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Bishop exhibit offers a lost (and found) world

“Dino” Don’s DinoVenture brings long-lost dinosaurs to realistic life at The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature.

The triceratops needed armor to protect itself from dinosaur predators.
The triceratops needed armor to protect itself from dinosaur predators.
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This “DinoVenture” exhibition means only one thing: Robot dinosaurs have taken over The Bishop
Museum of Science and Nature.

No worries. They don’t bite — and no dinosaurs were harmed creating this exhibit.

How’d they get there? Long story. Here’s the short version.

“The Flintstones” got it wrong.

Dinosaurs and humans didn’t live on the Earth at the same time. But dinosaurs definitely live in the human imagination. Everyone’s child (and inner child) is mesmerized by these “thunder lizards.”

Steven Spielberg was counting on that when he adapted Michael Crichton’s novel, “Jurassic Park,” for the big screen in 1992. He hired “Dino” Don Lessem, the best-selling author and dinosaur expert, to get the science right.

But science and cinema didn’t always agree.

Take the Dilophosaurus. In the movie, it's a poison-spitting beastie with a fluttering neck fan. In reality, it had neither. But that’s not nearly so scary. And wouldn’t sell as many toys.

When the facts weren’t fearful, Spielberg fudged them every time.

Lessem didn’t object. He’d advised film and television productions before, and knew the score.

“Jurassic Park” was show business, not a science lesson. No problem.

But Lessem decided to set the scientific record straight after the movie wrapped.

He did so by making realistic recreations of the dinosaurs. Not just sculptures. Sculptures that moved and roared, thanks to servomotors and strategic speakers. Audio-animatronics, in other words.

Walt Disney’s resorts had pioneered this technology in the 1960s. By the mid-1990s, it was far more sophisticated than the "Country Bear Jamboree" or Robot Lincoln reciting the Gettysburg Address.

It was ideal for bringing realistic dinosaurs to life. Lessem and his creative team did just that — and pushed the envelope in the decades that followed. Their animatronic dinosaurs got increasingly sophisticated.

The latest phase of their evolution has thundered into The Bishop Museum. This outdoor exhibit comprises 30 dinosaur figures from the late Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

They’re life-sized, but not alive. True-to-life works of art that move.

The massive Quetzalcoatlus is one of the first things you'll encounter.
The massive Quetzalcoatlus is one of the first things you'll encounter.

The exhibit starts off big.

A massive Quetzalcoatlus looms above you. This terrifying pterosaur resembles a giant, long-necked, reptile pelican with razor-sharp teeth.

It screeches as you approach and snaps its beak as if contemplating its next meal. With wings outstretched, Quetzalcoatlus would’ve been 40 feet wide. It was the largest flying creature that ever lived.

A 20-foot Dilophosaurus stands in its shadow. Scientifically accurate. No frills, no venom.

There’s also a cast of the original, fossilized Dilophosaurus skeleton.

Across the path, a Herrerasaurus runs low to the ground. A theropod, or meat-eating dinosaur.

It’s clearly built for speed — a nightmare lizard version of the roadrunner. It has serrated teeth and powerful claws, and it boats massive jaws that are hinged like a steam shovel. It’s clearly built for killing.

A vignette of an Oviraptor brood corrects several errors. The name is Latin for “egg thief.” Roy Chapman Andrews discovered its fossils in the Gobi Desert in the 1920's. Its skeleton was splayed across a nest of crushed eggs. Paleontologists assumed these were Protoceratops eggs and that death had cut short the Oviraptor’s dinner.

Turns out, Oviraptor got a bad rap. Like any good mother, it was protecting its own eggs from attack.

This vignette imagines a circling swarm of Velociraptors closing in. Unlike Spielberg’s fearful film version, these are smaller and feathered. Scientifically spot-on. But no less terrifying.

The path now curves around to a musical family of Parasaurolophi. This duck-billed dinosaur had a swept-back horn on its skull. No mere ornament. The crest was hollow and designed for communication.

These beasts used it like a built-in trumpet. What did it sound like? That’s actually not a mystery.

A scientist recreated the creature’s hollow crest with a 3-D printer and discovered the note it blew: E-flat.

Perfect for projecting a warning across long distances.

The Tyrannosaurus looms large in the human imagination. (Photo: Marty Fugate)
The Tyrannosaurus looms large in the human imagination. (Photo: Marty Fugate)

The Triceratops was a gentle herbivore the size of a bulldozer.

Three horns and a bony head plate protected him from frontal attack. This behemoth was a peaceful vegetarian. But ready to fight if any carnivore tried to add him to its meaty diet.

A final turn takes you to the star of the show — Tyrannosaurus Rex.

So long as Godzilla remains fiction, he’s the most deadly giant lizard of all.

Another hinge-jawed, apex predator. Its mouth was a killing machine, with serrated teeth the size of Bowie knives. These could cut through flesh and also crush bone. After that, its tiny arms were perfect for scooping up any leftovers. You can clearly see why Triceratops needed all that armor.

That’s just a sample of the life-like, life-sized dinosaurs and pterosaurs roaming here.

These animatronic effigies are dynamic works of art. Their metal skeletons support silicone skin; realistically colored, based on pigment samples found in fossil sites and comparative anatomy with contemporary lizards.

For additional accuracy, their chirps and cries are based on birdcalls and the bleats of living creatures with similar morphology. Lessem’s creative team also supplies each figure with internalized bellows that make them seem to breathe.

Cunning artistry — but it always strives for accuracy.

Lessem’s work flows from hard science. This exhibit digs into the reasoning behind these figures. Bilingual guides explain the deductive process that led up to the knowledge. Not just what paleontologists know. How they know it.

As with all good science, their knowledge is theoretical. If new evidence contradicts a pet theory, good scientists will come up with a better model that fits the facts.

That said, these animatronic thunder lizards are as true-to-life as humanly possible.

All that nitpicky, granular attention to scientific detail has one clear result …
Visceral impact.

Scientific facts that might seem abstract now feel real. The specificity of these animatronic recreations gives your imagination something to grasp.

“Oh wow!” is the usual response.

And the lost world of these giant reptiles doesn’t seem so lost anymore.

Sixty million years from now, let’s hope future paleontologists will give our species the same loving attention.


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