In 1868, the Academy of Natural Sciences mounted the first-ever full dinosaur skeleton. A century and a half later, it's forcing the dinos out of extinction with state-of-the-art animatronics that mimic their actions, looks, and sounds from millions of years ago.
"Back in 1868, no one had ever conceived of being able to see a skeleton of an animal like a dinosaur, and just to see the skeleton was a wonder of the world," said Ted Daeschler, the Academy's resident paleontologist. "It was incredible. Now people seem a little bit jaded about dinosaurs, so we need to take the next step - bring them to life."
Thanks to evolving research in paleobiology and biomechanical modeling, the temporary exhibition "Dinosaurs Unearthed" keeps up with changing demands from the public for more interactive, evocative methods for learning about prehistory. Scientists can now make educated guesses on coloring and textures, and can even infer what noises dinos made by studying their air passages and braincases. The result is 15 not-so-cuddly dino replicas, including a T. rex and his buddy triceratops outside the museum.
Most of the dinos are hooked up to sensors that detect onlookers, triggering a series of motions on loop. But two - a yangchuanosaurus and protoceratops - are meant for manipulation, and visitors can press buttons to make them shake their tails or roar loudly. When the yangchuanosaurus moves his stubby little arms back and forth, it's hard not to think, "if only he had a piano, he'd be a stud."
The exhibit features a mix of casts and real fossils, but the main attraction is the life-size set of dinos. It's not the first time they've come to Philadelphia; the animatronics made their East Coast debut here in 2013. Daeschler smiled at the memory of how passersby would jump when - without warning - the Tyrannosaurus in front of the entrance would move.
Daeschler said that he couldn't see how the animatronics could be any more accurate, though he stressed that paleontologists are constantly discovering new facts about their field.
"Don't let anybody tell you that we know everything," he said. "There is so much more to learn, but a lot of that depends on people thinking of new questions."
That said, scientists have made a lot of progress in their search for answers, and Daeschler shared a few fun facts.
Dinosaurs still exist. "Birds are dinosaurs; therefore, dinosaurs are not extinct," Daeschler said. He likened denying that birds are dinosaurs to claiming that humans aren't mammals.
Often, when the Academy teaches about dinosaurs, its staff brings out birds for comparison because it's possible to track similarities through phylogenetic bracketing, or designations on "the tree of life," as Daeschler put it. Dinos also are closely related to crocodiles; when both living groups share a quality, paleontologists can often assume that dinosaurs exhibited the same or similar behaviors.
Mixed messages. The word "dinosaur" comes from the Greek deinos and sauros and means "terrible lizard." However, while both dinosaurs and lizards are classified as reptiles, the nomenclature is somewhat of a misnomer: Dinosaurs are not lizards.
Live long and prosper. Though dinosaurs existed for more than 165 million years, most unique species didn't last that long. The T. rex, for example, was around for only a few million years. Still, that's not too shabby - behaviorally, modern humans have inhabited the planet for only a little more than 60,000 years.
Shake your tail feather. Though not necessarily for flying purposes, some dinosaurs probably had plumage, especially meat-eaters. If that's hard to envision, check out the feathered T. rex inside the exhibit hall.
Hollywood magic, Daeschler says he enjoyed the first Jurassic Park, though the velociraptors were larger than life-size. He said the original film did justice to contemporary research, and he was pleased with how the dinos were depicted. Well, for the most part.
"Where it gets more questionable is when they start putting many more emotions into the animals, giving them more humanlike characteristics," he said. "We don't have much of any hard evidence to suggest that."
Dinosaurs Unearthed Through Jan. 16, Academy of Natural Sciences,
1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, $24.95 (adult), $20.95 (child), 215-299-1000, ansp.org.