At 44, I’m the kind of man-baby who digs dinosaurs as much as I did at, well, four. And I’m not alone. This year, dino-centric museums are reporting record numbers of visitors and the Jurassic Park/World franchise just announced a sixth installment, which should add handsomely to its collective $4.4 billion box office earnings.
But as entertaining as it is to watch Jeff Goldblum almost get eaten by CGI-beasts, nothing beats seeing the real thing up close and personal. If you’re a dino-phile like me, rejoice because something truly amazing will be stomping her way into your heart: Victoria, a 66-million-year old Tyrannosaurus rex that is about to embark on a 5-year tour, starting at the Arizona Science Center on November 17th. Vicis the second most complete T. rex ever found and the largest to ever tour. This is big, people.
Victoria was discovered within the thunder-lizard-heavy soil of Faith, South Dakota. Fewer than 60 T. rex specimens have been discovered to date and many of those offered only a few bones. Victoria’s skeleton features 199 bones and the intactness of her skull has offered incredible insights into how she lived and the probable cause to her untimely death at the ages of 18-25. (Spoiler: she may have been the victim of dinosaur-on-dinosaur crime.)
I recentlypicked the brains of both the Arizona Science Center lead paleontologist, Heinrich Mallison, and managing director of exhibitions, John Norman, to discuss how 21st-century technology will help bring 66 million-year-old bones to life for visitors.
What’s the main issue that keeps most exhibit directors up at night?
JOHN NORMAN: It’s always the safety of the real objects.
How important is the interactive element to exhibits like this?
JN: In order for it to be successful, the visitors have to have an emotional connection with it. We don’t incorporate interactive activity into our exhibitions just to say we do. You have to create something that gets people emotionally engaged. We believe we’ve accomplished this with Victoria. There’s a tremendous amount of storytelling and video elements involved that we believe will enhance the visitor experience and make a lasting impact.
How many rare specimens are out there that are owned by private collectors?
HEINRICH MALLISON: Quite a few! There is a big difference between private ownership by someone who places the finds in museums, where scientific access is always very willingly granted — and hiding away a spectacular find in the party room of your skiing cabin. I am very glad that Victoria is going to be in an exhibit, and that we will be able to deposit the high-resolution 3D scans of her in a public institution.
What are some new things we’ve learned about Tyrannosaur rex from Victoria specifically?
HM: Oh, I am NOT going to spill secrets here! Besides, it is bad academic manners to talk to the press and the public without simultaneously bringing the evidence.
Help a layman like myself reconcile the conflicting facts that are: “dinosaurs were wiped out by a giant asteroid” AND “dinosaurs evolved into modern-day birds”?
HM: It’s both and neither. Dinosaurs are not extinct and one group of them is still around. It is a group of small, feathered theropods, and we usually call them “birds”. Many members of this group, and all other groups of dinosaurs, died out when a giant asteroid struck the earth 66 million years ago.
What didJurassic Parkget wonderfully right and woefully wrong?
HM: What is a bit annoying is that all dinosaurs were not recreated as accurately as possible in the movie. The whole topic of feathers: Why do the dinosaurs lack them? Probably has to do with the massive effort it takes to create and animate them.
Why are T. rex’s arms so embarrassingly tiny?
HM: Why not? Apparently, the arms weren’t needed for much and if we imagine a T. rex hunting, and maybe slipping and falling, it becomes pretty obvious that arms were a liability, prone to break under the impact of that body. So not having long arms that constantly hurt and got infected may well have been a characteristic that it was selected for.
Tell me what we know about Victoria’s death.
HM: We know nothing. There is no death certificate, no coroner’s report. And there is no single individual injury visible on her bones that is a clear cause of death. However, like all adult tyrannosaurs, she had a number of facial injuries. One of them was pretty severe: a wound that had caused an infection that spread across a large area on both lower jaws. Besides being painful and maybe hindering her ability to hunt and feed, such infections can easily lead to sepsis and rapid death. This injury is, therefore, our best bet for the cause of death, albeit indirectly.
How would you describe the T. rex as a parent?
HM: It is very probable that they built nests, most likely shallow bowls scratched from the ground and covered with vegetation. They were way too big to sit on the eggs, after all. They mostly likely protected their nests or the nesting area. All of this is quite similar to how alligators behave today. Did they stick around after the babies hatched and feed the young? We have no direct evidence, but I have seen a Jurassic dig site that I can only interpret as a baby feeding site: A place where adult animals brought bits of carcasses for the hatchlings to gnaw on. Given the high metabolic rate, the excellent sensory organs and the clearly well-developed brain, I would be very surprised if T. rexparents — or at least one of them? — didn’t take care of the young in some way.