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Make yourself at home with dinosaurs

Burlington, Vt., exhibit focuses on their family behavior

At ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, Vt., a life-size model of a late-Cretaceous-era oviraptor embryo as it might have looked in its shell. At ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, Vt., a life-size model of a late-Cretaceous-era oviraptor embryo as it might have looked in its shell. (DENNIS WILSON)
Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2007

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- With claws like scalpels and blood-freezing roars, dinosaurs have never been big in the charm department. Nor were they noted for their family values, though that may be changing.

New findings suggest the prehistoric creatures were keenly focused on family groups and rearing their young. To demonstrate their gentler side, Vermont's ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center has compiled a persuasive look at dinosaur life, including nests, fossils discovered in family configurations, and a pantheon of prehistoric eggs.

You see a Titanosaur egg shaped like a cannonball; another one, laid by a half-ton flightless bird that is now extinct, measures about 14 inches in length. Many are leathery pods that feel something like an avocado. To make it hands-on, touching stations are placed around the hall at child-level. A small sandbox invites kids to grab a brush and "dig" for prehistoric eggs, and a video captures what a baby dino would have looked like busting out of its shell. The newborn is an artist's recreation of "Baby Louie," the almost fully-intact dinosaur embryo that was unearthed in fossil form in China in 1993. The little fellow, still in its shell with its bones intact, made the cover of National Geographic three years later. Sleepy, tiny, and toothless, it's almost cute.

The same can't be said for the mammoth Pterosaur, with its 40-foot wingspan and crocodile-like bill. Where the show excels is in the way it portrays the giant beasts at both extremes: as helpless 4-ounce hatchlings and as the two-ton behemoths they become. To make the metamorphosis more comprehensible, Phelan Fretz, ECHO's executive director, has installed huge dinosaur animatronics.

"For kids, when you see eggs next to the animal," Fretz said, "it all comes together."

It also shocks.

One 3-year-old girl saw the rearing, head-swaying Saurolophus and ran screeching for cover, ignoring her father's protestations that it wasn't real. Dasha Ivanova, 6, and her brother Kyrill, 4, played happily beneath the elephant-sized animatronic, though their mother, Olga Ivanova of Colchester, said the sight of it had initially "scared them a lot." After a while, the blend of dino roars and human shrieks seems like part of the show, in the way that Fay Wray's screams enhanced the soundtrack of the 1933 classic "King Kong."

But if a movie does come to mind, it's "Jurassic Park."

In that story, scientists clone dinosaurs from DNA retrieved from the blood of prehistoric insects. The latex Velociraptor puppet that Steven Spielberg used in one of the 1993 movie's most terrifying scenes can be admired atop a pedestal. They made it human-sized, Fretz explained, because Spielberg "wanted adult eye contact." In fact, the raptors were dog-sized. An actual skeleton stands beside the Hollywood version, looking far less menacing . . . until you notice the two-inch claws.

It all makes you wonder if there isn't the remotest chance that -- with some earnest DNA tinkering -- today's scientists might bridge those 70 million years. According to Fretz, it's not so far-fetched. Within the last six months, he noted, paleontologists have found dinosaur bones with soft tissue and potential DNA still intact.

"Jurassic Park came along during the human genome project. What [the filmmakers] postulated, from a scientific standpoint, is possible," he said. "You can't say never."

Dinosaur Discoveries runs until Sept. 3 at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, 1 College St., on the Burlington, Vt., waterfront. 877-324-6386, 802-864-1848. echovermont.org. Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $9.50, age 62 and over and college students with ID $8, children ages 3- 17 $7; under 3 and members of Boston's Museum of Science free. Diane E. Foulds, a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt., can be reached at Dianefoulds@burlingtontelecom.net.

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