Sinraptor hepingensis: Jurassic bark

A bronto-size exhibit at the Miami ScienceMuseum herds a collection of some of the finest and rarest dinosaur fossils under one roof and delivers a whopping good time. "The Dinosaurs of China" features more than 50 individual fossils, 14 of the reptilian giants' mounted skeletons, and a breathtaking array of pristinely preserved feathered dinosaur and bird fossils making their U.S. debut.

The show includes a jaw-dropping 85-foot fossilized skeleton of Mamenchisaurus jingyanesis, thought to be one of the longest-necked beasts to have ever walked the Earth.

Dinosaur fossils from China are recognized as being among the best preserved, most scientifically important, and most diverse in the world. Discoveries range from some of the oldest to some of the largest on the globe.

The fossils on display were culled from provinces across China, including Yunnan, Szechuan, Inner Mongolia, and Liaoning.

During the late Nineties, feather-covered dinosaurs were excavated in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning. The discovery of these perfect specimens stunned scientists worldwide, who hailed the feathered fossils as the missing link between meat-eating dinosaurs and the earliest bird.

"This is a spectacular opportunity for Americans to see something truly exceptional," says Dr. Matthew Lamanna, dinosaur paleontologist from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the exhibit's scientific advisor. "The fossils from Liaoning Province on display are exquisitely detailed and contain soft-tissue structure almost never seen preserved in dinosaurs."

The gallery housing the finds from Liaoning is painted Chinese Imperial red and strung throughout with red and gold paper lanterns. Visitors enter it through sweeping round arches.

In addition to a sequence of eight feathered dinosaur and bird fossil slabs on display, spectators can check out life-size models of three feathered dinosaurs, including the Caudipteryx.

The re-creation of the early ancestor of modern birds shows a goose-size dinosaur covered entirely in feathers but unable to fly. The plumed dino appears remarkably birdlike in its features.

One of the fossils reveals the remains of a Microraptor gui, a four-winged dino-bird that lived 124 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period. It is among those like the Sinornithosaurus (fuzzy raptor) — also on display — which provide convincing evidence that birds are distant kin to the dinosaur.

The biplane-configured Microraptor, which averaged two feet in length, forced scientists to reconsider their theories of how avian flight began. The "ground-up" theory held that the first feathered flyers became airborne by running and frantically flapping their wings.

But the Liaoning fossils support the "trees-down" theory in which dino-birds used gravity as a flying source to dive down from treetops while gliding from tree to tree.

On a wall in this section, the museum is screening Rise of the Feathered Dragons, a documentary chronicling Lamanna and his colleagues conducting field work in the prehistoric bone yards of Liaoning. Dinosaur fossils were once believed to be dragon remains in China, where they were ground up and used in traditional medicines.

Nearby, visitors can also catch examples of early fish and turtles, as well as the oldest placental mammal — Eomaia scansoria ("climbing dawn mother") — a tiny mouselike animal that ate grubs and sucked eggs.

One of the oddest creatures here might be the Psittacosaurus, a cocker spaniel-size "parrot lizard" with a powerful beak. It roamed the arid Mongolian planes in packs, stopping frequently to feed on tough, unsavory shrubs. One of its weirdest features is a strip of porcupinelike quills running down its tail.

Across from it, the museum has created a family-friendly kids quarry where tykes can play paleontologists and sift through sand to find buried fossils. The room also features a cage full of colorful finches to remind youngsters of what the descendants of dinosaurs look like today, and a terrarium containing a pair of bearded dragons much closer in appearance to the behemoths on display.

Children will also enjoy the Planet of the Dinosaurs planetarium show. The original production explores different theories for what might have caused the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It closes with a bang, examining how a killer asteroid crashing into the Earth's crust, or massive volcanic eruptions smoking out the sun, ended the dinosaurs' reign. Screened daily in the museum's superdome, the 45-minute production is both informative and fun. On the day I visited, a crowd of rug rats shrieked with glee, slinging pop-culture references from The Flintstones and Jurassic Park. "Mommy, that looks like the dinosaur from Night at the Museum!" one pealed.

But what really taps into the imagination are the gigantic, ferocious-looking skeletons of some of the monsters on display.

Dilophosaurus sinensis was one of the first carnivorous dinosaurs. It sported razor-sharp teeth and an unusual Mohawk-like crest. The 18-foot-tall, tri-clawed specimen rises on its hind legs, posed as if ready to rip off one's head. It was unearthed in China's Yunnan Province and lived about 195 million years ago during the Early Jurassic Period.

Next to it stands Jingshanosaurus, discovered in Yunnan in 1994. The 30-foot-tall beast, which also lived nearly 200 million years ago, rears up in an impressive stance. It was an opportunistic omnivore that ate meat as well as plants. Accompanying text informs that new types of dinosaurs are being discovered in China at a dizzying rate. Eight new Sino-dinos where named last year alone.

Strangely the museum has arranged faux prehistoric-looking ferns in large Chinese ceramic urns throughout the exhibit, perhaps to suggest the type of food that plant-eating dinos hankered for.

Leafy light projections on the walls and floors throughout the space cast spectral forest patterns, while traditional Chinese music adds charm to the show.

Lufengosaurus bones discovered in 1938 by Dr. Yang Zhongjian, the father of Chinese paleontology, reveal the 20-foot-long herbivore from the Early Jurassic Period ate rocks to help digest its food. Several of the gastrolites, or "gizzard stones," that the creatures swallowed are on exhibit.

One of the more menacing beasts is the 30-foot-tall Sinraptor, or "Chinese plunderer," which looks somewhat like Tyrannosaurus rex. It comes from the same meat-eating family of theropods. All dinosaurs share common ancestors that lived on the supercontinent of Pangea hundreds of millions of years ago. When the continent began to break up during the Early Jurassic Period, dinos became isolated on different land masses and evolved into different species. The Sinraptor's bladelike choppers and chisel-like claws made it one of the most effective predators of all time.

Across from it the Tuojiangosaurus multispinis, from the Late Jurassic Period, about 160 million years past, is a pickup truck-size herbivore thought to have used the bony plates on its back for solar heating. Although it had a brain the size of a walnut, when temperatures dropped, it positioned the triangular-shape protuberances toward the sun to warm its body.

At the rear of the exhibit looms the gargantuan, giraffe-necked Mamenchisaurus, whose neck bones are bigger than bread loaves. The creature was the length of two school buses and had an immensely long tail. It was featured in the "roundup" scene in the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World.

The carnivorous Yangchuanosaurus shangyuensis stands behind it in a frightening pose. The Godzilla-like brute had a head the size of a dishwasher, nostrils as big as grapefruit, and a grill that could chomp through the strongest of bones.

A museum guide informed spectators that the Mamenchisaurus was missing a chunk from its neck.

Pointing to the fearsome predator, nine-year-old Manny Gonzales from Kendall squealed, "Maybe he did it," before tearing off with a grin.

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