Bird or dinosaur? Your kid may ask that question a lot after visiting Dinosaurs Among Us, the new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, opening Monday, March 21, on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
The whole premise behind the new exhibit is that dinosaurs never really left. Instead, we can see their “evolutionary legacy” on display in the behaviors and anatomy of thousands of modern-day birds. Think of your annual turkey wishbone, birds' scaly feet with elongated toes, the aggressive, beast-like piercing call of certain species like the peacock and, of course, their egg-filled nests.
The exhibit is made up of dozens of fossils, full-scale dinosaur and bird casts, as well as display cases of eggs and nests, feathers (everywhere) and other elements to help visitors compare today's bird species with their extinct relatives, like a side-by-side display of the three-toed foot of an emu and the similar, but larger, three-toed foot of a Struthiominus altus that lived 78 million years ago in North America.
This cast of a fossil found in Mongolia's Gobi Desert shows an oviraptorid dinosaur positioned over its nest, forearms spread protectively over its eggs. Photo by D. Finnin/courtesy of the museum.
The Yutyrannus, the exhibit's centerpiece, weighted 1.5 tons, and although it sported "proto-feathers," it did not fly. Photo by the author.
Visitors wind their way through a main room that splits into several distinct sections or "rooms" with various displays lined along the outermost walls. The centerpiece of the exhibit, a 23-foot, feather-covered tyrannosaur, is an impressive and properly scary dinosaur display as it bares its sharp teeth at visitors, tiny hands ready to tear you apart. This Yutyrannus huali never flew but likely carried a shaggy coat of simple feathers, known as “proto-feathers,” we learn. Other highlights include a seriously adorable tiny dinosaur curled up in sleep, looking very bird-like with its head tucked in, as well as a cast of a fossilized nest protected by a Citipati osmolskae, described as an emu-sized bird with a parrot-like beak, and cases of wishbones and bird and dinosaur skulls of varying sizes.
Kids, of course, will gravitate to the interactive elements, rather than the display print on the wall explaining how the Microoraptor was the first dinosaur fossil found with asymmetrical, aka, flight feathers, on its back legs. In a museum where many of its most important treasures are understandably walled off protectively behind glass, it was great to find half a dozen interactive elements that let kids touch, play and further ponder this whole connection.
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Kids cozy up in a dino-sized nest. Photo by the author.
Top Interactive Elements
Climbing Nest: Kids can climb in and out of a raised platform, er, nest, filled with oblong-shaped Gigantoraptor eggs, a model of a real-life dinosaur nest discovered in China.
Slide the colorful dinosaur eggs around to figure out "Whose Egg Is it Anyway?" Photo by the author.
Whose Egg Is It Anyway? Lift up the picture of the egg on this wall puzzle to reveal the dinosaur who laid it.
Listen to a Dinosaur. Tap the button to hear the very dinosaur-like sounds made by various living birds like the laughing kookaburra or a loon.
Will It Fly? Build a dinosaur with pre-selected puzzle pieces and watch as your model is projected onto a screen. Follow the prompts or you may build a dino unequipped for takeoff.
Visitors can look through microscopes to discover more about eggshells and other clues scientists rely on. Photo by D. Finnin/courtesy of the museum.
Microscopes: Examine microscope slides to discover the properties of prehistoric eggshells that scientists use for clues into their parents’ lives.
The fourth grade class from P.S. 87 that attended the opening climbed in and out of the "nest," fiddled with the puzzle pieces and shyly asked questions like, “Are those eggs real?” They also loved zooming around, collecting four dinosaur stamps at specific exhibit stations and checking out a helpful metering graphic at each display that demonstrated how closely related the animal was to today’s modern birds.
Of course, don’t forget to check out the new 122-foot titanosaur that went up in January and is just around the corner. Make it your first stop before the kids’ attention wanders; it’s a must-see! The impressive dino fills a whole room, looming its head out of the doorway as if its peering into the fourth floor café for a snack.
Dinosaurs Among Us opens to AMNH members Friday, March 18 and the public Monday, March 21. It is tucked into the the fourth-floor dino ward and will run through January 2, 2017. It is part of the museum’s regular admission, which is, as always, a suggested fee.
Top image: Yutyrannus huali, which means “beautiful feathered tyrant,” is T-rex relative with proto-feathers that was discovered in 2012. Photo by R. Michens/courtesy of the museum.