Iguanodon and a Mesozoic world of friends and predators that help Aladar find his place in the world after his life begins in tragedy. If you think the story sounds a little bit like The Land Before Time, you’re not the only one. Disney executives held onto the idea for the film for more than a decade, allowing the animation technology to improve and working on a plot that would differentiate their film from the cult classic.
Eventually Dinosaur became a classic in its own right. The film was a box office hit, earning nearly $350 million in global box office sales. It earned plaudits for its breathtaking visual effects and for bringing another generation of children into dinosaur fandom.
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Too often, science is presented as a final product–something that is neither under continued testing and scrutiny, nor arrived at through careful, peer-reviewed consideration. Science is not commonly seen as a process. Dinosaur paleontology can be that window into the ongoing efforts of scientists from around the world.
Science, like evolution, moves in punctuated equilibrium–long periods of stasis interrupted by bursts of activity. So although it is well established that dinosaurs didn’t drag their tails, many of the most iconic skeletal mounts are still tail-scrapers. The “error” is not an omission of the truth, but rather a collection of interconnected realities.
The first consideration of museum staff is practicality. Many skeletal mounts were constructed with display in mind, not conservation. So the fragile bones have had holes drilled through them and metal armatures forced through their mineralized cores. Disassembling these structures would be extraordinarily expensive, if not physically impossible.
It’s also important to remember how historically important some dinosaur displays have become. Their current inaccuracy reflects a change in our understanding. This communicates to the public the changing stories of dinosaur science, bringing the quest for knowledge into tangible reality.
The tail-dragging dinosaurs are nearly extinct. The last few major natural history museum dinosaur exhibits are being converted to reflect new knowledge. So the old swamp-dwelling behemoth dinosaurs are due to disappear too. Perhaps the dynamic, modern poses favored by contemporary curators better represent the Mesozoic superstars than the stately, static displays of yesteryear.
But it’s important to remember that the fossil bones are not dinosaurs. Neither are our marvelous mounted skeletons. The real non-avian dinosaurs are long gone, but live on in our imaginations–the only place where the past can return to life. So whether we are looking at the latest dinosaur models or outdated cantankerous monoliths, the “inaccurate” museum displays are only a starting point for the ever-agile human mind.
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On this day in dinosaurs, the tyrant lizard queen made her royal debut in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.
Sue’s story could have been much different. After seizure from her discoverers, a range of legal troubles, and an auction house scramble, Sue didn’t fall into the hands of a secretive private collector as feared. She assumed a place of honor at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world.
Her skeleton–the largest and most complete remains of a Tyrannosaurus rex ever found–were theatrically unveiled to an eager public ten years after her initial discovery in South Dakota. Almost two decades later, Sue is continuing to reveal more about how her kind lived and died. She is riddled with injuries and infections. She likely had arthritis and gout. She lived for 28 years, but the cause of her death is still uncertain.
Today, Sue is an icon not just for Chicago’s Field Museum, but for dinosaur paleontology as an enterprise. She is a testament to how much we can learn about the past, and a monument to our perseverance in pursuing the mysteries of the Mesozoic.
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On this day in dinosaurs, it’s another double feature!
2011 – Tree of Life is shown at Cannes
We start at the movies, where Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life–with its Mesozoic empathy sequence–was shown at Cannes film festival. The meaning of the scene is largely left to the viewer, but the dinosaurs showing up, unexpectedly, in a major cinematic drama was significant. This kind of high profile appearance illustrates just how important dinosaurs have become to human culture.
1997 – Giganotosaurus skull unveiled at Academy of Natural Sciences
Also on this day in dinosaurs, the Academy of Natural Sciences unveiled the skull of Giganotosaurus–a South American super-predator that was slightly longer than Tyrannosaurus rex.
With T. rex roaming the North American west 30 million years after Giganotosaurus ruled in Argentina, the two giant predators never met. But for several years, visitors to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia were treated to seeing the skeletons of the two titans squaring up to each other.
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On this day in dinosaurs, Canadian national television announced the selection of the Toronto Raptors as the name of the NBA expansion team to begin competing in 1995.
The name was chosen from a shortlist of 11 franchise name candidates (which also included T. rex). Ultimately, the success of Jurassic Park the previous year helped to put Raptors over the top and give Toronto the inspiration to name their professional basketball team after a dinosaur.
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