Museum Crush talks big fossils, Jurassic Park, specimen types, Mamenchisaurus and all things dinosaur with the curator of the new Dinosaurs of China exhibition in Nottingham
“It’s almost unbelievable that we have got an exhibition of this kind in Nottingham,” says Adam Smith, Curator of Dinosaurs of China, the blockbuster show of dinosaur specimens that has bought some of the most rare and significant dinosaur fossils to Europe for the first time for a “one-time only world exclusive”.
The exhibition, which is spread across two sites; Nottingham Natural History Museum at Wollaton Hall and the University of Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts, features 26 spectacular specimens from China, including some of the best-preserved dinosaur fossils from anywhere in the world. Together they tell the newly-understood story of how birds evolved from dinosaurs.
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“The main evolutionary story is that connection between dinosaurs and birds,” says Smith, “with the free exhibition at Lakeside telling the story of dinosaur depiction in paleo art – that’s any depiction of a living dinosaur in a picture, sculpture or even a movie like Jurassic Park.”
Given how the Steven Spielberg movies have fuelled our dinosaur obsession, the way we choose to depict dinosaurs is probably a good place to start.
“The depiction of dinosaurs in art changes as the science changes,” explains Smith. “As new discoveries are made in science, that’s reflected in the art, so you can see the evolution of dinosaurs in the way they’re depicted.”
Alongside some colourful dinosaur artworks the Lakeside exhibition features the skeletons of a feathered dinosaur, Alaxasaurus from the Early Cretaceous Period , and the early Jurassic Dilophorsaurus, which famously sported a frill and spat deadly poison in the first Jurassic Park movie.
“Both of those characteristics are completely speculative,” says Smith, “Steven Spielberg decided this dinosaur needed to have something special about it.
“But we don’t know with 100% accuracy what dinosaurs looked like or how they behaved, so you have to speculate. The question is how far you should go when speculating. Is it OK to say these things might have spit, or should you be more conservative?”
Anyone who enjoyed the movie would probably go for the speculation route – and they will find plenty to fuel their imaginations at the Lakeside show of artworks.
But the main dinosaur skeletons and fossils are across the road, at Wollaton Hall, where a spectacular late Jurassic Mamenchisaurus, mounted in an upright position with a vicious Sinraptor snapping at its heels, is the beginning of a fascinating journey into dinosaur evolution and behaviour.
The Mamenchisaurus is one of the largest dinosaurs in the world, and it has been erected in a dramatic upright pose. The plant eater, which was 23 metres from nose to tail, walked on four legs with its long neck stretched out in front of it. But the skeleton was too long to fit inside the building so here it is reared up, in the tripod position on its hind legs, leaning back onto its tail with its arms and head in the air. At 13 metres in height it’s the tallest dinosaur ever shown in the UK.
A Mamenchisaurus thigh bone fossil sits next to this spectacular visage so people can touch it and measure themselves against it.
Elsewhere, 24 exhibits from China along with items from the museum’s own collections tell the story of dinosaur evolution, starting with the Jurassic ground shakers in the Great Hall through to the birds of today in the Bird Room.
Three-dimensional mounted skeletons, real fossils, in some case bones, a fossil dinosaur egg and a range of 125 million-year-old flattened fossils preserved on bedding planes from the extraordinary volcanic planes and deserts of China show not only the bones of dinosaurs but also the feathers.
Palaeontology in China is a growing science and many of these discoveries, which have been lent by the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) have been made in the last 20 to 30 years.
The ecosystem, called the Jehol Biota in the Yixian Formation, Liaoning Province, which preserved and then yielded them is unique, with rocks that possess a fine-grained sediment that comes from the volcanic ash that entered the atmosphere and settled into the lakes.
“This is why these dinosaurs have been found not just preserved in full articulation with all of the bones, but also with fine detail including the skins, the muscles and feathers,” says Smith
“In the case of Microraptor it’s incredibly important because it tells us firstly that dinosaurs like Velociraptor and Microraptor, which belonged to that same family, certainly without a doubt had feathers.
“The early Cretaceous Microraptor might look like a bird because it has wings,” adds Smith, “but if you look at its bony anatomy it has teeth, claws on its hands and a long bony tail.
“These are all characteristics of a dinosaur, so these fossils are important in telling us that they are feathered – but in the case of Microraptor it tells us it was flying as well.”
Smith describes these Chinese fossils, which in the case of the Microraptor is a type specimen (the original fossil used to name the species) as “the smoking gun in the evidence that dinosaurs evolved into birds and that birds are modern day dinosaurs.”
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for this theory comes via the smallest specimen on show, the Early Cretaceous Mei long, which is preserved as it died, curled up in a ball with its head tucked underneath its arm and its tail wrapped around its body.
“The volcanic ash covered the animal either when it was sleeping or cowering,” says Smith. “This sleeping pose is identical to modern birds. If you see a duck at the side of the lake it will have its head tucked underneath its wing and that is exactly what you see in this dinosaur.”
Caudipteryx, another interesting mix of bird and reptile from the Cretaceous period, is a further type specimen with its feathers preserved on its arms. It’s displayed here both as a fossil and a 3-D mounted skeleton in the centre of the room.
“The fossil record also shows that Caudipteryx ate stones, which was presumably because it didn’t have teeth,” says Smith. “It had a bird-like beak and the stones would help it grind up and digest food in its stomach. Most birds and many reptiles do that today, it’s quite a common behaviour.”
Apart from its resemblance to a duck, knowing that animals that lived 125 million years ago behaved like the animals that surround us today offers one of the exhibition’s most vivid connections to the present. But if you’re worried that these revelations break down the mystique of the dinosaurs, the largest bird-like dinosaur ever found is also here to remind us of the astonishing proportions that dinosaurs grew to.
Gigantoraptor, the largest bird-like, feathered dinosaur that ever lived, is huge. It’s as high as a giraffe.
“Most people find them to be bigger than they imagined,” says Smith. “The Gigantoraptor is an appropriate name, the head is only half a metre from the ceiling so it’s a spectacular fossil.
“It was an Oviraptorosaur, a therapod – many of the dinosaurs in the exhibition are therapods, because these are the dinosaurs that evolved into birds. The Oviraptor and Gigantoraptor both have beaks and we think they would have been omnivores.
“But what they are uncovering in China is amazing because they are being found in these special rocks which are just the right age to preserve those key moments in dinosaur evolution. Many key factors are at play and that’s what makes China such an important player in modern palaeontology.”
Game changing perhaps, certainly amazing, this exhibition of rare and beautiful fossils may well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the ever evolving understanding of the world of the dinosaurs – from Jurassic Park to the planes and deserts of China.
Dinosaurs of China is at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham with a complementary exhibition at Lakeside Arts, running until October 29 2017. See www.dinosaursofchina.co.uk for more.
Wollaton Hall and Park
Set in over 500 acres of historic deer park, Wollaton Hall is a spectacular Tudor building designed by Robert Smythson and completed in 1588. Following an extensive restoration programme, Wollaton Hall reopened with a number of new displays and refurbished rooms, including Tudor kitchens. Visitors touring the Hall can now…
Nottingham Lakeside Arts
Nottingham Lakeside Arts is the University of Nottingham’s exciting public arts programme presenting exhibitions, music, drama and dance, special collections and archaeology, participatory and family events all year round.