Monday, April 28, 2008

Ancient creatures arrive in Santa Barbara


Two massive skeletons are already stalking Luria Hall, casting eerie shadows on the newly painted walls.
An even larger bone display of Suchomimus, a 36-foot African dinosaur, will join the two 25-foot creatures on Tuesday as officials at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History prepare to unveil their “Giants: African Dinosaurs” exhibit this weekend.
And while the skeletons are stationary, their poses evoke visions of scaly creatures roaming the Earth up to 135 million years ago, hunting for their next meal.

“You’re going to hear ‘Wow!’ or you’re going to hear ‘Ahh!’” said Brian Weber, the museum’s director of exhibits. “There are going to be squeals.”
Weber and a team from Project Exploration, a Chicago-based nonprofit science organization, are working nonstop to unpack dozens of wooden crates, assemble the three large-scale pieces and arrange dozens of smaller displays.
Shipped in on three semi-trailers from their former display site in Florida, the skeletons are replicas of fossils found in Africa’s Sahara Desert by renowned paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno and educator Gabrielle Lyon, who co-founded Project Exploration.
In addition to being the West Coast premiere of Sereno’s finds, the display is the museum’s first dinosaur skeleton show. Three previous dinosaur shows have only featured fleshed-out models with robotics, the latest occurring in 2002.
“Those are cool, but how many of them can you have before you get the real thing?” Weber said.
Museum spokeswoman Easter Moorman said the motionless skeletons will also be less likely to frighten children than their moving and roaring robotic counterparts. Assembling the creatures, however, is no easy task.
“It’s literally like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” Moorman said.
It took the eight-person exhibit team an hour and a half to put together Deltadromeus, a 90-million-year-old meat-eater found in Morocco, first fitting together about 10 large pieces before fastening each rib in place.
Its full name, Deltadromeus agilis, refers to its status as the speediest large predator that ever lived.
Afrovenator, a 135-million-year-old carnivore from the Early Cretaceous period, took only 45 minutes to assemble as the team’s skills improved. Discovered in Niger, the dinosaur’s long, snaky tail stretches its full length to 27 feet.
The largest of the full skeletons, Suchomimus, also originated from Niger and has long, narrow jaws that lend to its moniker, which means “crocodile mimic.” Technicians will install the 12-foot tall display Tuesday morning before putting the finishing touches on the room during the next few days.
Weber said exhibit technicians Tony Mangini and Mike Carpenter will be instrumental in making the show come to life. Lighting is particularly key in making the skeletons truly stand out, along with recent touchups to the display hall.
“I know we’re going to get a stunning exhibit,” he said. “This is just going to be spectacular.”
Alongside the three main skeleton displays will be smaller showcases, including other skeletal replicas, petrified wood and actual fossilized dinosaur bones.
Dennis Toy, a fossil expert with Project Exploration, carefully opened a heavy-duty carrying case and removed special protective casings from the wing bones of a Pterosaur, a 110-million-year-old flying dinosaur found in Niger.
“This one ate fish,” he said, revealing a long, narrow tooth. “That’s why the teeth are long and skinny, to hook them.”
While there will be a few skeletal remains in the display, such as the Pterosaur, Weber said many of the pieces will be casts of the original bones.
“Fossil material would be too heavy, too fragile and too valuable,” he said, explaining why the large-scale skeletons are replicas.
Many of the originals are safely locked up in Sereno’s collection at the University of Chicago, waiting to be sent back to their countries of origin or undergoing further study.
Among the relatively smaller displays already assembled are two massive femur bones from a Carcharodontosaurus, dubbed Africa’s answer to the Tyrannosaurus rex. Visitors will be able to stand on the display platform, comparing their height to the leg bones of the enormous, 45-foot-long creature.
When the display opens this Saturday at 10 a.m., it will be the only dinosaur bone exhibit between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Weber said.
Admission is free to museum members and included in museum admission for visitors — $8 for adults, $7 for teens and seniors, and $5 for children. The show runs until November 2 and more information is available at
Moorman said the museum is planning to stock the gift store with plenty of dinosaur-related items. Also playing on the paleontology theme is an excavation tank where kids can try their hand at uncovering a fossil, as well as dinosaur footprints throughout the museum.

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