When you think of a dinosaur, what image comes to mind?
For many of us – from the dinosaur-obsessed preschooler to the adult who remembers seeing the original “Jurassic Park” in the movies – it’s a T-Rex.
But – and this may surprise all of us except this oddly knowledgeable, dinosaur-obsessed preschooler – T-Rex wasn’t the only tyrannosaur.
The evolution of tyrannosaurs
“In fact, these types of dinosaurs began long before the Cretaceous period, which is when we know about the T-Rex,” said Patricia Coorough Burke, curator of geological collections at the Milwaukee Public Museum. “We think of them as very massive dinosaurs, but early in their evolution they were more like chickens and turkeys.”
“Maybe like those turkeys we have at Tosa,” Coorough Burke added with a laugh.
The evolution of tyrannosaurs is the subject of the Milwaukee Public Museum’s new temporary exhibit, “Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family,” which will be held in Milwaukee from February 18 to May 18.
Much of the information presented in this exhibit – which was created by the Australian Museum – comes from well-preserved finds made in Asia in recent years.
“Fossils from Asia were preserved in super fine sediments as opposed to coarser rocks, which also don’t preserve detail,” Coorough Burke said.
These details allow scientists to learn things about dinosaur evolution, anatomy and environment that less detailed specimens cannot.
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“The sediments of these specimens from Asia have preserved skin texture, feather prints, and even organic molecules that can give us an idea of the color of the dinosaur,” Coorough Burke said. “This explosion of understanding is in part the result of the discovery of these truly superb specimens.”
The better understanding of the evolution of tyrannosaurs in the new exhibit was also facilitated by state-of-the-art technology. Paleontologists can now use medical technology, like high-energy X-rays, to see inside the bones of fossils, adding to scientists’ understanding of extinct creatures.
The evolution of scientific understanding
Coorough Burke says bringing this exhibit to Milwaukee showcases more than just the evolution of dinosaurs. She says a trip to each of the museum’s dinosaur exhibits will show a different kind of evolution — the evolution of scientists’ interpretation of their discoveries.
Coorough Burke pointed out that the dinosaurs in the museum’s Third Planet exhibit, including the T-Rex, “look bare” with skin rather than “fluffy feathers” which scientists say now covered the body dinosaurs.
“If you walk through our exhibits, you can see the science as it progressed from the late 80s to the feathered dinosaur at the top of the stairs,” she said. “Then you can go see the most modern interpretations in our new traveling exhibition. It will be like walking through the history of science.”
Such a visit to the museum’s dinosaur exhibits can help people understand that, like life, scientists’ understanding of the world is constantly changing. It’s an important lesson when, after two years of living through a pandemic, people’s understanding of science is more critical than ever.
“It’s good for people to think about how science is always looking for more information to add to the way we understand things,” Coorough Burke said. “The more information we get, the more we add to our understanding and the more we change our exposures.”
The evolution of museum exhibitions
Coorough Burke also pointed out that this exhibit is different from more traditional exhibits; While most exhibits in Milwaukee are immersive and make visitors feel like they’re in a specific environment, this tyrannosaur exhibit ups the ante, making the experience not only immersive but also interactive.
“In one part of the exhibit, there are screens with dinosaurs projected on them,” Coorough-Burke said. “The cameras read what the crowd is doing, send that information back to the computer, and then the dinosaurs interact with the crowd based on people’s behaviors.”
Other parts of the exhibit include:
- a multi-touch multiplayer game on three large screens that shows a picture of the relationships between the different types of tyrannosaurs
- a bone bank of spare parts to assemble a 3D puzzle of a T-Rex
- an activity where visitors can “hatch a dinosaur” and make it part of the tyrannosaur family tree
- a virtual reality experience where dinosaurs invade Milwaukee
- complete molded tyrannosaur skeletons, molded tyrannosaur skulls and life-size models of feathered dinosaurs
- a cast of “Scotty”, one of the largest and most complete T-Rex specimens in the world
The museum will also offer special programming related to the exhibition, including:
- Science on Tap Lecture Series on “The Evolution of Dinosaur Flight” with Dr. Jingmai O’Connor from the Field Museum on February 24 at 7 p.m.
- Dome Theater and Planetarium programs, “DinoSOARS” and “Dinosaurs of Antarctica” from February 18 to June 2
“Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family” will be open during regular museum hours, Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 13 years old and free for children 3 and under.
COVID-19 policies include mandatory masks for those ages 3 and up and reduced ability for social distancing.