Let’s all agree; dinosaurs are cool. Most of us will be familiar with The Land Before Time and Disney’s Dinosaur, or the less kid-friendly Jurassic Park movies. We have stegosauruses on our lunchboxes and t-rex’s on our shirts. Picture your favourite dinosaur. Now, picture it differently. What if it had feathers instead of scales? What if it was pink and blue instead of green and grey?
That’s the premise of Dinosaur rEvolution; a touring exhibition from Gondwana Studios that’s currently housed at the South Australian Museum. The exhibition urges us to challenge the ideas that we currently hold about dinosaurs, just as science has to adapt to the new information found about these creatures and their descendants.
I caught up with Flinders Palaeontology Lab outreach officer, Riley (Carmel) Foley, who has been running workshops at the exhibition for school groups and the general public. She takes me on a tour around the exhibit, activating the animatronic dinosaurs on entry and filling the room with generated – but guttural – roars. There are skeletons to make you feel small, skeletons to make you feel big, and numerous fossils to touch and inspire curiosity. It’s immediately apparent that these dinosaurs aren’t the ones we’re used to. As we walk past a wall of fossils – which you’re encouraged to touch if you see the big green sign – Foley tells me:
‘They were different colours. They were interacting with each other. They had soft tissue features and feathers. They were all designed to do different things in different environments. They’re not just all green and brown and boring.’
Lining the back wall of the exhibition are pictures of various dinosaurs; all reimagined to match new fossil findings or just to show that a triceratops with green armoured spikes was entirely possible. Why are we only finding out about these feathers and variations in colour now? “With ever-advancing technology, Foley explains, we’re able to tell the pigments of feathers that have been fossilised along with skeletons. And they’re not the only dinosaur aspects that have changed as our understanding has changed. The importance of new information and new perspectives cannot be understated.
‘Our interpretation of fossils changes how we interpret the dinosaur and their story,’ she says.
The example she uses is the Oviraptor. Most audiences will be familiar with this dinosaur by the meaning of its scientific name, and stereotypical story role as Egg Thief. This idea sprung from the discovery of an Oviraptor skeleton near a collection of smashed eggs. Scientists assumed that the creature therefore must steal and eat eggs. The truth, Foley explains, is very different:
‘Eventually, somebody found a skeleton that had died on a nest of the eggs. They realised that those eggs weren’t food; they were its own eggs. It was actually a parental dinosaur.’
Coupled with our human tendency to prescribe emotions onto nature (i.e. the Oviraptor was labelled an Egg Thief as opposed to just ‘a dinosaur who ate eggs’), this perspective led to a misunderstanding of the Oviraptor for years. If something as simple as that can change our entire attitude towards one creature, who knows what else may be in store for the rest of these dinosaurs?
It does seem like this might be a hard sell to kids, despite their interest in dinosaurs, but Foley is optimistic. She says it’s not necessarily about the scientific specifics.
‘It’s just letting them know that their dinosaurs are different from my dinosaurs,’ she says. ‘In 20-50 years’ time, they’re going to be even more different because we’ll develop better science.’
So, as strange as these re-imagined dinosaurs may seem, they could very soon be the new default.
When we finish the exhibition, I ask why it’s so important that we study dinosaurs. Sure, they’re interesting, but is there more to it than that?
‘I get this question quite often actually,’ Foley says, ‘and it still surprises me. It’s like asking, “why do we study history?” Because the past matters. It directly effects and informs us about our present and our future. 99% of all life on earth is extinct. We are the 1% that is left. Understanding why some organisms lasted longer than others is literally a life and death issue for us. We are an organism. We can go extinct.’
And how do we rank on the rEvolution scale?
‘The average lifespan of a species is about 10 million years. Some species of dinosaur lasted nearly 160 million. Modern human evolution has only been going on for about 2 million.’
We have 8 million years, Foley explains, to figure out the secrets of survival from the dinosaurs or we may end up in the “average lifespan” column. Don’t panic; we’ve got plenty of time.
So, whether you want to look for those secrets of survival, are looking to challenge the beliefs you have about your favourite dinosaurs, or you just think dinosaurs are cool, the Dinosaur rEvolution exhibition has you covered.
Words by Amelia Heffernan.
Dinosaur rEvolution is currently at the SA Museum.
Image Credit: South Australian Museum Dinosaur rEvolution website.