Monthly Archives: September 2011

Creating dinosaurs: why is Terra Nova reinventing the wheel?

Is there a Stargate in Terra Nova? And since when is building a Stargate, setting up a colony on the other end (consider shipping costs of sending materials and supplies through the wormhole), and operating it several times to send people over, cheaper than finding solutions to environmental problems?

If I can ignore that aspect, then yes, I can have a lot of fun watching Spielberg’s new TV show for FOX, Terra Nova. I’ve been waiting for a new source of sci-fi for a while. The adventurous, utopia kind, where the heroes run around with an orchestra soundtrack… We’ve been flooded with the chaotic-montrous-mutant-creature-hiding-in-bulkheads and I was ready for a change (nothing wrong with the horror type of sci-fi, it is actually one of my favorite genres; but I missed the pretty scenarios and rambunctious characters in shows such as Star Trek or Star Wars).

Besides, there are dinosaurs.

Watching animated dinosaurs is what makes me the most excited about this show, and let’s me forgive everything else. After all, the “stargate” is simply a trick to allow Spielberg to use dinosaurs again. I love to watch them running around, full of moving muscles and articulations – quite distant from assembled bones in a museum..

(Slasher from Terra Nova)

That said, Terra Nova has Brachiosaurus and Carnotaurus, but also.. “Slashers”. It is clear there was an attempt to recreate the gang of velociraptors (which were a giant sized and smart version of a deinonychus) from Jurassic park. Even the terrorizing sequence where children hide from velociraptors in the kitchen is payed homage (copied?) in Terra Nova, where kids are rattled around inside a car surrounded by slashers. It does pain me that the creators of the show had to design a completely fictional dinosaur, where so many interesting, curious and terrifying ones already exist. The slasher is a nickname for the (also fictitious) “Acceraptor”, outfitted with a bladed tail and a head crest of feathers..

Speaking of feathers…

Deinonychus model

… I would love to see a feathered dinosaur on TV. Since the 90’s, when fossils of feathered dinosaurs were found in China, it’s been a consensus that many theropods (like T-Rex or deinonychus) had feathers. The way I see a T-Rex is a like a giant chicken, as opposed to a godzilla-type reptile! Apparently Jurassic Park had the choice of using feathered arms on their velociraptors, but refused, afraid to disappoint the audience who expected giant lizards – not chickens.

But I digress. Is Terra Nova reinventing the wheel? Stargating its world, Avataring its military , Jurassic Parking its creatures – also, didn’t the first scene look like a pop version of the first scene in Inglorious Basterds?  – and creating brand new models of dinosaurs… It might, but what is left is still enough to keep me watching, one episode (erm, dinosaur) at a time.

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Megalodon – the Dinosaur of Sharks

(Cris and Megalodon at the San Diego Natural History Museum - 2006)

Sharks do not have a bony skeleton. The only trace of shark that survives a fossil to tell its story, is the shark’s teeth.

A shark’s skeleton is made of cartilage, the same material that forms our nose and ears. All of that soft material disintegrates with time, leaving not much to be fossilized. The only bone in a shark’s body is its teeth. Fossilized teeth have been found and constitute evidence of sharks existence for as far as 400 million years ago.

One type of tooth, as large as the palm of your hand, is a fossil of Carcharodon megalodon, sometimes dubbed the white shark of the pre-historic oceans. Because there is no other trace of Megalodon’s body, many museums assemble a model jaw, based on the size of the tooth.

(Megalodon jaw, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2005)

For scale, you can see how it measures up near the Smithsonian guide on the Highlight tour last week.

(Another Megalodon jaw, Smithsonian, 2011)

Considering the jaw size, the entire animal should measure up to one of our modern whales, perhaps 50 feet long and weighing 50 tons (the equivalent of ten elephants stacked, imagine that). Models have been created in several museums, including the one I photographed at the San Diego Natural History Museum a while ago.

(Megalodon at San Diego Natural History Museum - 2006)

My favorite prop, while volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium, was a replica of a Megalodon tooth. I used it to bait (no pun intended) the children, who in turn would be fascinated by these enormous sea creatures. The kids named it “the dinosaur shark”, even though the Megalodon is much younger than dinosaurs: they swam our oceans 20 million years ago. Luckily to our surfers, they are extinct.. but they teeth persist to enthrall children and adults alike.

(Megalodon at San Diego Natural History Museum - 2006)

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: Highlight Tour

Ammonite at the National Museum of Natural History

One of the perks of living in the DC area is the free access to the Smithsonians, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) being one of my favorites. I am obsessed with Natural History museums, aquarium and zoos anywhere. While I lived in Florida, I visited the Georgia Aquarium at the neighboring state no less than three times and I still miss my weekly volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium. So last week I decided to take advantage of events offered by the NMNH, so I stopped by for a Highlight Tour.

Experiencing the museum on a Friday feels completely different  – I’ve been there a few times already, during the summer and always on weekends. This time there was no crowds (perhaps only the occasional tourist). There was plenty of room to walk and photograph, and silence to take it all in.

Highlight Tour at the Sant Ocean Hall

I got there a little earlier, so I decide to go to the Sant Ocean Hall exhibit and photograph ammonites (crazy pre-historic shelled invertebrates!) while I waited. Suddenly I see a gathering of about ten people, guided by a museum volunteer, entering the Hall. She was a very energetic lady (wearing red in the pictures), so I  immediately abandoned the ammonite and tagged along.

The first part of the tour focused on the new Sant Ocean Hall, which is their largest exhibit, and was created in a partnership with NOAA (National Oceanic and atmospheric administration) and a must see, according to my supervisor at the Seattle Aquarium. We were shown to an ammonite fossil; megalodon teeth (the dinosaur equivalent of a shark); an Architeuthis, or, giant squid, specimen; and a model of a Right Whale. I plan to talk about all of those in future posts. In the second part of the tour, we were taken to the Dinosaur Hall, where our guide talked to us about their Triceratops fossil and how to assemble dinosaurs for display. The last part of the tour was upstairs, in the geology section, specifically about the Hope Diamond.

Sant Ocean Hall and the Right Whale model

It was about two hours that flew by, and barely covered half of the museum. I am definitely coming back for more tours. I hope I can catch the one on Human Origins and on Ice Age Mammals.

Highlight Tour