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Connecticut creatures lure children to prehistory

Email|Print| Text size + By David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2007

OAKDALE, Conn. -- Ospreys, turkey vultures, and red-tailed hawks are the only raptors in these marshy woods northwest of New London nowadays, but don't tell that to a budding paleontologist.

"I know that one!" Brian Dean, 9, of New London shouts as he races down Raptor Bay Trail to a diorama of two small, chicken-like dinosaurs poised above a nest of eggs. "That's Oviraptor!"

How does he know so much about dinosaurs? "Oh," says father Arthur, rolling his eyes, "he's been studying them for a long time."

Call this visit to Dinosaur Crossing a field trip. Out front on Route 85, the site's T. Rex mascot, "Monty," wears sunglasses and totes a giant Coke can, but inside the gates this attraction is no kitsch-o-rama. The series of three nature trails lined with life-sized concrete and steel statues of dinosaurs turns out to be an educational corrective to both the cuddly Barney of children's television and the fanged nightmares of "Jurassic Park."

But more importantly, it's fun.

The longest of Dinosaur Crossing's paths, the Raptor Bay Trail sets the stage with a very condensed walk through time. Each 2-foot stride along the lake shore represents 8.4 million years, where signs relate important geological and evolutionary landmarks. They start with the formation of the planet 4.6 billion years ago and the beginnings of life 3.8 billion years ago. Then the signage gets more congested as life forms become more complicated and plants and animals colonize the land. But judging from the reactions of kids impatient to see the big guys, the important stuff begins when reptiles show up 300 million years ago and, finally, 75 million years later, the dinosaur age.

A few paces later, the trail enters the woods, and the focus switches to the star attractions as the first toothed horror lurks in a glade. At 36 feet long and 12 feet high, Suchomimus is a fearsome creature. If the name doesn't ring a bell, it could be because the fossils on which the statue is based were only discovered in 1997.

Dinosaur Crossing meticulously recounts the story of the discovery of its less familiar dinosaurs, many of which were unearthed in the last 15 years, and the signage keeps pace with new theories about warm- and cold-blooded reptiles, the evolution of feathers, and paleontology's steady revisionism. This seems to be important for the dino-geeks among the visitors. Make no mistake: Many of the kids are far better versed in dinosaur study than their elders.

But for the youngest children on the paths, the dinosaurs have a simple star power. Caden Babcock, 2, was making his second visit in as many days. He had come with his father and uncle and "he really wanted to come back," says mom, Amy, of Hope Valley, R.I. She holds him near the open jaws of a fearsome Ceratosaurus, which is depicted prowling near a Stegosaurus, duly noted as its probable Jurassic-era prey.

Minutes later, Zachary Harmon, 2, of Bristol, R.I., flees in mock horror from the same predator as his brother T.J. Masi, 14, examines the Stegosaurus more closely. Their mother Ellie Harmon says a friend told her about Dinosaur Crossing and she decided to bring the boys "because these guys really like dinosaurs."

"Well, mostly . . .," deadpans T.J.

The placement of more than 25 dinosaur replicas in this lush woodland suggesting their natural habitat makes the creatures seem more tangible than they would in a static museum display. There are no roars in the woods, no ground-shaking stomping -- but big dragonflies buzz around in a good imitation of the Cretaceous, bullfrogs croak from the marsh streams, the trees are aflutter with songbirds.

And, as the signs note, those birds are probably what the dinosaurs became.

Dinosaur Crossing, 1650 Route 85, Oakdale, Conn., 860-443-4367, dinosaurcrossing.com. Daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through Oct. 28; Splashpad closes Labor Day. Through Labor Day ages 2-59 $18, 60 and older $14. After Labor Day $9 and $8.

David Lyon, a freelance writer based in Cambridge, can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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