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Arizona Museum of Natural History, Part 1

On my To-Do list for some time has been a visit to the subject museum (located in Mesa) because of a special exhibit of the Feathered Dinosaurs of China. What finally got me off my butt and to the museum was a new camera. I love my Nikon D300 but with the zoom lens, it can be a bit much to carry — and much too expensive to risk at certain places. So I did some research, looking at reviews and settled on a Canon PowerShot G9. It seems to take nice photos, supports RAW mode (it's technical but something I want for better photo quality) and is small and lightweight.

Feather Dino Fossil So with G9 in hand, I was off to the exhibit. Oops, it turns out no photography was allowed in the special exhibit. Too bad because I could have taken some great shots. However, just so you can get a taste of the exhibit, I grabbed some photos from the Internet.

There were numerous fossils such as the two images here (visible light and X-ray). Even with this borrowed photo, you can see the remains of feathers with this particular fossil. I have seen pictures like this but only in the newspaper and such photos have very poor resolution. However, when you see these fossils in person, all you can say is "WOW". The feathers really stand out.

The fossils were unearthed in Liaoning — in the northeast part of China. The beds where these feathered dinosaurs died, consists of a very fine sediment which allowed the fine detail of the feathers to be preserved.

The huge number of these fossils has been a real treasure trove for paleontologists. In fact, there are so many fossils that it has forced them to change details of the current thinking of how birds were thought to have evolved from dinosaurs. Of course, there are debates around the details but they seem to be in basic agreement that birds may be older than they previously thought.

One interesting observation comes from the fossil shown here (Cryptovolans) — with the sketch of this animal having flight feathers on both the wings and the rear legs. Paleontologists seem to agree that they did not flap their rear legs but used them more like stabilizers.

Velociraptor Feathered VelosiraptorNow think back to when you saw Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. Remember the velociraptors? They were the bad boys that were stalking the kids in the kitchen. The traditional (and thus Spielberg) view was of an animal with lizard skin such as the illustration to the left.

Now the modelers are adding feathers to make a newer interpretation such as the illustration to the right. This one makes me think of something out of the Jim Henson workshop. However, the exhibit in Mesa has a half dozen model Dienonychus — three with lizard skin and three with feathers — none of which looked like Muppets.

These dinosaurs were perhaps five feet tall and were quite scary with that mouth full of teeth and the enlarged sickle-shaped claw on each hind foot. I thought the feathers made them look even more fearsome. As I stood there looking at the creatures, I could not help but think about the Ben Stiller move, Night at the Museum, where the exhibits came to life at night. No thank you — don't think I care to sleep over.

Mammoth Diatryma The rest of the photos are mine compliments of the G9. The museum contains more than just the Feathered Dinosaur Exhibit — when you first enter, you encounter a mammoth, specifically a Columbian Mammoth — one whose bones were found in Arizona. This skeleton is huge. Of course, I guess you would expect that if the animal's name is "mammoth".

The sight of this magnificent creature took me back to the Clan of the Cave Bear series of novels by Jean Auel — the story of a Cro-magnon girl who is orphaned as a result of an earthquake then adopted by a Neanderthal medicine woman. The saga follows her life and eventual joining of another band of people like herself. The third book in the series is The Mammoth Hunters. If you have not read any of Auel's novels, do treat yourself to some good (but long) reading.

Into the main Dinosaur Hall and one encounters a Diatryma. When I first spotted it, I thought it looks like a big-headed ostrich. Scientists are still arguing whether this ancient flightless bird was a meat eater or a plant eater. Makes no difference if it plans to eat you or just run over you on the way to the salad bar, don't you think?

Triceratops Next on the tour was a Triceratops — they look fearsome but rest assured that they were plant-eaters. The large horns and bony frill (at the top of the head) have long been thought to be defensive adaptations. Some paleontologists are suggesting they may also be used to attract mates — much like outlandish feathers in birds-of-paradise and peafowl.

Camarasaurus Hello! It's a Camarasaurus, which is the most common of the giant sauropods. A plant-eater, about 60 feet in length and weighing up to 20 tons. I took several shots but I really liked this one where the head is in shadow — makes it look more sinister, even though it would not really want to eat you, should you meet one in the Jurassic jungle. And do you remember that scene in Jurassic Park where a similar dinosaur sneezed on one of the kids? YEEEW!

T. Rex Look out! Nearby is the most famous dinosaur of all, Tyrannosaurus rex, the "tyrant lizard". Well, technically this specimen is Tyrannosaurus bataar — a close relative of T. rex. And it is big, very big, even though it is just a juvenile. Palaeontologists are still arguing whether T. rex was a hunter or a scavenger or both. Maybe someone will invent a time machine to go back and check it out — makes no difference to me — this was an awesome animal which you probably would not want to meet in person.

Raiding the Next One exhibit in the Dinosaur Hall is a rocky mountainside complete with a stream and waterfall — which experiences a flash flood every 20 minutes or so. The little guys seen here are raiding a nest, eating the eggs.

Small dinosaur But they better watch out because they are being stalked.

Stegosaurus T. rexOn the large side is a Stegosaurus complete with those plates on its back and giant spikes on its tail. Scientists guess that the spikes were for defense and the plates for display and possibly regulating internal temperatures.

Of course, what dinosaur diorama would be complete without a T. rex?


Postosuchus Dilophosaurus Here is a nasty Postosuchus, a cousin of the crocodile. Note that it is depicted standing up on its legs rather than squatting like a croc.

To the right is a scary Dilophosaurus. This was the dino that ate Dennis Nedry (the nerdy computer guy) in Jurassic Park. They averaged 20 feet in length and weighed half a ton.

Pliosaurus Below the seas, one might encounter a Pliosaurus — one of the largest-ever marine predators. The exhibit is great because the animal is above your head, just like you were at the bottom of an aquarium. It reminded me of the IMAX film, Sea Monsters: A Prehistory Adventure (I saw it in 3D). And you thought sharks were nasty!

The Arizona Museum of Natural History has emphasis on dinosaurs that lived in and around the great inland sea that covered Arizona and nearby states. However, they also offer more than just dinosaurs — I will talk about those exhibits next week. And in closing, what do you think of the photos from the new camera?

 Life is good.

 B. David